Four book covers Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. Image: Algonquin Books, Oni Press, Vintage, and Candlewick Press.

LGBTQIA+ Titles Got the Worst of the Latest Wave of Book Censorship

Conservatives Stop Saying "Woke" Challenge 2022.
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Each year, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) under the American Library Association (ALA) tracks the most challenged, censored, and banned materials in schools and libraries. Their work is not comprehensive because it primarily relies on people reporting it to the OIF and big news stories. Even with more resources, it would depend on public information and wouldn’t account for self-censorship and removal that happens with little pushback. Still, their work is essential to get a quick snapshot of what’s happening.

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Last week, during National Library Week (also the week Congress heard testimony on increased book bans), the ALA released their list of the most challenged books of 2021. The OIF found that at least 1,597 books were targeted last year, half of which likely came from that list of 850 books challenge in my state alone (Texas). These top reasons for these challenges included phrases like “sexually explicit,” “LGBTQIA,” “Critical Race Theory,” “Obscene,” and of course, conservatives’ favorite appropriative word, “Woke.”

2021 reasons why books were banned. Image: ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom.
(ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom)

While, in 2020, these challenges primarily happened in public libraries (43%), schools (38%), school libraries (15%), and academic/other totaled at 4%, 2021 saw a significant shift. All focus moved to school libraries (44%) and public libraries (37%), followed by schools (18%), and academia/other (1%).

Direct parent challenges take a significant dip

From 2020 to 2021, there was also a significant shift in what type of censorship occurred. The ALA and OIF tracked 729 total challenges. (Note that one challenge could consist of a list of titles and actions.) These types include written materials (books, graphic novels), programs (including meetings), displays, films, and others (a.k.a. social media, databases, student press, music, etc.) Written materials went from making up 73% of challenges in 2020 to 82% in 2021.

Despite where the challenges are happening and the reasons, (proportionally) fewer people (as parents) are pushing for censorship. From 2020 to 2021, parents dipped from 50% down to 39%, patrons rose from 20% to 24%, and board/administration rose from 11% to 18%. All other groups shifted no more than 2% in any direction.

2021 who is challenging these books. Image: ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom.
(ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom)

While some administrators and school board members do listen to their staff (teachers and librarians) and public education experts, others are likely bending to behind-closed-doors political pressure from parents, elected officials higher up the food chain (like state-level) that control funding, and outside groups like NoLeftTurns and Moms for Liberty. Librarians on multiple social media platforms have expressed concern about districts and local governments disassociating from the ALA.

Top 10 books

Here are the top 10 books (from those 1,597 books reported) challenged and/or outright banned in various public institutions in 2021.

  1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
    Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images.
  2. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  3. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, profanity, and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  4. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
    Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for depictions of abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.
  5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, violence, and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda.
  6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references and use of a derogatory term.
  7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
    Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women.
  8. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
    Reasons: Banned and challenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexually explicit.
  9. This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
    Reasons: Banned, challenged, relocated, and restricted for providing sexual education and LGBTQIA+ content.
  10. Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
    Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit. 

Clearly, the bans show a pushback against LGBTQIA+ content, after a concentrated culture war outrage in 2020 over books discussing race and ethnicity. Four of these titles talk about trans experiences such as being genderqueer, nonbinary, etc. For the first time since it was published in 2015, Melissa (formerly George) by Alex Gino didn’t make the top ten. This is likely because transphobes haven’t figured out that the book’s name changed to better reflect the story. 1, 2, 4, 7, and 9 appeared on the list for the first time ever despite all releasing between 2012 and 2018.

While it’s essential to keep abreast of which titles are targeted and actively push against library censorship (here’s how), please note that this list is just the top ten of what the ALA can keep track of currently. Most books challenged or banned never get major press coverage.

(via OIF and ALA, image: Algonquin Books, Oni Press, Vintage, and Candlewick Press)

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Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.