Pride month ended last week, and I cannot tell you how many social media posts I’ve seen reminding us in the queer community to take care of ourselves, especially in these times. As a queer person, it feels like my heart is forever sinking in my chest because another book has been banned in the US.
We may be in Australia, but we’re not as separate from America as we like to think; many of our cultural cues are imported from the US, and as I’ll explain, Australia has its share of book bans too.
Over the last two and a half years, a constant stream of new laws across the US have targeted the queer community, in particular transgender people, including access to healthcare, drag shows, and education within schools. A specific example of these sorts of attacks is book banning, which is the removal or restriction of access to certain books in schools and libraries.
While not a new phenomenon, school districts in the US have been experiencing alarmingly high rates of ‘challenges’ against a range of books, often depicting stories representing the LGBTQIA+ community, immigrants, and people of colour. The practice of ‘challenging’ a book results from an objection to the book’s content, and triggers a systematic review process to discern whether the book is deemed appropriate by librarians, teachers, and administrators.
Professor Mary Lou Rasmussen, an expert in gender, sexuality, and education from the Australian National University, believes that they can at times be politically motivated towards a certain cause. “I think that cause often involves children…and [is] about evoking children as a figure that needs to be saved.”
Many of the challenges to books have been from a minority, sometimes even a single person, lodging a complaint directly to school boards and administrators. For instance, the Florida Citizens Alliance has lodged many of the complaints in their state responsible for book bans.
Yet, their official Facebook page is followed by approximately 1.3% of Florida’s total population (3 thousand out of 22 million). Other conservative groups, such as Moms for Liberty and the Concerned Parents of the Ozarks, are no different.
Despite those small numbers, lack of access to any queer books can still affect the LGBTQIA+ community. “Books are powerful. They can teach empathy, but they can also teach self-awareness,” says queer writer and author Karis Rogerson. “I might have realised who I was sooner if I’d read a broader selection of books as a teen.” Karis isn’t the only person who struggled with a lack of diversity in books.
Trans and queer writer Robin Gow, founder and director of Transcendent Connections, released a novel in 2022 exploring the story of two transgender teens and their relationship. “With my verse novel, A Million Quiet Revolutions, I wanted to write a story I would have wanted to gift myself as a young person grappling with my gender who was without the language or resources to explain my experience.”
Just like Karis, Robin, and many other queer people, discovering queer stories changed my understanding of who I was as a teenager.
Between July and December of last year, the state of Texas banned 438 books, a 28% increase from the previous six months. This huge number of bans is partially due to books being immediately removed once challenged, despite the American Library Association and National Coalition Against Censorship recommending that challenged books should remain accessible during review. In some instances, school boards have been overwhelmed with a high number of challenges submitted together, dragging out the review processes.
We’ve seen this in Australia too. Throughout the 20th century, many literary classics, such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, were banned or restricted in Australia, often vaguely citing “obscene content” as the cause. As recently as March this year, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer (which is also currently the book with the highest number of bans in the US) was removed from a Queensland public library after a complaint from a member of the public. Progressives have used book bans as well; two years ago, several Dr Seuss books were permanently pulled from publication due to racist stereotyping.
What makes the current book bans in the US so frustratingly painful are the type of books being banned and why.
Many of the books being challenged are accused of containing sexual content. While some do include implicit sex scenes, plenty do not. First published in 2001, Susan Meyers’ Everywhere Babies was included in the 2021 “Objectionable Materials” report (written by the Florida Citizens Alliance and often known by its inflammatory name, the “Porn in Schools” report), which listed 58 books as sexually inappropriate.
Each book in the report has a link to an individual review, requiring the reader to actively open them – and the Everywhere Babies review states that there is no ‘objectionable content’. It is listed as an LGBTQIA+ book, due to some images that show two same-sex people looking after a baby. The complete absence of sexual content in the book makes it clear that LGBTQIA+ themes have been sexualised and deemed ‘age-inappropriate’ in the report (to see a video read-through of Everywhere Babies, click here).
The popular Heartstopper books, written and illustrated by Alice Oseman, have also been challenged and banned in several school districts. The series primarily follows Nick and Charlie, two young teens navigating their feelings for each other, and later, their blossoming relationship. Having personally read these books, I can attest to the distinct lack of sexual content throughout the entire series.
I only recently reread the series, and I wholeheartedly agreed with journalist Gary Nunn when he told me that it “particularly stings” that Heartstopper has been part of the book bans. Even more so when considering that Oseman actively counteracts narratives of hypersexuality throughout the series, focusing on other aspects of Nick and Charlie’s relationship.
“It’s rare to have such an innocent depiction of same-sex romantic affection,” continued Gary. In a previous article discussing the ambiguous grief Heartstopper stirred in him, Gary stated that Heartstopper depicts “an innocence that a whole generation of gay men like me were denied.”
So, why are we seeing books such as Heartstopper and Everywhere Babies being banned for non-existent sexual content?
PEN America’s 2023 banned books report found that of the 874 book titles banned in various US school districts between July and December last year, 26% (roughly 227) contained queer characters or themes. People of colour were also being targeted, with 30% (approximately 262) containing characters of colour or themes of race and racism.
The 2021 “Objectionable Materials” report specifically attacks same-sex parents and couples by insisting that novels portraying same-sex parents “undermine Florida Constitution that marriage is between [a] man and a woman” (Florida’s Constitution has not had its marriage section removed, first adopted in 2008, despite the legalisation of same-sex marriage back in 2015).
While some intentions behind the book bans might not be political or biased, homophobia and transphobia are, regardless, playing a large role. We all know that our teenage years can be a time of figuring out our identity, and books can be an important tool in discovering ourselves as individuals. Reading has always been a source of comfort and guidance in my life, and to think that others will not always have this opportunity is both frustrating and devastating.
“The stories we consume matter,” says author Melissa Blair. “The first way we learn is through story, and therefore the stories we read, even fictional ones, impact how we see our world.” What is just as important is the books we don’t read.
Banning and removing books that represent real people tells us that we will not be accepted as who we are, if who we are is outside of a white, heteronormative and cisnormative identity.
Professor Rasmussen, who we heard from earlier, worked in the US during the 1990’s as a queer activist. She dealt with book bans at the time. “In some ways, I think that the symbolism of the bans is more pronounced now that it was then,” Professor Rasmussen said. “LGBTQIA+ people already often feel like they’re not welcome, and these cement that.”
When discussing the impact on health and wellbeing, Professor Rasmussen voiced her concern that these book bans would “do nothing” for the mental, social, and economic wellbeing of the LGBTQIA+ community, especially young people with limited independence and choice in where they go to school. “The issues on them are compounded because of a lack of autonomy associated with the bans, which makes them all the more onerous.”
Working as a bookseller myself in a part-time job, I have witnessed the moments of joy and pride that teens especially experience when they see books that represent themselves. As a reader myself, I have come to value the experience of not only critically engaging with books, but expanding my worldview through reading. Inclusive and hopeful books such as Heartstopper are especially critical – as Gary argued, “it ought to be compulsory reading for all schools to tackle homophobia, promote equality and nourish empathy via the imagination.”
Access to a range of books, especially those reflecting our diversity, is joyful and essential. Removing that representation takes away a chance to see ourselves be understood and truly embraced, even if it’s just through fictional characters.
If you’d like a powerful reminder of why books like Heartstopper mean so much to queer viewers, Jesse Blakers wrote this piece last year.
- Feature image at top: Heartstopper, Season 1, Episode 2. Nick and Charlie lying in the snow. Picture: Netflix