Lest you think the Bay Area is immune to the sort of fights that are raging in school districts across the country, we are not, and a school board meeting in the East Bay was just this week filled with vitriol over books for LGBTQ kids.
Right-wing pundits and politicians have succeeded in riling up otherwise apolitical parents of schoolchildren all over the U.S., and dragging reading materials for queer youth into the culture wars. It's part of a larger strategy to recruit more voters to the Republican Party — which might otherwise die under the weight of its own racism, xenophobia, and conservative out-of-touch-ness.
It's also just the next phase in the movement now that parents aren't fighting viciously about masks and COVID restrictions in schools anymore — which was another tactic that right-wing strategists saw as a terrific wedge issue to divide progressive parents from otherwise maybe centrist ones who hated masks.
But don't tell that to a group of parents in San Ramon, who have taken the bait and showed up Tuesday to a meeting of the San Ramon Valley Unified School District board to argue for some LGBTQ books to be banned from school libraries. Would these parents even have known about these books if they hadn't been singled out on right-wing radio, TV, and blogs? Probably not.
Book-banning has all kinds of history in this country, and one of the titles that has come up in recent book-banning debates is one that dates back to censorship debates from the 1950s: Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
Now, though, books are part of a larger argument casting all sexual minorities and gender non-conforming people as "groomers," inciting panic across the nation at a time when kids are increasingly rejecting heteronormative, binary identities, and freaking-out parents are looking for someone to blame.
As UC Berkeley philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler told CNN last year, "There’s a fantasy going on that children are being indoctrinated. Parents and communities want to exercise forms of censorship to stop their children from knowing about how the world is being organized and how different people are living their lives."
The San Ramon uproar may be a relatively small one, all things considered, in the otherwise progressive and broadly tolerant Bay Area. But it's worth noting that the debate made it here at all.
Bay Area News Group reports that "emotions ran high" Tuesday in a room full of "dozens" of community residents in San Ramon, some of whom brought signs about the "scandal" of "pornographic material" being available in San Ramon's high schools.
It appears a rumor spread that a student was given a "zero" grade for refusing to read one of the books that's been popularly part of this banning narrative, Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer. Per the Bay Area News Group, the schoold district hasn't confirmed whether the incident even occurred — and the library in question reportedly only has one copy of Gender Queer which has been checked out all of twice in the three years it's been there. But they had resolved, when this rumor reached the board in January, to have a fuller discussion of the school library's book policies on February 21.
"What was once a plea for tolerance has become a demand for LGBTQ porn, allegedly because LGBTQ students need to see themselves in library books, including depraved, explicitly illustrated how-to sex manuals like the books ‘This Book is Gay,’ and ‘Lets Talk About It,'" said one commenter at the meeting, Mike Arata, noting two more favorite titles from the right-wing media. It's not clear whether Arata has children in the school district, and Bay Area News Group notes that some number of the speakers at the meeting did not.
"Those who are trying to ban books in our district are fighting a non-existent problem," said Daniel Gross, a junior at Monte Vista High School, per the news group. "They’re trying to put an end to something that’s not happening in the first place. The books are for students who are interested in them and those students only."
Anyway, this is all part of a long arc of conservative American politics trying to vilify LGBTQ people — with politicians using the passions of under-informed people and calls for "saving the children" to round up votes for themselves. And it shouldn't be ignored that it's only been a few decades since sex ed has been standard in schools — and in many places in the country, surely, it still is not, let alone any discussion of the fact that gay sex exists.
Over 50 years ago, in 1972, Marlo Thomas produced Free to Be... You and Me in order to counter the gender stereotypes being foisted on children in books of the time, and that faced evangelical and conservative backlash too.
At least, maybe in San Ramon, they're not debating about books like Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye and the idea that children shouldn't be taught that racism exists. Because that's happening in this country too.
Top image: RICHMOND, CALIFORNIA - MAY 17: Newly donated LGBTQ+ books are displayed in the library at Nystrom Elementary School on May 17, 2022 in Richmond, California. California State Superintendent of Schools Tony Thurmond celebrated the donation of thousands of LGBTQ+ books from Gender Nation to 234 elementary schools in nine California districts. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)