The dramatic rise in banning LGBTQ+ books for young people has been a concern in the U.S. for a couple of years now and shows no signs of slowing down. While local school districts can pull books from their classrooms and individual towns can take books out of their public libraries—as hundreds did in 2021 and 2022 according to PEN America—state legislatures continue to attack this issue in 2023.
Arizona is considering a bill that would require its state’s Department of Education to “maintain a list of books that public educational institutions may not use or make available to students, including books that are lewd or sexual, promote gender fluidity or gender pronouns or groom children into normalizing pedophilia.” Missouri’s state legislature is reviewing a bill that states, “no pupil in any public school shall be required to engage in any form of mandatory gender or sexual diversity training or counseling.”
These build, in part, on the big splash put out by Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law that went into effect July 1 2022, and Governor Ron DeSantis announced in March 2023 he will move to expand from only affecting students in kindergarten to third grade to apply to all grades up to twelfth.
Florida’s law says that classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.” This is incredibly broad and ripe to be left up to the discretion of those in power who believe anything related to LGBTQ+ people isn’t appropriate for children.
Sarah Prager, an author of four books about LGBTQ+ history for young people, says that she writes about each LGBTQ+ person’s story in a different way for a different age group to make it age appropriate.
“There is nothing inherently inappropriate for any age about being an LGBTQ+ person,” Prager says. “It’s an identity, not a sex act. Children typically express their own gender identities by preschool according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.”
Prager has written about 14 LGBTQ+ historical figures for readers ages 4-8 in “Kind Like Marsha: Learning from LGBTQ+ Leaders” and 50 more for ages 8-12 in “Rainbow Revolutionaries: 50 LGBTQ+ People Who Made History.” She’s also written for ages 13 and up in “Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World.” Her description of the same biography has different wording in each book, for the few that overlap and appear in more than one book.
“When I write about Frida Kahlo’s story in ‘Queer, There, and Everywhere’ for teens, it does explain it fully with the ins and outs of her marriage to Diego Rivera—the dating, the drama, the cheating…everything that teens are interested in and capable of reading about and already dealing with in their own lives–but that would be completely inappropriate for younger kids,” she says. “But the fact that she was bisexual is not inappropriate, so in ‘Rainbow Revolutionaries’ for middle schoolers I word it as ‘she loved men and women’ but leave it at that. I don’t say ‘she had sex with men and women,’ for example. The wording is intentional to be age appropriate.”
In “Kind Like Marsha” for elementary school children, the Frida Kahlo page simply says “she was proud of who she was” without any overt mention of sexuality.
The introduction of “Queer, There, and Everywhere” which has been banned from schools and libraries in multiple states and will have a revised and expanded second edition released in June, starts off with mentioning that schools teach that George Washington had a wife.
“That is also teaching a sexual orientation–heterosexuality,” Prager says. “We can’t ban a storybook about a prince and prince who love each other if we don’t also remove the book about a prince and princess. They are both exposing children to the same level of ‘sexuality’ and these stories, regardless of any sexual orientation of the characters, simply need to be presented with age-appropriate actions and dialogue.”
Like many LGBTQ+ people, Prager feels there is no such thing as “age appropriate” sexual orientation or gender identity because “we are who we are, and many children already know who they are in elementary school or have parents or loved ones who are out to them.”
To say their existence is inappropriate–which is what these bills and bans do instead of critically analyzing writing levels–is harmful, discriminatory, and should be unlawful instead of written into law.
Eboné Bell is the publisher of Tagg Magazine.