Earlier this month, I returned to speak at my high school. There were the obvious changes, like the new buildings and staff, and the smaller, quieter changes, like the beat-up copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe on a kid’s desk. I asked if he was reading it. Someone else answered for him. “We all are.”
The book so many of my queer friends cherish was being studied as a class text.
The closest I came to studying queer works as a teenager in the early 2000s was Shakespeare, and while reading ‘Sonnet 20’ didn’t inspire me to burst out of the closet, it did allow me to consider that being an author and being gay weren’t mutually exclusive.
My high school has come so far. We have all come so far.
It’s difficult to look at what’s happening in the United States at the moment and not feel just the slightest bit smug. Laws restricting drag performers. Books pulled from library shelves. Penguin Random House and others (including David Levithan) suing Florida’s Escambia County School Board for restricting books about “race, racism and LGBTQ identities”.
But while every attempt to use the legal system to “protect” kids from queerness seems to falter in Australia, the movement is here and the movement is ugly. There’s Katherine Deves and the media’s fascination with her ill-informed bile. There’s the spate of drag storytime events that have been cancelled in response to intimidation and threats of violence.
Katherine’s frankly had enough attention, so let’s talk drag storytime. In a covidy world, libraries often struggle to attract patrons for events. Kids enjoy sparkly costumes. By fostering a love of reading in sparkly costumes, drag queens can diversify their income streams. It’s all win, no downside. But the drag storytimes get cancelled. And those that do go ahead must at great cost and inconvenience. Manly Library hosted a storytime during World Pride, and for participants’ safety, the library was closed and there was a heavy security presence.
In Australia. Not the United States.
Every cancelled event, every inconvenienced library branch, is a win for a small, vocal minority who are bitter nobody shares their fringe fears.
We can pat ourselves on the back for not having politicised school boards in Australia, but we’re fools if we think there aren’t other ways to affect which books are shelved in libraries and which books make reading lists. This year, I have had teacher-librarians lament the trouble one parent can cause in a school.
A proficient teacher-librarian will build a collection that features books that speak to current teenagers’ experiences. Given changes in publishing, and the fact that queer teenagers exist, new release books feature more LGBTQIA+ content and characters than ever before. They are not tomes dedicated to the conversion of the masses. They are simply reflections of the world.
At some schools, usually religiously affiliated, if one parent complains, it can’t be swatted away by the teacher-librarian in charge of the collection, the expert. No, it must be escalated. It becomes the concern of the higher-ups. One parent’s objection to positive LGBTQIA+ representation is weighted as more important than the feelings of those parents who want their kids and teens to see the world as it exists in the fiction they read, and the needs of the kids and teens who might be questioning their own identity.
And these are schools with conservative shelving practices to begin with. Queer content in the senior section, no matter the target audience. But the complainers aren’t satisfied. If there is any queer content in the library their child frequents, then their child’s heterosexuality is at risk.
I’m speaking at these schools, and at times, I wonder if my fears are overblown. But then I receive the occasional email about an upcoming visit, where I’m cautioned against promoting books as school processes dictate that key staff must read books before presentations. Much like shelving queer content in the senior section, no matter the target audience, this fails to recognise the numerous professionals who work on every single book published for and marketed towards children in Australia.
The consequences of negative attitudes towards queer YA in schools would be far reaching. In terms of sales, international titles dominate YA. Australian publishers rely on the schools market. If a book can’t be stocked in most libraries, or studied in classes, because of its content, then the prospect of publishing that book becomes less enticing. And then we’re back to where we were a decade ago, when publishers questioned the inclusion of queer characters. In the years since, we have nurtured some incredible local queer talent writing vital fiction — Alison Evans, Gary Lonesborough, Erin Gough, and the list is growing … We can’t go backwards.
I worry we might.
I hope this post is just alarmist nonsense. I hope I’m wrong. But on the off chance I’m not, if you’re a parent or a teen, and you want queer content in your library (and given publishing trends, that basically means you want books published since 2014), then you have to speak up and be as vocal about the positive as one parent might be about the negative.
I don’t want books like Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe to disappear off students’ desks. If I had read that book in Year Nine, I doubt I would have spent so many years hating myself.