‘We’re watching the reboot of an old story’: Examining the movement to ban books featuring LGBTQ characters


Washington
CNN

A version of this story appeared in CNN’s Race Deconstructed newsletter. Sign up for free to receive it in your inbox every week here.

The book ban boom continues.

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

Additionally, PEN America, a literary and free-speech organization, in a report released Monday identified at least 50 national, state or local groups that have supported banning the books in recent months.

Many of these efforts seek to bring out 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. 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 collected by the American Civil Liberties Union found that through July 1, lawmakers in dozens of mostly Republican-controlled states had introduced at least a record 162 anti-LGBTQ bills that would restrict classroom instruction. LGBTQ-related issues and the participation of transgender athletes in school sports, among others.

To further explore 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 the interview, which we’ve lightly edited for length and clarity, we talked about how today’s efforts to ban the book tap into a long history of marginalizing certain groups in the U.S. and how it could disadvantage young people in the long run.

What do you think of the attempts to limit books with LGBTQ characters or themes?

I believe we are seeing a reboot of an old story, which is that sexual minorities are “dressers” and predators, and that sexual orientation and gender identity are inherently sexual.

This story is being tweaked again, but now I think it’s a little different they’re using guns.

In the 1990s, for example, these narratives and themes were largely used to scare people into rejecting LGBTQ rights and non-discrimination laws in particular. One thing that’s different now is that with social media being so prevalent and different ways of interacting, we don’t necessarily see widespread accusations against the entire LGBTQ community. It’s an allegation aimed directly at people – a high level of hatred is being projected onto individuals in a way that I don’t believe.

So you can be a teacher in a small town in Virginia or a big city like Chicago or Atlanta and all of a sudden you can have an account with a million followers saying that you are objectively and objectively something you are not.

Can you give me more past examples of this kind of anti-LGBTQ animus? I would say that there are sonic echoes from the 1970s to today, for example.

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

The campaign was the driving force behind them, We need to keep gays and lesbians out of the classroom, precisely because they are an inherent danger to our children. They are predators. They are hiring.

In many ways, what is happening now is not a new invention.

We can detect it in important ways reaction dynamics, is not it? It’s the people mobilizing against hard-won LGBTQ equality.

In recent years there has been a huge movement that has embraced LGBTQ rights. The US Supreme Court gave us same-sex marriage in 2015 with Obergefell. North Carolina saw a national backlash against anti-transgender legislation in 2016. There are also cultural dimensions. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has gone mainstream – growing in popularity beyond LGBTQ communities.

When minority groups and people who challenge the status quo take up space, there will often be calls to oppose that progress. I think 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 first years. By engaging with the world we reflect on who we are, and we learn from others. Therefore, suppressing a certain point of view or suppressing the identity of a certain group inhibits this natural educational process.

Throughout US history, schools have often been sites of intense conflict. People resisted desegregation in public schools because they feared that children in integrated schools would learn that there are more similarities than differences between people and that there would be friendships and marriages that would destabilize the social order.

I think we’re seeing another iteration of that now. The fear is that if children grow up seeing that sexuality or gender expression exists on a spectrum and that there is nothing wrong with it, we will have a society that accepts that. Therefore, schools become the first line of defense, because those early years inform not only about the way of thinking of children, but also about the evolution of society.