IIt is becoming more and more common for me to receive emails from librarians telling me that one of my books has been “disputed”. Recently two of my titles – This Book Is Gay and Understanding Gender – was on a very long list of books Texas lawmaker Matt Krause would like to see removed from schools. I’m in good company: Margaret Atwood, young adult bestseller Adam Silvera and V for Vendetta author Alan Moore also host, alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jeffrey Eugenides and – for some reason – a book. by James Patterson.
The book “ban” is nothing new. Few views are more enduring or frightening than the photographs of young Nazis raiding the Magnus Hirschfeld Sexology Institute in 1933 and burning the books they found there. The burning of books remains synonymous with censorship, dictatorship and autocracy. As a writer, I think it’s up to publishers to decide if they want their name associated with prejudice – even with authors and books that I fundamentally disagree with on ideological grounds. But this is not indicative of an equally divided “culture war”. Krause only wants liberal or inclusive books that are banned.
When This Book Is Gay, a non-fiction textbook for LGBTQ + teens, was first “challenged” – in Alaska in 2016 – everyone was very excited. “You have done it now!” People exclaimed, as fury grabbed headlines across the United States. “It will be a big publicity.”
Even then, I was disheartened by the queer youth of Wasilla – Sarah Palin’s staple ground. What kind of message would removing the title from libraries send to these children? How ashamed they are? That they are sinners? Should they be hidden from view? I feared it would force them to hide in the back of the closet.
I want to be very clear. My books – none of them – have “turned” young people into lesbians, gays, bi or trans. If books had this power, I would be a very hungry caterpillar before you. Haven’t read a book with a weird character before reading Poppy Z Brite’s Lost Souls when I was 17. Needless to say, I was already on the right track to understanding my sexual and gender identity.
I wrote This Book Is Gay because, since working as a personal teacher of social and health education, I knew there was a gap in the market. After section 28 was repealed, which prohibited teachers from discussing LGBTQ + life, professionals were allowed to recognize us, but received no advice on How? ‘Or’ What to do it. Many teachers were terrified of doing or saying the wrong thing, so there was no immediate improvement in the education of LGBTQ + children.
It bothered me that sex education classes assumed every kid is straight and every kid is cis. Some just aren’t. As such, we left gay children dangerously ill-prepared for adulthood. So I decided to be the “cool aunt” with all the advice I wish I had as a teenager. That’s right, I didn’t want it to read like a dusty medicine textbook. I wanted it to be accessible, funny and relatable.
But it was my outspokenness (pun intended) that saw the book repeatedly “challenged” – in Wyoming, Florida, and Texas (and these are just the ones I was told about) – or outright prohibited. There have been a few incidents in the UK with upset parents in school libraries, but most of the heat has come from the US. “Conservative activist” Stephanie Armbruster told a Lafayette Public Library board committee hearing that it was “so disturbing that I can’t bring myself to talk about some of the details of the book that worry me a lot “.
I don’t mind spelling them. This book is gay explains how to have anal sex safely; how to access PrEP to prevent transmission of HIV; how to find a clitoris; the difference between cis and trans bodies; and I am clarifying words and phrases that teens will almost certainly read online like “Grindr”, “rimming” or “golden shower”. I thought it was better for me to tell readers rather than them to google image search, right? But that’s only a very small part of the book. It’s mostly about determining who you are, going out, and creating fulfilling relationships.
Of Krause’s list of 850 titles he wants to ban from Texas libraries, 62% relate to LGBTQ + issues. This is interesting to me because the political right, both in the UK and in the US, is obsessed with saying that it has been “canceled” or “silenced”. You may very well dine at a restaurant during your I’ve Been Canceled media tour. In fact, if you scan Krause’s list, you won’t find any “voidable” right-wing topics. There is nothing about gun control, anti-abortion sentiment, or so-called sexist rants. No, the books he wants to hide from young people are about sex education, race, LGBTQ + lives and – perhaps most disturbing of all – those teaching young people about their human rights. Those who decry the culture of cancellation the most are the least silenced.
This week, I signed a petition for the National Coalition Against Censorship, alongside my valiant American publisher, Sourcebooks, who has supported me since 2015. The petition calls for an end to these vexatious campaigns to truly silence liberal voices. But my last thank you must go to the courageous librarians and educators who are at the forefront of this toxic “culture war”. They are the ones paying the price for hate extremists who would cancel queer children, not queer books, if they could.