I’m often asked “what are people afraid of” when they argue that books should be excluded (or hidden) from libraries and schools. As today is the International Transgender Day of Visibility, I thought I’d share some thoughts about fear and the effort to silence trans voices. There has been a significant expansion of representation of trans voices since Julie Anne Peters’s Luna became the first YA novel to feature a trans character. With the expansion of such stories, especially for younger children, challenges have followed. Books depicting such voices—such as the YA novel I am J, the mid-grade novels George and Lily and Dunkin, and the picture book I am Jazz—are seen as part of an attempt to mainstream trans perspectives. Of course, they are correct in one sense as part of the purpose of expanding the diversity of authors and voices in literature is to bring previously hidden stories to light. Challengers take things a step further and frame this literature as a means of infecting their children by spreading the contagion of “gender confusion.”
Challengers understand gender as a fixed binary, objecting when books question “the very objective reality of the ontological and/or biological categories of Male and Female.” Another challenger demanded that such books be replaced with “a book that tells the truth about normal sexuality + God-given + natural male/female roles.” Representing this belief that gender is binary, whether given by God or determined by nature, challengers resist the very terms of the stories they complain of by misgendering and deadnaming characters in books. When Liberty Counsel, a right-wing Christian advocacy group, threatened to sue a school for the heinous action of reading I am Jazz, it repeatedly misgendered Jazz Jennings and put scare quotes around her first name because the book failed to reveal her deadname. A challenger to Lily and Dunkin repeatedly referred to Lily by her deadname and misgendered her and then complained that the book was a promotion of homosexuality because it showed two “8th grade boys” having feelings for each other.
Challengers reject that trans people exist, arguing instead that there are simply “gender confused.” As that “confusion” undermines the natural gender binary, it must be hidden and eliminated from view. When My Princess Boy presents people without facial features wearing dresses it is a problem because “[c]hildren cannot yet decipher between what is real & what is not.” By hiding gender cues, the book denies children the ability to properly condemn those who violate the gender binary. One challenger likened being trans to anorexia reasoning that both are a reflection of unhappiness with their bodies in puberty and, of course, both are equally irresponsible reactions to that natural feeling. Authors of such works are engaged in a nefarious plot against children. “The fact that I am Jazz is a beautifully illustrated book and an easy read, is an attempt to lure the youngest of children into this dysphoria.” This plot is not limited to a few authors, it “is a part of a bigger sexual revolution agenda that generates confusion about gender, which science is quite simple and clear about.” Depictions of trans or gender nonconforming children, then, are an attempt at trans contagion: they seek to spread the dangerous disease of “gender confusion” to impressionable minds.
While this contagion narrative may sound surprising to some, it has a long pedigree. In the 1950s Lavender Scare, detailed in David Johnson’s wonderful book, the fear that gay and lesbian employees would infect and convert “normal” people was rampant. In a 1950 congressional subcommittee report on the danger of sexual perverts, the charming term for gay at the time, the committee warned that
Most of the authorities agree and our investigation has shown that the presence of a sex pervert in a Government agency tends to have a corrosive influence upon his fellow employees. These perverts will frequently attempt to entice normal individuals to engage in perverted practices. This is particularly true in the case of young and impressionable people who might come under the influence of a pervert.
In my childhood it was common to hear a similar sentiment: “gays can’t reproduce so they have to recruit.” In other words, “sexual perverts” are driven by a deep desire to spread their pervasion by whatever means available. Today, anti-trans challengers argue, one method is through the dangerous presentation in literature. Challengers often present a token support for tolerance—“I teach my children to be kind to all” kind of sentiment—while simultaneously arguing that trans children have no place in our public spaces. And this is not necessarily limited to literature. After all, some of these conflicts came about specifically because a school is seeking to offer support to a trans student and, thus, the children of challengers are going to encounter the issue no matter what. Sadly, this is also sometimes unacceptable to challengers. In one such conflict the Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing Christian legal advocacy group, proposed a school policy that would require the exclusion of trans students from any “private” space upon demand of a cis student. (Thankfully the school did not take this proposal seriously.)
Challengers seek to enforce this exclusion by removing or hiding trans stories from children of any age. They worry that exposure will contaminate the moral purity of youth and convert them into violating the natural gender binary. One challenger suggested replacing My Princess Boy with stories about “real children.” This exposes the anti-trans challenger logic perfectly: trans children are not “real” and purging their stories from the public sphere is just. A happy note in all this is that in a dozen challenges to eight books depicting trans or gender nonconforming characters that I’m currently studying, the books were retained in all with the limited complicated exception I discussed here. Librarians and educators have stood up for the right of access to all stories.
Oddly, the fact that there are so many challenges to trans lit is a good thing. Until recently, challenges to trans lit were not necessary because the literature simply did not exist in any significant sense. Challenges are possible only because writers are now producing trans stories, publishers are publishing them, and libraries and schools are purchasing them. Challengers are fighting a battle against the social acceptance of trans stories and, in my data to date, they are losing. On the International Transgender Day of Visibility, we should all celebrate the fact that trans stories are getting out there in record number even if a fight to maintain access is required from time to time.