I have always believed in the power of books. Miles do not matter when you are traveling across the page, so friends are always near in those cultivated worlds. But the Religious Right in California is rallying to take precisely that away from LGBT kids, slandering LGBT-inclusion in California’s reading lists as “raping the innocence of our children.”
I have to admit that, even now, devouring a story and finding someone like me in those pages is still a smile-inducing delight. During the days of school neckties and far too much hair gel, when it felt like even the water-stained brickwork hated me, I remember the first time I ever read a book in which a man loved another man (that is, if we discount David and Jonathan).
The book was the masterpiece that is “The Witching Hour” by Anne Rice, and the character Julien, a marvelous bisexual creation who didn’t just tame the demon Lasher which haunts the Mayfair family, he even bedded it. My school librarian nudged me in the way of books like these, including a mint edition of Christopher Rice’s “A Density of Souls,” which in a cloying summer that was one of my darkest, when life could have gone either way, inspired me to live with myself because it was either that or not to live at all. I owe that librarian a great debt because it’s not too frou-frou for me say those books saved me.
Last week, The California Department of Education released its long list of recommended books for grades Pre-K through to 12. Among the estimated 7,800 books, meant to prime the state’s kids for the wider world, are books with LGBT characters and the histories and struggles of LGBT people.
These titles include “I Am J,” a young adult novel by Chris Beam about a trans teenager and the identity struggle he faces as he moves from presenting as his birth-assigned sex to showing the world the gender identity he knows is his. At a time when trans kids are made to suffer discrimination at the hands of fellow students and, unfortunately, also from school officials, a book like this is more than a story. It is a lifeline, a promise of a future by precedent: the path has been traveled before and so you too can find your way.
The California catalog has, its officials have pointed out, carried gay and lesbian titles for a number of years. This update, however, is the first to include transgender themes. That’s in part due to the 2011 FAIR Education Act, a law that mandates schools receiving state funds must include in their curricula books with LGBT themes as well as titles on the stories of other recognized minority groups.
Of course, this new reading list has sent the Religious Right into a panic of hyperbole.
Sandy Rios, ranting host of a morning radio show on American Family Radio or AFR Talk, assailed this list of titles as being “appalling. ”
“It’s a frightening trend,” Rios carped in a recent interview. “The reading lists are very overtly propagating a point of view that is at odds with most American parents. Leftist educators are advocates of everything from socialism to sexual anarchy. It’s very base; it’s raping the innocence of our children. ”
It becomes much more difficult to shame someone into feeling their identity is offensive to an all-powerful God if, in their small hands, that child holds vast worlds that say otherwise; if in their minds already there are seeds of empathy budding to a loving flower, it is difficult to sow the salt of ignorance that would have them hate.
I write this today on March 26 as the Supreme Court of the United States prepares to take up two marriage equality cases, Windsor v United States and Hollingsworth v Perry, the latter better known as the Proposition 8 case where in 2008 the Religious Right led a majority to voting away marriage equality in California. A number of same-sex couples then took to the courts to fight for their rights.
One day, children will read the history that will be made when the Supreme Court takes up the case of Proposition 8 in which it is argued an egalitarian and, I would hope, American principle: that the rights of a minority should never be subject to the prejudice of the majority rule.
One day in the not too distant future a kid will read a book and will not even blink at seeing a lesbian or transgender character, or an asexual or queer-identifying hero — and that is how it should be.
Until that day, we all must defend these stories. We must be warriors for the truths found in fiction, for the messages of hope that are delivered in such sweet fantasies, because books aren’t just some frivolous escape from the real world, they are the balm that soothes and helps us live in it and the invisible bonds we can make with one another that see us through another day.
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