Friday, January 17, 2020

Against Those Who Would Harm LGBTQ Students in Grand Haven

Below is my column in today's Grand Haven Tribune, available at their website online here. It is also reprinted below.

There is a quiet parents’ movement afoot in Grand Haven right now—and it is one that could do irreparable harm to our kids.

A small group of parents who goes by “Grand Haven Conservative Parents” has quietly been working to formulate a plan to get any books which engage with LGBTQ characters, themes, or issues to be removed from school libraries or kept behind a desk with the requirement of a parent’s note to be checked out. One of those parents has now approached the Grand Haven Area Public School Board at a recent meeting to make this request formally and publicly. The School Board has not made a decision and is taking the time to research the issue.

First, we need to be very clear that this movement is not just about some books that some parents might find objectionable. This movement is an attempt to erase the reality of the LGBTQ students who attend Grand Haven schools. As Vanessa Perez, a part of the National Council of Teachers of English LGBTQ advisory committee, makes clear, “Declaring a book with LGBTQ characters inappropriate for school is the same as declaring LGBTQ students and families inappropriate for school. It sends the message, ‘You don’t belong here. We’ll remove this book and we’ll try to remove you, too.’”

Last year, the Journal of Adolescent Health published a study that found that 24% of suicides between the ages of 12 and 14 were completed by LGBTQ kids. Data from the United States Department of Health and Human Services indicates that LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth. Another study from the National Center for Transgender Equity found that LGBTQ youth are almost five times more likely to have actually attempted suicide. A study published in Pediatrics found that 40% of transgender adults have reported attempting suicide with 92% of those adults attempting before the age of 25.

And, for a conservative area like our own, it is important to note that LGBTQ youth who come from families that reject their sexual or gender identity are 8.4 more times likely to attempt suicide than their LGBTQ peers who report low or no level of family rejection. That data also comes from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. For all LGBTQ students—and particularly those who do not come from supportive families—easy access to these books are essential.

When LGBTQ students have access to positive and realistic portrayals—both in fiction and in nonfiction—of characters who resemble them, it helps to work against the cultural shame and provide a pathway to self-acceptance and understanding. Finally, they see someone whose thoughts, feelings, and identity resonate with their own. They can begin to develop a health understanding. And just as middle school libraries contain books that help adolescent straight and cis-gender students understand their own sexuality, there must be resources for LGBTQ adolescents as well.

Ingrid Conley-Adams, a librarian who helps schools serve their LGBTQ population, insists upon the importance of keeping these books in the library. “Left to their own devices,” she says, “Students and young people (queer or otherwise) may interact with information that can be incorrect or even toxic.” A study by GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) found that when LGBTQ students receive exposure to these themes, they have higher attendance, GPAs, and a stronger sense of safety in the classroom. That means, not only do rates of suicidality decrease but they actually thrive in school.

The plan of these parents to segregate these books to behind a desk and require parental permission will be damaging to an already at-risk population because it sends a message that who they are as a LGBTQ teenager is not fit for public knowledge, that it must be hidden away. It exacerbates shame and will certainly increase the risk of suicidality. To require a parent’s permission will have a tremendously negative impact upon the questioning teen whose parents are not supportive of their identity.

For over a hundred years, there have been movements to ban or limit access to certain books. Everything from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to the novels of Judy Blume have been deemed by some to be inappropriate for students. That is why, since 1982, the American Library Association has promoted “Banned Book Weeks” a campaign which “stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them.”

Let’s not marginalize our children or teenagers simply because their gender or sexuality doesn’t line up with the established views of a certain segment of society. Let’s keep information full and open. Let’s trust our librarians to curate books appropriately. And let’s send a message to all the children and teenagers in Grand Haven that no matter who you are, no matter your gender identity or sexuality, you will not be shamed out of our community. And you certainly must not be shamed out of your own school library.