‘This Book is Gay’ Controversy

Image Credit: congerdesign via pixabay

Design Editor Ellie Hanan Moran breaks down the controversy surrounding 2021’s 9th most banned book in the US

Last week, approaching my local library in Swords, I spotted a group of protesters in the distance. My first thought was of the recent right-wing anti-immigrant protests that have been happening around Ireland, and I panicked. Coming closer, I noticed the signs they were holding and one protester filled me in on what was happening. The group were counter-protesting recent protests by right-wing groups calling for the removal of a book called ‘This Book is Gay’ by UK author Juno Dawson, from both secondary school SPHE curriculums and the teen sections of libraries. 

As someone who had read the book, I was shocked to hear the level of hatred directed at it. I have come to expect hearing of hate groups in the US banning and boycotting anything relating to LGBTQ+ issues, labelling queer people as paedophiles and attempting to erode any rights and safety queer, and transgender people in particular have achieved over the past thirty or so years. In the UK as well, transphobia is rampant and disturbingly widespread. In Ireland, however, being a country that voted equal marriage into the constitution only eight years ago, I expected better. 

the bomb threat described the book as “disgusting” and claimed that it “violated a child’s innocence”

Researching the issue further, I learnt that the book was named during a bomb threat that targeted the Hilton Central School District in New York on the 22nd of March. The bomb threat described the book as “disgusting” and claimed that it “violated a child’s innocence”. Ironic that a book could violate a child’s innocence, but a bomb threat is perfectly fine. 

The school in question had exactly one copy of ‘This Book is Gay’ in its library since it was purchased in 2015 and had only ever been checked out twice. Since this incident, the book has gained significantly more negative attention from people echoing the person who threatened to bomb a school, agreeing that the book is not appropriate for schools. The world truly becomes more and more of a satire of itself every day, and it has long stopped being a funny one.

The Irish far right, who love to copycat whatever the American far right are up to, whether or not the issue is even relevant to Ireland at the time, predictably jumped on that wave. Several hate groups took to schools and libraries, shouting obscenities at librarians, calling them paedophilic slurs and inciting violence, most notably seen in Cork, though the protests targeted several libraries that stocked the book, Swords being one of them. The protesters claim to be concerned parents and teachers. Of those involved, the Irish Examiner named three groups at the centre of the protests: Natural Women’s Council, the Irish Education Alliance and Parents Rights Alliance. 

It begs the question of why a Reading Guide was labelled as 0-18, as if all books on it were appropriate for the entire age group, and why they were not grouped by age rating

The Natural Women’s Council have been involved in several protests specifically relating to their anti-transgender stances, relevant here due to the fact that ‘This Book is Gay’ was written by a trans woman. The protesters claim the books that they are protesting, books which deal with LGBTQ+ issues, are pornographic and should not be available to young readers. Those who claim to be concerned about children’s safety in the company of queer people, people of colour, immigrants, etc. do not often express being particularly concerned about children’s safety in the presence of guns or leaders of community groups with actual histories of covering up child sexual abuse, such as the Church, sports teams or scouts groups. I do not claim that children should be entirely kept away from these communities either, but it is relevant to note that communities with evidence of history of child abuse are deemed trustworthy by people who cite concern for children as their reason for hatred of the LGBTQ+ community. 

In response to the protests, Children’s Books Ireland reviewed their inclusion of ‘This Book is Gay’ on their Pride Reading Guide and removed it from the list, citing their reasons as that the book is appropriate for older teenagers but that their Pride Reading Guide is labelled as 0-18 and on that grounds it is not appropriate for the reading list. It begs the question of why a Reading Guide was labelled as 0-18, as if all books on it were appropriate for the entire age group, and why they were not grouped by age rating. Similarly, the HSE have said that they will be removing reading lists from their Social, Personal and Health Education (SPHE) resource, which includes Relationships and Sexuality Education for all schools. ‘This Book is Gay’ was included on the list for the Junior Cycle course. 

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, the HSE cited their reason for this choice being that the lists were “too long, and teachers could miss some information included in them”. Following this, Aontú’s Paedar Tobin demanded that Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and Education Minister Norma Foley explain how the book got on the school reading list to begin with. Considering that the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child said that Ireland needs to ensure education on gender equality, sexual diversity, sexual and reproductive health, responsible sexual behaviour and violence prevention, the addition of one of the only comprehensive guides to diverse sexual health makes perfect sense to me. It is hard to say for sure whether Children’s Books Ireland and the HSE are being honest with their justifications or whether they simply gave in to controversy. 

If Irish organisations continue to be this eager to please outraged hate groups, we have a dangerous road ahead of us. That all being said, the libraries have stood their ground, refusing to succumb to the groups’ intimidation tactics and censorship. Even in Cork City libraries, where staff were subjected to intimidation, verbal abuse and filming against their will, staff have maintained that they will not be removing any of their LGBTQ+ books.

The counter protests were attended by People Before Profit, who distributed literature claiming that librarians and teachers were dealing with “hate-filled attacks by right-wing bullies and conspiracy theorists.” They argue that “all these people have is contempt, not concern, for young people who may be struggling with their sexuality or gender identity” and that the accusation of library staff providing pornographic materials to children was an “insult to their professionalism.” Outside Swords library, many of the protesters had entered the building. It is not clear whether they did so before gardaí arrived or after, but by the time People Before Profit arrived at the scene, the protesters of the LGBTQ+ books had got into the library and the Gardaí were outside the library. One counter-protester claims he was physically “pushed aside” by Gardaí and told they were not allowed to enter the library while the protesters were in there. By the time I was at Swords library, the original protesters seemed to be gone, with only the counter-protest remaining, but the Gardaí were still blocking the library entrance, refusing to let counter-protesters inside. The Gardaí were also called for similar situations in libraries in Lusk, Balbriggan and Pearse Street. The group have reportedly also intimidated libraries at other locations including Rush, Tallaght and Ashbourne. Gardaí have reportedly dismissed the incidents as civil cases, as opposed to criminal ones.

Juno Dawson is an author who previously worked for seven years as a sexual education and wellness teacher. ‘This Book is Gay’, first published in 2014, provides a light-hearted examination of queer sex education, complete with content warnings before explicit chapters and transparency on the back as to the nature of the book. Dawson, who typically focuses on horror and fantasy literature, was asked to write the book by her publishers, and aware of the lack of reading material on sex education for young people, she agreed. Since then, the book has been embraced by many schools and libraries and added to sex education and queer literature reading lists in an effort to promote inclusive sex education for young people.

It undermines the intelligence of children, to assert that they are so easily convinced of who they are

‘This Book is Gay’ was 9th most banned book of 2021 in the US, a list of which almost entirely consisted of books that deal with LGBTQ+ and POC experiences, including ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas and other famously award-winning books and authors. The number of bannings and challenges made to reading lists and books’ availability in libraries has only risen in the past few years. The efforts to remove these kinds of books speak to a dangerous and hateful agenda that seeks to limit young people’s access to different perspectives that may open their minds, bring their awareness to the suffering of others and see the ‘other’ as a human deserving of empathy and understanding. 

All the while, the same groups claim they are being censored, silenced or ‘cancelled’ - the exact thing they are attempting to do to marginalised groups. It is projection of the highest order, surpassed only by calling LGBTQ+ people groomers while seeking to limit children’s access to education so that you may control and manipulate them into your own narrow worldview. According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom, “What we’re seeing right now is an unprecedented campaign to remove books from school libraries but also public libraries that deal with the lives and experience of people from marginalised communities.” She continues, “We’re seeing organised groups go to school boards and library boards and demand actual censorship of these books in order to conform to their moral or political views.” 

Book banning, historically, is synonymous with groups that began with claims of expressing concern, which turned to censorship in line with their moral or political views and only grew more dangerous from there. The steps and tactics being used by these groups falls in line with the stages of genocide, famously used by groups such as the Nazis and the Spanish Inquisition. These signs should be noticed and shut down in the earliest stages, but like every dark chapter in history, those who are unaffected dismiss the severity and turn a blind eye, effectively becoming complicit in the harm done to those being targeted. 

Despite the overwhelming positivity the book received by the queer people who read it, conservative parents predictably took issue with it, claiming it was too sexually explicit for the age range it was on the reading lists for. Those who protest the book cite the sections on masturbation, anal sex and hookup apps as inappropriate for 12-15 year olds, the age of those in the Junior Cycle, on which the book appears as part of the SPHE curriculum. While many of the protesters avoid mentioning the queer element, or outright deny it as relevant to their motivation for banning or removing the book, it is inherently an extremely relevant factor. Masturbation, anal sex and hookup apps relate to sexuality that is not reproductive. 

Sexual education in schools has been either entirely nonexistent or presented in a religious tone, warning of pregnancy and STDs while providing little to no actual information for most of Irish history. Only in recent years has this issue finally begun to be addressed, but even so, most schools still only cover what is deemed absolutely necessary, which is how reproduction works and how to avoid it. Even the focus on reproductive sexual health has been controversial in Irish history, no doubt in connection to an overhanging culture of Catholic guilt. By expressing outrage at discussions of masturbation, anal sex and hookup apps, the protesters are telling us that they will allow young people to learn about reproductive sex, but only reproductive sex.

Of course, wanting to avoid discussion of non-reproductive forms of sex is itself wanting to avoid discussions of queer sex. Sex that is for pleasure is still somehow taboo, and something people want to keep from teenagers. What I cannot understand here is, do these people note remember their teenage years? Most teenagers are sexually active in some capacity, if not with others than through masturbation. By removing teenagers’ opportunities to learn about what they are experiencing, they do not remove the experience itself, only the information that might help young people make safer and healthier choices with how they express their sexuality. 

Comprehensive sex education includes discussing gender, sexuality, relationships and safe sex of all kinds. In a time without internet, I can understand how parents may have felt that banning books and discussions of any sexual nature may have prevented their children from acting on urges (though this is proven to not be the case), but in the modern age, a child without answers to their questions only has to type some words in the google to find answers. Parental controls may work for very young children but I can guarantee that any teenager who wants to override controls in order to access explicit things can and will do so. So you would think, considering this, that it would be preferable for children to be educated on sexual health in schools during early puberty when the questions begin to arise, than for them to google their questions and be met with actual graphic and pornographic results that may only misinform them and confuse them further. Not to mention, if a subject is treated as incredibly taboo at home, the children will ask anyone for answers before they ask their parents, which will only open them up to situations in which they may be given false information or even manipulated into doing things they do not want to do. 

In the earlier days of internet access, many young people, especially young queer people, took to chat rooms to express themselves to strangers, as they could not express themselves authentically in their real lives. This led to a disturbing amount of child grooming in which older people took advantage of the vulnerable young people who had no one else to talk openly about their sexuality to. While openness about queer issues has improved since that time, so has the vastness and arguably danger of the internet for young people. 

As Dawson explains, in her childhood she “wasn’t seeing hardcore pornography. I wasn’t inundated with guys in my DMs on Snapchat or Instagram, which is what I see happening to my teenage nieces now. So I think we have a responsibility as adults to say this is what the internet is like now and this is how you need to stay safe. That’s why I think the most responsible thing we can do as adults and educators and librarians is giving people as much information as possible”.

Among reasons cited for wanting the book removed, protesters claim accessibility of the book and presence on reading lists take away parents’ rights of choice over what kinds of materials their children have access to. Banning books however, violates the rights of parents who want those books to be available for their children to have access to. Additionally, ‘This Book is Gay’ and many of the other books being protested, are aimed towards teenagers. It is incredibly naive to think that removing your child’s access to a library book will prevent them from accessing it entirely. If there is a book or piece of media a teenager wants to read, they will find it themselves, whether by ordering it online, visiting a different library, buying it from a bookstore or finding a PDF online. Parental right to control over their child’s media consumption isn’t particularly relevant, realistic or even fair on the freedoms of the child as they pass into the teenage years, and is really more for the case of younger children. 

It is also worth noting that “under the terms and conditions of library memberships, parents/guardians are responsible for their children’s use of library materials and services and for their library selections up to the age of 18,” as was said by a spokesperson for public libraries at the Local Government Management Agency. Children are not permitted to move a reading age/stage upwards without parental consent either, so there is no danger of a child under the age of the guidelines for the book checking the book out without parental consent.

What these protests come down to is a very dangerous mindset and desire to limit the choices of others, confine others to only options that are deemed acceptable by one group of people. It is targeting vulnerable and marginalised groups, feeding into conspiracy theories that these groups have more control over public life than is remotely accurate. The LGBTQ+ community fighting to provide comprehensive safe sex materials for teenagers is an expression of the fact that most adults in the LGBTQ+ community did not have access to this kind of necessary information, and the lack of information they had caused major issues for their safety and wellbeing as young people. 

By compiling these inclusive lists, and attempting to educate young people, the goal is to ensure that the next generation is better educated and equipped to deal with the questions and challenges of teenage and young adult life than generations of the past were. By attempting to remove this progress, these right-wing groups, all the while claiming the LGBTQ+ community are endangering children, are themselves putting young queer people in grave danger. They cannot see their actions for what they are, because in their eyes, supplying children with LGBTQ+ materials encourages queerness in them that would otherwise have not been present. This concept of sexuality undermines every person who has ever struggled with their sexuality in the face of bigotry, unable to change even if they wanted to. It undermines the intelligence of children, to assert that they are so easily convinced of who they are - if children’s orientations could be controlled with propaganda, queerness would be almost entirely non-existent. 

Queer existence is proof that controlling what representation a child sees will cause their sexual orientation. Additionally, while cis-heteronormative narrative control told children that same-sex attraction is wrong and dirty and they should feel ashamed of it, texts with a queer narrative supplied to young people do not claim that opposite sex attraction is wrong or dirty, it simply informs readers that same-sex attraction is a beautiful thing, not something to be ashamed of but to be embraced if it is a part of who you are. Access to queer reading materials is vital for queer youth, especially if they are otherwise surrounded by people like those involved in the protests, who evidently will reject their child if they exhibit any expression of queerness, and blame this inherent fact about their child on their media consumption and school influence.