Opinion | Book banning is a way to control how we conceive identity

By Ebonee Rice-Nguyen, Senior Staff Columnist

Gender Queer” was the 2020 winner of the American Library Association Alex Award, an award given to books that have a special appeal to young adults ages 12-18. 

The following year, “Gender Queer” became the most banned book title in America.

In the memoir, Maia Kobabe explores their own journey of gender identity and sexuality with simple language and colorful graphics. As somebody from a small, rural town, I never had access to conversations about any of the subjects in Kobabe’s memoir. In college, this upbringing left me unable to understand a lot of the conversations around me. Coming from an K-12 education that never addressed gender, sexuality or queerness — much less challenged it — excluded me from viewing the world in different persepctives. Kobabe’s book took these large themes and made them comprehensible for somebody who was never given the language to even question these topics. 

While the book provided a new perspective for me to envision the world, for children struggling with their own gender identities, this book could offer them so much more. Books like “Gender Queer” give language to children that would otherwise not be accessible to them. This language is power. 

In an increasing number of states, this right to language and knowledge is under siege like never before. In 2022, 1,651 book banning attempts were reported, a majority of them specifically targeting books that mention race or LGBTQ+ issues. Book banning efforts are not just the complaints of helicopter moms anymore — they have evolved into organized, virulent movements that have split communities. Politicians have threatened public libraries with loss of funding if certain books continue to stay on shelves. 

“We’re seeing contentious board meetings. We’re seeing librarians actually charged in criminal court with pandering obscenity to minors. And we’re also working with libraries, closely monitoring situations like you’ve described, where there’s been an effort to either defund the library or take over the library board in order to impose a particular agenda,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said.

While both sides of the political spectrum have proposed certain book bans, conservative politics have escalated the issue. Members of the Proud Boys, an extremist right-wing group, imposed on a school board meeting in Illinois where book access was on the agenda. Conservative groups such as Moms for LibertyandBook Lookshave led book banning efforts, claiming that book censorship is a matter of parental choice. While many of the parents involved have claimed that such book titles go against their values, librarians and free speech organizations claim that by banning books, parents ignore the rights of those who view the book titles as essential to their livelihoods. Most importantly of all, the removal of such titles is damaging for young people who connect to the books and use such titles as a way to formulate their identities. 

Caldwell-Stone told the New York Times that the push to ban books is an active form of erasure. 

“Young people are going through these experiences and they are hungry for information,” Caldwell-Stone said. “To remove those books denies that opportunity for education … a very stark message that you don’t belong here, your stories don’t belong here.”

According to a report from the American Library Association, a majority of the book ban attempts are directed at titles that focus on LGBTQ or Black characters. Matt Krause, a Republican state respresentative in Texas, compiled a masterlist of eight hundred and fifty books that may violate HB 3979, a bill that bars the teaching of a material that may cause a student to feel “psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

Krause’s list includes titles such as “Black Lives Matter: From the hashtag to the streets,” “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People,” and “The Letter Q : Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves.” The majority of the titles banned include keywords relating to race, sex, gender and sexuality. 

The titles also include books that have served as cultural touchstones for decades. In Tennessee, the McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth-grade module on the Holocaust because of nudity and curse words. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye,” a staple of American literature, was the eighth most banned book in the United States. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” are all titles yanked from bookshelves. 

This comes at a time when queer erasure it already on the uptick, as an increasing number of states are attempting to mimick Ron Desantis’Don’t Say Gay” bill, which states that any classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited from classrooms with children between kindergarten and third grade. These types of legislation have spread like wildfire. Alabama, Ohio and Lousiana attempted to pass similar legislations banning instruction on sexual and gender identity. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has made similar moves to ban gender affirming healthcare and has talked about introducing a similar bill to Desantis’. 

As conservative legislation on book bans and classroom conversation continues to roll out, it becomes more and more apparent that this political battle is not about protecting children it is about limiting them. The books that children read and the conversations they have in their youth provides them with the language to define their own experiences and their own identities into adulthood. When you ban language discussing new or different experiences, you restrict the way that children exist. 

A majority of the book titles being banned speak on some form of oppression that has been stifled in American history. Nationwide, libraries are removing book titles that discuss issues of imperialism, racism, homophobia and misogyny in record time. Books provide children of marginalized identities with the words to discuss their own experiences, experiences that are otherwise ignored or pushed aside by the American education system. 

As politicians continue to push anti-critical race theory legislation, children are not taught how their identities connect to America’s history. When you take away books alongside anti-critical race theory rhetoric, you take away the context that children form their identity from.

Sociolinguistic research has proven the importance of language choice and language in identity construction. Linguist Ruth Wodak writes that human identity is social in nature. This comes from the idea that identity is about meaning. Meaning is not an essential property of words we are the ones who give words meaning. Words gain their meaning through context-dependent use — basically, in conversation and culture. The language we use is our identity the language we ban becomes the identities we refuse to allow to exist. 

But recent book banning isn’t just about stripping children from their historical and social context it’s also about refusing them the possibility of existing in a different one. Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes the body not only as a historical idea, but as a set of possibilities to be continually realized. The body’s concrete expression in the world is a taking up of specific historical possibilities gender, sexuality, race, etc. In her workPerformative Acts and Gender Constitution,” Judith Butler claims the body is a historical situation, a manner of doing, dramatizing and reproducing a historical situation, and it is that reproduction that solidifies how we are allowed to exist in the world.

This means that humans are forced to express their identities only in the way that identities have been expressed in the past, and that is how issues such as gender and sexuality have become so predetermined. When humans reproduce these historical situations — when a little girl is told to wear a dress for fear of upsetting her parents or when a little boy is told he can only like little girls and quells his original crush — this affirms our ideas of identity and how it should be expressed.

If we think of children as possibilities, banning books becomes more than just taking some old novels off the shelf. Book censorship becomes a way to halt identities from forming, and it’s become apparent that the identities which are banned are those of LGBTQ+ children and children of color. Without the language to express different ways of existing, whether that’s with race, sexuality, or gender, the historical context which children are allowed to exist in solidifies. We say children are the future, but by preventing them from having the language to question topics such as race, gender and sexuality, adults ensure that the future of such ideas stays the same. 

Butler claims there is an agency to be found in taking the possibilities of the body and determining them for oneself. What we are seeing in these book bans is the complete loss of such agency. Children, already in a position where they have little to no power in their own lives, are now being stripped of the one thing that they should have complete control of their future and how they exist within it. 

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].