This is the latest article in a series on censorship laws and book bansbeing passed around the country, but particularly in the author’s adopted home-state of Florida. To read previous articles on the same topic:
After “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop Woke”
From Pride 2022 to “Don’t Say Gay”
“Don’t Say Gay” is Bad, Not Just for LGBTQ Kids
Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Law: Outlawing Openness
Don’t Read Gay
There’s even more bad news from Florida. Book bans are coming.
Not the de facto book bans that are happening because school districts are removing books based on teacher or community complaints, and failing to review them (like what’s happening in Walton County where the district received a list of fifty books, removed the twenty four they found on the library shelves, and just haven’t reviewed them). But actual book bans.
Back in March 2022, Governor DeSantis signed into law HB 1467, which prohibits schools from using books that are “pornographic” or “age inappropriate.” The law also allows parents open access to review and challenge any books or materials in the school library or used for instruction.
The New Censorship Laws are Broad… But Schools are Going Beyond Them
This goes far beyond what “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop Woke” originally offered. In Indian River County teachers have been told they can either close their classroom libraries or sign an electronic form confirming that their classroom libraries comply with all of the new laws, which could open them up to legal liability if books in their classroom libraries are later found in violation.
But neither the “Don’t Say Gay” law nor the “Stop Woke” act provide for book removal from school libraries. They govern classroom materials and discussion. And yet in county after county, groups like Moms for Liberty are teaching people to challenge books and encouraging teachers to challenge books. Often the people bringing the challenge haven’t even read the books.
Once again, the law is written so broadly that each school district is interpreting things differently.
What’s Happening in Florida Raises Issues about the Path Forward for Education as a National Project
In Palm Beach County, in southeast Florida, the district created a checklist which asks questions like, do they have books (often containing queer characters or discussing queer issues) that had already been flagged for review? Does the book suggest that someone should be discriminated against because of historical actions by others who share the same race, color, national origin or sex? Does a book contain any “explicit instructions” about sexual orientation or gender identity? Are the ideas that “People are racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or that people should feel guilty about things members of their race or sex did in the past, or that systemic racism exists in the U.S. promoted by the book?
I have some questions myself after reading what Palm Beach is asking.
Can we talk (in an age appropriate way) about the realities of history? About people like Christopher Columbus? I remember that one year, my youngest came home talking about Christopher Columbus and how he wasn’t totally a “good guy.” I was so pleased that the teacher avoided the elevation of Columbus to hero status that is often a part of the primary grade level discussion of Columbus.
We followed that up with some more conversations. About how Columbus didn’t “discover” anything and never actually landed on the shores of what would become known as The United States. How the Taino people were already living where Columbus landed, and how you can’t just go in and declare that a place belongs to you when there are already people living there. And how Columbus caused harm by exposing people to germs their bodies were totally unfamiliar with.
My kiddo was troubled by the lesson. So we talked about it. That’s a parent’s job, as far as I’m concerned. We didn’t discuss things like chopping off the hands of enslaved people who didn’t find enough gold, or about the systemic rape perpetrated by invaders. But there were plenty of ways to talk about the horrors perpetuated by Columbus without getting overly too graphic. And both of my kids came away with a little bit of an understanding of colonialism, imperialism and the difference between “discovered” and “invaded.”
Why not Rely on the Laws we Already Have?
All of this wouldn’t be so galling if there weren’t already laws in place to help parents who want their kids to remain ignorant. But few parents are taking advantage of the ability to restrict library access for their students. We can look at data from Indian River, Columbia and St. Lucie counties to see that. In fact, in St Lucie county less than one percent of parents are choosing to restrict library access.
While I’m not thrilled by the idea of parents being able to actually restrict access for their own children to controversial materials beyond “don’t check that book out of the library,” I can make my peace with that sort of thing. Parents have a right to try to limit what their kids are exposed to. Their kids. It crosses a line when they try to restrict the access of other children–mine or anyone else’s.
It’s not their place to decide what is or isn’t appropriate for my kid. This wasn’t a hard concept for my oldest kid to grasp when we discussed how some of the fifth graders had been able to see movies like Deadpool while my children hadn’t. At the same time, my kids knew more about sexuality and relationships than many classmates. I do not understand why this is such a difficult concept for other parents.
What does it Mean to Protect your Kid?
As a parent, I absolutely understand the desire to protect children from danger. We certainly don’t want our kids harmed. But protecting our kids also means teaching them to live in this world, in this reality. It means learning to talk about controversial things. It means having discussions about how to deal with those things and about values around those controversial topics.
Protecting our own kids means we have to teach them how to live in a world with people who are different from them. Whose race or sexual orientation or religion are different. Whose values are different. And whose lives are different. It doesn’t mean we have to think everyone else’s ideas are right but we do have to learn to share with them. And sharing means understanding that what is right for you is not necessarily right for everyone.
Kids Need Books… Especially Controversial Ones
The books being banned, removed and restricted are important, just like the books that are allowed. We learn so much from books. Compassion. Personal responsibility. Perseverance. Books help us provide extra models to show how we respect others. They help kids develop self-esteem by emphasizing positive qualities and showing children how people like them are an important and valuable part of the world. And removing books takes away all of these lessons. It diminishes opportunities to develop critical thinking skills. There’s nothing good for children or adults that comes from the impact of these laws.
Censorship Around the Nation
It doesn’t end there. We already know Florida is a disaster–I’ve talked about it enough times already. I’ve also written about how horrible things are in Texas and the political motivation of the governor to institute the anti-trans legislation that turned caring parents and health care providers into criminals. But at this point it would honestly be a comfort if it were just one or two states.
Fourteen states have passed or attempted to pass youth sports laws aimed at excluding trans kid–primarily trans girls. Eleven states have passed or attempted to pass various pieces of school policy legislation that target the queer community. And fifteen states have tried to pass or pass various anti-trans youth health care bans.
The Human Impact of Homophobia
The stories coming out of some of these states are heartbreaking. When I was growing up, queer youth were mostly ignored by legislators. Now they’re viciously attacked. I’m an adult who has been out for many years, and I am angry, depressed, frightened and frustrated by these attempts to legislate hate, homophobia and transphobia. If I were a teenager still struggling to figure things out or getting ready to come out, the impact of this kind of legislation would be devastating.
Florida legislature wouldn’t even pass legislation which included an amendment that said that removed books wouldn’t be burned.
Treating any Discussion of LGBTQ Issues as Obscenity Makes it Seem like a Queer Person’s Existence is Only About Sex
They also wouldn’t agree to changing “sexual orientation” to “human sexuality” so that the updated law would read that human sexuality wouldn’t be taught in grades K-3. It’s just a few words but it makes a tremendous difference in what’s allowed and what isn’t. It’s the whole adults viewing queer relationships with a narrow focus on what happens in bed rather than the whole scope of what a relationship is or what it really means to be queer.
Being queer is not just in the bedroom. It’s something to consider when I think about where to live, getting medical care, choosing a house of worship and beyond. And since Florida doesn’t know when to stop, a day after the first part of “After Don’t Say Gay and Stop Woke” was published, I learned about this story, in Palm Beach County.
A father is suing the school district, claiming that Rachel Ross, a computer science teacher at Emerald Cove Middle School put up two Pride Flags and “prosthelytized.” The father goes on to accuse the school of “expressly and/or implicitly advocating for homosexuality as an alternative way of life,” which would violate the “Don’t Say Gay” law passed earlier this year. The family are Orthodox Christians and consider homosexuality a sin.
Idaho is looking to ban all public drag performances. Their argument? That drag performances are sexual and that a performer exposed himself at a public Pride event in Coeur d’Alene earlier this year (which turned out not to be true–in fact, the video had been edited by a blogger to look like the performer exposed himself.)
The argument continues with citations from the Idaho Constitution which says that “the first concern of all good government is the virtue and sobriety of the people and the purity of the home.” It continues with the instruction that the Legislature should “further all wise and well-directed efforts for the promotion of temperance and morality.” It’s only a matter of time before laws like that are used the same way the masquerade laws were only a few decades ago, to harass or arrest people whose clothing didn’t conform to their apparent gender.
We can turn to Nebraska, where students at Northwest High School in Grand Island responded to the school board announcing that they could no longer use names that did not appear on their birth certificates by putting out a Pride edition of their student newspaper which included articles about LGBTQ+ history and on the origins of Pride month.
The administration responded by “pausing” the award-winning student newspaper, a move they all-but-admitted was retaliatory, according to articles in the Grand Island Independent. The newspaper is still “paused,” even though a new school year has begun. And I’ll believe that the school board policy on names isn’t targeting transgender students when every Jim in that school is required to go by “James.”
We can also look to Oklahoma, where legislators have been working on youth sports bans, anti-queer school policy bills, and anti-trans health care bills. In fact, in Oklahoma, the governor has even signed legislation withholding COVID relief funds from the University of Oklahoma Medical Center unless it stops providing gender affirming care to minors.
Are you as confused by the connection between the two as I am? I certainly am wondering what COVID relief has to do with gender affirming care. The desire to wage war against trans people is so deep that Governor Kevin Stitt is willing to punish anyone who needs care from the University of Oklahoma Medical Center to make an example of the hospital for a small part of their overall service offerings–and one that we know can save lives.
Perhaps the governor has missed the memo about how dead kids don’t grow up to become adults who vote. Even if it’s likely (but not guaranteed) that they would vote against him. People have voted against their best interests before.
Oklahoma has some other issues, too. In Norman, Oklahoma, Emery Jenkins, a transgender student has been suspended three times for using the girls restroom. In May, the Oklahoma legislature passed SB 615, requiring that bathrooms and locker rooms in public and charter schools to be designated entirely by biological sex. SB 615 ignores the biological realities of sex–that it isn’t as easily defined as XX or XY with matching genitals, as most of us are taught.
The bill also puts transgender students at risk of being outed without consent or before they are ready. Emery has been out since first grade, and has, until recently, used the girls restrooms and locker rooms. The stress of dealing with the bathroom situation and the amount of school she’s missed because of suspensions have begun to affect Emery’s grades. Emery has tremendous support from other students at her school though. Students and adults came together at two different high schools in the district to protest Emery’s repeated suspensions.
More Oklahoma Nonsense
Elsewhere, in Tallahina, Oklahoma, a fifth grade teacher encouraged the classmates of an eleven year old special education student to call him “Fag.” The teacher admitted, on video that when two of the boys in class were roughhousing with each other and one began yelling “he’s touching me, he’s touching me,” that he instructed that student, “…when he does that, yell ‘fag alert.’”
Tallahina public schools already had gender problems. Due to a previous “incident,” fifth grade classes were already segregated by gender, putting the district in violation of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination in education on the basis of sex. The only classes that are separated by gender are fifth grade classes.
In September, Tallahina Public Schools said they’ve received the complaint, conducted an investigation and have taken appropriate action. Whatever that action was, it did not involve suspending the teacher or even removing him from the classroom during the investigation. The same teacher who encouraged playground games of “Fag Tag” or “Tag the Fag.” They did suspend the student though. And upon his return they offered a choice between returning to a class where the teacher had verbally abused him or to join a girls’ class. The student remains out of school, not receiving the special education services he needs. and being denied his right to a free and appropriate public education.
Pennsylvania, Just Outside of Philadelphia: It’s Easy to Say “Oh, it’s the South, What do you Expect,” But…
In Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, the Central Buck’s County school board has asked the ACLU to release an unredacted version of the complaint filed against the district. They had redacted the names of the complainants. The board president has criticized the ACLU for the anonymity of the complaint, suggesting that it impedes the district’s ability to intervene on behalf of the students. She has also asked students and families to come forward and report bullying or harassment to principals, teachers or administrators.
The ACLU has refused to release the names in the complaint, which accuses the district of letting bullying and harassment against LGBTQ students go unchecked for years. They go on to state that the district has also made a series of decisions that create a hostile learning environment for queer students. The district has also gone after teachers who are supporting those LGBTQ students. In the 2021-22 school year, a middle school teacher was suspended when he helped a transgender student who was being bullied file a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. The district also punished guidance counselors who spoke out against a district directive they believed was discriminatory against gender non-conforming students.
In fact, the ACLU chose to file a complaint rather than a lawsuit to protect the names of those LGBTQ students and keep them from the public. The responsibility for notifying the district that the complaint has been filed belongs to whoever agency (the Department of Justice and the Department of Education) takes on the task of investigating it.
What makes the school district think they’re entitled to the names of the students who have been targeted to such an extreme that the ACLU has stepped in? The district has already proven that it does not handle homophobia and transphobia well. They’ve already shown us that they’re willing to retaliate when people report incidents of bullying. What makes them think that students or families have any trust left in the school’s ability to keep students safe and to ensure they’re in a learning environment where they can grow?
Long Island, New York: Sometimes the Bullying Comes from Inside the School
In September, the Connetquot Central School District on Long Island ordered the removal of Maia Kobabe’s 2019 graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir. The book, based on Kobab’s experiences coming out first as bisexual and later as nonbinary became the most frequently banned book in 2021. The district followed this move by ordering Sarah Ecke, a special ed and math teacher to remove a Progress Pride flag from her classroom after several students said it made them “uncomfortable.”
(The Progress Pride Flag uses the traditional Pride Flag’s six striped rainbow but adds a five-striped chevron on the halyard-side made up of brown and black stripes to represent represent LGBTQ+ communities of color, along with pink, white, and blue stripes to represent the Transgender Pride Flag. Pictured Above.)
The teacher was told she could continue to display the traditional, six striped Pride Flag. She refused to remove the Progress Pride Flag and the district invoked Policy 1310 which states that “school employees may not engage in political activities on school premises.” In spite of this policy, the school has parking spaces in their lot painted with the Blue Lives Matter flag and poles painted with MAGA, the acronym for “Make America Great Again,” the divisive slogan used by former president Donald Trump.
In What Ways are Schools Safe for Students?
How can students feel safe when it’s the administration of the school itself who are attacking the students? Where can students go for support when teachers are being asked to hide the symbols that let students know they’re in a safe and welcoming place? Kids need to know they’re seeing safe adults. It’s a terrible thing to grow up without that knowledge and without those role models. I know. I lived it.
And how are parents supposed to trust that their children are in a safe learning environment where all children will thrive? Where all children will learn not just the academic lessons that school provides, but also the life skills about getting along with different people, about civil discussion over difficult topics or things you might disagree about. It’s not just when talking about social issues where those skills are helpful, but in doing things like navigating disagreements over how to do things with colleagues. These “how to human” lessons are important for everyone. And high school is a great place to work them out with expert guidance from people who are especially attuned to how teenagers learn.
But when it’s the schools themselves who are silencing differences? Teachers become fearful of teaching. And students become fearful of being honest and sharing their whole self, of reaching out to the adults in their life for help when they’re struggling. The only people who win here are the ones who are afraid of talking honestly with kids, of confronting their own internal biases. It’s hard to unpack your own prejudice. It’s hard when the foundations of your beliefs are shaken. Change is almost never easy. But in the real world, change happens around you whether you want it to or not. Each of us has to find ways to become comfortable living with the change, even if we don’t love what that change means.
Some Bright Spots in Texas and Florida
There are already people working to make that change. Not just the teacher refusing to remove the Progress Pride Flag or the ACLU refusing to release the names of the students who were involved in the complaint against their school. Not just the teenagers in Fort Bend Schools in Texas either. Some of that good news is even in Florida.
In May, an Escambia County high school teacher who has asked to remain anonymous, called for the removal of 117 books from the school library after reading from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which was listed as an optional book for senior English students. The book wasn’t required reading, but the teacher claimed that the book had “four and five pages of pure pornographic details,” and that in the book there was “a push for pedophilia.” Prior to that day, the teacher had not read the book at all. The Perks of Being a Wallflower is often challenged for its mentions of homosexuality, suicide, date rape, and use of alcohol and other drugs. There are books that range from elementary through high school on this teacher’s list.
-Picture books like And Tango Makes Three, a true story about two male penguins, Roy and Silo, who have become a couple and tried to hatch a rock. Upon seeing this, the penguin keepers at New York’s Central Park Zoo gave the pair an egg that had been abandoned. They cared for the egg until it hatched, and went on to raise the baby. Apparently gay penguins are bad for children because the book, which makes no mention of sex, sexuality or sexual orientation, is about two male penguins who do what other penguin couples do. Build a nest. Hatch an egg. Raise a baby.
-Favorites of mine, like the picture book, When Aiden Became a Brother, because of the transgender main character.
-Reference books like Kelly Hugel’s GLBTQ-The Survival Guide for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Teens also make the list.
While the list contains books that are challenged for their racial content, language, or drug use, the challenges are overwhelmingly related to sexual activity, sexual orientation or gender identity.
While the books are being reviewed, a school board member claims that there are other places for students to find these books. The students have clapped back. Some students chose to write about the book challenges as part of an assignment for another English teacher. Some of these essays were shared beyond the school, too.
One student very wisely pointed out, “Not every student can access a public library, and not every student can get these books on their own.” Other students talked about how book banning keeps students uneducated and isolated, and about how the desire of some adults to have their children not read books about sensitive topics doesn’t mean that those books should be unavailable to all students.
Students Campaigned against Bigoted School Board Members… And Won!
Students in Flagler County, a group of teenagers launched a campaign called “Recall Flagler County School Board” They worked to ensure that anti-queer candidates weren’t reelected to the school board and County Commission. Their focus was two specific candidates: school board candidate Jill Woolbright (who was backed by Governor Ron DeSantis) and County Commission Candidate Janet McDonald.
McDonald has shown her “support” for students with statements like: “At school, freedom of speech does not belong outside the classroom, and it cannot be related to anything other than what’s in the curriculum.” And suggested that “Freedom of speech to me does not mean freedom of movement, freedom of time, choice, freedom of activity, choice.”
Both McDonald and Woolbright were adamantly against the student walkout protesting the passage of “Don’t Say Gay.” The student group worked together with other organizations like local democratic groups to canvas for opposing candidates and both candidates were defeated in the primary elections.
Maybe the kids are alright, in spite of what the adults are trying to do.