Recent calls to ban books on race and LGBTQ issues in school libraries by elected officials are a dangerous new low amid the continued weaponization of issues like transgender athletes in school sports and the restriction of lessons on safer sex practices.
But these moves by school board members like Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County — and Republican governors like Henry McMaster of South Carolina and Greg Abbott of Texas — go beyond previous political fearmongering tactics around identity. Given that studies by the Trevor Project show that LGBTQ teenagers are four times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers, they are playing politics with young people’s lives.
Access to stories about people like us, and by us, are critical for marginalized communities, especially the youngest, most vulnerable members. As a person who was called almost every homophobic slur imaginable between the ages of 11 and 14, I speak from experience. And it was a piece of queer literature that got me through the worst of it.
In the seventh grade, a friend of my parents gave me three boxes of books that belonged to her gay son, who had recently died of AIDS. Before she closed the last box, she looked at one of the books and hesitated.
“I think you might like this one,” she said, placing it inside. She looked at me with what I now know was an expression of recognition.
When I got home, that was the first book I pulled from the box: Patricia Nell Warren’s “The Front Runner.” The text on the back gave me a chill.
“Billy Sive is young, proud and gay — and he doesn’t care who knows it.”
The words felt almost like an accusation. Even growing up in the Bay Area with LGBTQ-friendly parents, the message had been drilled into me at school that queerness was inherently bad. Eventually, my curiosity won out and I began to read it.
The 1974 novel tells the story of a college track coach, Harlan Brown, and his star athlete, Billy. As the pair fall in love, Harlan comes to terms with his internalized homophobia. As I read the book, I started to deal with my own.
The story also includes lesbian and trans characters and a scene depicting the Stonewall Riots — the first time I learned about the pivotal 1969 event that ignited the LGBTQ rights movement in New York. Warren, a lesbian, made history with the novel when it became the first book of contemporary gay fiction to reach the New York Times Best Seller list. In spite of its then-common tragic ending, it contained a lot of hope. (The international LGBTQ running club that started in San Francisco took its name from the book.)
My freshman year of high school, I discovered a new world of queer literature in the school library. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also the year I officially came out. But even after devouring books by James Baldwin, Gore Vidal, Jan Morris, Carson McCullers and other LGBTQ authors, I never forgot “The Front Runner.” You never forget the life vest someone throws you when you’re drowning.
Perhaps the most disturbing statements made by Virginia school board members Twigg and Abuismail in advocating a ban on “sexually explicit” literature like Adam Rapp’s queer-themed “33 Snowfish” was that they’d like to burn such books. I don’t think I need to remind you what fascist political party hosted book bonfires in 1930s Berlin.
But don’t think it’s just the books they want to destroy: It’s also the ideas and the people they represent.
Perhaps if these officials had ever read a book, they’d know what history has to say about people who plunder libraries for kindling.