Commentary

The far right isn’t attacking books. They’re attacking children.

books burning
Photo: Shutterstock

“Some people are born in the mountains, while others are born by the sea. Some people are happy to live in the place they were born, while others must make a journey to reach the climate in which they can flourish and grow. Between the ocean and the mountains is a wild forest. That is where I want to make my home.”

― Maia Kobabe, Gender Queer

Kobabe’s journey to self-identity, a coming of age story for a non-binary individual, is at the center of nationwide outrage and it shouldn’t be.

Related: GOP governor cracks down on school libraries after being enraged by “Gender Queer” memoir

A self-anointed warrior Mom tweeted last night, “Why are these people still defending porn in schools?!?!” “These people” being the LGBTQ community and allies versus an army of martyr moms who’ve not bothered to read the books they want to burn. 

Cancel culture only bothers these folks when they’re not leading the canceling. Queer-bashing disguised as child advocacy isn’t new; this is just this year’s call to hate for the pitchfork and torches crowd. 

A local right leaning YouTube creator hosted a panel the other night of individuals allegedly on “both sides of the issue” about the books, Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, and Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison. All views weren’t represented on that panel though, because it was clear nobody in the discussion had read either book. It’s intellectually dishonest to populate a panel to debate books nobody on the panel has read, but welcome to America in 2021.

The featured guest was Stacy Langton, who calls herself a “Grizzly mom.” I agree, she is grisly, but we spell it differently. There was nobody on the panel who was for the books or even neutral.

The host of the show did a good job feigning neutrality for anyone who’d not witnessed his public tantrums and lies about both books. Langton has been dubbed by right wing media as the national spokesmodel against LGBTQ literature in schools. She claims it’s an anti-porn campaign, but that begs the question why 100% of the books singled out by her are LGBTQ authors and content?

She insists because her mother was a lesbian that she can’t possibly be queer-phobic. I beg to differ, but Langton is a bit player of a more orchestrated right wing political operative and media juggernaut to stoke outrage in the suburbs to win elections. 

That’s all this is. Politically cynical people exploiting children to campaign for candidates who intend to privatize public education and far worse.

The books are a distraction, and just the newest iteration of a persistant campaign of vicious queer-phobia in the district that erupts every time any progress is made to protect or respect the rights of LGBTQ students, teachers, or staff in this community. Fairfax County isn’t a bizarre outlier in this, but the national norm. After a parent tantrum amplified by right-wing media, the books were removed for review by a committee of students, parents, and teachers, and are now restored to the shelves of our county libraries.

Problem solved?

It might be if the books were the problem, but the real problem is visceral hatred of queer people, and political operatives marshalling that hate to win elections.  LGBTQ students in the district saw it and sent a letter signed by over 400 students representing almost every county high school to the school board demanding to be heard. Pride Liberation Project, a student-led LGBTQ rights organization in Fairfax County, have not sat idly by to allow their lives to be politicized, but as courageous as they are, they are fielding a barrage of relentless vitriol and bullying. Children shouldn’t be forced to stand up for themselves against adult bullies.  

Adults standing with students are also attacked and bullied.  One right wing operative said adults standing behind student-activists are “using children as human shields” and compared us to terrorists. The insult du jour for anyone defending LGBTQ students having a right to access LGBTQ authors and content is “OK groomer,” which is fewer characters on a tweet than “sexual predator” I suppose. But we aren’t defending books; we’re defending children.

I was the victim of a 19-year-old pedophile when I was five-years-old. I was groomed, then raped repeatedly. I know what grooming is because I’ve experienced being groomed. 

I take pedophilia seriously. The mini-van faction of the QAnon cult clearly does not.

For cishet people like me, being accused of sexual predation is not a common experience. However, LGBTQ people have dealt with the stigma of these kinds of accusations for centuries.

What is “grooming” in reference to pedophilia, and why is it harmful to use it out of context as a pejorative to silence opposition and shut down rational discussion? 

Grooming is the process by which pedophiles use to prepare a victim for abuse. Many think sexual predators of children are lurking in dark corners, waiting to attack their prey, but 90% of sexual crimes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim

What is the process of a predator grooming prey? 

1) Identify/target a possible victim.

2) Collect information about the intended victim.

3) Fill a need for the victim, often showering with gifts, offering rides, babysitting, help.

4) Build trust and lower inhibitions.

5) Initiate abuse.

6) Maintain control of the victim by continuing to abuse or threatening dire outcomes if a victim doesn’t keep the secret. 

By no definition of the term “grooming” do those who support LGBTQ literature in school libraries rise to the accepted psychological or legal definition. Moreover, mis-using the term trivializes it, blurs the lines, and places all children in more danger.

Words have meanings, and this is a word that is crucial for parents to understand the correct definition to protect our children from actual harm. Calling those in the LGBTQ community and allies, “groomers,” is just an age-old trope to imply LGBTQ people are sexual deviants. They feel these books are proof of their lie.

The trope is ancient, and using books to sully queer authors with it is a constant. In the past, it was fringe nuts mostly ignored by sane society. The far right has now channeled the energy of those outraged by progress to scare the bejesus out of parents about school librarians being purveyors at your child’s corner adult bookstore.

What’s next? Peep-shows in the cafeteria?

But are we defending books or people? 

I read Gender Queer. I found it fascinating and enlightening.

It is not porn.

The author is non-binary and uses e, em, eir pronouns. The panel, featuring Langton, and everyone on the right discussing the book consistently misgender Kobabe. Those who’ve read eir book know this. Those who have not read the book continue to misgender em, even after being alerted. They intentionally deny Kobabe’s identity and existence as a non-binary individual. 

Kobabe is also asexual. The central thesis of Gender Queer is one can live a life outside of relationships and without engaging in sex or marriage and that’s okay.

Kobabe wrote: I remember when I first realized I never had to have children. It was like walking out of a narrow alley into a wide open field. I never have to get married. I never have to date anyone. I don’t have to care about sex. These realizations were like a gift I gave to myself.

So where’s the “porn”?

The graphic to which most parents refer as pedophilia, Kobabe explained in a statement: The image is based on an ancient Greek pottery cup that shows ‘a courting scene’ and is on display at a museum in Oxford, England. Greek classical art and culture in high school marked the first time I can remember learning about LGBTQ+ people and it left a big impression. I was so hungry for literally any type of queer representation. I devoured every queer movie, song lyric, fantasy novel, manga series, and yes, erotic Greek pottery painting I could find.”

Kobabe did describe being sexually aroused by the image, to which many have implied that proves e is promoting pedophilia, and “grooming” children for this crime. 

There is plenty of sexual content in fiction in high school libraries. For instance, R. R. George Martin’s Game of Thrones series is carried in Fairfax County school libraries. In that, a brother rapes his sister and has an ongoing sexual relationship and children with her. Where’s the outrage? It’s easy for any reader to  list and quote more books with far more explicit content, and there are many, but why give book burners more literature to toss onto the pyre?

The graphic in Gender Queer that’s caused the most uproar is of two non-binary AFABS (a female at birth) simulating oral sex in a fantasy of the author, with one of them donning a strap-on. Nobody is saying it was not an explicit scene, but it was all part of Kobabe’s journey towards eir identity and orientation. It is relevant to the story.

Hundreds of books available in high school libraries contain graphic sex and violence. Why single this one out of hundreds?

This was a fantasy about a consensual sexual act. Our fiction is filled with graphic descriptions of sexual assault and murder, but that all stays?

The same kids they want to protect from Gender Queer watched Disney’s Beauty and the Beast hundreds of times wherein a lovely maiden falls in love with her abuser and captor. Consensual sexual fantasies are an outrage, but kidnapping and abusing are fine? 

How does a book written and illustrated by someone who is asexual become pornography?

It makes no sense. 

If I write a book about my experience being the victim of a pedophile; is that porn? No. The textbook definition of pornography is media meant to sexually arouse the person reading or watching it. It is not any discussion or depiction of sexual behavior. By this logic, all the world’s libraries are stocked with millions of volumes of pornography. It’s preposterous.

The panel discussion of folks discussing books they’d not read moved on to Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison. What they’ve characterized as pedophilia, was an adult explaining to another adult an experience he’d had at age ten, having a sexual encounter with another ten-year-old peer of the same gender.

The objection raised by the host was the age of the children engaging in consensual behavior was the main problem. But the real problem was the experience described was between two boys, because gays are sexual deviants at any age, lurking in corners waiting to prey on children. The author revealed in an interview with Washington Post he’s received death threats.  

Also targeted by book burners as too explicit for children is All Boys Aren’t Blue, by non-binary author, George M. Johnson. The author talks about the intersection of queerness and race and relays painful life experiences and lessons learned. Detractors of the work are most disturbed when the author graphically describes a brutal sexual assault they experienced. It is difficult to read, especially for me as a survivor. For those who’ve experienced this heinous crime, we often find courage to come forward ourselves when others come forward before us. I’m grateful Johnson was willing to recount their pain to empower others. It was a selfless act. 

Johnson, in an interview with TIME, said the book is targeted to 14-18 years old teens. Johnson also said, “I am talking about sexual education. I am talking about consent. I am talking about agency. And I am using my story to teach kids about the mistakes that I made the first time that I was having sex, so they don’t make those same mistakes. I am teaching kids about not feeling guilty when sexual abuse happens, and how to recognize sexual abuse—most teens don’t even recognize they’ve been abused. And how to fight back against those traumas that you can hold on to for so very long. So they’re leaving very, very important context out, intentionally of course, to try and say my book is pornographic.”

As a child, coming to the realization one has been a victim of sexual assault is the first step towards healing. I never had that chance because I never spoke of my secret until I was twenty-two. I came forward with that secret I’d carried with me for seventeen years after reading The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, thankfully available at school libraries. 

In the rape justice movement, we talk a lot about secrets and shame. It’s why the #MeToo movement was so powerful. The world became a witness to how common sexual crimes are.

These are painful stories for us to tell, but we tell them to protect others. We don’t tell them to turn other people on or to prey on children. We tell our stories because we must, not because we want to.

It’s hideous to imagine a child being raped. It’s physically painful for me to talk about it, but I do, because sexual predators depend on their victims remaining silent, so they can continue preying with impunity. 

I didn’t tell a soul about it until I was twenty two and did not seek treatment until after I was thirty. The person who raped me was clergy. I did not fully understand that I was not to blame until well into adulthood. I felt I’d done something to make it happen as do most victims of pedophilia. Many of us do not seek treatment until the pain of not being treated becomes debilitating. 

Had I read All Boys Aren’t Blue as a teen, I could have avoided years of untreated trauma. When one has been victimized by a pedophile, it changes a person’s entire perspective and causes permanent physiological damage to the brain, only exacerbated by living with the secret and shame longer.

Living in the closet in shame for LGBTQ children causes the same kind of trauma and reading books about people like them, learning that their thoughts and feelings are normal and not evil, alleviates the pain of years of untreated trauma as well.

Every nine minutes a child falls prey to a sexual predator in the United States, and 34% of child victims of sexual assault are under twelve-years-old. We can ignore it or we can discuss it, read about it, understand it, and hopefully prevent it.

Teaching children about boundaries and consent is key. We can pretend we’re protecting children’s innocence by banning books, but in order to do that, we have to pretend far too many didn’t already lose our innocence to bullying, sexual assault, domestic violence, addiction, or poverty.

This bucolic childhood many think they are protecting doesn’t exist for far too many children. We have to discuss what is and is not sexual assault, harassment, or misconduct.

Using psychological terms like groomer incorrectly is dangerous. Adults must understand what grooming is and how to detect the warning signs and symptoms.

In a Facebook live event of a Koch-backed rightwing parent group Tuesday night, the discussion centered around the books to which children are being exposed, allegedly stealing their childhoods. Both moms giddily talked about the adorable little children in their opening credits to the segment and fighting to preserve their innocence.

I counted 32 children. With one in four girls, and one in six boys being sexually assaulted, statistically, about eight of those adorable “cubs” will be sexually assaulted before age eighteen. Seven will be bullied. Three will be exposed to domestic violence, two will experience homes with addiction.

Six will be LGBTQ. Of those six, three will be chronically depressed, and two will experience suicidal ideation.

Reality isn’t adorable for far too many children. 

How does one segue from LGBTQ literature to sexual assault? That’s not my pivot, but theirs. The far right is weaponizing sexual assault to assert that people who are LGBTQ, including children, are all sexual deviants.

Now, all who affirm LGBTQ children, who are fighting to keep LGBTQ authors in our school libraries are also being accused of being sex offenders. That includes student allies, school librarians, teachers, administrators, school boards, other parents, all of us, are sexually preying on children according to them.

The expansion of the label has gurgled straight up from the bowels of the QAnon fever swamp, where everyone with whom they disagree, anyone from center-right to communists, are colluding worldwide to traffic and sexually prey on children. The conspiracies and rhetoric from it are deflecting from real issues endangering children. 

Sexual assault is a serious discussion that needs to be had, especially on campuses from pre-school through college. Tarring LGBTQ literature in schools as promoting violence is not a serious discussion about sexual assault: it’s a lie. Accusing LGBTQ people of having violent or deviant intentions is making them unsafe and getting them killed. 

LGBTQ people are nearly four times more likely than non-LGBTQ people to experience violent victimization, which includes rape, sexual assault, and aggravated or simple assault, according to a new study by the William Institute.

School board meetings nationwide have devolved into queer-bashing hate-fests. The mobs are using books to bludgeon children, but the age-old message is loud and clear. You are evil, you are perverts, you are deviants, we see you coming for our kids, you are not welcome.  

Following is data from 2018 report for LGBTQ youth, from a  survey of 12,000 LGBTQ teenagers. I shudder to predict what 2021 data will reveal. 

Seventy-seven percent of LGBTQ teenagers surveyed report feeling depressed or down over the past week;

Ninety-five percent of LGBTQ youth report trouble sleeping at night;

LGBTQ youth of color and transgender teenagers experience unique challenges and elevated stress — only 11 percent of youth of color surveyed believe their racial or ethnic group is regarded positively in the U.S., and over 50 percent of trans and gender expansive youth said they can never use school restrooms that align with their gender identity;

More than 70 percent report feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness in the past week;

Only 26 percent say they always feel safe in their school classrooms — and just five percent say all of their teachers and school staff are supportive of LGBTQ people;

Sixty-seven percent report that they’ve heard family members make negative comments about LGBTQ people.

What about protecting the childhoods of these people?

In Fairfax County, seventeen percent of FCPS young people identify as LGBTQ. In talking to two FCPS librarians, both stated that less than one percent of our libraries’ collection is LGBTQ content. Most students in the district report that in their required work, they never encounter any LGBTQ authors at all.

 Fifty percent of Fairfax County LGBTQ children reported being depressed, and their attempted suicide rates quadruple those of cishet children in this district. Is it any wonder why? When we erase books about LGBTQ people, we are erasing the children. When they hear adults screaming hate against them, how do these children feel? 

I saw a poignant comment under a recent Washington Post oped on this issue, a piece that made great points, but this comment below it by someone named Jmartingale hits right between the eyes:

I was a gay child of the ’50s.  I remember, even as a boy in high school, having to surreptitiously thumb through the books on ballet in the public library to see images of half naked men. It was not until I reached my mid 40s before I walked into a gay bookstore and found my own library of literature about people like me that I had been dying to find as a child.  People have no understanding of the isolation that LGBT kids can endure.  The isolation is what drives so many to suicide. To deprive this segment of the population virtual contact with people like themselves is intentionally cruel.

Not only should we not ban Gender Queer, Lawn Boy, or All Boys Aren’t Blue from school libraries, we must expand the collection of LGBTQ authors and content to which children have access. Not just so queer students can see themselves, but non-LGBTQ children can learn to be better allies. 

LGBTQ children in Fairfax County are under direct attack, as they are by the fringe right nationwide. Those of us defending LGBTQ authors are not defending books. We’re defending children. 

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