When you read articles about “cancel culture”, they are almost exclusively written by people with conservative views on any number of issues: trans rights, climate change, race and immigration. It seems to me, however, when you examine what sort of books are materially being banned, “challenged” and removed from schools and libraries they usually contain progressive themes. And, for the most part, these authors aren’t getting the now-expected post-controversy media tour.
It brought me no pride whatsoever to learn that my 2014 title, This Book is Gay was the ninth most banned or challenged book in the US in 2021 (according to the American Library Association). It was challenged — meaning people lobbied for it to be removed from public school libraries — on the grounds of LGBTQ content and for being sexually explicit. Disturbingly, attempts to ban books surged in 2021 to the highest level since the association started keeping records 20 years ago. I’m in great company: the top ten also includes the bestseller The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and Toni Morrison’s seminal The Bluest Eye. Almost all of the top ten most challenged books feature socially progressive themes around race, sexuality or gender.
This Book Is Gay came out in the US in 2015, so I’ve struggled to understand why a seven-year-old book is getting so much heat now. This Book is Gay is a non-fiction guidebook for LGBTQ youth, broadly divided into three sections covering identity, coming out, and sex and relationships. The idea was first suggested by my UK editor at Hot Key Books, and I knew from my teaching days that there was a dearth of teen non-fiction covering LGBTQ issues. I also knew from my own youth how appalling sex education was for queer kids. I came away from high school wholly unprepared for the perils and pleasures of adult life. This was, of course, during the Section 28 era, when teachers were forbidden to discuss LGBTQ issues thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s government.
My book, and others like it, are targeted by highly organised groups in the US, both political and religious. Their primary goal, across several states (This Book is Gay has been challenged in Texas, Florida, Alaska and more), seems to be to vex librarians, teachers and legislators into removing or recategorising titles in public school libraries. The key accusation seems to be that books like mine are “obscene and pornographic” — as Henry McMaster, the Republican governor of South Carolina put it — and it is even suggested that authors are “grooming” young people for deviant lifestyles. This insinuation is nothing new for LGBTQ people. The notion that my book can “turn kids gay” is obviously ludicrous. If that were true, a lot more teens would identify as the Gruffalo. It’s also worth noting how flexible the word “child” is in such debates. All of the books on the American Library Association list are for young adults. None of them are in primary schools.
This is all highly familiar. In the late Seventies the Moral Majority came to prominence in the US. Through the group, formed by a Baptist preacher, the Christian right entered politics in a significant way, influencing Republican victories through the 1980s. Their key target? Gay rights. One Moral Majority commentator said: “There are absolutes in this world. Just as jumping off a building will kill a person, so will the spread of homosexuality bring about the demise of American culture as we know it.” Such rhetoric meant that Ronald Reagan, the president at the time, didn’t utter the word “Aids” until four years into the epidemic.
I wonder if the noted rise in attempts from right-wing groups to ban books is partly born of post-Biden frustration, or a sign of the much-discussed “culture wars”. LGBTQ people, especially teens, are being used for political point-scoring by the right, with no concern for their wellbeing. Just look at Boris Johnson, who recently claimed that no children under 16 should be allowed to make medical decisions about transitioning without parental involvement, despite the fact that the Gilick competency test is widely used to assess children’s ability to make independent decisions any other kind of medical treatment. Or Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, who thinks teachers should be forced to tell parents if a pupil confides in them about their gender or sexual identity.
Who else does removing these books from libraries hurt except LGBTQ teenagers? Taking This Book is Gay out of a school isn’t going to stop young people figuring out their identity, but it will leave them without a valuable resource. Is erasure the goal of these moral crusaders? To leave LGBTQ youth so vulnerable they enter freefall? I firmly believe that the books on the American Library Association list provide safer guidance than a Google search.
Book banning is so synonymous with demagogues and fascism that wherever my book is challenged, there’s a heroic legion of parents, librarians and educators fighting back. They are giving up so much time and energy to this struggle. I applaud them. It’s not just happening in the US, either. Recently the gay author Simon James Green saw his planned visit to a Catholic school in Croydon cancelled after interference from the Southwark diocese. The teachers are now bravely taking strike action. It breaks my heart that educators are on the front line of this when they aren’t paid nearly enough in the first place.
Next month the follow-up to This Book is Gay, the trans-specific What’s the T?, is released in the US. This time I’ve been smarter. There’s no swearing and the sex education is carefully considered. If the new Moral Majority want to try banning this one, they will reveal their agenda for what it truly is. This isn’t about challenging explicit content; it’s about challenging the right to simply exist as an LGBTQ person in the United States.