Who Is Beating Back Book Bans?

Amidst a rising tide of anti-LGBTQ book bans, activists, authors, and librarians are organizing to make sure LGBTQ stories are still heard.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

It’s not hard to read between the lines of the recent surge in book bans. These efforts are a manifestation of a confluence of political ideology, latent cultural anxieties over difference, and targeted attempts to stanch the flow of alternative knowledge. 

Since 2021, PEN America has recorded nearly 6,000 cases of book bannings—a staggering number on the rise. In just the first half of the 2022–’23 school year, PEN America saw a 28% increase in bans compared to the previous six months. A striking 36% percent of bans targeted books written for and by the LGBTQ community. 

“The real power of a book is that they open up a different world to readers. And what people want to ban is our worlds and our lives,” says Julie R. Enzser, Ph.D., editor and publisher of the lesbian literary and art journal Sinister Wisdom. “Book bans are a concrete strategy [used] by folks who are interested in denying the existence of LGBTQ people and people of color who have ideas that challenge white hegemony.”

Book bans—which describe any action taken to limit access to a book—can happen through a variety of channels. On a local level, parents or an individual may decide to challenge a book in their local libraries or schools, triggering a review of the titles, and often their removal from shelves. Regardless of the motivation behind these complaints, the impact is undeniable: In Florida, 100 books were pulled from county shelves in a single year following the complaints of a single man. There are also organized, large-scale efforts from far-right parent groups like Moms for Liberty, which lobbies school districts and officials to oppose curriculum and books that are LGBTQ inclusive or related to critical race theory. 

The targeting of books by and about LGBTQ people and people of color isn’t new—author George M. Johnson, who wrote about growing up as a Black queer man in the oft-banned 2020 memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue, has spoken openly about the connections between censorship and extremism. But what is new is the pure scale of these book bans—and their symbiotic relationship with conservative and anti-LGBTQ legislation. 

“The bans and challenges are resulting in proposed legislation or [passed] legislation,” says Leigh Hurwitz, the collections manager at Brooklyn Public Library. “They are targeting lists of hundreds of books in some cases. [It’s] not just a single person coming to a PTA meeting talking about a single book.” 

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In 2021, the Oklahoma state senate, for example, introduced a bill that would ban all books that dealt with sex, sexuality, and gender identity from public school libraries. More recently in Utah, a proposed bill could criminalize access to “objectively sensitive” materials and books—allowing public school employees to be charged with a misdemeanor if banned books are found in their classrooms. Meanwhile in Florida, some school districts are pulling hundreds of books from the shelves due to recent, and incredibly vague, state laws. At the same time, states all over the country are introducing legislation that targets queer, and especially trans, access to education, health care, and other basic human rights. 

LGBTQ youth are particularly vulnerable to book bans, as they may not have the means to buy, find, or keep a book outside their school or public library. And while some book bans are being taken to court by publishers, authors, and advocacy groups, most young people can’t afford to wait for slow-moving legal action. Given the stakes, the role of librarians, publishers, and grassroots organizers are critical in the fight to maintain access to these cherished queer and trans stories. 

Libraries as a Lifeline

The first line of defense is libraries. For Hurwitz, there are two main strategies for protecting book access—administrative and communal. Libraries have policies to handle bans, but often these procedures aren’t being used. “In many cases, books are just taken off the shelf once someone complains, and that’s not what should be happening,” says Hurwitz. Clear, protective policies are needed so that librarians can field complaints and point to a systemic response. And there are organizations there to help—the American Librarian Association offers confidential support and free consulting services for libraries and individuals navigating a ban.

At the same time, libraries are also urgent sites for youth organizing, which is why Hurwitz helped develop Books Unbanned through the Brooklyn Public Library. Launched in 2022, Books Unbanned provides youth all over the country with free, no-questions-asked access to the library’s entire digital collection, as well as access to book clubs, a podcast, and intellectual freedom forums. Recently, the program also launched the Freedom to Read Teen Ambassadors training, where youth can learn hands-on advocacy skills and fight censorship through civic engagement.

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“Teens are so aware that books are extremely powerful for learning more about themselves and the world. They’re a force for change,” says Hurwitz. By leveraging youth engagement, libraries and programs like Books Unbanned empower the people most impacted by bans to speak out and advocate for their right to read.

Beyond the Shelves

Still, access to queer and trans stories can’t rely solely on institutions—independent publishers, informal advocacy networks, and tight-knit social groups all create vital points of access. 

Sinister Wisdom, for example, not only publishes new lesbian writing, but also recontextualizes and redistributes rare, formerly out-of-print works through its Sapphic Classic series, which has published works by banned author Audre Lorde, as well as authors like Pat Parker, Judy Grahn, and Beth Brant. In this way, access to LGBTQ texts isn’t just about fighting a wave of book bans. It’s about challenging a publishing landscape that allows vital LGBTQ books to fall out of distribution in the first place. Likewise, Sinister Wisdom offers an archive of issues dating back to 1976 and free books for incarcerated women.

“What we’re really trying to do is bring people together to organize around books, to talk about books, but also to really know one another and to really expand our sense of what it means to be a lesbian in the world today,” says Enzser. “We always need to bring back stories from our history to talk about our future.” 

Others look towards the internet. Trans Reads, an independently run online database, was launched in 2019 by Ash*, a trans woman and researcher, after she realized there was no centralized location for free, trans-related texts.

“We believe education should be free and knowledge shouldn’t be behind a paywall,” says Ash. There are dozens of volunteers who manage the growing collection of more than 2,000 texts, and the estimated 120,000 yearly visitors to the site. And the independence of sites like Trans Reads makes them less susceptible to pressure by school administrators, lawmakers, or parents to remove books. Simply put, anyone can access banned books on Trans Reads any time, for free. 

The project is dedicated to Leslie Feinberg—a butch lesbian, author, and transgender activist who released the 20th-anniversary edition of hir canonical, banned novel Stone Butch Blues for free in 2014 shortly before hir death. “The novel was a way for trans, gender nonconforming, and queer people to realize ourselves. It told us we aren’t alone,” says Ash.

Like Ash, Kayleigh Lassonde was changed by this single banned queer book. In 2023, a friend gifted Lassonde a copy of Stone Butch Blues—a text Lassonde was always drawn to, but felt hesitant to read alone. “The idea of experiencing and reading the book alongside fellow butches made the content feel significantly more approachable,” says Lassonde. Inspired by Feinberg, Lassonde launched Butch Nook in February 2024, a New York City–based book club for butch, stud, and masc-identifying folks. The first book discussion welcomed 23 people and since launch, 70 people have filled out the interest form.

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“Right now in the United States we are in a moment of extreme censorship and historical erasure. There are people working at this very moment to remove as much evidence of queer and trans existence from the law as they can,” says Lassonde. “At the Butch Nook we are providing space and resources for butches to not only read and discuss censored literature, but to understand what meaningful solidarity looks like. The group may bring people together through our shared identity, but our purpose goes beyond the issues of the butch community. We believe that none of us are free until all of us are free.”

Taken together, these strategies—protective, institutional policies in libraries; intentional youth development; and independent trans- and queer-led literary projects—work to create a world in which queer and trans stories aren’t just accessible, but abundant. 

* Ash requested to use a pseudonym to protect her from professional reprisal and the risk of doxxing. Read YES!’s policy on veiled sources here.

10 Banned LGBTQ Books for Your Reading List

The author and the sources they spoke to for this article have curated a reading list of their recommendations for oft-banned books by, for, and about LBGTQ people. Bring a bit more color to your spring reading list by adding these titles:

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

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Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer is one of my personal favorite banned books. Kobabe has been at the forefront of censorship and we always need more youth-oriented comics and literature like eir graphic novel!
—Ash, Trans Reads

When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff and Calvin by JR and Vanessa Ford

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Although literature by, for, and about trans youth has historically been overwhelmingly white, new books like When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff and Calvin by JR and Vanessa Ford speak to the stories of trans kids of color. Unfortunately, these books are almost immediately targeted with bans upon publication.
—Ash, Trans Reads

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

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This award-winning YA graphic novel roots itself in the past, the present, and the timeless realm of fairy tales. Every night since he was a kid, Tiến and his mother, Hiền, have read each other fairy tales from the local library, a tradition that continues through to Tiến’s adolescence. Told from both of their perspectives, we see them learn about each other through stories: Tiến’s grappling with how to come out as gay and Hiền’s omnipresent memories of the family she left behind in Vietnam. Check it out now at Brooklyn Public Library!
—Leigh Hurwitz, Books Unbanned

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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Bechdel’s rich graphic novel about growing up in a funeral home, coming out, and thinking about her father’s homosexuality is a romp through queer literary culture and contemporary lesbian communities. It is wonderful in every way.
—Julie R. Enszer, Sinister Wisdom 

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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The Color Purple is a novel written in letters about two sisters, Celie and Nettie, in rural Georgia. It is gorgeous and difficult and challenging and provocative—and it won multiple awards when it was published and continues to delight audiences today, not only as a novel but also as a film and stage play. Our lives would be diminished immeasurably if we could not read and grapple with The Color Purple.
—Julie R. Enszer, Sinister Wisdom 

Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg

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Originally published in 1993, Stone Butch Blues tells the life of Jess, a stone butch living a working-class life in 1950s New York. Banned shortly after its publication, Stone Butch Blues is a call to action, exploring identity, violence, trangender and lesbian community, and the power of organizing.
—Sara Youngblood Gregory

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison

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Lawn Boy tells the story of Mike Muñoz, a Chicano man living in Washington state, who, after getting fired from a dead-end landscaping job, is trying to figure out exactly what the American dream means for him. With humor and wit, Lawn Boy explores capitalism, class, discrimination, and sexuality. It’s the perfect coming-of-age novel for readers of any age.
—Sara Youngblood Gregory

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo 

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This book is at the top of my list for its emphasis on historical and cultural detail—you’ll feel immersed in 1950s San Francisco, Chinatown, and the lesbian bars of the era as Lily Hu, the main character, explores her sexuality. Last Night at the Telegraph Club was also the first YA book with a queer woman as the main character to win the National Book Award.
—Sara Youngblood Gregory

Beyond Magenta: Transgender and Nonbinary Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin

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Originally published in 2014, this book features the stories of six young trans and nonbinary youth through interviews and photography. Touching, triumphant, and sometimes heartbreaking, this book is a lifeline for not just trans youth, but also the people who care for them.
—Sara Youngblood Gregory

This article was originally published at YES! Magazine and is reprinted here per their Creative Commons license.

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Sara Youngblood Gregory

Sara Youngblood Gregory is a lesbian journalist and author of The Polyamory Workbook. Sara is a former staff writer for POPSUGAR and was the 2023 News and Narrative Fellow for TransLash Media. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Vice, Teen Vogue, HuffPost, Bustle, DAME, Cosmo, Jezebel, and many others. Most recently, they were the recipient of the 2023 Curve and NLGJA Award for Emerging Journalists. Get in touch at saragregory.org.

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