So far this year, there have been 38 book challenges just in Connecticut; last year there were nine. None of these challenges prompt divisive debate. They merely reveal existing divisions caused by pure hatred of queer and trans folks.
The outcome is what matters. Last week in Newtown, not only did the Board of Education unanimously vote to keep two challenged books on the shelves – one of which is about a gay character’s struggles with his identity – but two members of the BOE seeking to restrict educational content resigned. One said it was because of the atmosphere of the book-banning debate: “we should be setting an example for our students by modeling respectful behavior.”
The irony is delicious. These transparent attempts to silence and erase LGBTQ youth through deprivation of information were opposed by the public. Those who have long been used to getting their way are no doubt astonished when people who are under attack stand up for themselves instead of vanishing into the shadows. Perhaps both former BOE members will use this opportunity to reflect on how it feels to be mistreated, and going forward, they will practice more hospitality and empathy toward others.
While much was made of how one of the books has never been checked out, people might be reminded of how libraries work: you can sit there all day and read materials without ever taking them home with you; this is especially valuable to those living in hostile home environments where carrying such a book might trigger parents to act with cruelty and violence.
Back in 1994, Heather Has Two Mommies, a book about a lesbian couple loving their child, was disputed in my hometown. Wanting to know what all of the fuss was about, I borrowed what was well below my age and reading level. At a time when my friends and I were subjected to daily bullying attempts in school, it was nice to see a positive portrayal of those in the queer community, even if as a teen I felt disappointed that the book was so innocuous. I remember being shocked that this was what they were so upset about. Long story short, the library continued to keep the book on its shelves.
What are the odds that all those classmates who called us homophobic slurs in the hallways decades ago have evolved into better people? Now, some from my generation are being part of the problem. But, they didn’t win then and they aren’t going to win now.
In Mystic, Bank Square Books just launched an in-store Queer Little Free Library, adopting the model used in its sister shop, Savoy. The Open Agenda initiative is a pay-it-forward model. Anyone can buy a book to donate, and those unsure what to pick can choose from the bookseller’s recommendations. Likewise, anyone can take from this library, no questions asked. Bank Square Books, additionally, has hosted Pride Storytime with readings done by the books’ authors.
Nationwide, bigots have targeted Drag Queen Storytime events, which promote literacy and pro-social behaviors. Books read are age appropriate; they are not ones you would find on my nightstand. Last year, such an event was planned for the West Hartford Public Library, but after online bullying, organizers moved it to a Barnes & Noble approximately 20 feet away. This year, similar storytime events have already happened or are planned in June, in smaller towns than West Hartford, including East Hampton, Mansfield, Easton, and Redding. In Guilford, Breakwater Books is hosting a Pride Month Celebration that will have it all, including voter registration and a side of face painting. They are not anticipating any bullying, but should any occur, the independent bookstore says they are prepared to “handle it with dignity and grace because kids will be there and they are always watching and learning.”
Not all heroes are fellow bookworms. Some run art and play studios for children. Meredith Magee Donnelly, the owner of Homegrown Friends in West Hartford, says that her masters thesis “was on creating a family curriculum for 4- and 5-year-olds that combats institutionalized homophobia” and she weaves this into the current curriculum using conversations and picture books. These efforts to create an increasingly inclusive environment in which LGBTQ families feel celebrated are year-round, but for Pride Month they hold a Rainbow Art Party and donate 25% of proceeds to the Trevor Project. The event is sold out. Despite receiving some negativity about the studio’s values, the owner says that her “goal is to create a safe and happy environment” for her community.
Not everyone has the privilege to be apolitical. Merely existing is a political act. We have seen major strides, and that is why those with a fragile sense of self are currently lashing out, here and across the United States. What’s heartening is that, at least in Connecticut, even – or, especially – in small towns, adults are doing a better job raising this next generation by refusing to force them into ill-fitting gender norms. Youth are more allowed to have whole self-expression.
Instead of being taught that their love and place in the community relies on their willingness and ability to conform, they are told – through books, performances, festivals, and more – that every human has inherent value and dignity, and is worthy of being loved. Never for one second did I consider staying in my small, suffocating hometown, but I am heartened to see the next generation is not necessarily being pushed out from their own. They are going to be able to more freely choose where they want to be, and without sacrificing their personal integrity in order to thrive there.