Among Gen Z adults, one in five identify as LGBTQ, according to a recent Gallup poll. But despite — or, one could argue, because of — more and more teens opening up about their sexuality, books for young readers featuring LGBTQ characters are far more likely to be challenged or banned by schools and libraries than those with other themes. In fact, queer storylines were found in more than half of the top 20 banned books of 2020 — and that includes books with no mention of sex at all.
For the authors of these books, being banned is a reminder of exactly why these texts were written in the first place: to show that queer people exist, and that their stories are just as vital as straight ones. How can one expect LGBTQ youth to feel safe in the world, the authors point out, if their existence isn’t allowed in the books that they read?
Kyle Lukoff, the author of When Aidan Became a Brother, a children’s book about a trans boy expecting a baby sister, tells Yahoo Life the book received a “relentless tide of gratitude and thanks — from parents of trans children who said the book helped their kid understand or accept themselves, from trans adults saying they wish they had these books when they were younger, and from children themselves, who are excited to see characters like them in books.” Yet his picture book, which did not feature any mature or violent themes, was pulled from a fifth-grade classroom in Pennsylvania due to its content.
“It feels like an attack against my personhood, because that is what it is,” he says. “I don’t see that changing, but the more often it happens, the more the rage is tempered by exhaustion and grief.”
Trans stories, in particular, seem to be the focus of many books that are banned or challenged (meaning there have been attempts to ban) — at the same time that debates over trans people living full lives, whether by participating in school sports or receiving gender-affirming medical care, are at the center of over 200 anti-LGBTQ bills around the country.
Alex Gino’s young adult book Melissa (previously published under the title George), for example, tells the story of a trans girl, and is one of the most challenged of the past decade, according to the American Library Association. Seeing the booked banned, Gino says, is a “backlash to the progress” that has been made for trans people, who, in previous decades, would likely have not had their books published at all. Still, the people who are hurting most , Gino says, are the kids who won’t have the opportunity to read these kinds of stories.
“When you are 5 or 6, your opinions are, ‘Do you like chocolate or strawberry?’ But when you are 10, 11, or 12, your opinion is, ‘What’s the right thing to do in a sticky situation?’ Your opinion can be about whether it’s right for you to do something your parents don’t agree with, but you do,” says Gino, whose newest book Alice Austen Lived Here gets released in June. “Kids deserve tools to figure that out. Queer issues, LGBTQIA+ issues, are at the core of that, because they’re figuring out who they are, and who they like. That is all space where you can either grow and explore and try things out, or you can have no option to do that, and get stuck down a road where you have to do work to come back from that. And we don’t come back from that unscarred.”
George M. Johnson’s debut memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue, which explores the intersection of being Black and queer, was removed from school libraries in 15 states. The author wasn’t shocked.
“You know that parents are going to react a certain way, because they want their children to be shielded from the realities of the world, while also being conditioned to think that white stories are the only stories that should matter in school systems,” Johnson . “My story is not that. It didn’t surprise me that it would be banned, but I didn’t think it would be a top conversation around the book banning.”
Since the bannings, Johnson’s book has risen on the indie bestseller list, and it has reached much of its intended audience — including a student who credited the book with being able to name their abuser, and another who made the decision to come out publicly and change their pronouns, Johnson says.
“I think everyone is saddened that it’s gotten here, and that we’re fighting to tell stories of our experience, and that our communities face,” they explain. “I’m fortunate that our book rose on the bestseller list, but some books get banned and then nobody talks about them. The next phase of this is to talk about all the books that are getting banned, and make sure people talk about them.”
Johnson points to Gen Z being demographically more diverse than previous generations—recontextualizing history in ways that may make older adults uncomfortable. Deciding what stories are allowed to be told and which aren’t, Johnson says, is one way people believe they can control how the next generation thinks.
“When you say that these [banned books] are obscene, that these stories are too heavy, that these stories are too graphic, what you’re really saying is you know nothing about what your teens are going through on a daily basis. Your teens are dealing with the heavy of the United States of America. Your teens woke up this morning thinking we are about to go into World War III,” they note. “You can say that your teens aren’t processing the news when they see Black men being killed by the police, when they see anti-trans bills, anti-gay bills. You can keep pretending that teens aren’t seeing that. Or, we can lean it, and provide teens the resources they need that teach them the truth about the country.”
Lev AC Rosen, author of several books including the YA novel Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)says that it’s been painful to see people misrepresenting his stories. Jack of Hearts tells the story of a gay teen who is out, proud and excited to explore his sexuality — until an anonymous person threatens Jack into being in the way they believe is “acceptable” for a gay young man. The challenging of Jack of Heartsto Rosen, feels very much like what this anonymous blackmailer is doing to the novel’s main character — policing what’s acceptable.
“The more [queer stories] there are, and this is so important, the more [queer teens] don’t feel like ‘Oh, there is one gay book, therefore I have to be like this gay person,’” he notes. “The more variety of queer stories there are out there, the more ways you can see yourself reflected. The more ways you can try on identities. That’s what coming-of-age is all about, it’s about figuring out who you want to be, as opposed to who you have been raised to be, deciding what your values are and what’s important to you.”
Rosen doesn’t watch videos condemning Jack of Hearts anymore, after he says he was shaken by one he saw in which a priest declared his book a “tool” for “pedophiles.” Instead, he says, he watches videos of students staging walkouts over the banning of these books — a glimpse of hope that the next generation won’t stand for what some of their elders are fighting for.
His forthcoming Lavender House is a mystery set in the 1950s, in a time when people had to hide their sexual identity in public. He points out that it seems some people want to revert back to those times.
“That’s what this is all about: It’s about fighting over kids’ freedom — and not just their freedom, but how much they are allowed to love themselves,” Rosen says. “It feels like everyone is trying to make history reality again. I don’t understand why you would wish pain on anyone.”
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