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LGBTQ themes found in half of the past decade's 20 most-banned books

"Two Boys Kissing," "I Am Jazz" and "Kite Runner" are among the titles on the American Library Association’s most-banned books of the past decade list.
"Two Boys Kissing" by David Levithan; "I Am Jazz" by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel; "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini.
"Two Boys Kissing" by David Levithan; "I Am Jazz" by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel; "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini.

Books with LGBTQ themes — from popular children's book “And Tango Makes Three” to Pulitzer Prize-winner “The Color Purple” — are prominently featured on the American Library Association’s newly released list of the Top 100 Most Banned and Challenged Books of the past decade.

Titles with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer themes, including “George” by Alex Gino, “I Am Jazz” by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel, and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, composed half of the list’s top 20 and about a quarter of the top 100.

The list was released earlier this week by the library association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which has been tracking efforts to ban books from libraries and schools for the past 30 years. The release of its latest list coincides with Banned Books Week, an annual event seeking to draw attention to literary censorship.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the office’s director, told NBC News that there has been a significant increase in challenges to LGBTQ books over the past several years, which she said has coincided with the popularity of and protests against Drag Queen Story Hour, a national program in which drag performers read to children in bookstores and libraries. She also said more people are accusing LGBTQ-themed books of “inherently sexualizing young children or trying to recruit young children to a sinful lifestyle.”

"Censorship is a violent act. Not only does it erase the LGBTQ+ community, it chips away at the foundation of our democracy."

Gayle Pitman, “This Day in June” author

In 2019, for example, eight of the 10 most-banned books on the library association’s annual list were challenged due to LGBTQ content, and in 2018, more than half were challenged for this reason.

While there are far more books currently on library shelves depicting graphic murder and sex — “Justine” by the Marquis de Sade and “Hannibal” by Thomas Harris, for example — Caldwell-Stone said people generally don’t challenge these titles, which were written for adult readers. Rather, they target art books written for young people or adult literature commonly assigned as part of school reading lists.

If a book becomes particularly famous, by being blasted on conservative websites or popularized by being turned into a TV show or movie, that can also attract increased attention from people looking to challenge and ban the books.

However, she said, libraries regularly review community complaints against LGBTQ books and “more often than not” find the books to be developmentally and age-appropriate, as well as in line with the library’s collection development policies and leave the books on the shelves.

The library association, however, stresses that its latest list only represents a fraction of the books challenged over the last year as about 82 to 97 percent of challenges remain unreported.

“What we're really concerned about is this belief that libraries should only serve a certain purpose,” Caldwell-Stone explained. “In fact, public libraries exist to serve everyone in the community and work very intentionally toward creating diverse collections that reflect the lives of everyone in the community — even those who are in the minority or who are marginalized groups in the community, and that will mean that there are books there that reflect the lives of LGBTQ families and children, and will be available to them.”

She said such books are particularly important to young people who are still forming their identities and beliefs about their gender and sexuality, because these works can demonstrate possibilities, lives and issues that these young readers may not see in their immediate surroundings. In fact, she said, the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had even opined that First Amendments right dictate that young people have a right to access materials that adults may object to.

Daniel Haack, author of “Prince & Knight,” which came in at No.91 on the library association's latest list, said one of his goals in writing the book was “showing in a kid-friendly and universal way that gay people are just as capable of being the hero and just as worthy of finding love.”

“It’s funny because in my mind I wrote a rather innocuous picture book that simply reflects a reality for millions of families, but there's obviously more work to be done,” he told NBC News.

Jessica Herthel, co-writer of “I Am Jazz,” a children’s book about the life of its young co-author, transgender celebrity Jazz Jennings, call her book’s inclusion on the list, at No.13, “a jarring call to action.”

“Dangerous misinformation about what it means to be transgender is still deeply rooted in some parts of the country, and children's lives are quite literally at stake,” she said.

“I have witnessed the transformative effect that a book like ‘I Am Jazz’ can have on members of a marginalized group: Families have written us to say that their child sleeps with the book under their pillow, or carries it around with them, because it represents the first time that they have felt truly seen,” Herthel said. “By giving language to children to describe what they are feeling, they become empowered to live authentically and without shame.”

Cory Silverberg is a sex educator and author of “Sex Is a Funny Word,” a comic book about bodies, gender and sexuality for children ages 8 to 10 that came in at No. 20 on the banned books list. He said there’s an important distinction between “making a decision for your child and trying to prohibit other kids and families from having access to information that you don't like.”

“When parents want to talk about their concerns, I'm always happy to have a conversation, but in my experience people who want to ban our books are usually less interested in talking and more interested in lecturing,” he said.

Sarah Brannen, author of “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding,” a children’s picture book about two male hamsters’ wedding day, which came in at No. 99 on the list, said that while she respects the feelings of parents who consider certain books as inappropriate for their kids, that other kids may very much need the same books.

“No one should be able to keep a book out of a public school or library because they don't want it in their own house,” she said.

Since publishing her book in 2008, Brannen said she has received messages from people who have called her book "filth," "garbage," "the product of Satan" and even claimed to have taken the book from their local libraries to burn it.

Gayle Pitman, author of “This Day in June,” a children’s picture book depicting an LGBTQ Pride celebration, which was No. 42 on the list, saw her book burned in a 27-minute Facebook Live video recorded in October 2018 by Christian activist Robert Dorr. In the video, Dorr can also be seen burning David Levithan’s “Two Boys Kissing” (No.18 on the list), along with two other books.

“I wrote ‘This Day in June’ because I wanted children and adults to see the LGBTQ+ community in a positive, celebratory way — which was seriously lacking at the time I wrote it,” Pitman said. When Dorr threw her book into a flaming barrel on a livestream, she said it was like he was “symbolically annihilating an entire group of people.”

During his book-burning video, Dorr specifically mentioned being inspired by the Nazis, who burned more than 20,000 books belonging to the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, a German institute founded by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld and dedicated to the research of homosexuality and transgender identity. Dorr was eventually found guilty of criminal mischief and ordered to pay $125 in fines and court costs.

Pitman called the inclusion of “This Day in June” and two dozen other LGBTQ books on ALA’s banned-books list “really chilling.”

“The most powerful way you can marginalize and disempower a group is to erase them — literally or metaphorically — from existence,” she said. “Censorship is a violent act. Not only does it erase the LGBTQ+ community, it chips away at the foundation of our democracy.”

In the event a particular book is destroyed or stolen from a public library, Caldwell-Stone said most libraries have systems to identify missing books and the funds to quickly replace them.

Lesléa Newman, author of “Heather Has Two Mommies,” said she was “honored and humbled” to have her 30-year-old book on the ALA list with the work of so many others she admires, such as Alex Gino, Toni Morrison, Khaled Hosseini, Margaret Atwood, Mark Twain, Anne Frank and Walter Dean Myers.

“Every child needs and deserves to see themselves reflected in a work of literature in order to feel validated and that they have a place in this world,” Newman told NBC News. “We need more stories about LGBTQ+ families, not fewer, and those books need to be readily available to all. The fact that my book is still being banned all these years after it was published is a clear signal that we still have a lot of work to do.”

To ensure that LGBTQ books remain on school and public library bookshelves, Caldwell-Stone suggests that citizens attend school board meetings and library board meetings, and pay attention to coverage on social and local media.

“Often a challenge will crop up in a letter to the editor in a local newspaper or appear on a Facebook page for the school or the public library, and being prepared to state your support for having those materials in the library and available to the community at large is very important,” she said.

She also suggested volunteering to be part of a “friends of the library” group or take the opportunity to serve on a library’s advisory council or a voting board to help express the democratic values of libraries as institutions that provide services to the public.

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