Two dozen teachers unions, librarians associations and publishers have formed a coalition to stop a drive by parents to remove sexually explicit LGBTQ books from K-12 school libraries.
The coalition includes the American Library Association (ALA), National Educators Association (NEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Macmillan Publishers, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Random House, the National Book Foundation and the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
Parents have objected to what they say are graphic images of underage sex acts in the comic book-style memoir “Gender Queer” and to similar descriptions in the autobiographical “Lawn Boy,” which they say dwells disturbingly on boys’ attractiveness.
The ALA-led Unite Against Book Bans said in a statement that it will use financial and political resources to prevent parents from removing such titles, “under the principle that individuals should be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read.”
“It’s time that policymakers understand the severity of this issue. ALA is taking the steps necessary to protect individuals’ access to information, but we can’t do this alone,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Conservatives say there’s a difference between banning books and removing obscene titles for school-aged children.
“Parents don’t want children to access pornography anywhere, especially not at the libraries they patronize and pay for,” said Meg Kilgannon, senior fellow for education studies at the Family Research Council.
The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported last month that more than 1,597 titles were removed or challenged from libraries in 2021 — the highest in the 30 years it has tracked such efforts. Of 729 challenges reported last year, about 452 — or 68% — were for books taught in schools or found in school libraries, according to the ALA. Some 37% were for public libraries and 1% involved colleges and universities.
The two most challenged books on the ALA’s top 10 list were Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and Jonathan Evison’s novel “Lawn Boy,” a first-person account of a young gay man’s coming of age.
The New York-based free speech advocacy group PEN America reports that “Gender Queer” was banned in 29 school districts and “Lawn Boy” in 16 from July 1 to March 31.
The ALA said that about 39% of last year’s book challenges were launched by parents, with library patrons accounting for 24%, school boards or administrations 18%, political or religious groups 10%, librarians or teachers 6%, elected officials 2% and students 1%.
More than 6 out of every 10 book challenges occurred in K-12 schools, the focus of much of the campaign to remove or restrict access to controversial titles.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said it was conservatives who were trying to impose a political agenda and rewrite the nation’s history through book bans.
“Parents agree — they want their children to learn the lessons of the past in an age-appropriate way, even as certain politicians try to turn classrooms into cultural battlefields and censor what gets taught,” Ms. Weingarten said in a statement. “The majority of these bans target titles with racial and LGBTQ themes, cruelly erasing young readers’ lived experience. And while it’s uncomfortable to talk about tough issues like genocide, slavery and racism, reading honest history helps kids learn the good and the bad about our country and emerge as well-informed, engaged citizens of the world.”
Rose Sokol, a publisher at the American Psychological Association, said several books from the group’s Magination Press children’s imprint have been banned for promoting “social emotional” learning — an emphasis on children’s feelings about working together that conservatives see as a Trojan horse for promoting progressive politics and values.
“Banning books diminishes the opportunity for our books to promote the social emotional learning so essential to child development,” Ms. Sokol said in an email.
Some First Amendment scholars have criticized parents for trying to remove the books.
“Those who ban books would ban ideas. They would close minds instead of opening them,” Robert Post, a professor at Yale Law School, said in an email.
Philip C. Bobbitt, a constitutional law professor at Columbia University, added that banning books from public libraries can ironically make them more popular.
“Banning books there can have only one effect: It makes them exciting and enticing to young minds,” Mr. Bobbitt told The Washington Times.
“When ‘Lolita’ was banned in Boston, [author Vladimir] Nabokov promptly wired his wife that he could now quit his teaching job and move to Europe on his royalties,” he added.
But conservatives have argued that parents, not schools, have the legal right to decide what their children read.
Tamra Farah, a senior director at the conservative Moms for America, added that the banned titles invariably reflect a liberal political bias.
She noted that individuals affiliated with the ALA made political contributions to President Biden and the Democratic National Committee during the 2020 election.
“The Democrat agenda is clearly to promote [a] woke curriculum in schools with the Biden-Harris focus on transgenderism and gender ideology in K-12 schools spelled out on the U.S. Department of Education website,” Ms. Farah said in an email.
“So, it is no surprise that librarians are fighting to keep books in schools that contain pornographic drawings of gay sex,” she added. “And yet, if a book like that was shown to a student by a teacher on the sidewalk, it could land the teacher in jail for obscenity.”
Ms. Kilgannon, the Family Research Council fellow, said “activist librarians” and teachers often stock books like “Gender Queer” without consulting parents.
“Adults who want to select books for school libraries should welcome community input and reflect community standards, especially the wishes of parents who pay for and provide the students for public schools,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the political donations of individuals affiliated with the American Library Association.
• Sean Salai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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