Somewhere in my garage is a “Time-Life” book published in the late 1960s entitled The Hippies. The book is presented as a thoughtful attempt to understand who “The Hippies” were and how they thought and, according to the cover, “how they may affect our society.” One of the reasons that it is so much fun to leaf through now is not only because there is a time-bound grooviness to the pictures and issues discussed, but also because it was obviously written by people who were not “Hippies” and who held them in a certain amount of disdain. They were presented as over-indulged, self-righteous, lazy and generally clueless kids doing unwitting—if well-intentioned–damage to the nation. It doesn’t wander into openly insulting or snarky territory, but the subtext of elder-sibling-style dismissal is there throughout. Whoever wrote this book wasn’t a “hippie” and it shows; any understanding the reader gains of “hippies” in reading the book is no more than the distant understanding one would gain of a tiger after viewing one in a zoo.
Right now in our country, some books are in the crosshairs of those who would possibly like to see them removed from school libraries and even some public libraries. Most of these books tackle some element of what it means to be gay or transgender. One book in particular—the graphic novel Gender Queer—is a frank look at the internal/psychological, familial and social process that someone goes through as an adolescent and young adult struggling with figuring out how to make sense of their inner world as it relates to gender. The protagonist of the book is born in a biologically female body but doesn’t feel that the mind in the body quite matches it, and so must try to make sense of that. The story is necessarily graphic, as the relationship between the mind and body is involved when people figure out their gender identity, and bodies have genitals and genitals are involved in sexual behavior and sexuality.
As opposed to Time-Life’s The Hippies, Gender Queer is written by someone who has actually and personally been through something like the same experiences written about in the book and so can try to make clear to the reader how it feels in first-person terms. As such, it’s something of an anthropological primary document—none of the biases and understandings and presumptions involved in how someone goes through this are hearsay, nor are they the interpretation of an outside party, as was case with The Hippies. The author is the subject. This makes the work powerful for those who are going through something like what’s depicted in the book, reassuring them that they are not alone, and also useful for those of us who have not gone through it but who wish to better understand those who do.
To the point: in my opinion as a library director and a First Amendment/intellectual freedom enthusiast, the book is not pornographic merely by dint of the fact that it contains some unfiltered depictions of sexual behavior. I would posit that the definition of pornography used by the courts is pretty good; pornography is defined by the depictions of sex or nudity being primarily intended to get the viewer aroused (the courts call this “prurient interest”). If one looks at Gender Queer, it’s apparent that the depictions and discussions of sexual matters are anything but that. I don’t know if the author or illustrator meant for the pictures and words to be sexy or arousing, but in my opinion they are certainly not, and I think it’s obvious they are not meant to be. Now, as a former teenager, I know it’s POSSIBLE some kid might find them arousing, but I recall finding lots of things arousing when I was 14 and 15, notably the sleeves of some bellydance music LPs my mother owned. “Flames of Araby” indeed.
I fully recognize that this is arguable from case to case and person to person—I have been arguing for almost 20 years that the film Brown Bunny is the precise opposite of pornography because the depiction of actual human arousal and sex in the film is troubling and depressing and downright sad when viewed in the context of the plot and dialogue. That’s an important point, by the way—pulling what appear to be “dirty pictures” out of the context of the larger work and then arguing that the whole work is defined by those images is, to me, intellectually dishonest and unfair. It is akin to edgelords reading the most brutal passages from the Old Testament and asking Christians how they can believe such bloodgore. This is, in my mind, the essence of the modern phenomenon of “cancellation”: using a fragment of the whole (person, belief system, body of work, individual work) and then seeking to exile or eliminate the whole because of that fragment. It’s ugly business, no matter who does it.
That said, even though the book was intended by the publisher as a Young Adult/teen graphic novel (Amazon.com says the “reading age” is “16 and up”), the library at which I work catalogues it as an adult book and shelves it in our adult collection because the subject matter is both mature and pictorial in nature. Public libraries make these decisions based on various factors, and in our case, I would suspect it was done so because, by their nature, graphic novels literally leave nothing to the imagination. This is one of the reasons that snobs like me don’t typically read them—I don’t like illustrators to dictate what the words elicit in my mind’s eye page after page. To me, that’s less like reading and more like…passive viewing. But I digress; what I’m leading up to is the point that even though the my library shelves the book where we do, we would not—probably could not– stop a teenager or child from looking at the book or checking it out if they wanted to. My library does not put age indicators on users’ library accounts and, in a year where it looks like we may end up circulating over 700,000 items, it would be impossible to monitor what kind of patron is checking out what kind of book, especially if they use a self-check machine to do so.
As to what school libraries or school districts should do with the book, I must be honest and remain agnostic on the question because I’m a public librarian and not a school librarian or teacher or child psychologist. If I’m really being honest, I’d say I have read Gender Queer and I don’t think the book is good enough to be required reading except perhaps in an elective course related to human sexuality. I’m not sorry that I consider graphic novels just a step above comic books, as I said, but I also don’t think the book is beyond an adolescent’s understanding or should be hidden away like it’s radioactive. I am a parent of two teenagers still in junior high and high school, and I don’t think this book would be of any interest to either of them. I say that less confidently now than I did before this whole controversy started, because I know what forbidding something does to its market value in curious teenagers’ eyes.
As a former edgy teen who hunched and giggled over photocopied samizdat copies of Jim and Debbie Goad’s quite purposely offensive and transgressive “ANSWER Me!” ‘zine back in high school, my gut feeling is that trying to make this book harder to get to will only make it more likely to be sought out and read by more of the exact teenagers adults are trying to protect from it. I mention that because I’m sure the edgy teens of the mid-90s would have never heard of “ANSWER Me!” if MTV news hadn’t informed viewers of the controversial nature of the work and its being seized by customs. Google “Streisand effect.” It’s real.
But if someone were to ask me what I’d do if one of my own children DID show a personal interest in a work like Gender Queer, my answer would be simple: I’d let them—nay, INSIST–they read it and make them intellectually defend it, as I do with any book I see my children reading. I’d ask questions. What is the author trying to say? Do you detect an agenda? Can you identify with any of the characters, and why? Does anything in the book bother you? Amuse you? Would you recommend the book to someone? Why or why not? In other words, I’d use the book as an excuse to “get in their business.” One of the duties of a parent, in my mind, is to ensure that one’s children can think for themselves and defend their viewpoints, even if those viewpoints don’t perfectly line up with that of the parent. In that way, it is a teaching tool for civil discourse. At the same time, it allows the parent to reinforce and underscore what THEY think and believe and would want the child to think and believe and to explain why. A child’s reading choices open the door to parent-child dialogue, no matter the book.
I note here that if a teacher tried to cram this book into a non-elective English class, I’d visit that teacher and ask for an explanation. That would not be appropriate, and any teacher who would argue it is I would peg as a probable kook and possible Fanatic and I’d watch them carefully.
But hiding the work entirely won’t make it go away. Or, to put it in terms The Hippies featured in that Time-Life book almost 60 years ago might have put it when quoting Creedence Clearwater Revival:
“Take you a glass of water and make it against the law,
See how good that water tastes when you can’t have any at all.”