During a Senate committee hearing about the wave of book ban attempts across the US in recent years, Republican US Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana took aim at two books that are among the most challenged in his state by delivering a sexually explicit reading that is now entered into the congressional record.
He recited two explicit excerpts from George M Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, among the most challenged books in the US, which is facing a surge of attempts to restrict or ban books and materials in schools and libraries.
The American Library Association and free expression advocacy group PEN America have tracked hundreds of attempts among right-wing activist groups to remove books – most of which deal with race and racism or contain LGBT+ characters or themes – including nearly 200 attempts in Louisiana’s St Tammany Parish alone.
Neither of the LGBT+ memoirs All Boys Aren’t Blue and Gender Queer are shelved in children’s sections in parish libraries. That didn’t stop Mr Kennedy from reading explicit passages about strap-ons, dildos and blowjobs in front of the Senate Judiciary committee on 12 September before accusing librarians of making those books “available to kids”.
The excerpt Mr Kennedy chose from All Boys Aren’t Blue was about sexual abuse.
Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, whose state recently enacted a law to prohibit book bans, called Mr Kennedy’s reading “disturbing, especially coming out of your mouth,” but said that it wasn’t a strong argument for censoring library content.
“Of course, there are books that are not age-appropriate,” he said. “But that’s what being a parent is all about – doing your best to keep an eye on what your children read and what they consume.”
Senator Judiciary Committee chair Dick Durbin stressed that “no one is advocating for sexual content” to be made available to children, an argument introduced by right-wing activist groups and Republican lawmakers that presents a “distraction” from censorship campaigns that challenge honest discussions of race, racism, gender identity and sexuality, he said.
“But no parent should have the right to tell another parent’s child what they can and cannot read in school or at home,” Mr Durbin said in his opening remarks. “Every student deserves access to books that reflect their experiences and help them better understand who they are.”
Libraries becoming ‘targets’ for ‘authoritarianism,’ Illinois official says
There were at least 1,477 attempts to ban 874 individual titles within the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, with more than half of those books involving discussion of race and racism or featuring characters of colour or LGBT+ people and themes, according to PEN America.
Those book challenges mark a nearly 30 per cent spike from book ban attempts over the previous year. Challenges were most prevalent in Florida, Missouri, Texas and Utah, the group found.
PEN has described the measures collectively as part of a “concerted campaign” taking place across the country “to ban books and instructional materials containing ‘objectionable’ content” which often amounts to “little more than an acknowledgment” of LGBT+ people “or the existence of racism or sexism.”
That campaign has not only targeted book titles but also the institutions and professionals that distribute them: libraries, librarians and teachers.
More than 100 bills in state legislatures in more than half of US states over the last year have threatened to cut library budgets, regulate the books and materials in their collections, implement book rating systems, and amend obscenity definitions that preempt First Amendment protections, according to a database from EveryLibrary.
“Our libraries have become targets by a movement that disingenuously claims to pursue freedom, but is instead promoting authoritarianism. Authoritarian regimes ban books, not democracies,” Mr Giannoulias said.
Those efforts have largely singled out books like Gender Queer and All Boys Aren’t Blue, described by The New York Times as an “exuberant, unapologetic memoir infused with a deep but clear-eyed love for its subjects” in the author’s description of growing up as a queer Black person.
“Students … have publicly said on record that works like mine have saved their lives, works like mine have helped them name their abusers, works like mine have helped them come to terms with who they are and feel validated in the fact that there is somebody else that exists in the world like them,” Johnson told NPR last year.
A ‘smoke screen’ to ‘hijack public education’
A right-wing “parents’ rights” movement also is fuelling a parallel effort to restrict classroom materials and police students’ gender expression, according to a recent report from PEN America.
At least 38 states have passed such restrictions into law in 19 states from 2021 into the end of the 2022 school year, with the vast majority introduced by Republican state lawmakers, who are increasingly placing themselves and ideologically driven agendas in the middle of classroom and extracurricular decisions made by teachers, librarians and school administrators.
More than 80 bills would force teachers to monitor students’ gender expression, threatening to forcibly “out” students to parents. Such measures are in place in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Indiana, Iowa, Oklahoma and Virginia.
“This rising tide of educational intimidation exposes the movement that cloaks itself in the language of ‘parental rights’ for what it really is: a smoke screen for efforts to suppress teaching and learning and hijack public education in America,” Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, said in a statement accompanying the report.
Nicole Neily, the president of dark-money group Parents Defending Education, connected what she called “common sense” restrictions against book access to the “parental rights” movement more broadly. She told the committee that concerns about censorship and restrictions on speech and free epxression are a Democratic “strawman” to distract “from real concerns about children safety”.
The group is among politically connected, major donor-funded “grassroots” organizations taking aim at school boards, which have become hotbeds for right-wing wedge issues in an effort to strip public support for schools and libraries.
Republicans on the committee repeatedly accused opponents of book restrictions of having an ulterior motive to “groom” and “sexualize” children, widely derided as a homophobic and transphobic dog whistles.
“To all the parents out there who believe there’s a bunch of stuff in our schools being pushed on your children that go over the line, you’re absolutely right,” said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the committee’s top Republican, who briefly derailed the hearing for several minutes with a debate about the US-Mexico border and US immigration policy.
Fa-right Senator Mike Lee of Utah accused advocacy groups of hiding behind “equality” and “justice” in an effort to “sexualize” children.
“Of course that’s what one would do if they’re grooming your child,” he said.
Cameron Samuels, a nonbinary university student organizer and the only student who testified to the committee, warned that censorship campaigns have sparked a “student civil rights crisis nationwide.”