N.J. School Board Bans Gay Book
A New Jersey school board voted to ban a gay-themed book from a high school library following a complaint from a local chapter of Glenn Beck’s 9.12 Project, a conservative group that asks visitors to its website to "Help us restore America."
The school in question is in Mount Holly, a town located in Burlington County, New Jersey, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer on May 5. The article said that 18 9.12 members attended a March 18 meeting and demanded that three books be taken out of the high school’s library.
All three dealt with issues of human sexuality, specifically gay themes. The article identified the three targeted books, listing one as Amy Sonnie’s 2000 book Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology, which is now out of print.
A second book was The Full Spectrum: A New Generation of Writing About Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Other Identities, a collection from 2006 of forty selections submitted by GLBT youths ages 13-23, and edited by David Levithan and Billy Merrell. That book earned a starred review from Booklist, which called the collection "invaluable" and asserted that the books was "Insightful, extraordinarily well written, and emotionally mature," with "the selections offer[ing] compelling, dramatic evidence that what is important is not what we are but who we are."
A third book, Love & Sex: 10 Stories of Truth, is an anthology from 2001 in which writers of young adult fiction contributed original short stories about GLBT and straight youths coming to terms with their maturing emotional and romantic lives. A Publisher’s Weekly review called the collection "markedly frank," and noted that editor Michael Cart had sought to navigate a middle ground between censoriousness and overt, gratuitous sexual content.
The school board reviewed the three titles and consulted with their legal counsel. Upon learning that under the law they would be able to censor books based on "obscenity," but not political speech, the board voted to ban Revolutionary Voices. One school board member, Jesse Adams, told the Inquirer, "We felt, from an obscenity perspective, there were some things our children didn’t need to see" in that volume. Added Adams, "We don’t allow our children to curse in school, and we don’t think this is something we should be promoting in the school."
But at a subsequent school board meeting, most of those in attendance condemned the action. Said one parent, Eileen Cramer, who herself had attended the high school, "It’s a parent’s responsibility to monitor what their children are reading, not to tell other children what they can and cannot read."
But 9.12 member Beverly Marinelli had a different perspective, wondering why the library had added the books to its collection. "Where is the oversight on this?" she demanded of those in attendance.
Burlington County is located just over the Delaware River from Philadelphia. A large part of the county is composed of bedroom suburbs to the large city to its west.
Target: Gay Youth and Their Advocates
The article noted that 9.12 has targeted GLBT youth and associated topics before, seeking the resignation of the Department of Education’s assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools Kevin Jennings. Various right-wing organizations have targeted Jennings following false claims that while a schoolteacher in Massachusetts more than two decades ago, Jennings failed to report sexual encounters between an underage student at his school and an older man. Some organizations and publications went so far as to suggest that Jennings approved of pedophilia. The former student in question identified himself to the media to correct the record, saying that he had been 16 at the time--the age of consent in Massachusetts--and that he and the older man in question had not actually had any sexual contact.
Other anti-gay right-wing groups sought to smear Jennings with the actions of several Massachusetts state employees who, during what was supposed to be a 2000 confidential seminar for GLBT teens worried about sexual subjects, were secretly tape recorded by an adult associated with an anti-gay local organization. The infiltrator caught the state employees on tape talking about sexual practices with the students; the tape was then broadcast on local radio. Though Massachusetts has wiretapping laws on the books, no charges were ever filed in the incident, which anti-gay groups celebrate as "Fistgate." Jennings was not present at the seminar in question, but the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), an advocacy group for GLBT youth that Jennings headed at the time, had co-sponsored the workshop at which the forum took place.
Anti-gay groups and lawmakers have taken exception to teens having access to material at school that deals with human sexuality, and have objected especially to material in classrooms or school libraries that touch upon homosexuality. Last year, a Tennessee state Representative sought to outlaw any mention of gays and related subjects in schools up through the eighth grade.
State Rep. Stacy Campfield proposed the so-called "don’t say gay" bill, and defended it by saying, "I think our teachers need to stick with reading, writing, and arithmetic." Added Campfield, "It confuses a lot of children that are already in a difficult part of life, and it’s a very complex issue."
But others feared that sticking too closely to the three Rs could deprive students of other educational material, such social studies. The Tennessee Equality Project’s Chris Sanders told the media, "The problem with this bill is it would have a chilling effect on even being able to discuss the bill itself, and both sides of the bill in an 8th grade class where you are learning to write essays." Sanders viewed the bill as unnecessary and anti-gay.
School libraries across the nation have been targeted for inclusion of books like And Tango Makes Three, which tells the true story of a pair of male penguins at a zoo who adopted and hatch an egg, and care for the chick as their own offspring. And Tango Makes Three has been topped the American Library Association’s list of challenged books three years running. According to the ALA’s deputy director, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, "Books that address same-sex parenting, or same-sex relationships, are particularly prone to challenges in the U.S."
The challenged books list is compiled every year as part of the ALA’s "Banned Books Week," but anti-gay groups have learned to adopt the language of banned books as well, claiming that titles promoting "reparative therapy" and the notion that gays and lesbians can be "cured" have been denied space on the shelves of school libraries. In 2008, a Christian group put together a display of books they said had been unfairly rejected by school libraries; among the protesting Christians was a group of students who wore T-shirts bearing the message, "Closing Books Shuts Out Ideas."
But the books in question were titles that attacked gays and gay families, such as Someone I Love is Gay and Marriage on Trial: The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage and Parenting. Someone I Love is Gay advises readers that gay people can be helped because being gay is not "a hopeless condition."
The display was prompted, the Christians said, when efforts orchestrated by the anti-gay, Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family to donate books with anti-gay themes was met with a lack of success. Focus on the Family is the parent organization of "ex-gay" group Love Won Out. The initiative was said to be an attempt to balance out library collection in schools that are heavy on GLBT -friendly literature.
School librarians, however, said they did not accept the titles because the books did not live up to the standards of the school system’s library collections. Criteria for accepting books into the school system’s library include a provision that titles for inclusion should have received at least two positive reviews from journals respected by the library profession.
Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor, writing about film, theater, food and drink, and travel, as well as contributing a column. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.