Freedom to Read is Essential for our Democracy

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The fervor for removing books from public and school library shelves has intensified since the fall of 2021 and shows no signs of relenting. The latest book to be pulled from the library shelves is a biography of the drag queen, actor, and Emmy-winning TV host, RuPaul. The concern is over a sketch of a person in a corset and boots spelling out the word “viva.” The outfit in the illustration is no more risque than what is worn by popular superheroes like Wonder Woman, whose comics the Colchester library shelves in the children’s collection.

One wonders if the concern might not be the illustration at all, but rather the queer content of the book. After all, concerned parents and selectmen aren’t rushing to protect the children of Connecticut from Wonder Woman’s exposed thighs.

Critiques of Who Is: RuPaul follow the party line of recent book challenges. The material is sexual and inappropriate for children. But it’s only the content of queer books that seems to be the problem. And it isn’t even explicit sex scenes that are being called out. The mere presence of queer characters seems to be enough for parents to call the material sexual. The Colchester library has many books for young people that are shelved in the children and teen collection that include sexual content.

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The system has seven copies of a beloved young adult author’s book that contains a sex scene with premature ejaculation. Parents seem to be able to handle explicit heterosexual sex scenes but the mere hint of queerness is abhorrent. Sexualizing RuPaul and other queer people is nothing new. For decades LGBTQ+ people have been reduced to their sexual behavior. There is nothing inherently sexual about the presence of a gay character, just as there is nothing inherently sexual about the presence of a straight character. Nothing in the sketch is more sexual than what children would see from cheerleaders at a sporting event. 

It’s even more alarming that this most recent challenge is of a biography in a well-regarded series of books for young people published by Penguin Random House. It’s especially important for public libraries to provide access to LGBTQ+ nonfiction considering that in a 2017 nationwide study only 41% of students learned anything positive about LGBTQ+ people in their classrooms. Nonfiction books provide valuable role models for LGBTQ+ young people. This is a population that research indicates experiences health and academic challenges due to the discrimination they face in their schools. Other biographies in the Who Is series by Penguin include Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, and Barack Obama. Including a queer icon in a book series with American heroes sends an invaluable message of belonging to queer young people. 

Details of this specific case are concerning. Librarians removed the books from the shelf before an official challenge form was submitted. Temporarily removing a book from the shelves may be a step in the review process, but there is no reason to do so before a challenge is even in place. The suggestion that librarians should proactively root through their entire children’s collection on a hunt for supposed sexual material is absurd. That is not how libraries work.

The principles of the American Library Association clearly state that the freedom to read is essential for our democracy. Reclassifying queer books for young people in the adult section is not an appropriate solution either. Queer young people exist. They need access to stories that mirror their experience. And reading books about all genders and sexuality can help cisgender/heterosexual children build empathy. Removing queer books from the children’s sections sends a dangerous message to queer young people that their identities are inherently sexual and inappropriate. 

Even in the case of overt sexuality in a book, a single parent or even a group of parents should not have control over the reading habits of an entire region. This is not a matter of parental control, as some would suggest. It is censorship. If a parent doesn’t want their children to read certain material they can forbid their children from checking out those books from the library. The solution is as simple as that. Some parents want their children to have access to queer books. What happens to their right to parental control if these books are absent from our libraries?

Jesselyn Dreeszen Bowman
Columbia, SC

Bowman is a doctoral student at the University of South Carolina, and holds an MA in Library and Information Science from Simmons University.