With a wave of book bans and educational gag orders still surging across the country, an online panel this week explored how the bans are targeting and impacting the LGBTQ community—and how concerned communities can push back. Sponsored by ACLU People Power, Hachette Book Group, Lambda Literary, and We Need Diverse Books, the timely discussion (the issue of book bans featured in gubernatorial debates this week in a number of states ahead of the mid-term elections) the discussion was led by the ACLU’s Gillian Branstetter and featured BookRiot writer Kelly Jensen; Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, and authors Mark Oshiro and Lev AC Rosen.
Kicking off the discussion, Branstetter asked Jensen to break down the widely-reported statistics showing a sharp spike in attempted book bans and educational gag orders across the country over the last two years. Jensen, a former librarian who has been reporting widely on the surge in book bans in communities across the country for BookRiot, wasted no time in pulling the figures into focus, arguing that the bans are impacting as many as four million students across the country.
“That's four million students who are having books taken from them, and it's happening everywhere in the country,” Jensen said. “It's a very coordinated effort. It's very organized. And it is happening all across the country in numbers that are really impossible to keep up with,” Jensen said, suggesting that the reported number of book bans are almost certainly a small fraction of what’s really happening on the ground. “You know the number is easily two, three, four times larger based on the books that we're not hearing about being pulled off shelves and the silent censorship that we're not hearing about.”
Later in the discussion, Jensen explained how the spike in book banning efforts across the country is being driven by well-funded right wing political groups at the national level (groups such as Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in education) and executed by foot soldiers at the local level. “The idea is that these groups are speaking on behalf of parents who don't know what's going on in their kids’ schools and don't know what's in these books and so they have taken it upon themselves to be the gatekeepers here,” Jensen explained. “The reality is they speak for a small number of people. But they have incredible money behind them and incredible resources that make what they call grassroots look grassroots to those who don't spend the time to investigate these groups. But once you start to look beneath the surface, you realize they're not grassroots in any sense of the word.”
Ferrell agreed, and noted how these groups have had some success in Florida in pushing laws and policies that have not only facilitated outright book bans under the guise of “parental rights” but have also muddied the waters so much that educators, librarians, and media specialists are finding it hard to do their jobs. The result is “a lot of self-censorship” in addition to the outright censorship attempts that advocates can actually track—more than 1,000 attempted bans on some 600 different titles in the state of Florida in just in the last year, Ferrell noted, including more and more books being moved to ill-defined “restricted” areas where parents have to opt in their kids.
“Our primary message is that whatever a student's race, sexual orientation, gender, or lived experience they all deserve to see themselves reflected in a book in the school library,” Ferrell said. “And by segregating stories to a restricted shelf or saying that they shouldn’t be in the library we are basically saying that your stories don't belong. We're not comfortable, we find those inappropriate and so we're going to move that out of regular browsing and you know, your parents can select you into these stories. And that is not the right message. That's not the right message in Florida, or anywhere in this country.”
Backing up Jensen’s observation that the surge in bans and restrictive policies is not reflective of the broader community, Ferrell noted that less than 1% of parents in Florida have opted to restrict their kids’ access to books in school. “This is just not something that a majority of parents want,” Ferrell said, adding that most parents in public schools specifically want their children to be exposed to “diverse ideas” and “robust resources.”
The authors on the panel stressed the importance of LGBTQ stories and lives continuing to be seen.
“I always like to make sure that I'm viewing this through the lens of kids, and I think about how I didn't know what books were banned in my middle school library or my high school library. I learned about that later. But what I did see was that I wasn't represented on the bookshelves,” said Mark Oshiro author of numerous young adult books, including Anger is a Gift. “You can't know something's missing if you don't know it exists. And that, to me, is sort of the greatest tragedy about all of this.”
While LGBTQ representation has increased in recent years, it is that very progress, Oshiro suggested, that is now fueling this surge in book bans. “I think these people know that they can use the institutional power they have, or have access to, to silence us because it is undeniable that those of us in the queer community and the transgender community have made such great strides in the past couple decades,” Oshiro said. “There really is no better way to sort of destroy a person's identity than to not even let them discover anything about it.”
But why books, Branstetter asked. In today’s social media-driven, internet-fueled instant information and entertainment world, why are books and libraries being so intently targeted? Because, the authors suggested, books are powerful.
“I've read studies that say that reading fiction really enhances your empathy,” said Lev AC Rosen, whose most recent book, Lavender House was published on October 18. “Reading fiction, from the perspective of someone else allows you to see what the world might be like through their eyes and that gives you more empathy and more compassion for folks who have a different identity than you. That, I think is why people are going after books. Because books are telling kids that these perspectives are valid."
The panel went on to discuss how to combat the surge in book bans, generally agreeing that awareness and action are key. But the panel also agreed that both publishers and journalists have a major role to play—and need to do better.
“This a conversation a lot of me and my colleagues have been having because so many of our publishers have been really silent about all of this,” Oshiro said. “And it seems a strange thing, because even if you think of it just in terms of capitalism, here are people who are going after the things that make these companies money. Why wouldn't they get involved?”
Rosen, meanwhile, talked about why publishers and other allies need to stand up against those targeting the LGBTQ community: for their readers.
“If you're a young, closeted kid and you are watching your town kind of explode over these arguments as to whether or not books about people like you should be allowed to be read by you, that is the sort of thing that is going to encourage you to stay in the closet, that's going to make you feel more alone…and more terrified,” Rosen said. “I think that's what librarians need to be letting the community know—like, show up not just for me, the librarian who's a little scared of these people, who is trying their best, and getting death threats [and who] you should show up for anyway, but show up for that closeted kid who is watching the entire town say that they shouldn't exist. That is the most powerful thing I think you can say to people to make them show up, because that's really what it's about. We outnumber them wildly. It's just about showing up.”
Jensen acknowledged that a lot of the media coverage around the rise of book challenges thus far has been disappointing, and said too many reporters are not taking the time to research and present what’s really going on. “I've read countless stories that talk about Moms for Liberty as if they are a legit grassroots group and not this very well funded right wing group,” Jensen said. “And so how do you expect other people to ever learn if you're their source of information and you're not pushing back on these topics?”
Ferrell agreed, noting that pushing a "both sides" sort of "culture war” narrative is an inaccurate way to frame the surging efforts to restrict access to books and authors, especially in the state of Florida. "There are people who have fewer rights today because of these laws that are getting passed, who have less access, and who are getting targeted even more," Ferrell said. "It's not parents having equal concerns.”
Winding down the discussion, Branstetter turned to the authors, asking them for words of advice to their fellow LGBTQ authors.
“Write your story,” Rosen implored. “The queer community cannot have a future without a past. And our past is made up of these stories. And these stories are constantly being erased. So find those stories, share those stories, tell your stories. That's how our community goes forward.”