Not Quite Banned: Soft Censorship That Makes LGBTQIA+ Stories Disappear

Authors discussed their experience with soft censorship at “Not-Quite-Banned: Combating the Invisible Censorship of LGBTQIA+ Stories,” an ALA Midwinter panel. 

Book banning can be quite dramatic, with petitions, public outcry, media coverage. Not infrequently, it also means a boost in attention and sales for a book that otherwise would not have been as visible.

But there is more subtle censorship that doesn’t get the headlines: a quiet banishing that often comes without explanation. Soft censorship is more insidious and can be more dangerous, as it happens without people knowing and can’t be proven. It often leaves authors wondering if their book isn't getting traction because of the title’s content, their personal identity, or because people just don't like it.

The impact is felt by writers and young readers.

From left: Authors I.W. Gregorio, Kacen Callender,
Eric Bell, Alex London, and Alexandra Villasante

Author I.W. Gregorio admits that she suspected having her book about an intersex girl, None of the Above, banned, might be great for the title. But during a panel at ALA Midwinter, Gregorio admitted it didn’t quite work out that way. It wasn’t the attention-generating Banning with a capital B, but a quieter effort that had a disquieting effect. 

“When it happened, it was so sad and slow and lonely,” Gregorio said. “It made a big impression on me. I say that and I’m not intersex. I’m a white adjacent, mostly straight person, and I come from a position of privilege. And yet that hit me at a place I never knew existed. So I can’t even imagine what it must feel like if it’s your own identity.”

Gregorio told her story at the panel “Not-Quite-Banned: Combating the Invisible Censorship of LGBTQIA+ Stories,” where she was joined by fellow authors Eric Bell, Kacen Callender, Alex London, and Alexandra Villasante. They talked about their experiences in a discussion moderated by Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.

The authors shared stories of having invitations revoked, administrators talk to them about what they will say to the students, and rumors of parental objections. They also faced the very real possibility that their identities or the LGBTIA+ stories keep their titles off school shelves and booklists, and prevent the authors from being invited to schools or events. There's no public discussion: they just aren’t even considered.

“How many moments do we not even know about because it’s not even up for conversation?” said Callender, author of the Stonewall Book Award winner Hurricane Child and the forthcoming Felix Ever After.

Villasante, who published her first novel The Grief Keeper in June 2019, felt "gaslit" when she realized she was no longer welcome to speak at her daughter's Girl Scout troop meeting. There was no official revocation of the original invitation, but as she tried to coordinate the details, she had trouble connecting with the people in charge and “their interest fell away,” she said. Villesante thought it might have to do with the lesbian relationship in the book, but didn't know what to think.
“Is this me? Did this happen?” She wondered. As a new author, Villasante thought, “Maybe this is just the way things are.”

She later learned that some parents had voiced concern about the lesbian relationship in the book. Often, though, authors never learn the reason for a revoked invitation. Even longtime authors like London, a former YA librarian at New York Public Library who has published more than 25 picture books and middle grade and YA titles, including two “39 Clues” series titles, can be left wondering what happened.

“You don’t know; you’re never sure,” said London. “Books are so subjective, and there are so many published. If you’re not on this list, not invited to that school to speak, [it] could be any reason.”

Personally, though, he has seen a trend.

“The more out I’ve been as an author and advocate for LGBT issues, the more I’ve heard those sorts things, and the more I’ve noticed my school visits get fewer and further between,” he said, before adding, “Maybe it’s just because my books are not popular with educators. There’s no way to know, and you can really drive yourself nuts.”

At in-person events, these authors often watch the level of interest drop in front of their eyes. Callender has seen black women excited by the cover of Hurricane Child, only to watch the smile get smaller and smaller as they read what the book jacket says.

“Then there’s the very polite: ‘Thank you’ [as they hand it back],” Callender said. “I’ve had events where people say outright, ‘I’m just not interested in reading about that.’ They don’t want to say they’re being homophobic, but that’s exactly what it is.”

Authors are told by educators and administrators that their schools don’t have a student population that would be interested in their books, so they don't buy them or bring in the authors for visits.

“We don’t just write these books for queer people, we write them for everyone,” said Bell, author of Alan Cole Is Not a Coward. “It’s obviously incredibly valuable for kids that are queer to read queer books, but I think it’s also valuable to have kids who aren’t queer read queer books. Reading something that does not necessarily reflect your life in a 100-percent accurate way can be very eye-opening for you. I think [for] a lot of kids, it’s their first time reading about a queer character or character that does not share their homogenous perspective.”

London once received a letter from an outraged middle schooler who was disgusted by his book’s gay character. Years later, he says his editor forwarded him an email from that same girl who apologized for her reaction then, saying it was the first time she had read a gay character. She now has a gay friend and has the language to be supportive.

“I was like ‘OK, these things aren’t instant, they take time. We’re planting a seed,’" London said. "It was comforting to know [that] just because we meet these bigots sometimes at the worst point in their life, it doesn’t mean that’s where they’re stuck.”

London added that it’s important to have books that are gay characters and have covers and book jacket text that make that clear, but also ones that can fly under the radar and allow kids to take them out without getting in trouble with parents or made fun of by peers.  He believes that access to these books is a life-or-death issue for young people, and he means that literally.

A few years ago, he visited a middle school in South Carolina. After the discussion with kids, in which he mentioned his husband and child, the librarian took him aside and said she didn’t “support all that. I’m a Christian.”

Fast forward to a few months ago, and London was somehow back at that school with the same librarian.

“It was fine, it was fun. We talked about Sci-Fi and gay stuff. It was great,” he said of his time with the students.

Afterward, he once again spoke with the librarian, who asked for book recommendations, particularly about trans kids that were “appropriate” and that she could defend. She then told him that in the past year, one trans student had died by suicide and another had survived a suicide attempt.

“I want to try to do better,” London recalled her saying. “But I’m really worried about the parents.”

London did not dismiss her concerns.

“She’s right,” he said. “She’s going to get resistance. And it’s going to be hostile, and it’s going to be fierce, and it might impact her budget. and it might impact her job. And all I could say is, ‘It’s a fight worth having. As you well know, their lives are on the line.'"

“Librarians are fighting very real fights in our districts for funding, for resources, sometimes against [people] hostile to your existence at all in school. So I get that,” London continued. “Some librarians have to choose.…There are lots of great authors who will not cause any controversy. It’s an easy decision for a lot of people. It’s a deadly decision for a lot of students.”

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


RELATED 

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?

We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing

ALREADY A SUBSCRIBER?