Richard Price: Books help students empathize with the experience of others

It’s not ‘porn’ that the book-banners are going after, but the existence of other people.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Four of nine books that have been removed from schools in the Canyons School District and placed under review, Nov. 23, 2021. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin.

Rep. Ken Ivory’s HB374, a bill to prohibit books containing “pornographic or indecent” content from schools, was passed by the Utah House of Representatives Tuesday.

Ivory is joining a movement of book banners led in Utah by Utah Parents United (UPU) who have sought to frame their censorship activity as about protecting kids from “porn” in school. The problem for these censors, however, is that none of these books are “porn.” This label is just attached to anything that Ivory and the UPU do not like and that tends to be stories that represent LGTBQ people as well as people of color.

You can see this from how UPU talks about the books.

Brooke Stephens, UPU’s curriculum director, singles out “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson and calls it obscene because one chapter discusses how Johnson was molested by their older cousin. But obscenity law requires the book to be read as a whole and UPU censors refuse to abide by this reality.

Johnson’s book is about what it was like growing up Black and queer in America and to take this rich text and call it obscene because they talk about being sexually abused is absurd and disturbing. It ignores the very law UPU claims to celebrate while also reducing Johnson’s experience, their existence, to one episode. Therefore, criminal obscenity complaints have been rejected by police and prosecutors around the country.

The UPU’s hypocrisy, however, is even more evident when you explore what they do and not just what they say. The UPU’s talking points are all about “obscenity” and “pornography” with juicy lines or passages from major works of literature taken outside of context. But when it comes to bringing challenges to remove books, the language changes.

Stephens, for example, challenged two books in the Davis School District that have no sex in them at all. What the two books do have is gay and transgender characters. Stephens objected to “Drama,” by Raina Telgemeier, solely because it has a 7th grade boy who announces that he is gay to his friends. “George(now titled “Melissa”) by Alex Gino only provides complaints from another group who claimed it was indoctrination and age inappropriate because of LGTBQ content because the book centers on a 4th grade trans girl.

In the Murray School District, a group submitted roughly 100 books they find objectionable, with the cheering support of UPU’s book-banners, but we find this pattern repeated and again. They don’t even both to explain why some of the books are objectionable, but they have LGBTQ in the titles and that is enough.

The real kicker in all of this is that the schools will already work with Stephens and other UPU parents to restrict their children’s access to books, but that isn’t enough. You see UPU thinks that it can help all other parents do a better job and want the state legislature to let the UPU help parent all your children in the way that UPU thinks is necessary.

I’ve been researching censorship and book banning for years and am often asked what are book banners afraid of? The simple answer is they believe that only stories that represent their lives, generally straight and white, deserve a place in schools and libraries.

Stephens and others describe simply presenting the stories of LGBTQ kids as “grooming,” as trying to turn their kids gay and/or trans. You see, to be LGBTQ is itself dangerous to UPU, and thus schools must prevent that by hiding the fact of our existence from Utah children.

Luckily for them, there is zero scientific evidence to support the idea that simply reading about a gay or trans character turns their kid gay or trans. What it does affect is empathy. Straight, cisgender kids are more likely to empathize with the experience of their LGBTQ friends and classmates. It is that empathy which UPU and Ivory think should be stamped out in Utah schools, and I hope the Legislature refuses to follow along.

Richard Price | Weber State University

Richard Price, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science and co-coordinator of the Queer Studies Program at Weber State University.