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I Read The 5 Most Challenged And Banned LGBTQ+ Books Of Last Year — Here's What I Thought

Tl;dr: Stop banning books, you weirdos.

Every year, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of the previous year's most challenged books. And in 2021, half of the books on the top 10 list were targeted for containing "LGBTQIA+ content." Between that and homo- and transphobic bills like Florida's "Don't Say Gay or Trans" law, it's clear that there are plenty of folks out there who would rather erase LGBTQIA+ people and their history rather than try to deal with their own hatred and fear. I don't have time for that kind of small-mindedness, but you know what I did have time for this Pride Month?

Reading all five of 2021's most banned LGBTQIA+ books.

A stack of books

I struggled socially in elementary and middle school, and my general fear of everything got more severe when I realized that I wasn't quite as straight as my Catholic school's religious textbooks would've liked me to be. 

Things improved when I got older and moved on to public school, but before then, books were my solace; they were how I connected to other people and the world around me, and I'm forever thankful to my parents for insisting that my sister and I become voracious readers. Being a bookworm was my public identity, insofar as I had one as a 12-year-old, and it allowed me to nurture and investigate what was then the most private part of myself. Through reading, I discovered both places to hide and be found.

I don't remember books getting banned in either my religious or secular schools — though I did know a few kids who weren't allowed to read Harry Potter because of the whole witchcraft thing — but the idea of authority figures depriving young people of the sorts of stories that breathe life into mere existence fills me with an incandescent rage. I'm opposed to banning any kind of book — she had to clarify, in 2022 — but given the renewed attacks on LGBTQIA+ rights, I wanted to focus on the ones that were demonized for representing that community.

This Pride Month, I had the pleasure of reading Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson, This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson, and Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. Here's what I thought. 

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

Cover of "Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out"

This book compiles the first-person narratives of six young people who identify as transgender; where permitted by the interviewee, Kuklin has incorporated photographs of them both pre- and post-transition. While none of their stories are the same, and the interviewees are diverse in terms of ethnic and economic backgrounds, there are some commonalities in the struggles they face, such as an early discomfort with their assigned gender roles, difficult conversations with parents and other family members, and relief once they are able to begin their transition.

It's an oral history, a series of (in some cases literal) snapshots of the interviewees in a single moment in time, carrying the weight of what they've faced in the past into an uncertain future. Some fear that their partners will suddenly change their minds about dating a trans person; others dread facing violence in public. I read this from cover-to-cover, which you don't necessarily need to do, since they're standalone accounts, but the experience of reading it was like attending a support group as a listener rather than a participant. The honesty and vulnerability exhibited by the interviewees is a credit to both them and Kuklin herself, for establishing a safe environment in which they could open up to her.  

In addition to the firsthand accounts, the book contains a glossary of terms relevant to the transgender community, a list of resources, information about how Beyond Magenta came to be, and an interview with Dr. Manel Silva, the clinical director of the Health Outreach to Teens (HOTT) program at the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center. It's all very useful context, especially to a cisgender reader such as myself. 

What are we losing when this book gets banned?

A bravely given and expertly compiled series of accounts through which readers can both recognize themselves and build empathy for those whose experiences don't align with their own. It's disturbing to me that this book is being removed from classrooms at a moment where transphobia is on the rise; to take away a humanizing resource in the face of widespread dehumanization is dangerously irresponsible. 

Get it from Bookshop or Amazon.

This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson

Cover of "This Book Is Gay" by Juno Dawson

Do you remember those puberty how-to guides that started to appear in your bedroom around middle school, as if by awkward magic? You know, the ones that taught you about acne and deodorant and tampons and any other subject that could fall under the umbrella of "hey, my body never used to do that, and my friends never used to act like this, and wait, now I'm crying and I hate my mom." 

This is that book for LGBTQ+ youth, their families, and their allies. 

Dedicated to "every person who has ever wondered,"This Book Is Gay is the first banned book I read for this project, and it felt like taking a refresher course on many of the questions I've ever had about sexuality, gender, coming out, and being out. Dawson tackles a wide range of topics, from sex and dating apps to stereotypes and the perspectives of major faith groups on queerness. Like Beyond Magenta, I read it from cover to cover, but I imagine most people would come to this book to find an answer for a specific question — for instance, "Can gay people have children?" (answer: yes, in a variety of ways!) or "What if I don't want to have sex with anyone?" (answer: That's totally fine!) — and it is in this regard that the book succeeds in its stated purpose of being a resource for the LGBTQ+ community: It provides a wealth of answers. 

One particularly useful device Dawson uses is the first-person perspectives of a diverse group of LGBTQ+ people, who "chime in," so to speak, about the topics with which they have had personal experience. After all, the Pride flag is a rainbow for a reason, and no one person could ever speak for the entirety of the LGBTQIA+ experience, so why not draw from the diversity of the community to help as many folks as possible? 

Dawson strikes a conversational and approachable tone throughout, and uses humor to put the reader at ease while still handling serious topics with sensitivity and thoroughness. And yes, this book contains candid discussions of sex, as well as advice on how to keep yourself safe and healthy while doing it. In Chapter 9, "The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex," a preamble advises people who "aren't ready for the finer details of same-sex pairings" to skip ahead, while pointing out that straight sex is a largely uncontroversial addition to many students' curriculums. I hadn't considered this before, and whether you want to read "the sex chapter" or not, it makes a poignant point about how we construct a world where being heterosexual and cisgender is "normal," with any alternatives being seen as "abnormal."

What are we losing when this book gets banned?

A goldmine of useful information, cheerfully and straightforwardly delivered. I read my fair share of those puberty books when I was 11, but none of them addressed the questions that were actually bothering me. That's not to say they didn't do a lot of good, only that the genre was crying out for a resource exactly like This Book Is Gay. To think that Dawson and her first-person respondents delivered it, only to have it taken away from the people who need it the most, is deeply frustrating. 

Get it from Bookshop or Amazon.

All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson

Cover of "All Boys Aren't Blue"

All Boys Aren't Blue is George M. Johnson's account of growing up Black and queer in the United States, and it's a powerful reflection on how carrying the weight of two marginalized identities affected them from their childhood in a large, loving family through to their young adulthood in college, where they found another family through a fraternity, and endured with them the loss of a close friend. 

Through writing about experiences both traumatic and euphoric in nature, Johnson relates how their Blackness and queerness are qualities inextricable from each other, and offers a blueprint for young people who may be struggling to fully embrace their own identities in a society predicated on white supremacy and patriarchal heteronormativity. 

For most of the book, Johnson writes in the first person, but in certain sections they use the second person "you" to address significant figures from their life, such as their mother and their cousin Hope, a transgender woman. While much of the book is intensely personal, these sections stood out to me as especially striking instances of vulnerability and bravery. Johnson makes it clear that their family is worth the world to them, and to be granted such vivid insight into their relationships with them is a privilege. 

In the final chapter, Johnson writes, "But the most valuable thing I hope this book will teach others, as it has taught me, is that there isn't always a solution. That sometimes things just end the way that they end. That some processes are always going to be an ongoing thing." It's not a neat ending, and it never could've been. But a memoir, especially one written for young people, that acknowledges that life goes on, that people change and the world does with them, that the last page of one story may be the first of another, is invaluable. 

What are we losing when this book gets banned?

So much, damn it. Johnson writes about how they're sharing their story to help kids who are like them, and to answer that by removing the book from shelves is an inherent admission that people fear the institutions they are critiquing more than they value the education of young people. In one section of the book, Johnson relates how they came to realize that the version of history they were taught in school was whitewashed; providing this book, or even better, teaching it in schools would be one step toward correcting that crime against education, but instead, it's getting banned because of profanity? Profanity?! I'd characterize that as bullshit. 

Also, while I focused on LGBTQIA+ books for the purposes of this project, it's worth mentioning that books written by and about Black people and other people of color are commonly targeted by censors; for instance, the fifth most banned book of 2021 was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, which was challenged in part because "it was thought to promote an anti-police message," and number eight was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. This, too, is bullshit. 

Get it from Bookshop or Amazon.

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison

Cover of "Lawn Boy"

I love this book. If you haven't read it, I envy you, because you can go out and buy it and read it for the first time. I used to be like you. So young, so much ahead of me, namely, reading Lawn Boy for the first time. 

Mike Muñoz, a self-described "tenth-generation peasant with a Mexican last name," is trying to get his shit together. But between taking care of his developmentally disabled older brother, and helping support his perpetually overworked single mother, and trying to figure out why he can't just work up the courage to ask out the girl he has a crush on, and surviving paycheck-by-paycheck in a post-capitalism wasteland he had no part in building and has no chance of benefiting from, but must labor for regardless, deciding who he is and wants to be seems near impossible. 

Mike is the most lovable first-person narrator I've encountered in a while, and his voice and personality is unmistakable from the first page. The guy's a gem, and all he wants is a goddamn break once in a while (and the occasional opportunity to show off his gift for topiary). When one of those (rare) breaks arrive, it's difficult not to feel as though you just watched a friend of yours win a giant stuffed animal at a carnival game: thrilled, and just a little bit less intimidated by the odds, however bad they might seem. 

That's not to say it's not funny. It's so funny. I know I talked a big game about wanting to read it again for the first time, but I can't wait to reread it, since now that I know what happens, I can slow down and enjoy every single joke and jab at MFA fiction that Evison has to offer. 

Lawn Boy got the silver medal in the Moral Panic Olympics, coming in at #2 on the ALA list, and honestly, I just want to hear what Mike Muñoz would have to say about that. He'd probably be proud. 

What are we losing when this book gets banned?

Taking this book away from students robs them of a visceral firsthand account of what it means to be working class in America. Mike has talent and drive, but due to forces outside of his control, most of his opportunities to work hard (and benefit from it) are taken away from him. 

Lawn Boy is the only novel amongst these five books, and while it does contain LGBTQIA+ themes, they are just one aspect of these characters and their stories. Like anyone else, their sexualities are not the be-all, end-all of their personalities, but rather one part of a greater whole. For censors to flatten them to the point where all they see is objectionable "LGBTQIA+ content" speaks to their inability to see members of this community as whole human beings who exist beyond the labels that they are (wrongfully) afraid of. 

Get it from Bookshop or Amazon.

Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

Cover of "Gender Queer: A Memoir"

Well, well, well, if it isn't the most banned book of 2021. Now that I've read it, I'm irrevocably corrupted. Sorry, "The Man." There's no going back for me now. 

I'm joking, of course. Or am I? No, I am. But what a great book! Let's get into it. 

Gender Queer is a graphic memoir about Kobabe's journey to understanding eir relationship to gender and sexuality. Through lush illustrations and visceral anecdotes from a life lived outside the gender binary, we follow the author as e tries to align eir external life — through pronouns, wardrobe, and other forms of expression — with eir internal self. 

The gender queer experience is not one with which I am personally familiar, and reading this book was nothing short of revelatory; it was wonderful to glimpse into the genesis of such a talented artist, and to get a new perspective on how experiences I take for granted as relatively straightforward, like getting my period or purchasing underwear, can become fraught in the face of questions of gender identity. 

One of the subjects Kobabe explores is dating and sex (and, amusingly, how a desire to write more accurate fan-fiction pushed em to seek them out). The ALA lists "sexually explicit images" as one of the reasons the book got banned last year, and while deciding what material is appropriate for which age groups is beyond my purview here, I just don't see how a blanket ban could be the right solution, to this or any other difficult or explicit types of subject matter. Banning a book because some of what it covers may be controversial is like trying to avoid an awkward conversation with your roommate by moving. Sure, it saves you some agitation right then and there, but what kind of damage have you done to your long-term prospects in the process? 

Also, the last page made me cry. Mary: 0, Staining the Pages of Books with My Tears: 1. 

What are we losing when this book gets banned?

A candid and in-depth exploration of an identity that is simply not often represented in the media and pop culture. And let's not neglect the fact that this memoir is gorgeously illustrated from its first page to its very last. (Not to belabor the point, but that last page really got me, folks.) Gender Queer is a resource that students everywhere should have access to. It may be like nothing they've ever read or experienced before, or it may feel as familiar to them as a close friend. Either way, it should be read. 

Get it from Bookshop or Amazon.

Final Thoughts

I knew going into this that I was in for a good month of reading. After all, if these books weren't well-written, or powerful, or informative, who would bother to ban them? 

But I've already told you how I feel about the books themselves. What strikes me now, at the end of Pride Month, is this: The fact is that I’m an adult, who lives independently from my (supportive) family, in a city with a rich queer culture, with a job that allows me to buy whichever damn books I want. (Within reason. I’m not a Rockefeller.) Accessing these works wasn’t a struggle for me, and no one in my life would think twice about anything I chose to read. 

But all of that is luck and timing. If you’re a student who is beholden to the whims of parents, teachers, and community members, and they decide that certain books are too “dangerous” for you to read, then those books may very well be placed beyond your reach. No matter if you’re young and confused and questioning your identity, like I and so many other members of the community once were. No matter if this could be the book that changes things for you, and not only answers some questions but prompts you to ask new ones, like any great work of literature should. 

If you’re one of those students and you’re reading this right now, I want to say to you that these books, and the community that they represent, are waiting for you on the other side of wherever you may be. A book can be banned, but it can never be unwritten, and so the people trying to take them from your libraries and schools have already lost. It may not feel like it, but they have, and we can let them know that every single day, through how we live, who we love, and what we read. 

Happy Pride, and keep on reading. If nothing else, it’ll piss the right people off. 

Looking for more ways to get involved? Check out all of BuzzFeed's posts celebrating Pride 2022.

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Correction: An earlier version of this post used the incorrect pronouns for George M. Johnson. This has been corrected.