At a pre-publication meeting with their publishers, the award-winning journalist and author George M. Johnson had predicted their acclaimed “memoir-manifesto” All Boys Aren’t Blue, would get banned.
“Now it’s getting out of hand,” Johnson told The Daily Beast.
So far, Johnson said, the book, which focuses on their experience of growing up Black and queer in New Jersey, had been targeted for removal in at least 14 states. School boards and libraries across the country are considering or facing demands around the banning of a range of titles—themed around race, sexuality and gender—aimed at young readers.
Johnson told The Daily Beast that their book had first been negatively cited at a school board meeting in September.
“When you grow up as a Black, queer person you just know that the white powers-that-be don’t have a liking for you telling a narrative that doesn’t center them, especially when you put it into the hands of teenagers,” Johnson said. “I knew the book would have some kind of pushback, but nothing like this.”
The multi-award-winning gay author Edmund White—whose most recent book is the just-published A Previous Life—noted to The Daily Beast that “Hitler banned books and burned them, and various regimes to this day still do, like Russia.”
White said he had cousins in Texas, “real pious Baptists, who definitely are of that kind who want to root out the type of stuff they see as a sin, and against God’s plan, and leading young people astray by suggesting being LGBTQ could be normal, acceptable behavior. My cousins drive around in big Cadillacs, with flashcards on the visors so they can memorize passages from the Bible at the stoplight.”
“Christianity seems to be losing its hold over people, but remains a powerful force in some communities, and social media exacerbates hostility around issues like this,” White said. “Christianity is waning, white superiority is waning, Trumpism is waning—all of which is making very religious people more intransigent over issues like what books children can and cannot read.”
As the New York Times reported, the relentless flood of proposed book bans is dizzying in both scale and overtly political animus. The Daily Beast reported this week how a 10th grade English class in North Carolina is no longer allowed to read the acclaimed book Dear Martin, about a teen’s experience of racial profiling, after one parent complained that it contained profanity.
The Daily Beast has also reported how Johnson’s books, and others, often have spurious allegations of “pornography” leveled against them as a reason to ban them. Students themselves are rebelling over efforts to stop them from being able to read titles like Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer.
For Johnson, the book-banning rush is connected to the renewed efforts by those on the right to strike down Roe v. Wade and stripping away voting rights, as well as the multi-state proliferation of legislative attacks on LGBTQ people, particularly trans people.
“This is all part of the white majority’s effort to try and protect their demographic and control the population. It is always stated that white people will be the minority in this country by 2050, but we are watching the demographic shift happen faster than that, so now districts are being redrawn, abortion must be stopped because white women are having too many of them. Gen Z is the most diverse population this country has ever seen, so now these books must be banned so whiteness can remain the most powerful thing and most powerful conditioning tool as the school system begins to look more diverse.”
Johnson said they were not surprised that Black LGBTQ storytellers like him were being singled out. “Black LGBTQ people create the culture, lingo, slang, style of dress. A lot of that comes from Black femmes, Black non-binary people, Black transgender women. Things are appropriated and stolen from us, but now we are in an age where we get to tell the truth about us, and live as culture creators. This is very fearful for a population who was always able to steal from us and commodify it.”
The more identities are blurred, “the less power those in identities who have always held power have,” Johnson said. As equity grows, the less access to the tools of discrimination the white power-holders have, they added.
Johnson is hopeful that Gen Z will reject old prejudices, and is also optimistic that an even younger generation will reject sexism, racism, and anti-LGBTQ beliefs. “I grew up looking at white kids a certain way because of the way their parents had indoctrinated them to see Black people. Now I watch young heterosexual cousins having trans friends, and it’s just not a thing.”
For White, the bans show how “the friendly exchange of ideas and honorable opposition have faded as ideas. Opposition is something that now you want to exterminate. This is part of a larger movement we see in the January 6th attack on the Capitol, and Trump’s rallies. The real issue is the linking of evangelical Christianity and the extreme right. That combination is really deadly. All violence feels justified to them because they are trying to root out the devil, and they really believe in the devil and God’s word. There is no room for free discourse for them. They worry these books will ‘convert’ their children.”
White noted the power of LGBTQ-themed books; his A Boy’s Own Story remains a coming-out classic. He recalls getting a letter from a 16-year-old from Ghana, saying how much it had meant to them. “And you think what could this story written by a privileged white boy, who grew up in the 1950s in the Midwest in the Eisenhower era, say to a young guy in Ghana in the 1980s? But it goes to show that feelings of desire, self-hatred, conflicts with family and religion are universal.”
The effect of having bans placed on their work had profoundly affected Johnson. “To have someone attack your story and then spew it out to the world hits you in places you never knew existed,” Johnson said. “I do feel supported, by teachers, librarians, and parents. My own parents have been very vocal and supportive. They both read it, my mom knew it all. But for my dad, a 70-year-old Black heterosexual man, to get through it and feel proud is something.”
Johnson told The Daily Beast it had been alarming to see people bring guns to school board meetings, but “as a Black queer person there is never not a time when I’m not thinking about my safety. Safety is part of my existence. I do feel we are winning in the court of public opinion. But as loud as conservatives can be, I am not seeing so-called progressives be as loud.
“You can’t just be loud about the Voting Rights Act or whatever the thing is that gets you the most clicks. You have to be as loud about other issues. You can’t just pick a hot topic and lean into it all the way and forget everything else that is going on—especially if you are a person of color or Black person in Congress. If you watching your own people being attacked you have to say something—the same goes for white allies and advocates because they have even more privilege and power.”
Johnson paused. “But whether they do or not, I’m going to keep running my mouth.”
White laughed as he recalled when his book, The Joy of Gay Sex (1977), co-written with Charles Silverstein, “ran into some trouble” in Canada. “There was this woman who complained she thought she was buying The Joy of Cooking, and looked up ‘Chicken’ and was very shocked.”
“In those days, it was even more sinister than today,” said White. “Books were just silently removed from shelves.”
Book-banning was “embedded in the fabric” of America, said Johnson, pointing to the example of Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American woman to publish a book of poetry, who was forced to defend her own authorship of poetry in court. “What is happening now is not modern,” said Johnson. “It is history repeating itself, and a history no one knows about.”
Johnson said a coalition of students, parents, and librarians across the country were successfully mobilizing to counter the bans. The publicity the story was generating also undermining the banners’ intent, in that it was just eliciting more interest for the books under attack.
“Sure, you may get me banned in one place, but it equals more access in six others, so thanks for that,” Johnson told The Daily Beast. “This is only making me more determined to put more of my work into the world because you can’t ban it all. I’ve already put queerness into the young adult space, I’m going to put it in the middle grade space. I’m going to put it in every space it is allowed to be put in. Our stories deserve to be told because we’ve always existed.”