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Challenging the Challenged

By Randi Triant

After this past September’s annual Banned Books Week, I’ve been thinking about the vulnerable position LGBTQ writers are increasingly finding themselves in. Recently, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) reported that half of the top ten books challenged in 2016 had LGBTQ themes. Five of the top ten books.

A book is challenged when someone requests that it be removed from a school or library, or that access to it be restricted. The OIF maintains a database that keeps track of such challenged books from media reports and reports submitted by individuals via an OIF form. 

There’s more bad news, too. The number of books being challenged in 2016 increased overall by seventeen percent. Half of the 323 books reported as challenged last year were also actually removed from the libraries where they were being challenged. Until then, only ten percent of challenged books had ended up banned every year. So, not only are more books being challenged (and we can assume that means more LGBTQ books), but in addition more of those are actually thrown out of libraries, or, if they’re lucky, shelved in a restricted area behind the check-out counter. Imagine that elementary school student, confused about gender identity, having to publicly walk up to the school librarian and ask for a copy of say, I am Jazz, which was on the 2016 list. I’m betting that won’t happen.

As writers we write for ourselves, yes. But we also hope that there will be an audience for our books. What happens when specific audiences—readers of children’s and young adult books especially—are systematically prevented from reading our fiction and non-fiction? Banned adult literature is bad enough. But ever since The Well of Loneliness was banned in Britain, we’ve found ways to get those distributed. Restricting what school libraries offer changes the reading landscape of LGBTQ books more significantly. It’s not like we ‘re going to stand on street corners saying, “Psst, kid. Want to read a great book about growing up a lesbian?” Keep in mind, too, that 2016 was before the current administration had started their anti-LGBTQ campaign. The statistics can only get worse in 2017.

However, our discussion of banned books shouldn’t be restricted by year, or protested for only one week of the year. Regardless of the year, or when Banned Books Week happens (usually the last week of September), any time a LGBTQ book is banned our daily, year-round LGBTQ rights are compromised. LGBTQ books are essentially lifelines that do not, or should not, have an expiration date. Lest you think I am being overly dramatic here, you only have to consider that LGBTQ youth attempt suicide at a rate one and a half to three times the rate of straight youth. Books do save lives, especially those that help such vulnerable populations as LGBTQ youth. Thus, whether our books were banned in 2016 or 1999 isn’t what we should be focusing on. Rather, we should be vigilant about censorship every day of every year just as we are about any of our LGBTQ rights. Censorship doesn’t rest and neither should we.

So, what can we do? The OIF has several suggestions on their website on how we can advocate against all censorship, LGBTQ and otherwise, from “encouraging your book club to discuss rebellious reads,” to participating in OIF’s “virtual read-out” of banned books. In other words, challenging the challenged. Let’s not confine such actions to one week per year either, or lower our guard the other fifty-one weeks. Instead, I’m going to task myself every morning with answering the question: How can I challenge the silencing of LGBTQ books today?   

Randi Triant's debut book, The Treehouse is due out in 2018