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That Barnes & Noble ‘Gender Queer’ Lawsuit? It’s the Next Phase in Anti-LGBTQ Censorship.

The cover to 'Gender Queer' by Maia Kobabe.

First they came for our stories in schools and libraries. Now they’re trying to stop teens from buying our books. Yes, the ongoing war for anti-LGBTQ censorship is quickly taking its next step forward, and this time, Barnes & Noble is in the crosshairs.

The book retailer came into the news after right-wing lawyer and Republican state delegate Tim Anderson successfully brought Sarah J. Maas’ fantasy novel A Court of Mist and Fury and nonbinary cartoonist Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer to court. Anderson filed a petition claiming the books portray obscene material inappropriate for minors, and the Court seemed to follow his reasoning. In two separate Show Cause filings, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Judge Pamela Baskervill declared “there is probable cause to believe” that each book “is obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors,” according to Book Riot.

Each book’s respective publisher must now respond and indicate to the court whether the books have obscene material inappropriate for minors.

Anderson is now using these rulings to file a temporary restraining order against Barnes & Noble, which would prevent any minors from being able to purchase both books at these stores without parental consent. He is also targeting Virginia Beach’s school district, which would prevent students in the district from borrowing either book at their school library unless they had parental permission.

Why does the Barnes & Noble filing matter?

The Orders to Show Cause received by Tim Anderson.
Two segments highlighted by Tim Anderson over claims the books are “obscene to unrestricted viewing by minors.” (image via Tim Anderson)

Under Virginia law, a judge can issue a temporary restraining order preventing “the sale or distribution of the book alleged to be obscene.” The court may ultimately find a book obscene for some citizens (e.g. minors) and not others. But in the meantime, a temporary restraining order would make it illegal to publish, lend, sell, or transport the allegedly obscene book in question to minors without parental consent.

In other words, Anderson’s restraining order would give parents significant control over their children’s access to Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury in Virginia Beach. It would be illegal for teenagers to access the books without parental consent, and it would implicate teachers, librarians, and Barnes & Noble staff members caught trying to give these students access to the works without their parents’ permission. For trans teenagers trying to learn more about themselves and their bodies, this is a draconian amount of control over their civil rights. If they don’t have supportive parents at home, they can’t read Gender Queer.

More books could be targeted in the near future, and Anderson is eager for parents across Virginia to take up the cause. ABC affiliate WJLA reports this restraining order strategy could emerge in school districts in Fairfax County and Washington, D.C. “We’ve created a path, a path that existed in Virginia law that nobody has gone down yet,” Anderson told WJLA. “Parents have exercised their protest at the school boards and they are not being heard. So, I hope what we’ve done in Virginia Beach is amplified and magnified across the Commonwealth.”

Are Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury really obscene?

An example sex education scene from Maia Kobabe's 'Gender Queer.'
An example sex education scene from Gender Queer. (Maia Kobabe)

Anderson, who is filing the restraining order on behalf of Republican House of Representatives primary candidate Tommy Altman, claims Gender Queer and A Court of Mist and Fury portray deeply graphic sexual material inappropriate for minors. This isn’t true. As I reported for We Got This Covered late last year, Gender Queer provides a nuanced and brief look into the trans nonbinary creator’s sexual coming-of-age. In an eight-page gallery posted to the site, I revealed that there are only a few segments that discuss sexual education or depict queer sex, and none of them are particularly explicit.

A Court of Mist and Fury was targeted for a brief, consensual straight sex scene between the book’s two main characters. While slightly more explicit than Gender Queer, the material is certainly more than age-appropriate for any high school teenager who has already gone through their average public school sex education course. The scene, which can be read in full in one of the images above, describes a sex scene erotically, but relatively briefly. While there is a depiction of oral sex with language such as “cock twitching” and “tongue flicking over the broad head of him,” the passage overall is no more age-inappropriate than your average Shakespeare play with bawdy jokes. Nonetheless, in an age where reproductive freedom is under attack, it should come as no surprise that Anderson chose a scene where a female main character enjoys herself while having sex.

Obscenity claims have a long and storied history targeting marginalized readers and creators. “Obscenity” rhetoric has grown in the past year, along with escalating anti-trans and anti-queer claims that the LGBTQ community is “grooming” minors. Black writers and artists, meanwhile, have regularly had their work censored under claims that it is “obscene,” as I reported for We Got This Covered last year. As the far-right continues to beat the drum on its “critical race theory” anti-Black conspiracy, obscenity claims will be used again and again to censor Black writers. It should come as no surprise that the Virginia Beach school board member who originally wanted Gender Queer off of school shelves wants to pull Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, as well.

The legal framework exists, throughout the U.S., to give bigots the ability to censor and ban books. They’re starting with teens and kids, because it’s the easiest way to get their hatred through the Overton window. Who’s next? And when will it be impossible for adults to access these same books, too? The clock is ticking, and the anti-LGBTQ sentiments are only growing.

“Liberal educators who provide this garbage are the epitome of sexual predators,” one Anderson supporter commented on his Facebook, “and so are the ‘guardians’ who push it on their children.”

(featured image: Maia Kobabe)

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Ana Valens (she/her) is a reporter specializing in queer internet culture, online censorship, and sex workers' rights. Her book "Tumblr Porn" details the rise and fall of Tumblr's LGBTQ-friendly 18+ world, and has been hailed by Autostraddle as "a special little love letter" to queer Tumblr's early history. She lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her ever-growing tarot collection.