The Purpose of Book Bans Is to Make Queer Kids Scared
Lev AC Rosen on Having His Book Banned, and the Repetition of History
I joke about it now: “Until you’ve seen a priest calling you a pedophile at a city council meeting…”
But when someone first sent me the video I couldn’t watch more than a few seconds of it. I thought I’d be fine. I’ve dealt with homophobia before; I’ve been called the f-word just for standing a certain way, even while growing up in NYC. This was just a school board meeting on the other side of the country. I thought, What do I care what these people think of me? I thought, “this is just going to be the same hateful stuff.”
What made me stop watching was the crowd around the priest as he said these things in his mannered, reasonable voice. The respect they afforded him. At a meeting where I wasn’t asked to speak, given no voice to defend myself. Others in the video defended queer books, arguing for how needed they are in school libraries, the value of the books I’ve written for teens. But I wasn’t there. My voice wasn’t heard. Instead, there was priest, in a collar, and with a calm voice. He accused me of a crime, and people nodded.
I wasn’t shocked when someone challenged my books at a library—specifically, Jack of Hearts and Camp, though Jack gets the brunt of it. Jack is about a queer teen sex advice columnist. It’s a fun thriller that also has a guide to safe anal sex in it, because while queer teens (and straight ones, too) know about that, they aren’t taught how it’s done safely, even in their sex ed classes (if they’re lucky enough to have them).
I thought it was important to know about lube, washing up, stuff a lot of queer guys don’t figure out until their twenties. I’m not naïve; I knew a sex-ed thriller was going to get some complaints—even if most of the sex questions were sourced from real teens, even if I had a professional sex educator review it, and even if there are no actual sex scenes on the page. This was a queer teenager enjoying sex, without falling in love. So, sure, when the book came out in 2018, I expected someone might take issue. But no one did until last year.
It started with an email from a concerned library patron: “Your book, Jack of Hearts, is about to be banned at our library because of a ‘concerned conservative group of parents…’”
I wrote back, prepared, explaining I couldn’t do much, since it was a local issue, but I could write a letter and make my case. I did! And as I spoke more with the good people of Texas, the ones fighting the attempted ban, I discovered some things: the group of people trying to ban my book had first gone after all books on a display of queer YA books for Pride Month, then narrowed in on Jack, figuring it the best target (something I feel weirdly guilty about sometimes, and weirdly proud of other times). They flooded city council meetings. They ranted about these books being the tools of pedophiles. Others in the community fought them, giving statements of their own. And there was video.
I really thought it would be funny when I hit play on the video. A priest walks into a city council meeting and calls you a pedophile. It’s funny, right? And yet, it was a fist in the stomach. It’s a cliché, to describe something like that, but it’s also accurate. My body curled inward, watching him. I felt a heaviness like a forming bruise in my gut. The air left me. He was so calm. Someone behind him nodded. He explained, serious in his white priest collar, that books like mine were how pedophiles lure your children. I turned it off.
“Until you’ve seen a priest calling you a pedophile…” What? I never figured out the punchline.
My next book, Lavender House, is for adults, but it’s still very gay. It’s already gotten the token 1-star review on Goodreads that all gay books get, often months before they’re released (just part of doing business while queer). It’s a historical mystery, set in 1952, in which a woman is murdered in a small estate outside San Francisco, but the family can’t go to the cops. The woman had a wife, who the world thought was her secretary. Her son has a wife, too, but they don’t share a room—he shares it with his assistant, and his wife has a girlfriend. (Lavender marriages, or the practice of queer people marrying other queer people to pass as straight, weren’t uncommon in the past.)
To me, historical queerness and noir go hand-in-hand: the paranoia; the knowledge that the world is in fact out to get you; the danger, and the attempt to spit at that danger, trying to find a little joy, a little romance, even when you know it’s doomed. That’s noir, and that was queer life in the 50s.
I’ve done a lot of research for this book, gone over my queer history. One thing about being queer, is that most of us are born to straight parents, and most straight parents don’t know much about queer history. It’s easy to feel like you don’t have a history when you’re queer; like you’re the first, alone. It takes time, often well into adulthood, to figure out that you have a whole community and history. It was finding that out for myself that lead me to write my book.
In my research, I learned that in Florida, from 1957-63, the government actively pursued queer teachers: they interrogated them, made them name names, and put out a (hilariously erotic) booklet about how to spot homosexuals. They said these queer teachers were pedophiles recruiting children.A priest walks into a city council meeting and calls you a pedophile. It’s funny, right? And yet, it was a fist in the stomach.
During World War II and earlier, the military went after queer soldiers and sailors. They brought them before tribunals, made them name names, and sent them to mental hospitals, or sometimes prison. If they were lucky, they were just dishonorably discharged and given a blue ticket, which usually meant they couldn’t get another job, because everyone knew what a blue ticket meant. Their lives were over, for the most part.
But they formed communities; found joy in the bars the police raided, even if their name would be listed in the paper the next day. They used to do that, too: publish the names of queer people caught in raids. Just to make sure everyone knew. To make sure they were fired, evicted. To make sure they were terrified.
McCarthy didn’t just go after communists. He also went after queer people, convinced they could be easily blackmailed into giving up state secrets. For a while, if you worked at State, you introduced yourself with your name, your job, your wife, and how many kids you had. Didn’t want anyone to think you were queer, after all.
In Texas last year, in a small town outside Dallas, a new principal was hired. One of the first things he did was make all teachers remove pride flags and stickers that said “safe space” with rainbows. Then he put the two openly queer teachers on probation.
I was a camp counselor once, at the same camp where I had attended myself. I came out at fourteen, so everyone knew when I went from camper to counselor at seventeen and my old counselor became my boss. She took me aside. “You know not to talk to the kids about anything inappropriate, right?” she said. I knew what she meant. I don’t remember what I said. I think it was something like “What do you think I’m going to say?” She said that they didn’t need to know I was gay. I said I didn’t think it would come up. The kids I was in charge of were five. I didn’t have a boyfriend at camp they’d spot me kissing. I said, “I won’t lie if I’m asked.” She said, “Okay. Sorry about this, my boss made me do it.”
Once, one of my campers asked me if I was married. I laughed and said I was too young. But then, during Pride week, I wore rainbows every day. Another camper said to me, “Why do you wear rainbows so much?” Before I could answer, my boss answered for me. “He just really loves them.”
That summer, another camper—13—came out. He wore rainbows, too. He nodded at me when we passed, but we never spoke. Things would get better, I told myself. And then, for years, they did. In college, I took queer literature and history classes. In the world, gay rights became more and more important. Same-sex marriage was legalized, and most of America was in favor of it. Trans people started getting easier access to hormones, and figuring themselves out sooner. The Pride parades got bigger, louder. It wasn’t perfect, I knew we were still a long way from that, but if I were a counselor again, and I wore rainbows, I thought that the kids wouldn’t even ask me why. They’d just know.
That’s what history does, right? It moves forward. It’s left in the past.
In Florida, a group that started in Brevard County has been instrumental to the creation and passing of the new Don’t Say Gay law. My in-laws recently moved to Brevard County. My husband and I visited them, months after I’d seen the video. By then more book bannings had been proposed or taken effect: in Texas, Washington state, even in Yorktown, outside NYC.
We barely went out in Florida, because of Covid. But when we did, I couldn’t help but look around, wondering if anyone I saw was involved in that group. How many of them had smiled at us or nodded a polite hello and then went to a school board meeting to insist that gay kids should not exist?
I told my in-laws not to mention to any new neighbors who I was or what I did—for their safety, at least socially. I wondered if I needed to wear a disguise, if author photos were passed around the neighborhood, hung on the targets at local shooting ranges. “Lev Rosen is a pedophile. He writes those books for queer kids. A priest said so.”
There’s a phrase you may have heard: Be Queer, Do Crimes. People misinterpret it sometimes, saying it’s about criminal behavior, or about being righteously disobedient. I don’t mind that version, but there’s an older, deeper meaning—Being queer is the SAME as doing crimes. These laws—saying we’re pedophiles, groomers—that’s what they’re trying to do again. Criminalize our existence. History can move forward, but it’s also doomed to repeat. That’s classic noir.They’re trying to make these kids scared, paranoid. Paranoia isn’t a fun way to live, but it’s an even less fun way to grow up.
I’ve dealt with all this before. But the kids today haven’t. This is the first time they’re seeing teachers fired for being queer, hearing politicians call them pedophiles, being told they can’t talk about who they are, they can’t even put up rainbows. They’re trying to make these kids scared, paranoid. Paranoia isn’t a fun way to live, but it’s an even less fun way to grow up.
I want things better for these kids. I don’t want repetition. Isn’t that what every generation wants for the one after it? For things to be better? Some of these kids, and some adults too, will see these bans, watch books and teachers disappear, and they’ll try to make themselves disappear too, in whatever way they can.
But some won’t.
In Texas, after the queer teachers were put on leave, the students staged a walkout, thousands of them. In Florida, students in multiple schools protested: chanting, yelling outside their classrooms. There are videos of these, too. No calm measured voices. And so many rainbows—flags as capes, pins on clothes and bags, stickers on faces. Every kid there knows what those rainbows mean. I watched the rolling waves of teenagers filled with fury and love, demanding they be seen as more than criminals, that they get to learn their own history or the history of their peers, that they get to say who they are and be unafraid.
The teenagers in the videos are living in a noir, but fighting to exist in another genre. The folks making these laws, hurting these kids—they want you to be the city council nodding at the calm words of a priest: to agree by your silence that our existence is a crime, to trap queer people in their own terrifying history, pushed into the shadows.
The old crimes are the new crimes. But as with any good noir, things aren’t always how they seem—because there are no crimes here. Just history, repeating over and over until we finally break free of it.
Lev AC Rosen’s Lavender House is available via Forge Books.