When a Bookstore Stands Against Censorship
Rachel Kaplan on Why We Need Queer Books
When I got a car at age 16, I was mostly excited about driving it to bookstores. We had no indies in my small town of Buford, Georgia, but we did have both a Borders and a Barnes & Noble. I would spend hours researching books, checking inventory online, and driving to one (or both) of these chains to make my purchases. It was exhilarating to have this freedom, to browse and purchase in secret. It was secret because I was buying books about being gay.
Before I could drive to the store by myself, I had to secretly purchase my gay books while my mom was also browsing in the same bookstore. I would wait until she was at the very back of the store, swipe the book off the shelf and pay for it, frantically looking over my shoulder. Then I would stash the book in my oversized purse, grab another book (it’d be weird if I, a book fiend, were empty-handed in a bookstore), find my mom, and tell her I was ready to check out. I would hope that nobody on staff would see a rectangular outline in my purse and ask to look inside; I was more worried about my mom seeing what was in there than I was being accused of shoplifting.
I began to amass a sizable number of queer books, all of which I stashed under my bed after I devoured them. They were all I had to help me form my identity as a gay person; this was before the true Digital Age, and I didn’t have an online community of real people with whom I could discuss queer sexualities. Books and a handful of TV shows and movies were my queer friends; all I had was me, myself, and my media.
Even in today’s society, which has made drastic improvements in the past decade regarding the acceptance and support of queer people, we still need more visibility and authentic representation. I live in Athens, a town that, compared to the rest of Georgia, is very progressive and liberal. Since college, I’ve been able to live an openly queer life, surrounded by friends who identify on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, and have ready access to all forms of media that reflect my identify. I had forgotten about that 16-year-old baby gay, with her hidden hoard of books and movies and her internal struggle between her truth and the pressure to hide it.
Memories of that 16-year-old came sashaying back as I recently watched my beloved employer, Avid Bookshop, become embroiled in a controversy over queerness and censorship.
Each year, Avid hosts a book fair at Athens Academy, a local private school. While I was working this year’s fair with my friend and coworker, Kate, a parent complained to her about the content in Richard Peck’s book The Best Man. The story features a boy protagonist as the best man in a wedding between two gay men. Kate, visibly irked, told him the book had been specifically requested by the school’s librarian, along with the other Georgia Children’s Book Award titles. The parent responded by claiming that, because his daughter is in elementary school, she isn’t ready for “that conversation.” Kate politely defended the choice to feature this book at the fair, which appeared to diffuse the situation. The man left, Kate and I rolled our eyes at each other, and assumed that was that.
“We are often the ones who can truly influence people with the literature we provide them. We are deciding to fill our shops with books that reflect all kinds of identities, peoples, and cultures.”
Censorship, at its core, deprives us of choice, of agency. The decision is made for us without our consent. Look, I don’t think there is any inherent value in the works of Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter, and I think their words can inspire and incite hateful rhetoric and actions. But can I let my opinions obscure other people from forming their own? No. That would be censorship.
After the parent complained about The Best Man, the school’s principal requested that my coworkers remove the book from the table. Avid’s staff placed it behind the counter, but the principal decided that it wasn’t enough to sequester it from the other books: it needed to be completely hidden from sight. The book would be isolated, its existence denied. All for the purported safety of the children. They didn’t consider the safety and well-being of the queer child, who could have benefitted from reading that book. Merely because, according to those who complained, explaining to your child that gay people exist is an uncomfortable burden.
I felt like a burden when I came out to my mom. I didn’t want her to worry about me. I regretted that, as a parent, she might not experience the heteronormative traditions of seeing her daughter get married, have kids, and the like. Shame prevented me from seeing that a parent who truly loves their child just wants them to be happy. My mom, through her actions and words, has proven this to me. Unfortunately, many queer people aren’t afforded this kind of unconditional love.
I hope the children of the parents who complained about the “questionable content” in The Best Man aren’t queer. Or, if they are, I hope their parents become the kinds of people who will tell their children that they love them unconditionally. I hope their actions prove it.
Regardless, this is why we need queer books. Especially for children, who are going to have a rough existence if they don’t see themselves reflected in society starting at a young age. If I had “been exposed” to queer literature as a child, I might not have spent so many years of my adolescence in a place of shame and confusion. I might not have felt that I was unloved, or that I couldn’t love myself.
It’s usually a bad idea to read people’s comments on Facebook. But after my coworkers posted on the Avid Facebook page about the situation and aftermath, I couldn’t ignore the reactions. I grabbed a metaphorical bowl of popcorn and watched as our page was flooded with support from friends and customers. Many shared their own experiences of being queer and facing discrimination. Some people, like myself, recalled a time when they could have used a public entity like Avid defending them. Queer teachers and librarians shared their experiences of having to remain closeted while working at their institutions, and expressed their gratitude that we are saying what they never could. There were a few trolls, of course, but trolls will always exist. What is most significant is how many people were willing to fight the hatred and ignorance with common sense and reiterated support for queer people.
Like our social media champions, booksellers must advocate and act on behalf of all marginalized groups. Anything less than full support for those who are constantly defending themselves is not enough. We are often the ones who can truly influence people with the literature we provide them. We are deciding to fill our shops with books that reflect all kinds of identities, peoples, and cultures. It matters that a young black girl can read books featuring women who look like her. It matters that an American child with first-generation parents can read books that acknowledge their family’s struggle. It matters that a child with special needs can read a book affirming that they are people, too. It matters that queer kids across the spectrum—trans, bisexual, asexual, gender-fluid and gender-neutral, intersex, gay, and more—can read a book that recognizes their struggle and celebrates their existence. Feeling love and acceptance is not a given; we have to show, through adequate representation, how necessary diversity and inclusivity are to our world.
It’s not always easy to do what’s right. You might not always be rewarded for it. Avid is lucky to have such a supportive community, but many businesses and people aren’t as fortunate to be surrounded by such forward-thinking, caring people. But even if your noble actions impact just one person, the world is all the better for it.
Booksellers, I hope you always make the right choice. Your communities need you to refuse censorship in any shape or form. We, any of us who prescribe to marginalized identities, need you to fight for our existence in literature; we need you to champion our reality as people who are still fighting for respect and love. I implore you: think of the children. They deserve better than the world we currently have.