Book Banning, “Age Appropriateness,” and LGBTQ+ Content

Book Banning, “Age Appropriateness,” and LGBTQ+ Content

In recent weeks, I’ve posted several memes at Assertive Spirituality’s Facebook page that have, for whatever reason, gone what I like to call “troll viral.” One thread of rhetoric that has popped up a lot in this recently has had to do, interestingly to me as a scholar, with gaslighting the idea that there’s a “book banning” trend at all. No, these folks say, books are just being removed pending “finding a way to make them more age appropriate.” While some of this rhetoric has surrounded issues of race, an awful lot of it has surrounded LGBTQ+ content. So after reading two of the most recently banned books in this category—Gender Queer and This Book Is Gay—I wanted to share with you my thoughts on what this “age appropriateness” rhetoric is obscuring and revealing about what their true “concerns” are about what children are seemingly “exposed” to.

If you hang with me for a few minutes I’ll have some encouragement and action items to try to make things better at the end, as usual. And I’m going to get into a bit of unhealthiness around gun rhetoric as well, because, well, there are ACTUAL “age appropriateness” concerns about school shootings.

My Background and Standpoint

Okay, so as always, I’m coming at this as a pastor’s kid from a right-leaning moderate denomination that grew up in Purity Culture Lite before going on to get a PhD in Communication.

So Yeah, I’m Not Exactly Foreign to Right-Leaning Moral Disgusts

What that means, as I’ve described several times before, is that I was raised in the same conservative Christian moral disgusts about LGBTQ+ people and also in general a lot of the same disgusts about bodies and sexuality that others of my subculture were. (I’ve previously talked about moral disgusts in a series starting here and talked about purity culture and what I call Purity Culture Lite here.)

As I’ve discussed before, I’ve been working to shift these unhealthy visceral reactions for quite some time now.

Apparently Still Working on Those Visceral Reactions! (Yay? Or Something)

But still after all that, I felt some residual discomfort about some of the content while I was reading both Gender Queer and This Book Is Gay in the process of working on this blog post.

Ahhhh, Reading Banned Books—Strangely Enjoyable

If you haven’t heard of these books, I chose them to read because they were among the most-banned books of the second half of 2022, as reported by Pen America. You can find more of the great information Pen America compiles and analyzes about book banning attempts in America here.

You can find more about the alt-right group Moms for Liberty that’s behind a lot of the attempted bannings in an NPR story here.

Interestingly, I was raised by a mother who appreciated a good Newberry Award Winner and never really censored my reading that I can remember. As a regular frequenters of libraries, both she and I were fans of picking books off a banned books list.

Sitting with My Discomfort about THESE Banned Books

But still, I’m not sure either of us would have gone for these banned books—a fact which communicated something to me as I checked them out on my library’s ebook app. (Still, the fact that I had previously been raised to read banned books in general helped me combat the awkward feeling about it.)

So yeah, yay for the ongoing influence of being socialized into Purity Culture Lite and the Culture Wars? Or something. (Definitely something.)

Realizing How STRANGE Heterosexual Culture Is About Disclosure Of Genital-Related Material

Naturally, as a com scholar who grew up in this environment, I sat with this discomfort and thought about it in light of both where I came from and in terms of communication scholarship.

As I did, this is what hit me: these books surface how incredibly BIZARRE our usual culture is about talking about sex and gender and sexual orientation.

I mean, think about it: BEFORE WE ARE BORN, parents have for decades been super thrilled to figure out what kinds of genitals a person has.

They then name that person and choose pronouns to make it clear what kind of genitals a person has.

Not Just Weird about Genitals, about Who You Get Physically Close To!

They use that information to presume what kind of person (presumably with differing genitals, in heterosexual environments) the person is going to be sexually attracted to. And that information forms expectations for how that person is expected to find such a partner to be legally, financially, and so on and so forth interlocked with for life.

With the hopes of in turn connecting said genitals in hopes of producing more children with the hope of this kind of future.

How This Weird Openness about Genitally-Related Things Gets Combined With Reticence

Like I said, this is a super bizarre idea considering JUST HOW PRIVATE and presumably also “non-age-appropriate” it is to publicly talk about the details around owning these bodies and especially genitals.

So yeah, you’re supposed to publicly cue what kinds of genitals you have from before you’re even breathing, and that’s supposed to be cute and everything. But actually talking about things like how it feels to live with such genitals in one’s real body? Especially if your experience doesn’t strictly fit the expected societal molds?

WELL FOLKS. It turns out THAT’s what’s not age appropriate.

So Yeah, It Turns Out that Talking About Genitals Isn’t the Problem–Weird, Eh???

Because yeah, if you’re curious, Gender Queer is a graphic novel/memoir that very matter of factly unwraps just those things and what it was like to experience them by one person who didn’t feel like they fit the normal experiences of these things.

Definitely Not Texts about “Grooming” (Insert ALL THE EYEROLL EMOJIS)

While the author talks about sex and sexuality, I should point out that none of the information is shared in a way that’s in any way sexual, interestingly. The book’s content is told in a matter of fact, shame-free tone. It talks about sexual experience, but it isn’t the kind of content that in any way could be considered porn.

What the book IS, is extremely educational about what it might feel like to have a brain that doesn’t feel like one’s genitals define who one is.

Helping Me Empathize (As a Straight Person) With Those Who Have a Different Experience

And as an extremely straight and person who never had a problem identifying in the way my genitals proclaimed I ought to feel to my society, this was honestly super helpful for me to help understand that kind of experience better.

So yeah, it ought not be shocking that like most narratives, reading Gender Queer helped me empathize with others.

Making the Strange Familiar and the Familiar Strange

As I thought about it, I could see through the intimate details that had to be disclosed just to get this understanding though, how bizarre our usual culture is around this stuff.

Which yeah, is I think part of the discomfort for people.

On to This Book Is Gay

Which brings me to This Book Is Gay. Because, again, thinking back to the assumptions and moral disgusts from my youth, which always focused on LGBTQ+ concerns as a “lifestyle” issue, there were large swaths of this book that yeah, I could see conservative Christians would see as an attack.

After all, this book is extremely, again, matter of fact in outlining various types of LGBTQ+ identity and provides information about the subcultures and identities that form it—both the healthy and the unhealthy aspects (which itself is a bit of a contradiction to the “glorification of the gay agenda” I would have been socialized to expect from the rhetoric of my youth). It also frankly but non-seductively talks about things related to genitals and sex.

Wait, The Book Trains People to Speak Assertively in Response to Unhealthy Discrimination!

But here’s what it feels like is really a problem for the “age-appropriate” censors in this book as well as Gender Queer. It provides education on what exploitive sex and unhealthy and harmful attitudes might be about gender and sex.

It also is extremely frank about discrimination and homophobia, including internalized homophobia within members of the community. And offers suggestions as to how to address issues around bullying and discrimination by those inside and outside of the LGBTQ+ community.

INCLUDING BY CONSERVATIVE RELIGIOUS FOLKS. (The author missed out on reading some of the excellent healthier biblical hermeneutics about the “clobber passages,” but had good things to say overall on this topic.)

Definitely Not about Age Appropriateness—Fear of Empowerment, Instead? Oops.

Soooo yeah. If it’s not clear by now, I don’t think the perceived problems with these books are about “age-appropriateness” AT ALL.

The problem seems to be empowerment of children to decode what their own bodies and brains are telling them.

Cues which might differ from what the societal message I outlined above tends to dictate.

Training Children and Others to Disagree with Unhealthy Socializations? Ohhh

As a further problem, it might help children who do fairly well fit with societal norms around sex and gender and sexual attractedness, etc. realize how incredibly messed up some of those expectations are when paired with our expectation that we aren’t really supposed to openly discuss what it means to own these bodies and these sexualities we are assigned.

And yes, I can see how groups who might have a stake in fascistic othering of LGBTQ+ folks and further shoring up unhealthy toxic heterosexual purity cultures would have a problem with that.

These books are actually offer some straight cisgender kids and adults, like me, better opportunities to sit with our own internalized homophobic and transphobic and non-binary-phobic, etc. etc. etc. tendencies.

How DARE These Books Encourage Empathy and Resistance to Unhealthy Discrimination? Oh Wait…

Yeah, in light of all this, I can absolutely see why these types of books would be seen as dangerous to the status quo.

When No Age Is Seen as Appropriate to Resist Fascistic Perspectives…

Which is, of course, what the idea of “age-appropriateness” is cover for.

See, how are you to raise up children to hate and misunderstand their own and others’ bodies and impulses if they are being given empowerment to better understand and offer compassion to them?

After all, what would be the future of fascistic ideals if our young people are really allowed to upend our “traditional” ideas involving these things?

Sigh…All About the Control

How would we control them well enough if they’re given the tools to fight back against the fascistic culture wars that seek to demonize and scapegoat LGBTQ+ folks who are just wanting to accept themselves and be accepted or at least tolerated by those who are different?

And for the love, especially if othered people are to get support both from those in these vulnerable communities but also the tools to help straight cisgendered people around them to better understand and support them, well…we can’t have that.

So Yeah, Can We Talk About the Lack of “Age-Appropriateness” of School Shootings Now???

Note that this rhetoric of “concern” for children is just extremely particularly shocking when juxtaposed next to the fact that these same groups have ABSOLUTELY no problem in the same ages of children regularly experiencing fear through things like active shooting drills in their schools.

Connection with Self and Others=BAD? Trauma and Violent Death=GOOD? WAIT…….No.

Because yeah. It’s apparently more important that a child not be told how to understand what their brain and body might be telling them about how to have healthy happy relationships with their bodies and sexual identities—things that in the best cases can provide literal health and wellness and CONNECTION WITH OTHERS moving forward—than it is to protect these same bodies in a real way from fear that their bodies will be torn apart by bullets.

But….But…The Guns aRe HoLy!

Let me be clear: for these same voices that are decrying books that frankly help educate how some kids can find love and connection and community and self- and other-compassion, violence to tear apart young bodies on a regular basis is a somehow unresolvable issue, if even a problem.

Because let it be clear: the same sets of trolls on the AS site that were against these kinds of books were EXTREMELY against gun regulation.

Banning Books=More Important than Actual Safety Of Children? GOT IT.

Let me say this again, clearly: according to this crowd, the idea that you as a child might be led to understand a different message about your genitals or body or sexual identity than what conservative society believes is somehow A GREATER DANGER TO YOU, MORE WORTH DOING SOMETHING TO PREVENT, than the regular occurrence of people with guns (USUALLY WHITE CISGENDERED HETEROSEXUAL MALES that fit all the usual societal molds around genitals and such coming into school buildings and terrorizing and killing the bodies found there.


These Fascistic Priorities=Extremely F*cked Up, Morally Speaking

Boy, am I glad I puzzled that one out. Because seriously though, if you’re in ANY WAY exposed as an impressionable child to the principles of love God and love your neighbor as yourself, along with the ideas that love casts out fear….. Well, I just don’t know how you could continue to believe the above messaging about “age-appropriateness” issues.

Because dayum. This Book Is Gay literally goes over the science about why LGBTQ+ kids need love and support. How their lives are at risk. Gender Queer helps with understanding and love for marginalized identities as well.

Reading about Differing Ideas=Simply Not a Threat Next to Believing Hate

The truth is this: READING about differing ideas and even “lifestyles” simply is not a threat except to the status quos around hate and shame.

And let’s be clear: normative heterosexual and cisgender society is WEIRD and unhealthy in a lot of spots. The fact that, as mentioned above, so many shootings are caused by white males is an indictment of that.

We Actually Need These Books

Normative societal standards around sex and gender roles needs desperately to be challenged. WE NEED THESE BOOKS to help us do that.

Shootings Are Never Age Appropriate, But Especially Not for Children

I know this much is true: what isn’t okay is the kind of society that accepts regular violence against young children. Full stop.

That situation—these regular shootings—is super duper far from “age-appropriate.”

Let’s do something about THAT, shall we?

How Can We Assertively Help?

There are so many ways to help make children both healthier and safer today, but none of them involves banning these books.

Yes, we need to fight for actual gun regulations.

Fighting Book Banning, and Reading These and Other Banned Books, Is ALSO Helpful

But let’s be clear: dismantling toxic masculinity is a big part of fighting the unhealthiness behind fascistic thinking. And reading banned books around non-normative gender and sexual identities and working on homophobia and shame, and fighting for the rights to have these conversations in all parts of the country, is a surprisingly strongly related task to that goal.

However you plan to (continue) assertively speaking up and working against unhealthy patterns in the world and in ourselves, may we all keep at it!

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.  

Want to help keep this work going? It’s been 5 years of this project, and I finally have tip jars set up at Venmo and PayPal so you can help keep the lights on and such (THANK YOU for whatever you can do!). Here’s the info:

Venmo: @assertivespirituality


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Book Banning, “Age…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 12 min