Any claim that books with LGBTQIA+ people contain pedophilia or pornography deserves careful vetting, given the charged history behind this rhetoric. Connecting LGBTQIA+ people with pedophilia has long been used to provoke fear against same-sex couples, used in arguments against LGBTQIA+ anti-discrimination ordinances and marriage legalization legislation. Similarly, nations such as Russia and Hungary have used pornography as an excuse to pass blatantly discriminatory laws.
Unfortunately, by their own admission, these speakers hadn’t even read the books. Rather, they learned of them through a Texas school board meeting. If they had read the books, it would be very clear that they had been misled: Neither depicts pornography or pedophilia. The scene in “Lawn Boy” cited by those who want to remove these books depicts two minors engaging in consensual sex. In “Gender Queer,” no adult engages in sex with a minor.
Of course, both books include descriptions of sex, as do thousands of other books in our classes and libraries. Our education sits at the crossroads of broader societal dialogues. As such, it is inevitable that sex, an inescapable component of human existence that has driven everything from Freudian psychological theories to social justice movements, will be discussed in our schools. Removing any references to sex from our libraries compromises our ability to ask questions, seek answers and formulate informed opinions on topics driving 21st-century debates. Our schools understand this. Hundreds of heterosexual books, including John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” Jenny Downham’s “You Against Me,” Simone Elkeles’s “Rules of Attraction,” Cassandra Clare’s “City of Heavenly Fire,” Stephen King’s “It” and Meg Cabot’s “Ready or Not,” contain graphic sexual situations, yet they remain in our school libraries. Still, we hold books depicting queer relationships to a different, more chaste standard.
Removing these books from our school libraries doesn’t protect us. Instead, it sends an exclusionary message to LGBTQIA+ students. Already, there is a dearth of positive queer representation in literature. In our combined 35-plus years of schooling in Fairfax County, none of us has encountered a sexual or gender minority in our required readings in English classes. This lack of LGBTQIA+ visibility in our school curriculums prevents us from feeling heard, accepted and supported to the same extent as our heterosexual and cisgender peers. To fill the void, LGBTQIA+ students turn to school library books such as “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” to help us accept ourselves regardless of how supportive our parents, community or school is. Suspending these books takes away badly needed support structures for queer students, preventing us from affirming our stigmatized sexual and gender orientations.
As queer students, we are painfully aware that this effort to remove queer literature isn’t about sex; it’s about scoring political points. Since these books have become flash points, our education has become a talking point, appearing in a gubernatorial debate and political attack ads. It’s not new. For our whole lives, political actors have targeted our sexual and gender identities to advance their own campaigns and goals. In the lead-up to the 2001 governor elections, for example, a Fairfax County parent group emerged to oppose books that contained LGBTQIA+ themes. More recently, conservatives have sought to excite their base in Virginia by blocking anti-discrimination ordinances.
These messages come at a deep cost, sacrificing the well-being of LGBTQIA+ students for political gain. Across the nation, LGBTQIA+ students face higher rates of bullying, depression and suicide. Fairfax County isn’t immune to these trends. According to the latest youth survey data, 50 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students have experienced extreme depressive symptoms in the past year. Moreover, close to 15 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual students have attempted suicide in the past year. These aren’t just numbers. We’ve all struggled with our mental health ourselves, as has virtually every other queer student in Fairfax County Public Schools we’ve encountered.
As students, we are tired of seeing our classmates bullied, depressed and harassed for a part of themselves they cannot change. Like every other student, we simply want to attend accepting schools that treat us equally in our libraries and provide us with the same opportunities for learning as our peers. We beg you to stop exploiting our existence for political gain.
Listen to “Gender Queer” author Maia Kobabe discuss this issue on James Hohmann’s podcast, “Please, Go On”: