Written by Jack Lawhorn, MS4 | Photo credit: Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast
In October (10/1-10/7) was Banned Books Week, with the theme “Let Freedom Read,” which has already taken its place as the event’s most controversial iteration since its founding in 1982. The American Library Association (ALA) and organizations dedicated to preserving free access to information are facing higher numbers of title challenges than ever before: until 2021, the average number of unique titles challenged in the U.S. hovered around 200-350 per year. This number skyrocketed to 1,858 in 2021 and then again to 2,571 in 2022. During 2023, the ALA has already noted a 20% increase in the number of unique titles challenged when compared to the same reporting period last year.
These attempts at censorship are occurring at increasing frequency across the nation, in our school districts as well as within our public libraries. As is unfortunately commonplace for national political discussions (especially during election cycles), “protect the children” has been the resounding war cry invoked by the small number of nebulously concerned citizens issuing these demands. During the 2021-2022 school year, over half of all book challenges came from just 11 adults. ALA notes that “the vast majority of challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community.” The bulk of complaints regurgitate mangled bits of the same common talking points, typically the reverberations of the previous week’s news cycle. When speaking to an Indiana public library staff member about their experience with patron comments on controversial works, verbatim examples from complaints included “the library has bought into our corrupt culture,” “this is absolutely disgusting,” and accusations that the library is “teaching children to be confused about gender and getting mutilated.” The staff member went on to explain that the majority of public complaints typically cite second hand knowledge of the content that they are demanding be removed from the shelves. More often than not, the commenters state that they themselves have not actually read the offending title but rather that they have heard it contains sexually explicit material or is otherwise inappropriate for children. The recent surge of public interest in library collections has also been very sudden. The same staff member could not recount any similar instances of local outcry during last year’s Banned Books Week but received six complaints within an hour of publishing the newsletter announcing this year’s festivities.
Schools and public libraries appear to be the newest inclusions to the spin-the-wheel-of-scapegoats crucial to the success of politically charged fear campaigns. The dog whistle of conflating the acknowledgment of queer identities with the promotion of pornography is not new: “They’re grooming our kids” and “They’re destroying our society” were hallmarks of the propaganda produced during the gay panic movement. Topics regarding sexuality and gender identity are frequently labeled as sexually explicit regardless of their content or context, a tactic aimed to choke out dissension and relegate queer individuals to the fringes of society. When queer voices are silenced, the intolerant majority is free to condemn communities as they wish, and out of sight is out of mind.
One work consistently placed at the center of these discussions is Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, listed as the #1 most challenged title of 2021, 2022, and likely of 2023. The graphic novel faced 151 challenges over the course of 2022, nearly twice as many as its runner-up. In the memoir, author and cartoonist Maia Kobabe (who uses the gender-neutral Spivak pronouns e/em/eir) recounts eir experiences during childhood and adolescence and finally embracing eir identity as a nonbinary adult. Like many coming-of-age stories, the book includes mentions of physical and emotional pubertal changes, masturbation, and sex. This appears to be the crux of the issue. Yes, there are parts with cartoonish nudity and mention of sex. The one scene I see referenced the most, the “extremely graphic depiction of oral sex,” is not even an entire page and does not actually display any nudity. The scene is one in which Kobabe’s character briefly tries wearing a strap-on dildo (while fully clothed) to see how it feels to engage in oral sex with eir partner. Two consenting adults try something together to find ways to make each other feel comfortable during sex; Kobabe realizes that the experience is not how e had imagined it and that e doesn’t actually enjoy it, and then they stop. Two panels showing adults using healthy communication and deciding to not have sex. The goal of the scene is not to titillate or arouse the reader, but instead to vulnerably share an important memory and to demonstrate eir perspective at the time of the event. The scene is labeled as pornographic when the actual lesson demonstrated is that it is healthy to communicate and advocate for yourself when you do not want to have sex.
The determination of whether something is “appropriate” is at baseline subjective, individual, and context-dependent. These decisions are likely best made on a case-by-case basis, and attempting to universalize what is appropriate and for what age group has astronomically low odds of success in any environment, much less within the current political and cultural landscape. There’s a difference between having individual control over what your child sees at school–like opting out of sex education or a movie to be shown in class–and deciding unilaterally that no one should be able to see something that you personally disagree with. At some point, we will have to just acknowledge that minors are going to learn about anatomy, sex, and sexuality. When the entire internet is in their pocket, library books about queer people are not going to be their main source of sex education, and honestly they would probably be better off if it were.
There are three certainties in this world: death, taxes, and teenagers looking at porn. We have an epidemic where teenagers’ concept of what is normal, healthy, and desirable is easily and severely distorted by actual pornography, algorithms meant to keep them engaged and generating ad revenue, and a devastating lack of sex education in schools. Online pornography is unfortunately easier for kids to access than ever before, is riddled with hyper-aggressive, misogynistic themes, and often revolves around the simulated abuse of women. Reading even a single title of the videos typically placed on the homepages of these sites would likely make the average book challenger’s hair turn white. We are failing our youth, but the failure is not in allowing them to read what they want at the library. Adolescents are literally left to their own devices, while the adults around them hunt down teachers and librarians who are just trying to do their jobs. Meanwhile, YouTube and cable TV run ads for erectile dysfunction drugs with increasingly graphic language, sex appeal is a foundational principle of advertising, and men sit in front of microphones to tell young boys they need to be rough, emotionless, domineering, and aggressive in order to be a man.
Unless you have experienced it yourself, it’s difficult to truly understand the perspective of growing up with an innate gender identity that is incongruent with your body and no information, role models, or other ways to understand or explore your feelings. Transphobic parents are terrified that these books will make their kids trans. This perspective again is another tired propagandist idea: queer children raised in entirely non-affirming environments with no access to media representation or “corrupting influences” are still queer. That is one crucial fact so woefully misrepresented in these discussions: reading books did not make me transgender. Watching movies did not make me transgender. Hearing queer adults talk about their experiences did not make me transgender. Being born transgender made me transgender. These stories just help people feel brave enough to say it, and that reality is terrifying to some people. When you restrict access to these types of stories, you don’t protect anyone except those who are uncomfortable facing the reality that queer people exist.
Each passing day, existing as a queer person in the United States feels more like living in the Twilight Zone than in the “land of the free.” It’s so heartbreaking, enraging, and demoralizing to watch this endless stream of vitriolic rhetoric spew out of the mouths of people who have neither relevant experience nor the slightest idea of what they’re talking about. Laws to restrict my access to healthcare and ability to use public restrooms are being written by those who say they are protecting vulnerable children from bloodthirsty ghouls who mean to either indoctrinate, recruit, molest, or sacrifice their children. The entire concept is so ridiculous, ignorant, and hateful, and living in a world where that opinion is considered a legitimate position and “one side of a debate” is beyond belief. Hearing after hearing plays out the same way: doctors, local citizens, legal advocates, and those actually affected by these policies bring evidence and testimony that falls on the deaf ears of politicians who have already decided how they were going to vote before they walked in. In Indianapolis, I watched as doctors from Riley Children’s Hospital, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics sat in front of the board and begged them not to take away crucial healthcare from Indiana citizens. Local parents with transgender children spoke about how these treatments saved their kids’ lives. Trans minors who actually live in the state spoke about how bans would directly affect them. The opposition consisted mainly of people who do not or have never lived in Indiana, did not receive gender-affirming care as minors (if at all), and doctors who have never treated transgender patients. A mountain of evidence provided by actual Indiana citizens and doctors was completely ignored in favor of talking heads flown in from out of state.
At the end of the day, transgender people are just the current easy target for the same attacks against progressive culture. Libraries and schools are the current battleground likely because fewer and fewer young people are identifying with conservative politics. Frustratingly, the answer for some seems to be “we have to get into the schools and teach the kids to be conservative” rather than “we have to look at why our policies are not popular with the youth.” When I asked the library staff member what they wished the public knew about the current war on intellectual freedom, they stated, “I wish that people would understand that this issue crosses the aisle, and that even the Bible has been banned before. The purpose of the library is to serve everyone. The beauty of the public library is that you have the right to choose what you read and interact with, and you do not get to take that away from someone else.”
I respectfully suggest that those who feel compelled to ban these types of books reflect on what it truly means to join the ranks of those who have done the same throughout history and how they will be remembered for it. Banning books with gay, queer, or trans characters will not lower the number of children who are gay, queer, or trans, but it will increase the number of children who remember how the adults around them tried to.
About the Author: Jack Lawhorn is a fourth-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine who is interested in psychiatry. As a member of LGBTQ+ communities, they are passionate about community engagement, advocacy work, other volunteer service, or research in particular. They have a particular passion for working with queer youth and hope to get involved in medical-legal advocacy.