The More Things Change
In 1994, I wrote an article for the industry magazine Publishers Weekly about the increase in the number of books with LGBTQ themes being produced for children and teenagers. This was big news then. In the years since the publication of the first gay YA novel (John Donovan’s I’ll Get There. It Better Be Worth the Trip, released in 1969) there had been only a handful of others. But things were changing, and publishers were starting to put out more books with queer themes.
Not everybody was happy about this. I was invited to talk about my article on a radio show. I remember very clearly the woman who called in to say that there should not be books about gay people written for children and that books like that absolutely should not be available in schools and public libraries.
“Why?” I asked her. “What are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid that if my children see books about gay people, they’ll want to be gay,” she answered.
This was not the answer I was expecting, but it perfectly summed up what the majority of people who did not want their children—or any children—reading about queer people really meant. Quite simply, they didn’t want them to know that we exist.
Now, almost three decades later, there are lots of books for young adult and middle grade readers with LGBTQ characters and themes. And once again, some people are unhappy about it. We’re seeing demands to remove them from schools and public libraries. We’re seeing threats against librarians who prominently display them or direct their young patrons to them.
In 1992 I published the book 100 Questions & Answers About AIDS. It was one of the first books about the AIDS crisis written for young people, and as such it ended up in pretty much every library across the country. It also quickly became one of the most contested books in the country. Why? Because the book contained frank information about sex and information on how to more safely engage in sexual activity, as well as how to sterilize needles used in drug activity.
Some people feared that knowing how to protect themselves from HIV infection would make kids less afraid of the virus and encourage them to participate in risky activities. “Why can’t you just tell them not to do these things and leave it at that?” I was asked on more than one occasion, presumably by people who had never encountered any actual teenagers.
My queer-themed novels for young people are also in libraries. Librarians are some of my favorite people. A few years ago, I received a message from a librarian at a school where two students, in separate incidents, attempted suicide. In both cases, a copy of my YA novel Suicide Notes was found in the student’s backpack.
The principal of the school, assuming a correlation between reading my novel (which he himself had not read) and the suicide attempts, demanded that the book be removed from the school library, as if it was a how-to guide. The librarian, who had read it and knew that it is, in fact, a book about all the reasons suicide is not the answer, asked for my help in talking to him about reversing his decision.
Thankfully, I had a stack of letters from kids telling me how my book had helped them make the decision not to attempt suicide. I scanned them and sent them to the librarian, who took them to the principal and successfully argued for keeping the book in the library.
Suicide Notes was published more than a decade ago, but I get more letters from readers now than I ever have. Why? Because thanks to books about LGBTQ people being more available than ever, young people are discovering who they are. If anyone thinks that you can stop someone from being who they are by pretending that thing doesn’t exist and hoping they won’t notice, well, that’s never worked.
I read thousands of books about non-queer people when I was a kid. And yet it never once occurred to me, “Hey, maybe I should try this liking girls thing. It sounds cool.” Instead, I just thought I was the only boy who liked other boys.
This increase in attempts to ban books in the name of protecting children is just part of an overall increase in attempts to silence, control, and shame people in ways we thought we’d settled long ago. Reproductive rights, marriage equality, and protections for LGBTQ people are all under attack. Again. It’s dispiriting and exhausting. I thought we’d moved beyond these issues as a society.
My librarian and teacher friends are tired too. Some wish they could retire or move into fields where they don’t face daily battles over fundamental rights to exist. But there’s too much at stake. So, we write more books. We help one more young person understand that they aren’t alone.
When I lived in New York City in the ‘90s I was involved in ACT-UP. One of my favorite chants we used was, “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” Did I expect to be chanting it 30 years later? No. But I will. Louder than ever. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com.