The Censorship War in Loudoun County
By: guest contributor Richard Price
As a political scientist, I’m interested in book challenges because they are, at their core, acts of political power. What is included or excluded in our public institutions, such as schools and libraries, is a statement of who we are as a people. People tend to understand the attempt at exclusion as political but have a harder time with the idea that inclusion is as well. But the decision to include voices in your library is just as political even if we often prefer to talk about political neutrality. Thanks to the hard work of authors, publishers, and groups like We Need Diverse Books, the options for diverse literature are increasing dramatically. Inclusive teaching and programming require more than just purchasing books, of course, but that purchase is the necessary first step.
Loudoun County Public Schools took the first step towards greater inclusion when it decided to dramatically expand its classroom libraries to be more diverse. According to Loudoun Now, 3400 books were purchased across the three school groups (though apparently the middle school has been placed on hold). 98% of the elementary books and 92% of the high school books were focused on race, culture, language, and religion. The remaining two categories were disability and LGTBQ. In the LGBTQ category there were 5 books in elementary, 44 in middle school, and 82 in high school. By my math, this means just shy of 4% of the books were queer-inclusive. And yet nearly all of the controversy has focused on these books.
Many of the news stories, such as from the Washington Post, note the district saying it should have communicated this plan better with objecting parents complaining bitterly about this surprise change. My first thought is to ask how often the district notifies parents that library books are purchased? The second is that no amount of warning would be sufficient for these parents. People almost never care about process, such as warnings, they care about the outcome. The problem here is that the books exist in the school at all. Challengers, of course, deny this publicly. One who spoke at a contentious school board meeting stated that “[t]hey say we’re attacking LGBTQ, let’s not call it that, let’s just call it inappropriate books. … This is not about hate. We celebrate diversity as parents, but we want to remove the content that we wouldn’t even send our child to the movies (to see) or listen to the radio.” While this parent may not want to call it an attack on queer people, it turns out that this is exactly what it is.
Using Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I received the complete list of books challenged in Loudoun County (at least as of last week). By my count 20 books have been challenged with 97 total challenges.* Using only the challenger’s description of the book to identify it, 9 challenges were against queer-inclusive books. While 45% of the challenges being representative of the LGBTQ identity spectrum might suggest a decent spread with other topics, fully 77 challenges, representing 79% of the whole, were filed against these 9 books.** So contrary to the claims quoted in the press, it certainly seems like the challengers have a pretty specific target in mind. When we turn to the substance of the challenges it is apparent that “inappropriate” is simply code for presenting queer people at all.
Fully 65 of the challenges are against 5 picture books. A brief look at what is inappropriate about these books says a lot. One was Heather Has Two Mommies, the book that broke new ground 30 years ago by depicting a lesbian couple and their child. The repeated objection is that “[t]his book instructs the reader to identify all groups of people living together as a family.” The moms in this book, by implication, are just living together and cannot be a family in any real sense, so suggesting otherwise is inappropriate. The goal of including “this book is to introduce political positions of a minority of school officials, rather than the values of the communities of Loudoun County.” The inclusion of any depiction of “non-traditional” families is taken to be a political position running against the norms of the community (oddly no mention is made of the strong support today for marriage equality). Similarly Willow and the Wedding received objections because it depicts two men marrying: this “goes against the religious values that my husband and I are teaching our children. These ideologies go against our religious beliefs and I feel it is an infringement on our religious freedom. Loudoun County Public Schools have a responsibly to maintain NEUTRALITY towards religious beliefs” and neutrality means hiding the basic fact that gay people do exist and may marry. Similarly, three trans-inclusive (or at least gender non-conforming, challengers don’t make the distinction) books were targeted as well: Big Bob, Little Bob, My Princess Boy, and Want to Play Trucks? Again, the only thing inappropriate is that trans (or gender non-conforming) kids are depicted as existing. The fear in all of them is that adults are using the books to convert children to “gender confusion,” an argument I’ve written about before.
Shifting to older, middle grade readers the all-ages graphic novel series Goldie Vance received a heavy degree of criticism. One complained that “Goldie is seen kissing, holding hands, going on a date with her girlfriend to ‘Lovers Lane.’” Multiple challengers assert that they would not allow their 10-year-old children to watch movies with teenagers holding hands or kissing regardless of sexual orientation, so this book is unacceptable. After all, reading it will have the following results: “Students are exposed to premarital sexual activities in a graphic way. Embarrassment for teenagers engaged int his activity. Confusion amongst students.” Kissing and holding hands, all in the most chaste depictions possible, are equated with premarital sexual activity. The amusing thing is that Goldie Vance does not focus on her queer identity. Her dating another girl is just treated as a basic fact of life, as not worthy of any special attention or discussion, while she solves various mysteries with the help of friends.
This brief discussion barely scratches the surface of the 97 challenges that are being considered in Loudoun County. They are sufficient to show not just a few unhappy parents but an organized war against inclusive literature. Many of the challenges share nearly identical language, suggesting an organized effort to draft model language that was often just cut and pasted into each challenge. Most likely this was organized through one or more churches. It is an overt political demand that schools hide the basic realities of life from their students to spare parents from experiencing uncomfortable conversations. This is a demand to hide from their children the experiences of their fellow students, to say nothing of people they will meet in the future.
“When we say, ‘This book is inappropriate,’ we’re telling those children, ‘Your situation…your family…your life is inappropriate.’ This is harmful.”Kate Messner
Messner’s point is well taken that in a school district serving more than 80,000 students, a demand that all experiences outside of the heteronormative, cisgender experience be excluded sends a message that students falling outside of that experience are to be invisible themselves. Loudoun County Public Schools took an important first step towards inclusive support of all students with its diverse classroom libraries initiative. We can only hope that it will not bend to the forces of intolerance. Schools and libraries have a public duty to depict the world as it actual is and not as some people wish it were.
* I have excluded four books that the spreadsheet listed as challenged but provided no information for. From the context of the entry, it appears that the district treated these challenges as non-actionable such as the books having not been distributed or the person complaining having no child in the relevant class.
** The 9 were Big Bob, Little Bob (2 challenges), Goldie Vance (8 challenges), Heather Has Two Mommies (14 challenges), Hurricane Child (2 challenges), My Princess Boy (23 challenges), Prince & Knight (15 challenges), So Hard to Say (2 challenges), Want to Play Trucks? (2 challenges), and Willow and the Wedding (9 challenges). One challenger listed both Heather Has Two Mommies and My Princess Boy on the same form and I counted it as one for each. Apologies if my counts are a little off.
Richard Price is Associate Professor of Political Science at Weber State University. Richard is working on a book tentatively titled Annie Shouldn’t be On Your Mind: The Perils of Queer Literature examining the ways in which queer-inclusive literature has been censored and challenged since the 1920s. Pieces of this and related research appears occasionally at at https://adventuresincensorship.com and on Twitter @AdvInCensorship.