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Archive for the ‘LGBTQ issues’ Category

2 Pennies: Amy Sonnie on ALA’s ‘Most Frequently Challenged’ List

In censorship, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, libraries, library associations, library profession, open access on April 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I’m reposting this interview I did today with my current publisher, Melville House. Read the full original post on their very cool blog MobyLives, covering all things literary, popular, unpopular, intellectually notable, common sense, illogical and … you get the gist.

Jason Bennett/MobyLives: Last week the American Library Association (ALA) released their Top Ten List of the Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010. As we mentioned in our report, Melville House author, librarian, blogger, and activist Amy Sonnie (Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times) was #9 on the list for her book Revolutionary Voices, which was originally published by Alyson Books in 2000.

Curious about what all this means–and excited I could talk to someone who’s both a librarian and an author on this list–I decided to ask Amy a few questions about free speech in libraries, how books are “challenged,” and how it feels to keep company with Stephenie Meyer.

What does this list say to you about the state of free speech in this country and libraries’ ability to circulate books with sensitive topics?

It tells us something very profound: People either love or hate vampires and gays, especially those wayfaring penguins. Oh, and true stories. People either love or hate the truth. This year was an especially bad year for reality with my book and Ehrenreich’s exposé on minimum wage work causing such controversy.

But more seriously, I don’t think we should look for reliable social data in a list like this, but I do think ALA’s annual roll call provides a useful pulse-check. First, it reminds the majority of us who oppose censorship that there are real challenges in our own backyards. Most people I talk to don’t know this happens.

Second, the list and Banned Book Week give people a chance to really talk about democratic principles and action. To ask: freedom to do what, for who and where? Most people say they oppose censorship, but they apply ‘free speech’ and ‘open access’ differently, with children vs. adults for example. Many books on the annual list, like mine, are geared toward teens. This opens a needed debate about youth rights and free expression. Our society is pretty inconsistent in how we treat young adults. Courts debate this everyday when they sentence juveniles to adult prisons or let schools limit students’ Internet access. So why not gather the controversies and raise the issue for public debate? More importantly, why not ask young adults themselves? In my work with teens, that’s exactly the discussion I used this list to generate even before I was on it. Oops, I just revealed my bias toward young people having rights. (Gasp!).

What do you think about your own book’s inclusion?

I was shocked actually. I knew about the local challenges, but it was surprising because the book is ten years old! Why now? One obvious reason, I think, is the growing backlash to the small gains of gay rights advocates over the last 15 years. And I really mean small. We have a long way to go. It was kind of cool, though, to be on the same list as The Hunger Games. Those books are amazing. I wonder what Katniss would say about all this?

If ALA weren’t drawing attention to this issue by publishing an annual list, do you think libraries would be more likely to cave to advocates who want these books banned?

I guess it’s worth mentioning here that I am a librarian, in addition to an author/editor. I enjoy kind of a great vantage point. Do I think libraries would cave to the pressure without it? Some would. Most, I hope, would not. I have faith in libraries’ commitment to strong professional ethics. I know librarians who faced incredible odds to stand up for those values. My optimism shows here, though. In one of the cases involving my book, it was a library director who removed it from the shelves. Concerned local residents and librarians got the word out and turned up the pressure for a while. ALA’s public education just assures a broader audience finds out so they might be better prepared if a challenge comes their way.

With all the fanfare surrounding the ALA’s Top Ten List of the Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2010, I think a lot of people (myself included) are confused about exactly what it means for a book to be challenged. Can you explain a bit about the process and why it’s significant when a book is officially challenged?

Challenges are significant because they intrinsically elevate the objection of one person to the level of community-wide muzzle. What one parent objects to, another may not. If a public library removes the book, they remove it for everyone. This makes any challenge an issue of broader public concern regardless of whether it results in a ban.

Most libraries have a process for community members to state their objection to a particular book, movie, etc. This is usually a written “Request for Reconsideration of Materials.” It is what it sounds like — a resident or parent asks the library to reconsider keeping something on the shelf. Libraries typically take the removal of an item very seriously. Most often, there are already policies in place to guide what they purchase and keep. This policy is informed by broader professional standards, like the Library Bill of Rights, as well as localized needs, such as an explicit commitment to maintain multilingual materials, or — in the case of schools – a focus on educational value and age appropriateness. These can be fuzzy areas to apply and that’s where many challenges gain ground. Separately, if the library has a process outlined for reconsideration requests they are supposed to follow it. This may involve a committee meeting to weigh the needs of the broader community against one person/group’s request to restrict access.

Based on what’s reported to ALA, we know that most decisions uphold libraries unique role as a place of free, unfettered inquiry. But sometimes the materials are actually removed – this year in 53 cases that we know about. Two of those bans were on my book.

Finally, how does it feel to beat out Twilight on this list?

This might disappoint some people, but Twilight and my book actually had the same number of challenges. So, the love-drunk vampires and outspoken queers are tied. Take that, Mr. Falwell.


Revolutionary Voices 2.0: Toward a new edition

In censorship, LGBTQ issues, youth on April 19, 2011 at 2:10 pm

What a week! Landing on ALA’s 2010 Most Frequently Banned and Challenged Books list caught me by surprise. No small feat for a collection of youth voices published by an indie press more than 10 years ago.

Over the years, numerous fans and reviewers have said the book was “ahead of its time.” Seems like maybe its time has come — or not, depending on how you view the book banning shenanigans.

What is a fact: The book’s message of perseverance, community, healing, visibility and social justice is more needed than ever. If you don’t need this message. Don’t read the book.

As one of the original contributors wrote to me this week, “May a thousand queer youth pick up the book from their public library and know that it’s not them that needs to change, but the society around them!”

I am working to get the book back in print. I welcome comments here from anyone who supports reprinting this book. Would you buy it, loan it, gift it or add it to your syllabus? I would also like to know if people prefer print or digital editions, or audio books. My goal is to assure future editions meet universal access standards.

The Censor’s New Clothes, CLA Presentation

In censorship, education, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, public libraries, school libraries, youth on December 4, 2010 at 1:09 pm

As promised, here are the slides from my brief presentation on the Revolutionary Voices book challenge in New Jersey. (Delivered at the California Library Association conference, Sacramento, CA, Nov 14, 2010).

Library law expert Mary Minow and school librarian Jill Sonnenberg joined me for a great overview on the ideological forces driving intellectual freedom challenges in libraries (from LGBTQ-themed books to Vamos a Cuba to Internet filtering). Mary clarified the meaning of Island Trees v. Pico and legal differences between public–school material challenges.

Jill talked about the ways filters are changing and limiting student’s ways of learning, particularly when it comes to active learning methods using content creation, critical inquiry and collaboration. She shared,

While most of us out there in the trenches will fight to keep important books on our shelves…[w]e are not fighting for students’ rights to create and collaborate…We stop at no when our districts or tech directors or network administrators summarily or arbitrarily ban blogs and wikis and social networking and media sharing and yes, even digital storytelling.” — Joyce Valenza (10/5/08, “2.0 is an Intellectual Freedom Issue”)

Jill left us with an excellent list of practical background reading, especially Doug Johnson.

Censored Book Contributors

A Message to LGBTQ Youth

I talked about the recent challenge against Revolutionary Voices in the context of a religious and political campaign against Obama appointee Kevin Jennings, while focusing on some of the learning and positive outcomes the challenge created. Most notably: both sides harnessed their ability to get the word out online and, therefore, opened doors for a (somewhat) transparent public debate. We need more of this.

I recently heard second-hand that another NJ library is reconsidering The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The school apparently discussed making the decision quietly behind closed doors. Not every challenge results in a book removal, but transparency about challenges provides a crucial pulse-check and an invaluable learning opportunity for anyone engaging in the debate — especially local students.

On a related note: NJ school librarian Dee Venuto provides excellent documentation on the Revolutionary Voices challenge on Prezi.

From Glenn Beck to Your Backyard: Targeting Gay Books

In censorship, gender, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, school libraries, youth on April 11, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Tomorrow, April 12th, a special review committee** in Mount Holly, NJ, will determine the fate of three books challenged for gay-themed content. One of them is my queer youth anthology, Revolutionary Voices. (The other two are: The Full Spectrum and Love & Sex). A local group has called the books pornography and wants them removed from Rancocas Valley Regional High School.

While the legal standard on pornography will not help their cause, school book challenges like these have been successful. It is my sincere hope these books won’t be removed — both on merit and legal precedent. Island Trees v. Pico held:

“Local school boards may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books and seek by their removal to ‘prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.'”

Unfortunately, political and religious objections to LGBTQ-themed material are old news. But, what’s newsworthy here is who’s behind this challenge. As American Libraries reported, they are connected to Glenn Beck’s 912 Project.

Beck is known for his alarmist and inaccurate commentary. He admits that he doesn’t check his facts. With millions of viewers, however, he’s not to be underestimated.

Last Fall, Beck began attacking Kevin Jennings, former director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).* Picking up the torch, local chapters of Beck’s 912 Project are now requesting the removal of books that appear GLSEN’s book list. Mine included.

This particular chapter is in Burlington County, NJ. According to its MeetUp page, the chapter boasts 350 members (called “freedom’s foot soldiers”). If you have any doubt that their motives are political or religious, you might look at 912’s Principles. Number 2 is: “I believe in God and He is the Center of my Life.” A perfectly noble belief, but not a good reason to withhold well-reviewed books from the entire student population.

Luckily, community members and library media specialists at Rancocas Valley High have been proactive in defending students’ freedom to read. They are also warning other libraries to be on the lookout for challenges backed by other 912 chapters. Last week I wrote a letter to the Board offering “my full support to the media center staff who judiciously select materials based on local policy and reliable reviews.”

I wrote in my letter, as well, about the young people for whom these books have made a difference. In the decade since Revolutionary Voices was first published I have received hundreds of comments from readers. In almost every case, they convey how the book inspired them or taught them something new.

One letter came from Lewis W. in Ann Arbor, MI, who was 15 when he found the book in his teen center library. He wrote,

“My friends and I passed around a single copy of this book for weeks… I was fascinated and relieved that there were other people out there who shared elements of my identity. At the same time, it was really important for me as a pretty sheltered young person to see that I was by no means identical to other LGBTQ youth, that there was a wide diversity of voices within the community. This was an illuminating and strengthening part of the book for me.”

While book challenges can become a battle of the most vocal, I hope the Board takes perspectives like Lewis’ into account. Queer students may not feel safe speaking up when LGBTQ books are challenged. But, they certainly deserve a chance to discover the “diversity of voices” that make balanced library collections so crucial for the health of our communities and democracy.

**This is corrected information. I previously wrote that the local Board of Education was meeting Monday. The Board will not meet until late April. This special committee is tasked with making a recommendation to the Board.

* Side note: There’s been criticism of the content of specific GLSEN safe sex workshops that I will not get into here. If you want to look it up, search for “fistgate,” or better yet “kevin jennings and revolutionary voices.” You can see where Beck got his information from.

Amazon Censors LGBTQ Lit

In activism, censorship, information access, LGBTQ issues, libraries on April 13, 2009 at 2:12 pm

banned-revolutionaryDuring the last few days, thousands of LGBTQ titles were demoted by including my young adult anthology Revolutionary Voices.

The mega-store removed rankings from titles deemed “adult” — seemingly as part of a sweeping effort to remove erotica. It is unclear what “offending” keywords they used to strip books of their findability but the impacts were extensive. As of tonight many of the rankings have reappeared after massive public response. (Read background here).

But the issue is not resolved. Amazon originally claimed this was a “glitch” in its filtering effort. Today, confirmed that this is untrue, but a result of decentralized tagging for which “no human is responsible.” Regardless, we should keep pressure to find out how Amazon is filtering material, how decisions are made, and what will be done to prevent such “glitches” in intellectual freedom in the future. Let the letter writing continue! Amazon should not get off the hook for this one, and they are not the only major company blocking access to books. Content filtering is an ongoing issue among libraries, bookstores, schools, internet-service-providers, et al.

For Amazon’s contact info see this post from Sunday’s Daily Kos.

UPDATE from Monday 3/13: It’s true that a hacker claimed responsibility. Many are questioning the truth of that explanation as well. No matter the outcome, this incident still illustrates the general need for more transparency among information sellers/providers re: their search functionality and filters. (Last year, the medical database POPLINE blocked all searches for the word “abortion.”)

UPDATE 2: Decent article summing up controversy in New York Times.

For those in the San Jose area, there is a city council meeting on the issue of filtering in the public library next week:
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
7:00 PM to 10:00 PM [Evening session]
Location: Wing Public Rooms Council Chambers
200 E Santa Clara Street
San Jose, CA

Call for Submissions: Gender & Sexuality in Librarianship

In critical pedagogy, gender, LGBTQ issues, libraries, library profession on December 6, 2008 at 11:42 am

Library Juice Press seeks book proposals and manuscripts for a new series, Gender and Sexuality in Librarianship, edited by Emily Drabinski. This series will publish works from both practical and theoretical perspectives that critically engage issues in the LIS field related to gender and sexual difference. Potential subjects include:

  • Queer and feminist approaches to traditional library topics including classification, pedagogy, collection development
  • Works that address gender and sexuality issues in conjunction with other articulations of difference including race, class, nationality, etc.
  • Practical approaches to developing community-based GLBTQ collections
  • Materials addressing library needs of specific populations, e.g., GLBTQ youth, elders, etc.
  • Workplace issues, e.g., ‘coming out’ at work
  • Historical perspectives on GLBTQ and women’s issues in the library
  • Works that bring library issues into conversation with contemporary theoretical debates in feminist, queer, and gender studies

Please submit queries, proposals, and manuscripts to Emily Drabinski,

Reposted from Library Juice, published November 26, 2008.

Ban Prisons, Not Books

In censorship, intellectual freedom, LGBTQ issues, prisons, youth on November 16, 2008 at 1:07 am

Click here for a videocast of my Banned Book Week speech, San Jose, CA, October 4, 2008.

[excerpt] “The rise in book challenges and successful book removals is a sign of our larger political times. To me, it’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a tenfold increase in book challenges and an 800% increase in the number of people in prison over the last two decades. The two issues are directly related. In municipalities across the U.S., libraries (even schools from Seattle to Contra Costa) are closing, but prison expansion is still on the rise (despite falling violent crime rates). Last time I checked, the need for education was not suddenly declining — on the contrary, it’s only literacy rates that fall when we invest more in prisons than in schools or libraries. So how is it that Banned Book Week, budget cuts affecting literacy and educational programs and our nation’s prison priorities are related? Because: more than 60 percent of prison inmates are illiterate. 85 percent among juveniles. This is a problem that starts in our communities, not the jails. It’s disturbing, but states have been planning the number of new prison beds to build based on the number of children who are reading below average by the 2nd to 4th grade. Think about this. States do not use this information to channel money into prevention and literacy programs. They budget to expand prisons. This is a terrifyingly backwards cycle….” watch the full speech.


RadReads: Revolutionary Voices

In censorship, LGBTQ issues, youth on November 15, 2008 at 7:51 pm

It’s a dubious honor to be the author/editor of a banned book. My first book, Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology (Alyson, 2000), was banned by the Texas Youth Commission in 2004. According to TYC the book is “inconsistent with the educational goals of the state.” Makes you wonder what these goals are when a book written to break the isolation many young people feel is considered too dangerous.

Contributor Margot Kelley Rodriguez writes in the book’s introduction:

As artists, we come together in this book to share ourselves with each other and with you….Included here are stories of loss (how religion can force a grandmother to turn her back on her granddaughter), stories of rage (against our parents, against hunger, against the state of things), and stories of love (about the awesome power of desire, about the beauty of touch). Throughout these testimonials runs a thread of hope; hope in love, hope that by writing this down we can help some other queer kid out there. We know the answer to June Jordan’s question, “Where Is the Love?” The answer is us. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”

We are still the ones. Young and old.

The ACLU of Texas reported on this and other removals in their invaluable annual edition of Free People Read Freely.