“Your Story Is Powerful:” LGBTQ Authors At The Center of Book Bannings Speak Out

By Mary Emily O’Hara, Rapid Response Manager GLAAD.org | September 23, 2022

When GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis and her wife Kristen Ellis-Henderson first had children, “there were no books that showed our family. There was actually not really any television programming or anything of that nature.” Ellis spoke during a Wednesday panel of LGBTQ authors about how becoming parents motivated the couple to write their children’s picture book, All Momswhich is what “we wanted our kids to have when they were little, and so that other families like us could have something.” The panel was presented by GLAAD in partnership with The Emancipator, a Boston Globe vertical reframing the conversation on race and equity, and featured authors whose work has been targeted for censorship amid the sweeping book bans currently focused on books by and about LGBTQ people and people of color, in observance of Banned Books Week. The discussion was led by the country’s third most-banned author, George M. Johnson (All Boys Aren’t Blue), and included Leah Johnson (You Should See Me In A Crown), Daniel Haack (Prince & Knight), Isabel Galupo (Maiden & Princess), and Harry Woodgate (Grandad’s Camper), in addition to Ellis—whose own picture book was targeted in May by a Michigan library board member who demanded it and other LGBTQ-inclusive titles be removed from circulation. Leading GLAAD, of course, means Ellis has a wider vantage point than many authors; she’s been able to help transform the entire children’s entertainment industry by working to increase LGBTQ representation onscreen, too. But for Ellis and so many of the other authors on the panel, the drive to create inclusive media for kids and young adults started with what they didn’t see available.

“When I wrote You Should See Me In A Crown,” said Leah Johnson, “It wasn’t like there were other black queer girl rom-coms that had been incredibly commercially successful that we could point to be like, ‘Hey, you should invest in this book and this story and the storyteller because, look, people care.’” Johnson knew people would care; the book she had written was the book she desperately needed in her own youth. But without a commercial precedent, it’s that much harder for an already-marginalized author to sell their work up front. Now Johnson is on the other side of that crucible, and like all of the authors on the Wednesday panel is keenly aware that her book helped open doors for future storytellers.

Pushing genres forward and opening doors also comes along with backlash. When Daniel Haack published Prince & Knight in 2018 as the first in Little Bee Books’ series in partnership with GLAAD, there were few complaints. “When we started to see more representation in kids media overall,” Haack recalled, “The attacks started becoming much bigger, more frequent and more serious.” Haack doesn’t use a word like “attack” in a hyperbolus sense; just ask librarians like Louisiana’s Amanda Jones, who told Education Week on Thursday that just for refusing to remove LGBTQ-inclusive books from circulation, she’s received death threats so explicit she has been “actually petrified.” Extremists aren’t just threatening library staff, they’re also successfully pressuring school boards and library committees nationwide to ban books at a rate never seen before. A PEN America report released this week cited “2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles.” Nearly half of those titles were targeted because they were by or about LGBTQ people.

George M. Johnson’s memoir about growing up Black and genderqueer has so infuriated some anti-LGBTQ activists that it’s led them to file criminal complaints and ban the book in at least 29 school districts nationwide. “When they are banning memoirs,” Johnson says, “They are banning your true story. That means your story is powerful.” It’s also revealing of the discomfiting motives underlying the current movement to ban books: book banning isn’t really about words on paper, it’s about silencing people. To aim to eradicate Johnson’s own memoir, their own life story, is akin to trying to erase them entirely.

“When they are banning memoirs,” Johnson says, “They are banning your true story. That means your story is powerful.”

Censorship has always targeted LGBTQ expression, yet LGBTQ people continue to be born, to exist, to grow up to raise families of their own. Isabel Galupo describes herself as a “second generation queer” raised by two moms, and says “queer adults, in loving relationships, with successful jobs, who are happy and full of joy—that was my norm.” Her relationship to her work as an author of inclusive children’s books is unusual in the sense that it’s less of an attempt to fill a gap and more a celebration, a continuation, of the culture of acceptance and love she was lucky to experience as a child, she says.

Children’s books by their very nature are often celebratory. Young readers respond naturally to uplifting and inspiring tales with big feelings, standout personalities, bright colors and imaginative contrasts. Kids are also fascinated by the elderly, and grandparents are often the best storyteller they’ve encountered. That relationship is one Harry Woodgate aimed to capture in Grandad’s Camper, in which a child determinedly helps her grandfather through the grief of losing his partner by encouraging him to tell her stories about their adventures together and, ultimately, to go on a new adventure together. “There’s an element of wanting to honor previous generations of queer elders,” Woodgate says of the book’s themes. “There was a gap in children’s literature where we kind of didn’t get to hear multiple-generation stories.”

During Banned Books Week, it’s even clearer why so many of those LGBTQ stories have been missing, as writers attempt to fill the gap only to find their work targeted for censorship in the extreme. But all children—and all people of all ages—deserve to see themselves and their families reflected in the books they read. Books increase empathy and understanding across the board, allowing us the opportunity to step into another’s shoes and see through their eyes. As former president Barack Obama wrote in a Medium essay about banned books published today, books remind us that “at some level, we are all connected.” Yes, LGBTQ authors are often driven to create the book that was missing for them at one point. But for readers who may not have even realized a particular voice was missing in the first place, each book is a chance to discover an exciting new world.

GLAAD is a member of the Banned Books Week coalition and the Unite Against Book Bans campaign. Want to know what you can do to help resist book bans and school censorship? Go to https://www.glaad.org/schoolbookbans