True: All parents have the right to influence their own child’s education. Equally true: No parent has the right to dictate the education of all children based on their own personal beliefs.
The current controversy over including LGBTQ+ stories in classroom libraries in Loudoun County schools comes down to an attempt by some parents to impose their personal viewpoints on the entire school district. The National Coalition Against Censorship, which advocates for kids’ right to read, calls this “viewpoint discrimination.” And the collateral damage of this discrimination is borne not by the parents but by the children. Because, in truth, this controversy is about more than free speech principles. It’s about empathy and making kids’ lives less painful, sometimes to the point of saving them.
I published my first Young Adult novel, “Boy Meets Boy,” 16 years ago, which means that for 16 years I’ve witnessed the importance of getting LGBTQ+ literature into the hands of children and teenagers. For LGBTQ+ kids, the literature can be a lifeline – a word that is not a metaphor here. It is an actual lifeline, telling kids their lives have worth, and giving them the strength to keep on going even when they want to give up on life itself. And for kids who don’t identify as LGBTQ+, the books provide a window into what kids around them are going through, which helps them become better allies and better people. Books are one of the safest and most valuable ways to learn about difference and build empathy. We authors don’t create the world with our stories. Instead, we show the world as it is and as it can be. The power of that certainly scares some people; but for the kids who need it, it’s essential.
The existence of LGBTQ+ stories isn’t enough. Students must be able to access them. They must be able to read them when they’re struggling with their own feelings and need to know they are not alone. When they’re not sure if their families will be open to discussing their experiences, they need guidance to navigate to the safe and sure place they need to be. When they need help putting their own stories into words, they need the help of other stories that link them to the wider world.
Books that honor LGBTQ+ histories and narratives are disproportionately censored in schools, in an attempt (almost always doomed) to silence LGBTQ+ voices in the community and the classroom. Such censorship stigmatizes an already marginalized community and is especially harmful to LGBTQ+ youth who face serious threats to their mental and physical health. Classrooms should be welcoming spaces where students can ask questions and express their own thoughts, trusting that their teachers will be ready to guide them toward deeper understanding and away from the despair that comes from how they are seen, not who they are.
Too often, censorship masks itself as the much more palatable idea of “protection.” We all want to protect our children. But preventing them from learning, discovering worlds and lives beyond their own, stifling their inquiry and growth, does nothing to protect children – it only protects parents from having to explain the world around them.
Acknowledging the existence of diversity in gender expression and identity does not make a story sexually explicit. A kiss between two boys is no more graphic than a kiss between a boy and a girl. Books like "Prince and Knight," which uses a traditional fairy tale to tell a love story between two male characters, and "My Princess Boy," about a boy expressing himself by wearing dresses, are age-appropriate children’s books that have been challenged for “sexual explicitness” despite the fact that they have no references to sex. Depriving students of access to these books creates a dangerous narrative that omits the experiences of millions. How is empathy to grow in such an environment? Every time a book about LGBTQ+ characters is removed from the shelf, a child is told they don’t matter, their story isn’t important, their life isn’t valuable.
Loudoun County Public Schools must remember its goals for the Diverse Classroom Library initiative: “To invest in celebrating its student population” by choosing books that “reflect and honor our student population and those around them.”
Love is the reason these books have been written. Love is the reason these books are read. And love is the reason these books will be defended, and will continue to be shared.
David Levithan is the author of “Boy Meets Boy,” “Two Boys Kissing,” “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” (with Rachel Cohn), along with other titles. He is the publisher and editorial director at Scholastic. The National Coalition Against Censorship promotes freedom of thought, inquiry and expression and opposes censorship in all its forms.