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'We're seeing a relaunch of an old story': Exploring the movement to ban books with LGBTQ characters

Analysis by Brandon Tensley, CNN

Updated: Thu, 22 Sep 2022 14:14:01 GMT

Source: CNN

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The book banning boom continues.

Already, the number of attempts this year to censor books in K-12 schools, universities and public libraries is on track to eclipse 2021's record count, the American Library Association said on Friday. The ALA cataloged 681 attempts between January 1 and August 31; the 2021 tally was 729.

Further, PEN America, a literary and free expression organization, identified in a report released on Monday at least 50 groups at the national, state or local level that have advocated for book bans in recent months.

Many of these efforts seek to pull books with LGBTQ characters or themes -- think Maia Kobabe's "Gender Queer" or George M. Johnson's "All Boys Aren't Blue" -- and are part of a broader, conservative-led movement to chisel away at the rights and status of LGBTQ Americans.

(Notably, the aforementioned groups also target titles that grapple with race and racism, including Toni Morrison's debut novel, "The Bluest Eye.")

A CNN analysis this year of data gathered by the American Civil Liberties Union found that, through July 1, lawmakers across dozens of mostly Republican-controlled states had introduced at least 162 anti-LGBTQ bills -- a record -- that would together limit classroom instruction about LGBTQ-related topics and bar transgender athletes' participation in school sports, among other things.

To further parse the campaign against books that tell LGBTQ stories, I spoke with Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University whose interests include civil rights and anti-discrimination. During our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, we talked about how today's book banning efforts fit into a long US history of marginalizing certain groups and can disadvantage young people in the long run.

What do you make of the ongoing attempts to restrict books with LGBTQ protagonists or themes?

I think that we're seeing a relaunch of an old story, which is that sexual minorities are "groomers" and predatory and that sexual orientation and gender identity are inherently sexual.

This story is being repackaged, but it's also being weaponized in a way I think is a bit different now.

In the 1990s, for instance, these narratives and themes were used largely to scare people into rejecting LGBTQ rights and in particular nondiscrimination laws. One thing that's different now is that, with social media being so prevalent and with the various ways we can interact with one another, we're not necessarily seeing a broad allegation against the entire LGBTQ community. It's an allegation targeted directly at individuals -- a great degree of hatefulness is being projected at individuals in a way I don't think we've really seen before.

So, you could be a teacher in a small town in Virginia or in a big city such as Chicago or Atlanta and suddenly you might have an account with a million followers targeting you and saying that you're something you're objectively not.

Could you give me more examples of past instances of this kind of anti-LGBTQ animus? I'd argue that there are sonorous echoes between the 1970s and today, for instance.

In the 1970s in particular, there was a major movement from social conservatives to keep gay and lesbian teachers out of classrooms. There was a major statewide initiative in California. There was, of course, Anita Bryant in Florida.

The animus that was driving those campaigns was, We need to keep gays and lesbians out of classrooms precisely because they're an inherent danger to our children. They're predatory. They're recruiting.

In many respects, what's happening now isn't a new invention.

In important ways, we can detect backlash dynamics, right? People are mobilizing against hard-won LGBTQ equality.

There's been a huge movement that's embraced LGBTQ rights in recent years. The US Supreme Court gave us same-sex marriage in 2015, with Obergefell. There was national pushback against anti-transgender legislation in North Carolina in 2016. There are cultural dimensions, too. "RuPaul's Drag Race" has become mainstream -- grown in popularity beyond LGBTQ communities.

When minority groups and people who challenge the status quo gain a foothold, there will often be calls to oppose that progress. I think that we're seeing those dynamics now.

What concerns do you have about how book bans might affect young people?

Well, tolerance is something we usually learn in our early school years. We reflect on who we are by engaging with the world, and we learn from others. So, suppressing a particular viewpoint or suppressing a particular group's identity inhibits that natural educational process.

Often throughout US history, schools have been very contentious spaces. People fought desegregation in public schools because they feared that children in integrated schools would learn that there are more similarities than differences across people and then there would be friendships and marriages that would destabilize the social order.

I think that we're seeing another iteration of that now. There's a fear that if kids grow up seeing that sexuality or gender expression exists on a spectrum and that there's nothing wrong with that, we'll have a society that just accepts that. So, schools become the first line of defense because of how informative those early years are not only for how children think but also for how society evolves.


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