Patricia Nell Warren

Banned Books Week -- 10 LGBT Books to Keep Unbanned

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | September 29, 2009 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Fundie Watch, Marriage Equality, Media, Politics
Tags: American Library Association, Banned Books list, Banned Books Week, censorship, First Amendment, free speech

Banned Books Week is an annual happening that celebrates the First Amendment freedom to get your hands on a book, whether for information or a good story. BBW also points up the dangers and insanities of censorship. I selected my Top 10 from the banned-books list of 2007-08 (pdf) because they were targeted for homosexual content. In alphabetical order, they are:

  1. AND TANGO MAKES THREE, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (Simon & Schuster). Challenged at the Lodi County Public Library in California because "it's a homosexual story line that has been sugarcoated with cute penguins."
  2. BLACK BOY by Richard Wright (Harper). Challenged in the Howell, Mich. high school because of "strong sexual content." Reviewed by county law enforcement to see whether laws against distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors had been violated.
  3. THE CHOCOLATE WAR, by Robert Cormier (Dell; Pantheon) Challenged at the Harford County High School in MD because it is "peppered with profanities, ranging from derogatory slang terms to sexual encounters and violence."
  4. FALLEN ANGELS, by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic). Challenged at Chinquapin Elementary School in Duplin County, MC because it "is littered with hundreds of expletives, including racial epithets and slang terms for homosexuals."
  5. KAFFIR BOY by Mark Mathabane (NAL). Banned from the Burlingame (CA) Intermediate School because of "two graphic paragraphs describing men preparing to engage in anal sex with young boys."

The list continues after the jump.

  1. THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini (Bloomsbury). Challenged in Freedom (!) High School in Morganton, NC because it "depicts a sodomy rape in graphic detail and uses vulgar language."
  2. KING & KING by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland (Tricycle Press) Subject: gay marriage. Challenged at a Lexington, MA grade school because "by presenting this kind of issue at such a young age, they're trying to indoctrinage our children."
  3. RAINBOW BOYS by Alex Sanchez (Simon & Schuster). Challenged in the Webster, NY Central School District because of "explicit sexual content."
  4. RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin) Challenged in the Howell, Mich. high school because of "strong sexual content" and alleged to be in violation of local laws prohibiting distribution of sexually explicit material to minors.
  5. THE WHOLE LESBIAN SEX BOOK, by Felice Newman (Cleis Press). Banned from the Bentonville, Ark. Public Library and the city fined $20,000 under Arkansas obscenity law. The library was accused of following "an immoral social agenda."


"Challenged" means that a big local kerfuffle happened, following which the book was put back on the shelf and kept available in some way. "Banned" means that local politicking got a book off the shelf for good. In some cases, the school or library is actually investigated by local law enforcement for having allegedly broken local censorship laws. It may surprise readers to know that how strict local or state laws can be, because of the religious right's influence on whether minors can have access to certain materials.

My picks range from current Amazon top-sellers to classics like Richard Wright's Black Boy. Bookburners often have long-time smouldering grudges against certain classics, like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, and keep them on the list year after year.

The process of challenging and banning books, in both public libraries and K-12 schools across the country, is very revealing about the "moral" or "ethical" quirks that can spark little groups of locals into a frenzy of lobbying. A surprising number of parents want to censor books because of what they see as "blasphemy," or "the occult." Others want books off the shelf simply because they object to any slang and profanity. One book was challenged because of just two cuss words in it. Two books about Cuba were challenged because a few people thought the author's views on that country were too liberal.

Nor is every book-burner a conservative. Some pacifist liberals want books sent to the dumpster because violence, war, bombs and soldiers are mentioned. The banned-books list of 2007-08 lists every one of Rowling's Harry Potter books, because they are the latest and biggest target of the anti-occult faction.

What Can We Do?

How can we fight book-banning? Buy books that are challenged. Spread them around. Give them to friends and family, or people who need to read them. Donate them to public libraries. Today library budgets are so drastically cut that often a public library can't even afford to buy new titles.

And please don't buy used books -- publishers and authors don't get paid a penny of used-book sales. Controversial publishers and authors will survive only if they are supported not only politically but economically. Book banning hurts sales and can even drive a small press into bankruptcy -- which is just what the book-burners want.

Buy from your local independent bookstore, if you can. If there is no indie bookstore within reasonable driving distance of your home, then by all means buy from a chain store. Or buy online from Amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com, where you can get good discounts on new books.

Today Americans buy fewer and fewer books -- and that includes LGBT Americans, who buy only a fraction of what they bought 20 years ago. The gay publishing industry is experiencing a lethal squeeze because of slumping sales...and because many of our own media no longer pay much attention to LGBT books and authors. Instead they focus on movies, TV, tabloid celebrities and politics.

Last but not least, shout out for free speech in local censorship fights -- even those involving non-LGBT books. Often the bookburners win simply because they are the biggest and loudest faction.

Take it from an author whose novel THE FRONT RUNNER has been challenged on and off since the 1970s. LGBT books got onto the world map because people bought them and supported them. They will stay on that map only if enough of us keep on buying them and supporting them.

Banned Books Week is sponsored by the American Library Assn. , the American Booksellers Association and several other book-friendly organizations. It is endorsed by the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress.


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Dear Patrick,

If I had to draft a list of my top five, all time favorite books, Mark Mathanabe's "Kaffir Boy" would likely top the list. That said, I fail to understand why you equate pedophilia with homosexuality by including this book on a list about LGBT literature. My best guess is that you didn't mean to send that message and that you share my appreciation for this incredible memoir about growing up in apartheid South Africa.

It is dispiriting to see other LGBT people who fail to see the distinction between the two. Some clarification by you might be appropriate.

Thanks for reading!

You're right -- no intention here of equating homosexuality with pedophilia.

The question of "what is an LGBT book" has been thrown wide open ever since the Publishing Triangle put Melville's MOBY DICK on their list of "100 best lesbian and gay novels of all time." While I think MOBY DICK is a little over the top as an example of LGBT, I understand where the Triangle was going with their concern about an LGBT sensibility as expressed in literature. So I'm certainly in favor of a broad definition.

To my way of thinking, any novel or nonfiction book that deals in any substantive way with same-sex relations or gender issues -- including those involving minors -- would be of potential interest to us. Which is why I put KAFFIR BOY on my list. That includes looking honestly at practices that are abusive and harmful. And that now-famous section of KAFFIR BOY that gets it banned is certainly an indictment of same-sex child prostitution.

Thanks for the great post, Patricia. I should also note that this year, at least one more LGBT-themed book made the list, Uncle Bobby's Wedding by Sarah Brannen. It's another picture book, and features a little girl guinea pig who is worried that her favorite uncle won't have time to play with her anymore after he gets married. The fact that he is marrying another man (well, male guinea pig) is irrelevant (except, of course, that it is wonderfully relevant to our community).

I covered the first challenge to the book, as well as the awesome, can't-be-praised-enough response from librarian James LaRue.

Thanks for adding a favorite title, Dana. Hopefully other commenters will add their favorite banned books too.

The 10 that I listed were just some of my own faves from the list.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 29, 2009 10:42 PM

As always, well, you know.

As a founding member of a Gay campus organization in 1972 I had plenty of time to read Gay titles of the era and following Stonewall there were plenty of them. The hetero students were afraid to be seen with me because they were afraid of being tagged as Gay and the Gay students did not want to be seen within a mile of me.

I am sure you remember "The Gay Crusaders" from that time. Pivotal book for me.

Now all publishing does is cater to the most available demographic which augurs poorly for independent thought.

In addition to Patricia's great comments on what to do to prevent book banning, I'll add: Go write reviews of and rate these books at Amazon, B&N, Powells, or whatever online bookstore you use. I've had authors tell me that really helps. (The reviews don't have to be NYT Book Review length. A few sentences is enough.) Not that you have to like them all from a literary perspective--but make it clear your dislike isn't because of controversial content.

Tango makes three is actually really cute! I liked it a lot.

And I read grown-up books too....

I ♥ Augusten Burroughs's books. He's one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Scholastic made this list.

I greatly admire this anti-censorship stance.

I wish this post had appeared closer in time to the post that praised IML's censorship of bareback porn. The irony would have been even more sharp.

I'm now a one-year-retired 5th grade school teacher. I always looked forward to Banned Books Week. That's when I bought/brought out my banned books and made a classroom display and read the "shorter" ones to my classes. My boyfriend of 19 years always told me I crossed the line in the classroom, but what the hell is teaching all about if you don't do that? Celebrate Banned Books Week with gusto all of you who are still in the classroom!

THank you for the list, Patricia. Having lived all my life in a conservative, Republican, Christian community I'm not surprised by any of the books on the list except Tango. That has baffled me since it first appeared. I mean ... penguins? I adore penguins. How can anyone be offended by a picture storybook about penguins? I think these people really need to get a life.

I second the request to patronize independent bookstores. Unfortunately, I'm one who has no bookstore closer than an hour's drive and so rely on Amazon, but it's not from choice.

The book business has changed drastically in the last 15 or 20 years. All things considered, for people who want to sell LGBT books, Amazon is one of the few brighter spots left.

They sell just about every LGBT title in print, as well as used copies of many books that are out of print. And they provide a global platform to do so, since books are also listed in their French, German, Australian, etc. branches. It is very easy for self-publishing authors and new small presses to list their titles with Amazon through their Advantage program.

My Wildcat Press is an Amazon vendor, and we like dealing with them because they are about the only major entity that doesn't insist on the "right" to do "unlimited returns."

I applaud all parts of Patricia's post except her plea to buy only new books. My advice would be: buy new if you can afford it, but don't feel guilty about buying used books or borrowing library books. The important thing is to read. (Disclosure: I make a tiny part-time income as a used-book dealer.) In today's strained economy, I don't think we can expect consumers to plunk down $25 or $30 for every hardcover they read. Fortunately, new paperbacks and hardcover remainders are available at more moderate prices. And some people who do buy a used book and enjoy it will become motivated to buy the author's next book in new condition.

I wouldn't expect anyone to harm themselves economically by insisting they buy new books --especially hardcovers at full retail. But most people don't know that publishers and authors don't get a market share on used-book sales.

New books, including hardcovers, are available at surprising discounts on Amazon.com and some other online retailers. Just click on Amazon's "used and new" link to see a roster of different prices that different sellers are offering that book for. So a person doesn't necessarily have to pass up new books because of budget reasons.

That's all outrageous!! Whay bab these books!! What are we regessing to!!??