By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008
During a week that librarians nationwide are highlighting banned books, conservative Christian students and parents showcased their own collection outside a Fairfax County high school yesterday -- a collection they say was banned by the librarians themselves.
More than 40 students, many wearing black T-shirts stamped with the words "Closing Books Shuts Out Ideas," said they tried to donate more than 100 books about homosexuality to more than a dozen high school libraries in the past year. The initiative, organized by Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, was intended to add a conservative Christian perspective to shelves that the students said are stocked with "pro-gay" books.
Most of the books were turned down after school librarians said they did not meet school system standards. Titles include "Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting" and "Someone I Love Is Gay," which argues that homosexuality is not "a hopeless condition."
"We put ourselves out there . . . and got rejected," said Elizabeth Bognanno, 17, a senior at West Springfield High School, standing before a semicircle of television cameras outside her school. "Censoring books is not a good thing. . . . We believe our personal rights have been violated."
Fairfax County's policy on library book selection says "the collection should support the diverse interests, needs and viewpoints of the school community." But library officials said donated and purchased books alike are evaluated by the same standards, including two positive reviews from professionally recognized journals.
None of the donated titles met that standard, said Susan Thornily, coordinator of library information services for Fairfax schools. Some librarians also said that the nonfiction books were heavy on scripture but light on research, or that the books would make gay students "feel inferior," she said.
Thornily said school librarians have rejected other books that "target minority groups" and would offend African Americans or other nonwhite students. In this case, librarians were concerned about the level of scholarship in the books, many of which come from small church publishers.
"It all goes back to the books and the publishers and the presentation and the research," she said.
Books dealing with homosexuality are often lightning rods for debate at school libraries. The American Library Association, which "celebrates the freedom to read" during Banned Book Week every fall, lists three gay-themed books in its 2007 top 10 banned or challenged books.
The list was led by "And Tango Makes Three," a tale of two male penguins who become companions at the Central Park Zoo and try to hatch an egg-shaped rock together. Last spring, a parent tried unsuccessfully to have the book removed from shelves in Loudoun County schools.
The Focus on the Family initiative, "True Tolerance," is not promoting censorship; it's trying to fight it, said Candi Cushman, education analyst for the group, who flew from Colorado for the event.
"We hear . . . more and more that homosexuality is being promoted in schools," she said. "The word tolerance is often used, but a faith-based viewpoint is belittled or ridiculed."
The group chose Fairfax County to launch its book drive last fall after a Lorton teen became interested in the idea and invited the organizers to meet with her family and some friends from Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield. Since then, dozens of friends have approached their libraries with armfuls of books.
Organizers said the books would bring balance to the library, which has books supporting same-sex marriage or the idea that homosexuality is fixed at birth.
Focus on the Family selected and supplied the books. The teenagers assembled yesterday did not say they had read any of them.
Other groups are launching similar campaigns to get books challenging homosexuality on library shelves. Virginia-based Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays maintains a list of titles and encourages its members to donate them to libraries. And Americans for Truth About Homosexuality, described on its Web site as a "group dedicated to exposing the homosexual activist agenda," is poised to launch a Library Fairness Project.
Peter LaBarbera, president of the Naperville, Ill.-based group, said libraries already have scores of books with positive views of homosexuality. "That seems to be something that is going to be very difficult to change," he said. "Instead let's expand the selection to get both sides in the library."
Thornily said she has offered to help find books that meet the county standards and offer a religious view on homosexuality along with other views. She has asked librarians to consider adding such books to their collections.
At West Springfield High, several students huddled in prayer circles as the news conference dispersed yesterday, their arms around each other. Some said they had donated a new round of books to their libraries and were waiting to see what happens.