As part of our January book month Karen Pollock looks at the history of banning controversial books, in order to “protect” children.
If you are old enough to remember the 80’s, and you are LGBTQ+, you probably remember the outrage over Jenny lives with Eric and Martin. It was a dull but worthy book, about a gay couple, and their daughter, which apparently was a harbinger of the apocalypse. That it was never generally available, and was intended only to be used with parental permission, was irrelevant to the homophobes of the day. It influenced the passing of section 28, a law which banned the “promotion” of homosexuality as normal. This in turn led to many LGBTQ+ young people being left isolated and unsupported. Teachers were afraid to even mention homosexuality existed, for fear of falling foul of the law. Other sexualities and genders were even more deeply cloaked in a veil of fear, words that dare not speak their name. That a simple book which happened to portray a non heterosexual family caused such strong emotions, influencing laws, and still influences teaching to this day, speaks to the power, and the fear, of the written word.
Calls to ban this or that book because children might “be exposed” to queerness have not ended. That word, exposed, is so often used when people reach for the ban button. It speaks of a view of queerness as catching, and of ideas spreading like viruses. Part of me wonders at the belief that being cis and heterosexual is so tenuous that even reading about non cis-het people will “turn” children. It may sound ridiculous, but the idea of queerness being a contagion which society needs to protect itself against underlies these calls. Being cis-het is the default in this view, but it is a default which always needs to be protected, and even knowing of the existence of alternatives is deemed dangerous.
Historically, control of the written word has been seen to be a way to control minds. In the UK, we had the Lord Chamberlain deciding which literature would, and would not corrupt. When Lady Chatterley’s Lover was on trial, famously, it was asked if this was a book you would want your wife or servants to read. Those weaker, more susceptible, creatures, whose minds could be overturned by exposure to ideas. Indeed if we go back further novels themselves were attacked as bringers of thoughts to young ladies, thoughts which might cause discontent and even rejection of the societal norms.
That word, exposed, is so often used when people reach for the ban button. It speaks of a view of queerness as catching, and of ideas spreading like viruses.
In Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury looked to a future world where the banning, and burning of books is state policy to prevent any unwanted thoughts. It is a society of the here and now, where the private thoughts which books promote are seen as anti-social. At its heart, Bradbury’s dystopia has the idea behind all book bans; ideas on the page cause unwanted thoughts to occur, unwanted by those doing the banning that is. Control of the written word, as a form of though control might seem like a futuristic nightmare, or a page out of history, but it still continues. It is not just a tool of the right either. Currently in the UK, an alliance has developed of those of many political hues who believe in censoring what can be seen, read, or heard, all to prevent children being “infected” with undesirable thoughts.
Whilst role models, and LGBTQ+ representation matters, and YA fiction has improved considerably over the years in providing this, there is a secret the book banners miss. If there is no queer character in the book a queer kid is reading, they will subvert the book. How many LGBTQ+ teens were shipping Spock and Kirk, long before the term shipping even existed? Pairings such as Frodo and Sam, Sherlock and Watson, all existed long before anyone can blame the internet for them. Mallory towers and The Chalet School stories may have spoke of innocent “pashes” and crushes, but many queer girls saw their own desires on those pages. If LGBTQ+ young people (and older) do not see their lives reflected in the culture around them, then they twist the culture to reflect their lives, all under the noses of those who would control their thoughts.
Control of the written word, as a form of though control might seem like a futuristic nightmare, or a page out of history, but it still continues.
This perseverance even in the face of erasure not only gives us hope, but speaks to the futility of the bans. I do not wish to be Pollyanna, finding goodness in every dark place. Of course being isolated, feeling at odds with the mainstream hurts. Many peoples lives have been improved immeasurably by better LGBTQ+ representation, but, because queerness is not catching, not a virus children need protecting against, all of the book bans fail. A child who does not see their inner world in the acceptable books allowed by Christian committees and meddling politicians will very often simply make the world “unacceptable” in their imagination.