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Book bans and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation can be isolating for queer youth

Florida teacher Adam Tritt and his group, Foundation 451, led the launch of a "Banned Book Nook" at a Ben & Jerry's ice cream store in Melbourne, Fla.
Mikey Holland
Florida teacher Adam Tritt and his group, Foundation 451, led the launch of a "Banned Book Nook" at a Ben & Jerry's ice cream store in Melbourne, Fla.

As a senior at Florida Gulf Coast University Jules Bustamante uses she/they pronouns, but Bustamante remembers a time when they were 13-years-old, standing in their media center in search of one book: “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.”

The book featured characters that not only looked like them, but also echoed the emotions and feelings Bustamante felt on the inside. It wasn’t until they were educated on different gender identities that they felt seen.

“I wasn’t into ‘girly’ things at that age, and sometimes I didn’t even like being called a girl,” said Bustamante.

Although she feels confident in her gender identity now, Bustamante remembers how isolating it felt to be a queer student in high school.

She says reading books and graphic novels that featured queer characters was essential to discovering their gender identity.

“Seeing my favorite online artists talk about their own experiences made me resonate with them,” said Bustamante. “At the young age of 13, I realized I related to a lot of them and that some of those labels may apply to me. I found people who were using different pronouns and didn’t identify as just a man or a woman.”

Books on LGBTQ+ topics, like the ones Bustamante were seeking out, are currently being restricted in schools across Florida due to proposed legislation. Across the state, many counties are scrambling to figure out what is and isn’t allowed in school media centers.

Book bans are not a unique issue to Floridians

According to PEN America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the freedom of speech and expression, book bans have a long global history and have been associated in the past with authoritarian governments. Although book bans in the United States are less extreme than other global or historical examples, the effects can still be detrimental to student’s mental health.

During the 2021-2022 school year, PEN America conducted its first formal count of banned books across the United States. The organization found that a total of 26 states had bans across 86 different school districts. As of an April 2022 report from PEN America, Florida had the third largest number of bans at 204, following Texas and Pennsylvania at 713 and 456, respectively.

Talk of book bans and restrictions in Florida are based on numerous legislative proposals.

The efforts started with HB 1467: K-12 Education and include HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education and SB 1320: Child Protection in Public Schools.

HB 1467: K-12 Education requires school book selections to be, “free of pornography and prohibited materials harmful to minors,” as well as requiring public meetings relating to instructional materials in which anyone in the community can object to materials used in school. Some of these prohibited materials would include the expression of gender and sexuality as well as topics of racism and prejudice.

HB 1557: Parental Rights in Education requires districts to adopt procedures that will allow parents to opt their children out of certain lessons that do not reflect the values of the parent. Parents may also bring legal action against the school district if they see fitting. The bill also prohibits the instruction of sexual orientation and gender identity. As of April 19, 2023, the law has been expanded to include kindergarten through the 12th grade.

SB 1320: Child Protection in Public Schools, is the most restrictive of the three bills. SB 1320 will prohibit any employee, contractor, or students from using pronouns or preferred titles that, “do not correspond with that person’s sex,” and prohibit the instruction by school personnel on sexual orientation or gender identity until the ninth grade. The bill also requires school districts to adopt and publish a specific process to review student access to materials and requires that materials used to teach about reproductive health to be approved by the Department of Education. Unlike the other two bills, SB 1320 will also apply to charter schools.

Florida Senator Clay Yarborough, the sponsor of SB 1320 and co-sponsor of HB 1557, did not respond to WGCU for comment.

Counties throughout Florida have reacted differently to the proposed legislation of challenging acceptable reading material in schools. In Southwest Florida, many counties are divided.

Charlotte, Sarasota, and Hendry counties currently have no book restrictions or bans at this time.

Collier, Lee, and Manatee counties have provided a list of books that have been restricted or pulled from shelves.

Highlands, Desoto, and Glades County have not yet responded to a request for a full list of challenges and restrictions.

Studies show that book bans can have lasting impact on a students’ mental health.

According to a recent article in Psychology Today, child psychologist and author of “Not Just Bad Kids,” Akeem Marsh, states that book bans take, “learning opportunities away from children, educators, and parents.”

Jon Braddy, Ph.D., a queer theory professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, says a lack of available information at his local school made it difficult to understand his own sexuality growing up.

“When I was growing up, I was gay,” said Braddy. “I lived in a rural Kentucky town. I tried to answer these questions [about myself]. I didn't feel comfortable going to my parents or anyone else, and I looked for it in my school library. There was no information during that time. Just the fact that there was no information made me feel more isolated and alone.”

Braddy says students deserve to have access to these materials because they reflect relatable, real world problems.

“To hide the reality of life doesn't prepare us for the reality of life,” said Braddy. “Books or literature: sometimes we like 'em, sometimes we don't, but we learn from them, and I think we owe that to our children, too.”

Lukas Goldstein, a graduate student studying Educational Leadership at FGCU, shares Braddy’s sentiment.

“Bans [and restrictions] create a sense of isolation and confusion in queer youth who have yet to realize they are a part of the LGBTQ+ community,” said Goldstein.

“Students who know they are different, but do not yet know why will feel upset and alone without representation until high school. Additionally, these students may seek information elsewhere, such as online, in a way that is not safe or age-appropriate when diverse materials are not available to them in schools.”

He believes that schools should have the final say in what material is being used in the classroom and libraries, not the government. As an educator, Goldstein says that he believes that the recent bills are an attempt to erase exposure and visibility for historically marginalized groups. Goldstein also cites the PEN America 2021 Index of School Book Bans.

“41% of the books were banned because they explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ+,” said Goldstein, “40% [of banned books] contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color. These statistics are not an accident.”

Goldstein encourages LGBTQ+ youth to seek out alternative resources to materials, such as public libraries or borrowing books from friends. Goldstein also recommends the nonprofit organization, Project Open Books.

Project Open Books was founded by FGCU alumni, Joshua Lambert and sends diverse LGBTQ+ children’s books to people and classrooms free of charge.

“Having diverse books in classrooms [not only makes] minority students feel seen and heard, but it also educates others who may not have ever heard of an identity and it creates that much needed visibility,” said Goldstein.

Because of her ability to explore her gender and sexuality, Bustamante felt empowered to produce their first short film for their final multimedia assignment in high school. The film follows a young high schooler as she navigates the romantic feelings she has for her friend and makes the decision to come out.

“I've always wanted a fun coming of age film about a girl who likes other girls, but I never found that, so I decided to make one myself,” Bustamante writes in the description of the film.

Bustamante still looks back on the short film fondly and hopes to one day create a full-length adaptation in hopes other LGBTQ+ youth can see themselves represented in a positive and affirming way.

If passed by the Florida Legislature, all three bills will take effect on July 1, 2023.

This story was produced by a student in the FGCU journalism program/WGCU Public Media Intern.

Copyright 2023 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Elyssa Morataya
Tara Calligan
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