Book Bans Are Harming LGBTQ People, Advocates Say. This Online Library Is Fighting Back.

Erik Lundstrom was about 14 when he secretly purchased the coming-of-age novel “Rainbow Boys” and hid it in his room, waiting until he was alone to become absorbed in the story of three teenage boys coming to terms with their sexuality.

“I read that book five or six times that summer, just finally having some sort of outlet of stories about people that I identified with in a new and interesting, exciting and terrifying way,” Lundstrom told CNN.

It would be many more years until Lundstrom, now 32, would join the ranks of a small group of volunteers dedicated to creating a library packed to the brim with books written by or about LGBTQ people – metaphorically that is.

The Queer Liberation Library (QLL, pronounced “quill”) is entirely online. Since launching in October, more than 2,300 members have signed up to browse its free collection of hundreds of ebooks and audiobooks featuring LGBTQ stories, Lundstrom said.

After becoming increasingly alarmed at efforts to censor LGBTQ stories in the nation’s public schools, Kieran Hickey, the library’s founder and executive director, said they set out to create a haven for queer literature that can be accessed from anywhere in the country.

“Queer people have so many barriers to access queer literature – social, economic, and political,” Hickey said. “(For) anybody who’s on a journey of self-discovery in their sexual orientation or gender identity, finding information and going to queer spaces can be incredibly daunting. So, this is a resource that anybody in the United States can have no matter where they live.”

Until recent years, books featuring LGBTQ stories made up a small percentage of titles challenged in schools and public libraries in the US.

Between 2010 and 2019, just about 9% of unique titles challenged in libraries contained LGBTQ themes, according to data from the American Library Association, which tracks and opposes book censorship.

But books featuring the voices and experiences of LGBTQ people now make up an overwhelming proportion of books targeted for censorship – part of a broader, conservative-led movement that is limiting the rights and representation of LGBTQ Americans. 

In 2021 and 2022, the ALA reported record-breaking attempts to ban books and more than 30% of the titles challenged included LGBTQ themes. And in the first eight months of 2023, more than 47% of challenges targeted LGBTQ titles, preliminary data shows.

Pulling these stories from shelves, book ban opponents argue, deprives readers of all ages of essential, affirming representation of the LGBTQ community’s lives and history.

“Fundamentally, at its core, it is discriminatory against who we are as a people and a community, and it ‘others’ our families and our stories,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, the president and CEO of GLAAD, a nonprofit LGBTQ advocacy group.

A resource like QLL, she said, could be “a wonderful gift” for those searching for LGBTQ stories, including parents looking for children’s books, a person questioning their sexuality or a heterosexual person looking to understand their peers more deeply.

Naturally, QLL carries some of the most commonly challenged books, including Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and George M.
Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”But its volunteer librarians have also curated lists of spine-tingling queer horror, indigenous folktales and time-bending fantasy among others.

Its virtual shelves are also adorned with fixtures of the queer literary canon such as Rita Mae Brown’s “Ruby Fruit Jungle” and groundbreaking new releases like transgender actor Elliot Page’s memoir “Pageboy.”

Lundstrom, who directs the library’s steering committee, said the range of genres and identities represented in the collection reflects the vast diversity of the LGBTQ community. 

“Whoever finds use from this platform for whatever reason – whether that is for vital information they need, or if it is to read a fun little romp about two men kissing – whatever that is, we want to be able to serve that,” Lundstrom said.

A library without walls

Though the QLL may not be able to provide the small joys of browsing cozy corridors of shelves and perusing time-worn book spines, its online platform offers something that can be invaluable to some readers: privacy.

Readers who are queer or hoping to explore their gender or sexuality may not be ready to explore a shelf of LGBTQ books in a public space or crack open such a book in front of family and friends, Hickey said. Being able to check out books from the privacy of one’s home or read on an unassuming tablet or laptop in public can relieve some of those feelings of anxiety and risk.

This was a way to combat the book bans, but also to give people that sense of home and safety in their own space without having to potentially out themselves in any way,” Hickey said. “Privacy and hiding don’t have to be the same thing.”

The library can be accessed through a website called Overdrive and an app called Libby, which many public libraries use to house their digital collections. QLL’s informational website also features a “quick exit” bar at the screen, which redirects away from the site if a user needs to suddenly hide the website orleave the page.

Funded by donations and registered as a nonprofit, QLL is also not beholden to government funding or the school or library boards that typically enforce book bans. Selena Van Horn, an education professor at California State University in Fresno whose research focuses on elementary school literacy and LGBTQ literature in K-12 schools, noted that some libraries may not have robust LGBTQ collections merely because they have tight budgets or live in remote areas with limited resources.

“Not everyone has access (to LGBTQ books) purely based on their location,” Van Horn said. “So being able to access things online is a wonderful thing.”

Advocates warn bans reinforce stigma

Efforts to remove books because they contain LGBTQ characters or themes perpetuates the “othering” and exclusion that many LGBTQ people already struggle to overcome, said Ellis, the president of GLAAD.

“Children and adults are hearing that there is something wrong with them”when people propose banning their stories, Ellis said. “So that immediately … builds this culture that LGBTQ people, queer people don’t belong and should be on the margins of society.”

For children and young adults seeing stories that represent their identity can be an essential part of developing positive self-worth, said Van Horn.

“When children don’t have access to stories that represent their identities in a positive light – that show that people like them go on to do wonderful things – they can internalize those feelings and wonder, ‘Am I what they are saying I am in some negative way?’” Van Horn said.

This is especially important for LGBTQ children or youth whose families or school environments are hostile to their identities, she said.

“It’s vitally important that they have access to literature and potentially communities – even in an online space – that can support them and know that they’re beautiful, wonderful people and their identities will be valued, even if not in the space they are right now,” Van Horn said.

Already, the library has received messages from readers thrilled to see themselves reflected in the book collection, including one that was particularly meaningful to Hickey.

“There was one person who let us know that we’re their main access to library materials at this point because of where they live in a rural area,” Hickey said.

“That was a lot for me because I was just like, ‘This is the exact person I’m trying to reach. This is the exact person I want to help.’”