Richard price explores the ways in which books are challenged in schools and libraries.

The Scandalous "Mothers" Part 1

Seven years ago I moved to Utah to take up a new job. I was nervous for a whole lot of reasons but many you can imagine from the stereotypes of Utah. I discovered a place full of quirks but a lot more diversity than expected. Samantha Allen’s Real Queer America provides a great look at this dynamic. But one of the first news stories I remember did not help calm my nerves. Just before I arrived in Utah, Davis County Schools (just south of my new home) restricted access to In Our Mothers’ House by Patricia Polacco. I learned of this when a parent, with the help of the ACLU of Utah, filed suit against the school district. Polacco explained that she wrote the book after seeing a child of lesbian mothers being told not to read a story about her family because she didn’t “come from a real family.” So Polacco wrote a lovely children’s book about a family with two mothers and three adopted children. Challengers, of course, often fear new voices that may challenge their assumptions. And in Davis County, for a time, they were successful at silencing these voices.

When I began to study book challenges, I remembered this story and it did not disappoint. The controversy all started when a kindergarten student came home with the book. The parent felt that a “book that discusses sexuality” is inappropriate for a school library and that it “came across as propaganda.” As with many challengers, queer identity is inherently sexual in nature and any presentation of the fact that queer people exist is nefarious. The parent was eventually joined by 24 other challengers. Some left their objections vague: “I believe it glamorizes and normalizes something that is a sensitive issue.” Others were more willing to ground their objections in homophobia directly: “I believe the Author is wanting us to Accept Homosexuality as a norm. It is not a norm!” Another stated that “I don’t agree that wholesome complete parenting can be done by lesbians without a father role. It’s not a natural process to have a complete family without a male & female.” Echoing similar themes one challenger admitted that they “object to a homosexual lifestyle but even more to allowing [gay] couples … to adopt children” because “unfortunately this book does not explain more of the psychological and emotional hurt that these people go through.” Nearly every one of the 25 challengers expressed anger about the character in the book that was depicted as a “hater” for expressing her disagreement with the mothers’ “lifestyle.” People who seek to silence gay and lesbian voices don’t like to be spoken about negatively.

Challengers, of course, are not asking to “ban” anything, they simply want the state’s help in protecting the moral purity of their children. Nearly every challenger echoed the following, “[i]t is too much adult information for young children.” One stressed that such books were unnecessary in their community because “a very, very high majority of the students come from a home with a mother and father, or a single parent home and any books on this topic do not apply to this community.” This echoes the common trope that only people who live lives like those depicted in literature can get value from it. If there are nearly zero such families in the community, then representation of them is meaningless. Meaningless and dangerous: “I would classify this topic with others like: where babies come from, drinking alcohol, or premarital sex.” It is the parents’ responsibility to deal with this subject when “children are individually ready.” Parental responsibility to control when their children learn that lesbians exist runs through every challenge. The forms asked the challenger to suggest an age group they would recommend for this book. One significant cluster of answers hovered around sixth grade with a requirement of parental permission, another cluster fell in junior high/high school (sometimes with parental permission) with a few more saying only adults. A couple said “none” in response. But my favorite is this: “25+ when research shows the brain is fully developed and adults are able to make their own choices.”

This last quote speaks volumes. The knowledge that some people violate rigid gender and sexual norms is so dangerous that if learned it will corrupt and confuse their children. Thus, it can only safely be provided to adults who know what the correct choice is, that there is in fact no legitimate option. A heteronormative life is the only life worth living. Any deviation from that fact must be hidden from children until they are old enough to know the real, singular truth. Challengers alone cannot effectively silence the voices they oppose, however. Their children could still find the offensive knowledge in an unsupervised library visit. Thus, parents require assistance from public institutions to effectively silence queer voices, assistance that the Davis schools decided to provide as I will discuss in my next post.

The Scandalous "Mothers" Part 2

Censorship in Spartanburg, South Carolina