“You can't ban a person from coming out as gay or lesbian. But what you can do is challenge a book,” says Juno Dawson, as she explains how her guide for LGBT young people became one of the most banned books in the USA. Dawson’s work, This Book Is Gay, has been restricted in many schools and libraries across different states in the past two years.
Book banning might feel like something out of dystopian fiction from the last century. But in the last two years it has spiked, particularly in America, in a debate that has become so heated that it has even led to threats of violence against schools and libraries. It's come as a surprise to Dawson — when she wrote the book just over a decade ago, it was meant as an uncontroversial (or “PG13”) helping hand for LGBT people to understand their lives.
The Yorkshire born writer, who is transgender, was a teacher focusing on sex and relationships classes. She then gave advice to schools about how to deliver sex education that was better than the “very poor” offerings there had been for her generation. The book covers identity, coming out, homophobia and transphobia, while also being funny – not a “dreary, serious textbook” as she puts it. It got good reviews when it was released here in 2014.
The book also has a guide to how gay sex works in chapters towards the end, preceded by a short content warning. The words were read by young people for years with little fuss: when it came out in the US in 2015, there was only one library complaint in Alaska, suggesting it be moved from the children’s to the young adult section, something Dawson thinks is “a fair cop”. This was part of America’s system where adults can “challenge” the books that schools and libraries hold.
The banning has threatened to become violent, as some librarians and teachers oppose the challenges. In response, there have been incitements of violence, including a bomb threat in New York. Dawson isn’t sure how credible that was, but describes even the idea of it as “a kind of cultural terrorism”, finding it upsetting her work has led to people “menacing librarians and teachers”.
Dawson is far away in the UK, but she gets abuse too, particularly online, which forced her to leave Twitter. “Every single time I logged on I was receiving public transphobic abuse or just being called a groomer,” she says. Though she doesn’t much miss “toxic” social media, Dawson does feel sad that life has got harder for people like her in the last decade. “When I came out ten years ago, it felt like a really exciting time to be trans in the UK, whereas now it doesn't, it feels like something I almost hide, because I'm scared what the reaction would be”.
Having spent a “long time” thinking about the issue, Dawson thinks the only thing that explains this book banning is prejudice against LGBT people, where books are only the “scapegoat”. “If you are happy for straight couples to be represented in picture books, then what is the problem with representing a gay or a lesbian couple, unless you fundamentally think there’s something wrong with being gay or lesbian?” she asks.
The groups weaponise words like “groomer” and “paedophile” to describe those who stand up to the bans. “That’s so dark because, you know, that's the same kind of rhetoric that we had during the 80s and 90s, during the AIDS crisis, where there was that thing of ‘would you want a gay man teaching your children?’ and that's where we find ourselves again,” Dawson says. “Whether you like it or not queer teenagers exist, and they're trying to restrict support, and I personally find that very cruel”.
In a report last year, PEN America found over 2,500 instances of book bannings. Authors include Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood. Almost half of the books explicitly address LGBT themes, particularly trans issues, while another large group of books involve race and racism.
The bannings are largely organised by relatively small groups on websites like 4Chan. Dawson puts the new trend down to President Trump leaving office, and the right wing of the Republican party trying to assert themselves in new ways. “This is a hard core of agitators who are having this huge cultural impact,” she says. Others have suggested a rise in conspiracy theories around Covid-19 have helped contribute to more activism in those communities.
While this book banning is happening in America, Dawson doesn’t think we should be complacent about our own freedom of speech at home. One reason we know about US book restrictions is because their numbers are recorded. She points to the case of gay author Simon James Green, who was disinvited from speaking at John Fisher boys' school in Purley last year. In Manchester a few years ago, Dawson herself was challenged by some parents who were upset that she had been invited to speak.
It’s only 20 years ago this year that Margaret Thatcher’s law Section 28, which stopped teachers from the supposed “promotion of homosexuality”, was repealed. Dawson thinks the recent book bannings show the West hasn’t moved on enough. “Every time a teenager sees a book like mine being banned I think it sends out an implicit message that there is still something taboo about their life, and I think that's really sad,” Dawson says.
In any case, Dawson says the banning is a “futile exercise”, where “short of advocating for full on Nazi-style book burning,” books are very hard to ban. She explains that often the books aren’t completely limited, but are often put in the sixth form library, on reference. And in fact, an unintended consequence of the ban in some places is that it has become a bestseller elsewhere. However, she hasn’t quite been able to enjoy this due to the bans. “It leaves a very bad taste in my mouth,” she says.
And in the age of the internet, book banning doesn’t limit what young people are able to access. Dawson asks her critics which they would prefer: “Young queer people using a resource like This Book Is Gay, which is so PG13, or they went and looked on the internet, where you will inevitably find pornography”. Ironically, This Book Is Gay was partly written to “tackle” pornography, as a proper place for young people to get their sex education.
There is also often a fundamental contradiction in the “bonkers mission” of book banning, says Dawson, pointing out that the challenges and restrictions are often carried out by people who think of themselves as “libertarians”, against Government intervention. “They claim to be champions of free speech, and yet they’re going after books,” she sighs.
The writer has an interesting view on the freedom of speech debate, arguing that some people argue about the issue in bad faith, only because they want to be free of the consequences of what they have said. She draws a divide between informative books like hers and abuse and hate speech. “Very often people who are saying ‘You can't say anything any more’ are actually saying ‘I want to say something that's illegal. And I’m being told that there will be a consequence,’” Dawson says, particularly referencing the threats against her personally.
Dawson, 42, is now a bestselling adult fiction author with her series Her Majesty's Royal Coven, a trilogy about witchcraft, which is being made into a TV series. But she still has time to defend her early work against its banning across the US, saying the restrictions are flying in the face of inevitable progress.
“This is now a generation of young people who've grown up on the internet, they are much more clued in about identity than we ever were. And schools have to support them, and one of the ways they do that is by providing appropriate books and by booking appropriate speakers,” she says.