It makes sense to frame Banned Books Week as a celebration of the First Amendment. Bulletin boards decorated with historically banned books and adorned with cheeky slogans like "FREADOM "and "Don’t dare read this book!" are common across schools during this week. But such framing and celebration are limited. Queens, New York-based librarian Ingrid Conley-Abrams recently made the strongest argument against this approach on Twitter: “There is nothing fun or cute about an attack on marginalized voices.”
Review any list of the most commonly banned books, and you’ll find that LGBTQ texts are disproportionately represented. Although titles that feature and center LGBTQ characters and topics do not make up half of all published books, they make up over half of the most frequently banned books.
I wrote in 2016 that Banned Books Week is an opportunity to teach about ideology. Heteronormativity and cisnormativity—the assumption that heterosexuality and cisgender identity are the default and thus “normal” and “neutral” sexuality and gender identities—are two ideological forces that drive the constant attacks on LGBTQ books in schools.
If we’re to celebrate Banned Books Week, then we need to name these ideologies in order to challenge them. Addressing the harmful ideologies of heteronormativity and cisnormativity directly allows teachers to avoid well-intentioned but ultimately harmful language like “controversial.” Framing a book that features LGBTQ characters as “controversial” places the onus of conflict on LGBTQ people.
There is nothing controversial or problematic about being a member of the LGBTQ community. Rather, the problem is ideologies that perpetuate harm against LGBTQ people and frame their existence as something that must be erased. The celebration that is Banned Books Week offers an opportunity to name and challenge those ideologies: LGBTQ books are often banned because of systemic homo- and transphobia.
It’s important to note that banning of books comes in multiple forms. For instance, the absence of LGBTQ books in classroom libraries is itself a type of ban, whether it’s deliberate or not. It does not take an angry parent or administrator to silence entire identities. An educator’s fear of backlash or ignorance of #OwnVoices texts both lead to the same result for LGBTQ students: a denial of their right to see themselves in the curriculum.
Teaching Tolerance has resources to help you ensure all students can see themselves reflected in the texts you teach. Check out Reading Diversity: A Tool for Selecting Diverse Texts.
As a queer educator who grew up in the rural South, I understand the force of book banning, both intentional and unintentional. Indeed, a ban implemented at the high school I graduated from was called “a book ban like no other” by the National Council of Teachers of English. The official ban happened years after my graduation, but I never once was provided with a book that featured a queer person. Both bans had an impact.
In schools across the United States, Banned Books Week will be celebrated with bulletin boards, read-alouds and social media blitzes. The reasons for banning books—“pornographic material” for Catcher in the Rye, “immoral behavior” for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret—will be discussed in jest and disbelief. But positioning Banned Books Week as a celebration for books that were once banned for pushing against the boundaries of a sepia-toned past ignores the very real forms of oppression that manifest in schools today. The act of banning books is still very much part of our K–12 landscape.
All students deserve the dignity of having their identities affirmed through curricular material. The consistent banning of LGBTQ books is not only an affront to the First Amendment; it is also an affront to the humanity of LGBTQ students, educators, families and communities.
Book banning ensures that narratives like those centered in George and Two Boys Kissing continue to be “stories schools won’t tell.” Advocacy for equitable and just curriculum should be central to Banned Books Week. This time, let’s commit ourselves to advocating for the inclusion of LGBTQ books with the same fervor we dedicate to the right to read titles whose banning seem ridiculous by our contemporary standards.
Miller is an assistant professor of English education at the College at Brockport, State University of New York and former high school English teacher.