Those in the literary community have likely paid close attention over the past year to the sharp uptick in the number of banned books across the country—the American Library Association reported over 300 challenges in the last three months of 2021 alone —largely focused on diverse books written by and featuring LGBTQ+ people and people of color. In April 2022, a well-known picture book Everywhere Babies written by Susan Meyers and illustrated by Marla Frazee, “was featured…among dozens of works recently targeted by an advocacy group called the Florida Citizens Alliance, which cited the picture book in a report identifying ‘extremely age-inappropriate and pornographic books…in the K-12 classroom.”
Readers familiar with Everywhere Babies are likely shocked at its inclusion on a list targeted for pornography as the book contains no nudity or sexual content and rather is full of illustrations of infants and families going about their mundane, everyday lives. On its face, there’s nothing remotely pornographic about the book, but it seems depictions of same sex couples within the pages are enough to warrant outcry more than twenty years after its publication. This mild representation of diversity seems to be the reason for the ban and is the latest, and one of the most extreme, examples of the “Ed Scare” currently targeting children’s literature.
Coined by PEN America, the term “Ed Scare” refers to the growing rise in censorship efforts, book challenges, bans, and legislative efforts targeted at curriculum and classrooms that overall impact free speech while creating a rampant and pervasive environment of homophobia and racism. According to a report from PEN America, “Between January and September 2021, 24 legislatures across the United States introduced 54 separate bills intended to restrict teaching and training in K-12 schools, higher education, and state agencies and institutions.” While legislatures across the country have also been targeting books with racial diversity for teaching so-called “critical race theory,” the scope of this essay will focus primarily on the impact and consequences of LGBTQ+ book bans and challenges and the role the literary and publishing community plays with regard to the bans.
Important in the context of the rise in LGBTQ+ children’s book bans and challenges is the ensuing political backlash against the queer community, much of which is playing out in schools and within the literary community.
As of February 14, there are at least 177 anti-LGBTQ state bills proposed across the country; 69 of those are anti-LGBTQ school policy bills. State and federal legislation targeting LGBTQ education in schools typically takes one of three forms: bans on books and materials, “Don’t Say Gay” bills targeting LGBTQ conversation in school and bans on “Critical Race Theory” that also prevent teachers from discussing discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity.GLAAD – “Media Guide: Reporting on Book Bannings and School Censorship”
LGBTQ+ children’s book bans don’t simply remove an offensive title from a classroom or library but have far-reaching effects. With LGBTQ+ book bans in particular, there is an increased risk of violence and self-harm as, “The rise in efforts to ban specific topics from school libraries—largely books about LGBTQ people and race and racism—is inextricable from longstanding efforts by extremist groups to increasingly use schools as a political battleground, including more than 170 anti-LGBTQ bills proposed in state legislatures in 2022.”
Despite the ongoing “Ed Scare,” LGBTQ+ children’s books play a critical role in the wellbeing of all children by exposing young readers to diverse viewpoints, teaching them empathy, and reflecting their identities back to them. Because of this, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, those in the literary community including authors, parents, educators, and publishers must work to protect LGBTQ+ children’s books and the queer community as a whole. This essay will examine the history of book bans, LGBTQ+ book bans in the modern political context, the consequences of banning LGBTQ+ children’s books, and what can be done to protect LGBTQ+ children’s literature.
A Brief History of Book Banning
As the latest wave of LBGTQ+ book bans come to a head citing obscenity or inappropriate sexual content, it’s important to understand the historical and legal precedent for challenges to literature. According to Brady, “arguments over obscenity—how it’s defined and how that definition relates to the First Amendment—have been at the heart of banned-book controversies throughout the 20th and 21st centuries,” likely since the banning of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the first book in the United States to experience a national challenge due to its abolitionist content.
Roughly two decades later, “a carping moralist government official named Anthony Comstock convinced the United States Congress to pass a law prohibiting the mailing of ‘pornographic’ materials.” Comstock’s broad definition of the term pornography would have lasting legal implications for nearly 75 years until 1957 when Roth vs. The United States redefined obscenity and placed importance on creative expression and intent behind art. This ushered an era of free expression and sexual liberation in the 1960s and ‘70s that was soon met with a wave of conservative backlash and censorship during the Reagan presidency, leading to the first Banned Books Week in 1982.
Banned Books Week hadn’t yet existed for a decade before the publications of Heather Has Two Mommies, written by Leslea Newman and originally illustrated by Diana Souza, and Daddy’s Roommate written and illustrated by Michael Willhoite, two of the first and most seminal LGBTQ+ picture books for children that simply depicted normal children with happy same sex parents. While publishing today has worked to make room for diverse authors and stories, Newman faced roadblocks and rejection when she initially tried to publish Heather and ended up crowdfunding and self-publishing the first printing of the book before it was reprinted by a small LGBTQ publisher. Unfortunately, Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate became some of the most banned books in America in the 1990s. “By the time 1999 rolled around, the American Library Association had ranked it No. 9 on its most banned-books list, with Daddy’s Roommate coming in at No. 2. For perspective, the titles were higher on the list than J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Madonna’s graphic coffee table book Sex.” While Newman and Willhoite paved the way for other queer children’s book authors, their books also predicted the challenges to come for future LGBTQ+ children’s books.
LGBTQ+ Book Bans in the Modern Era
There’s a sad but direct lineage from Heather Has Two Mommies to the infamous picture book about a penguin with two dads And Tango Makes Three written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole which “…caused quite a stir when it was published: it topped the American Library Association’s list of challenged books in 2007, 2008, 2009, and reappeared again in 2011…” While challenges to LGBTQ+ children’s books have never gone away, the recent uptick of the “Ed Scare” movement is different in both number and overall political fervor.
What makes modern-day book banning so stark and alarming is not the banning itself, though the sheer number of challenges is noteworthy. While the aforementioned 330 challenges the ALA reported between September and December of 2021 “is an increase relative to the same months in prior years…the figures are most likely an undercount, as teachers and librarians are often afraid of the consequences of reporting censorship campaigns.” The consequences of the bans will be discussed in more detail later, but it’s important to note that censoring a book never removes the title alone, but has numerous ramifications, including the emotional welfare of teachers and librarians who do not want to lose their jobs. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that challenges and bans targeting LGBTQ+ children’s books are steadily and scarily on the rise.
Yet while this uptick is of note and unsettling, bans are nothing new—historians note that censorship and challenges have coexisted alongside publishing throughout time. Rather, it’s the multi-pronged political attack on the larger LGBTQ+ community utilizing children’s books and education with little logic or evidence to back up the bans that feels startling. For example, Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me in a Crown made a list of obscene books under investigation in Oklahoma, despite the fact that her novel is hardly obscene, containing mild profanity and a brief same sex kiss. These nonsensical bans—which generally are not tied to the text itself—are instead linked to the broader movement to restrict and remove civil rights from the LGBTQ+ community through the educational setting. To wit, in November 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered his state education and library boards to originate statewide standards that would keep pornography and obscene content from entering Texas classrooms, which many saw as a homophobic dog whistle to target LGBTQ+ literature. However, other states have proposed even more disturbing and invasive bills that seem intended to surveil LGBTQ+ students and parents, like Arizona’s HB 2011 which:
…amends the state’s law requiring parental permission for sex education to cover student participation in LGBTQ clubs. Schools now must ‘seek consent’ from parents if a student attempts to join a club ‘involving sexuality, gender or gender identity’; it also requires that schools provide the group’s charter to parents as part of the permission process.Vox – “Why Book Banning is Back”
In short, educational Pride organizations, a traditionally sacrosanct safe space for LGBTQ+ teens and young people, are now under threat, too. School board members have even gone so far as to advocate for burning banned books to ensure total eradication of content they deem to be unseemly, an image many associate with fascist Nazi Germany. Of course, those who live within a marginalized experience know their communities cannot be censored away or erased, but while schools are supposed to be a safe haven for children, the “Ed Scare” breaks the foundational trust in the classroom between the administration and students and most importantly removes access to books and literacy for young readers at a critical age.
On the whole, these political efforts amount to state-sponsored censorship of the LGBTQ+ community, beginning with children’s books. Even more upsetting, those who control the levers of power have little understanding of the community they seek to control through the texts they challenge and ban. This indifference to understanding the subject matter presents a fresh challenge for literacy and free speech advocates.
Previous banning movements did not overtly concentrate on race, aim to empty libraries, or associate so closely with one political party. The people behind these movements prided themselves on their direct familiarity with the explicit contents of that which they wished to ban (or even burn). They used their literacy in their brazen efforts to control the uses of others’ literacy. Today’s banners and burners, by contrast, are the new illiterates, achieving a rare historical distinction.Publishers Weekly – “The History of Book Banning”
Driving this point home, six of the top ten most challenged books in 2021 were LGBTQ+ children’s books banned for being sexually explicit despite lacking pornographic content. Even more frustratingly, the latest book bans have fallen on the legal definition of obscenity to remove objectionable texts but may not be within the legal right to do so. “Since 1973, this has almost exclusively been understood as visual hardcore pornography. It’s nearly impossible for a book to be obscene.” Instead, obscenity and pornography function as dog whistles and synonyms for any kind of queer subtext, desire, or joy that is objectionable. Conflating obscenity and pornography with queerness at large is at the very least fear-mongering and at the worst a gross false equivalency. Most frustrating of all, the politicians who seek to ban LGBTQ+ books claim to have children’s best interests at heart, but instead harm those they allegedly seek to protect.
This willful lack of engagement with the discourse at hand is evidence of the sinister and pernicious thinking that impacts those in the LGBTQ+ community. The painful irony of the “Ed Scare” is that LGBTQ+ authors understand just how much power words have, regardless of the ignorance or intent behind them. The underlying commonality in the ongoing political effort is the assumption that queerness can be taught, a central tenet of conversion therapy (i.e. if someone can be led astray to homosexuality, they can be converted back to heterosexuality). As a result, intentional or not, the LGBTQ+ “Ed Scare” has an underlying sinister, deadly ideology rooted in conversion therapy that seeks to control young queer children, a framework that is proven to be violent, harmful, and ineffective.
“The architects and infantry of this latest moral panic have no interest in the platitudes they spout about sexualizing children, nor do they have the range to honestly discuss the content of the books they despise. Theirs is a campaign of hate, bent on erasing queer lives so they can bully more vulnerable kids into being “normal” heterosexuals and make it easier to abuse them at the first sign of rebellion.”Them. – “Queer Book Bans Aren’t About Books At All”
While LGBTQ+ book bans are rooted in a moralistic agenda to protect children, regardless of the true intentions, that’s the last thing these challenges are accomplishing. If lawmakers wanted to protect children, they would provide equitable access to information and books about a diverse range of experiences and identities, allowing children to explore and navigate their perspectives and worldview in their own time. Instead, “What matters to them is controlling the information their children have access to—ostensibly to keep them safe and ‘innocent,’ but in truth, it’s because they think that if kids don’t know about LGBTQ+ identities, they won’t form one. It’s conversion therapy-by-ignorance.”
This is particularly dire with literature targeted for younger age categories like picture books where parents view themselves as more in control over their children’s education and identity, regardless of whether a child has begun to explore their LGBTQ+ identity. Young readers may be the most impacted by the bans as, “Children are often aware of their sexuality and gender at an early age, and there are increasing numbers of families with same-gender parents. Representation of these identities and families is critical for building healthy perceptions among youth.” As a result, LGBTQ+ children’s book bans can have tragic consequences.
The Consequences of Banning LGBTQ+ Children’s Books
To understand the future implications of LGBTQ+ children’s book bans, we can look to the prominent psychological theory, social learning theory, by psychologist Albert Bandura which says that children learn and encode behavior through observational learning. A child’s behavior will be either negatively or positively reinforced through direct interactions with a parent or role model, or the child will receive vicarious reinforcement by witnessing positive or negative reinforcement of a similar behavior on someone else. Per social learning theory, with regard to children’s literature, the impact of LGBTQ+ books works twofold: if children have positive role models in the form of picture books, authors, illustrators, and educators, their own identities or experiences will be positively reinforced and they will develop positive self-images; but if these texts are banned or erased, visible role models outside of texts may be harder to find, and a young LGBTQ+ reader’s identity may be negatively reinforced, leading to a negative self-image.
For young children, particularly LGBTQ+ children who are at increased risk of self-harm and violence, removing books from schools and libraries that represent their identities is negative reinforcement in action. According to The Trevor Project, at least one LGBTQ+ youth attempts suicide every 45 seconds. Bandura’s social learning theory draws a direct link between the “Ed Scare” book bans and the impact of the loss of these texts on LGBTQ+ children. Without the opportunity to positively reinforce and encode behaviors through peer models in LGBTQ+ books, children are left to internalize the rampant negative reinforcement of homophobic book bans and laws. “The young…face the greatest threat to intellectual and psychological development. That danger is most severe for the racially and gender diverse, who see themselves being erased or banned.” Without access to LGBTQ+ representation in books, queer children immediately internalize, or per Bandura, encode, the homophobia of the bans and interpret the language directed at LGBTQ+ books and authors–obscene, pornographic, inappropriate—as directed at them.
This negative reinforcement extends beyond childhood, however, as the effects of the bans are felt by parents, educators, librarians, and the authors themselves, which children in turn witness and encode. Take for example the case of Call Me Max, an early reader written by Kyle Lukoff and illustrated by Luciano Lozano about a young boy beginning his social transition on his first day of a new school year. When a young student in Utah brought Max to share with his class, the school’s storytime program ended in an overall bid to censor further “inappropriate” books brought from home. Lukoff wrote about the pain this decision caused him as an author and a trans person:
When I watch these school board meetings or read the bills introduced to penalize librarians for their collections, I see bloodlust barely disguised as civility. I see the veneer of due process peeling around the edges of genocidal fantasies. I see Jay, and his peers, and his adult counterparts like myself, twisted from human beings into points of rhetoric and symbols of societal degeneracy.“My Children’s Book Was Challenged in Schools”
Lukoff’s emotional recounting of the experience is vivid and serves as an important reminder of real world consequences of book bans beyond a title leaving a classroom. With the LGBTQ+ “Ed Scare,” censoring books functions as censoring the larger LGBTQ+ community which can do irreparable harm, especially for children. Research shows that LGBTQ+ youth are more at risk for serious mental health issues relative to their cisgender and straight counterparts, making the “Ed Scare” all the more dangerous.
…in their urgent zeal to “protect” children from the “evils” of homosexuality and genderaffirmative care, conservatives are proactively endangering queer and trans children. Decades of research have established the link between negative social environments and poor LGBTQ mental health, and the link between allowing kids to safely express their sexuality and gender identity and positive mental health.Vox – “The Right’s Moral Panic Over ‘Grooming’ Invokes Age-Old Homophobia”
Therefore, it’s no exaggeration to say LGBTQ+ affirming children’s books that show a safe, loving, and accepting world can save lives. LGBTQ+ children’s books can also be an emotional education for young readers who may not otherwise know diverse identities exist and simply need to learn how to be accepting and tolerant in order to avoid growing up hateful and ignorant.
Furthermore, bans and challenges ignore historical queer subtext in literature. While there are countless examples of LGBTQ+ protagonists in modern day children’s literature, that was not always the case. For many years, young LGBTQ+ readers instead created their own subtextual queer canon, sometimes with characters that were written to be interpreted as LGBTQ+ by their authors. Characters like Caddie Woodlawn, Pippi Longstocking, and Harriet the Spy were depicted as “tomboys” and have been adopted as unofficial lesbian icons. Picture book characters like Ferdinand, a bull who doesn’t want to fight and thus rejects masculine norms, and Frog and Toad, have also been interpreted as gay or queer. Needless to say, even if explicitly queer books are removed from shelves, authors will find a way to insert queerness between the pages and readers will identify with the subtext.
What Can Be Done About The “Ed Scare”
- Regardless of one’s relationship to the LGBTQ+ “Ed Scare,” any concerned individual can take a wide variety of steps to fight back.
- Be a vocal supporter of LGBTQ+ children’s books and speak out against censorship online and in your community.
- Share information about the “Ed Scare” on social media, educate your neighbors, or write an editorial for a local newspaper.
- When LGBTQ+ books are challenged in your community, organize neighbors to educate them, host forums, and rally with fellow concerned citizens.
- Visibility and numbers matter—create, sign, and share petitions in person and online.
- Fight back on a policy level: if a book is challenged, check your school’s policies, and potentially work to change them.
- Attend school board meetings and voice your opinion.
- A solution that may seem extreme but will likely be necessary is to fight fire with fire like a group of private citizens in Texas who sued their county for removing access to over 17,000 digital books, citing first amendment violations.
- Individuals can also provide monetary support.
- Buy challenged books from local or independent bookstores or donate them to classrooms or libraries.
- Request them from libraries if you cannot afford to make a purchase.
- Partner with or donate to organizations fighting against censorship like the National Coalition Against Censorship, PEN America, and American Library Association.
- Libraries and educational institutions also have a social responsibility to be create inclusive spaces for LGBTQ+ children and students.
- It’s important for libraries to prepare to respond to “Ed Scare” attacks because, “Every community has a GLBT population and GLBT families. The job of librarians, whether serving adults, teens, children, students, parents, or others, is to make libraries welcoming and open to all.”
- Regardless of outside pressures to challenge LGBTQ+ children’s books and the community at large, libraries have a responsibility to serve all of their patrons. This also includes building a diverse range of titles within the LGBTQ+ collection itself to ensure a wide variety of experiences are represented to readers of all backgrounds.
- In the event that LGBTQ+ children’s books are challenged, banned, or removed entirely from schools, robust libraries are more important than ever to ensure children have equitable access to information and education.
- More libraries should also follow in the steps of the New York Public Library which has made a select range of banned titles available to all customers or the Brooklyn Public Library which has made their entire e-book collection available to teens nationwide.
- Private citizens can also start an LGBTQ+ banned book club for local youth in partnership with their local libraries.
- Publishing companies need to recognize the necessity of protecting their authors as financial assets in the face of political unrest.
- Some publishing companies like Hachette and Penguin Random House have put together online resource hubs for authors, illustrators, parents, students, educators, librarians, and other concerned stakeholders, but can do more.
- With recent changes to advance payment structures, authors are already struggling financially. The “Ed Scare” book challenges will undoubtedly hurt author income; not every challenged book hits the bestseller list—it’s in fact quite rare. If the publishing industry can profit off of LGBTQ+ authors and readers, they in turn have a responsibility to support and protect them. Implementing standardized, equitable pay and health insurance for the authors who are most vulnerable would be a way to protect publishing’s assets.
- Publishing could also do more political lobbying and recognize that there may be an immediate short-term loss in sales from conservatives while sustaining a long-term win for future legal precedent over censorship in books.
- Protecting authors is a critical forward-thinking investment. For LGBTQ+ authors who are already in the business, they need to be protected for the assets they provide; for future aspiring authors, they need to see that publishers will value and protect their work in the face of political adversity.
This essay barely scraped the surface on a hugely important topic, but if the “Ed Scare has taught us anything, it’s that art has always been a medium to push forward diversity and conversations and to fight back against political hegemony, which makes literature a hotbed of censorship battles and challenges. In turn, LGBTQ+ children’s books must be protected at all costs on behalf of those who labor to create them and the queer community and readers they serve. Perhaps the plea can best be summarized by young adult author Malinda Lo, whose book Last Night at the Telegraph Club won the 2021 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
This year, schools across the country are facing significant right-wing pressure to remove books about people of color, LGBTQ people, and especially transgender people from classrooms and libraries. I urge every one of you watching to educate yourselves about your school boards and vote in your local elections. 2022 is coming, and we need your support to keep our stories on the shelves. Don’t let them erase us.School Library Journal – “2021 National Book Award Winner Malindo Lo: ‘Don’t Let Them Erase Us'”
Lo warned of the increasing book challenges for LGBTQ+ books and authors of color when she accepted her award–three months later, Last Night at the Telegraph Club was flagged for removal in Texas.