Book Bans Don’t Surprise Me. That’s Why They Must Stop.
By Logan Richman ’25
In late July 2022, police kicked several people out of a monthly school board meeting.
Halfway through the marathon six-hour meeting, the vice chair of Florida’s Miami-Dade County School Board, Steve Gallon III, had raised his voice from the dais, straining to get a word in as members of the public audience shouted at the nine-person board. Board member Luisa Santos reached for her mic to ask if a sergeant-at-arms could defuse the situation. The attendees were not upset over budget proposals, disciplinary issues, or coronavirus policies.
They were upset over a book.
In an unparalleled, rapidly growing trend sweeping the United States, books are facing scrutiny at a pace not seen in decades. Throughout small towns, cities, and states, parents, lawmakers, activists, and school board members alike are taking aim at books they find unfavorable or undesirable, targeting the shelves of public libraries and classrooms.
An April 2022 report from PEN America, a Free Speech advocacy nonprofit, indexed over 1,000 unique books that have been banned since July 1, 2021, spanning 86 school districts across 26 states. PEN America and the American Library Association found that a large number of the challenged or banned titles are either by, or about, people of color and LBGTQ+ people. Equally alarming is how partisan the issue has become. And as if the situation could not become any worse, book burnings, a barbaric relic of the past, have risen across the country.
Why have book bans spread with such fervor and intensity? After taking a critical look at the trend, the answer to this question may seem clear — book bannings, like countless other policy issues, are fueled by the cultural disputes ravaging the United States. But in reality, the answer is much more complex, and equally unsurprising.
It’s Okay to Say Gay
Comprehensive Health Skills, the sexual health textbook that came under fire in Miami-Dade County, contains lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation, topics that certain parents argued were inappropriate for middle and high school students. After an extensive public hearing, the board voted 5-4 to reject the book, leaving Miami-Dade schools without a comprehensive health education curriculum for the 2022-23 academic year.
Board members had dealt with not only vocal pressure from community members, but also legal pressure from the Parental Rights in Education law, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics. Signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March 2022, the law bans sexual orientation and gender identity education in public classrooms for students in kindergarten through third grade. While the bill outlawed these aspects of health education for younger elementary school students, parents and Florida lawmakers have used its precedent to reject curriculum proposals and specific books for older students as well. Notably, opponents of the law said that its broad language could open the door for parents to sue if they believed inappropriate instruction was being given, even if their child was beyond third grade.
Of the 42 students and parents who spoke at the July 20 Miami-Dade school board meeting, 38 were adamant that the textbook should be approved for class. Many were high school students — teenagers for whom the educational content in question was directly relevant. A week later, the school board reversed its decision in another 5-4 vote. Unfortunately, not every book meets this same fate.
One book that has faced national criticism, legal action, and media attention is the graphic novel Gender Queer: a Memoir, written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe. Gender Queer details Kobabe’s experience from adolesence to adulthood, exploring sexuality and gender identity. After winning an Alex Award from the American Library Association in 2020, the book was increasingly added to public middle and high school libraries, and has thus faced an onslaught of attention.
Parents and lawmakers opposed to titles like Gender Queer channel their ire into arguments that are neither blatantly homophobic nor transphobic. When the memoir was removed from libraries and schools in Texas, Iowa, and Pennsylvania, its alleged “sexually explicit” nature was the primary reason. South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster (R) cited “obscene and pornographic” scenes. Two illustrations that critics have latched onto depict Kobabe and a romantic partner experimenting with a strap-on sex toy, and Kobabe fantasizing about two men having sex.
However, context, as always, is essential.
When staunch critics of Gender Queer spread images of those scenes or videos of performative public comments condemning the book, the illustrations are stripped of their context, tone, and intent. People who describe the book as “pornographic” fail to recognize that Gender Queer lacks pornography’s chief goal of stimulating erotic, rather than emotional, aesthetic, or artistic, feelings within the viewer.
While public schools should prohibit the circulation of gratuitous pornography, Gender Queer is unequivocally neither gratuitous nor pornographic. And Kobabe — an artist trying to share an emotional story about a personal journey with sexuality, gender identity, and relationships — is facing a major Free Speech restriction.
The memoir’s first few pages clearly show that Kobabe is telling an educational story, one that resonates for young people exploring or questioning their own sexual and gender identity. A story that says it is okay not to identify as heterosexual and cisgender. A story with virtue.
In a sense, critics of Gender Queer have done something worse than silence Kobabe: they have distorted and demonized the author’s words, fearful that children’s exposure to content that normalizes and celebrates the LGBTQ+ community is inherently corrupt and depraved, insisting on labeling it pornographic. These one-dimensional arguments deprive Kobabe of any artistic legitimacy and jump to extreme conclusions. Stripped of its platform and target audience, Gender Queer is having its impact sharply curtailed by those who are threatened by or fearful of its lessons being shared.
Beyond content concerns, book bans have been pursued as a political weapon to bolster the platform of elected officials. In campaigns across the country, candidates have capitalized on parents’ worries to ultimately win votes.
In late October 2021, in the midst of a heated Virginia gubernatorial race between former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Virginia’s current Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), the Youngkin campaign circulated an ad featuring a mother in Fairfax County denouncing Beloved by Toni Morrison. The mother, Laura Murphy, said her “heart sunk” when her son showed her his homework drawn from the book, as it was “some of the most explicit material you can imagine.”
But Murphy’s story predates the Youngkin campaign. Her crusade against Beloved began in the spring of 2012.
Beloved is told from the perspective of a mother who, enslaved in the 19th century American South, is haunted by the death of her baby, a two-year-old girl she kills to protect from a lifetime in slavery. A complex, powerful, and haunting story based on true events, it reflects raw, accurate realities of life for enslaved people in the United States who suffered for generations. A Pulitzer-prize winner, regarded by many as a masterpiece, the book is integral to a number of mainstream high school English curricula, including the Advanced Placement English Literature course.
While it has been challenged repeatedly since its publication, the current spate of book banning has only exacerbated public scrutiny of the novel. With intensely brutal and sexually violent passages, Beloved has alarmed many parents across the country, including Murphy, who independently tried to ban the book, first with the Fairfax County school board, and then with the Virginia Board of Education. This episode became only uglier when the Youngkin campaign shamelessly used Murphy’s story for political ammunition.
In the Youngkin ad, viewed over 1.3 million times on Twitter, there is no intellectual analysis of Beloved’s content and whether or not it is appropriate for public schools. There is no mention of established state policies that let students opt out of assigned materials. Instead, the ad stresses how McAuliffe vetoed a bill twice that required teachers to notify parents when their children were assigned books that contained sexually explicit content.
The ad capitalizes on a McAuliffe gubernatorial debate gaffe, accusing him of not believing parents should have a say in curricula, arguing that Youngkin “listens” and understands that “parents matter.” This kind of rhetoric fuels book bans across the country. The danger in this? Politicization encourages blame, conflict, and hyperbole. The desire to ban is not founded upon specific, contextual, intellectual knowledge about the work in question — it is founded upon winning and keeping power.
A Fine Line
At what point does a book deserve to be banned?
Are bans purely subjective? Or are there objective, near-universal, accepted standards for what constitutes art and should be protected as such? What makes a book so derided that it is burned, as seen in Georgia in 2019 and Tennessee in 2022?
When content is gratuitously sexual or violent, designed to stir up hate or dehumanize and abuse individuals or groups, it loses credibility or meaning, and becomes more widely regarded as bannable by public institutions. There is a fine line, though, and a seemingly subjective one at that, between what is gratuitous and what is art; what is debased and what is profound.
That fine line raises a question: what is the intention of an author or creative? What are they seeking to evoke? Understanding this is necessary in deciding whether or not to ban, and is the key to protecting people from harm, while upholding meritorious content and preserving education and Free Speech.
Disagreements about this intention are at the heart of book ban hysteria and demonstrate how this trend is a manifestation of broader cultural debates taking place across the nation. Further, the fact that book bans have become so politicized indicates that those pushing for bans generally seek some type of control, some type of actionable policy that would theoretically fashion safer educational environments.
As the country grapples with the growing pains of the information age, where knowledge is immediately available and social media noise is constant, public schools and libraries are a sort of sanctuary. They are local, reachable institutions: physical — not digital — incubators of knowledge where those who feel they lack a voice and political power can effect change.
In this respect, the book-banning fervor does not surprise me. People across the political spectrum who seek to ban books may believe they are well-intentioned, protecting their communities or even seeking to right historical wrongs through censorship. But ultimately, while restricting a book may seem like an achievement in the short-term, extinguishing free expression and exposure to ideas on such a small scale will never shift culture at large, and only gives banned works more popularity. In reality, it is the free exchange of ideas that has the greatest capacity to shift culture. Censors fear such an exchange above all else.
Increasingly common concerns about our changing culture, becoming more accepting of not only individuals’ identities but also the ugly histories of our societies, institutions, and prejudices, have many feeling anxious that we are moving too quickly down an unstoppable path, where the ways of old will be rejected and forgotten. But we must continue down this path, not forgetting the past but instead learning from its lessons and preserving its good while confronting — and righting — centuries of missteps and abuses.