I found out about this via Neil Gaiman’s blog. The specific posts are here and here, but really you should just go ahead and read the whole damn thing – trust me, it’s great. Anyway, it seems that some lovable homophobes in the amusingly-named town of West Bend, Wisconsin have been getting their underwear uncomfortably rumpled because some books in the young adult section of West Bend Community Memorial Library make reference to the fact that not everyone in the world is heterosexual.
Act One of this drama reached its climax when Ginny and Jim Maziarka presented a petition to the West Bend Library Board. The Maziarkas have formed an organisation, West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, to promote their view that books which feature homosexuality, and sexual relationships between heterosexual teenagers, should not be available on the open shelves of the library. Instead, they want these books to be re-classified as ‘obscene’ or ‘child pornography’, to be labelled as such, and for the books themselves to be corralled into a restricted section which young adults can only gain access to with parental permission. They also want the library to ‘balance’ its stock of books about homosexuality with others written from an anti-gay perspective by members of the ‘ex-gay’ movement.
To start with the last point first, I have no objection to books written from an ex-gay perspective being made available in the library (always assuming, as with any other library purchasing decision, that people actually want to read them). In a fantasy world I’d find it quite satisfying to see those books labelled as obscene, and have stickers all over them reading “Warning! This book is based upon a selective interpretation of isolated verses from an allegedly ‘holy book’, the exact provenance of which is uncertain”, and hidden away somewhere where they’re hard to access. But that’s only in a fantasy world. In reality I think the books should be available on the open shelves for everyone to read or not read as they choose. That’s what freedom of expression means, after all.
My problem with the Maziarkas’ suggestions is really in two parts. Firstly, I would disagree with the idea that teen romance novels are obscene. I suspect the authors and publishers of such novels take great pains to make sure they’re not remotely explicit – at least, they’d seriously limit their sales if they were – and in any case the idea that descriptions of people expressing their love for each other are obscene is itself pretty obscene. But, if the Maziarkas want to apply restrictions equally to straight and gay romances, then I couldn’t accuse them of being homophobic. Sex-phobic, perhaps, joyless reactionaries, almost certainly, but not specifically homophobic.
What is definitely homophobic is that, as far as I can gather from the newspaper report, the Maziarkas want even factual books that talk about homosexuality to be labelled as obscene. To start with, this is offensive, in that it implies that any mention or discussion of gay people, no matter how non-sexual in content, should be treated in the same way as sexually explicit heterosexual material. Secondly, saying that teenagers shouldn’t be able to read a book that explains what homosexuality is, and that many people share these feelings, and that lots of them live happy and successful lives as gay or bisexual women and men, is equivalent to saying either that bisexual and gay teenagers shouldn’t exist, or that if they do then they should lead miserable and shame-filled lives.
It’s always tricky, with any group of religiously-motivated homophobes, to work out to what extent they’re ignorant or malicious. Are they so ill-informed that they genuinely think that reading a book about two people with matching genitalia falling in love (or even – horror of horrors! – having sex) will actually turn a straight person gay? Or do they know fine well that homosexuality doesn’t happen like that, and they just want to hide all information about it in the hopes that gay people will feel they have no option but to pretend to be straight? Either way round, they, and especially their teenage children, need access to more accurate and less prejudicial information, and libraries absolutely should provide it.
I have to say, though, this whole thing does seem a little weird to me. Even in the unimaginably ancient days of my adolescence, back when people expressed amazement that you could have a mobile phone so portable it would fit into a large and heavy suitcase, I didn’t get most of my information about homosexuality from books in the library. I can remember scouring the young adult section of the library for books that mentioned gay people, and I can’t remember finding much. But that didn’t really matter, because I found out so much from elsewhere. I would guess that’s going to be even more the case for people these days, when the average adolescent has access to a wealth of uncensored information on the internet. It does occur to me, though, that if there are teenagers who aren’t able to access this kind of information, it may be those with hardline fundamentalist parents, who monitor and restrict their access to TV and the internet. Obviously, it will be these teenagers who will most urgently need access to books from their library, and who will be hardest hit if all the relevant books are tidied away into a section their parents won’t give them access to.
All of which makes it rather gratifying that, while the Maziarkas were organising their petition, a rival organisation called West Bend Parents for Free Speech was organising another petition, which called on the library board to reject the Maziarkas’ requests. Compared to the 700 signatures the Maziarkas had collected, the rival petition had over a thousand signatories. All sides got to make their case in a two and a half hour public meeting. Following this, the library board voted unanimously to keep things as they were, with the relevant books available on the general young adult shelving. So far this is a thoroughly heartwarming tale of freedom of speech defended, and, after a heartfelt round of applause for the library board members, you’d think we could settle back happy in the knowledge that, even in small-town America, reactionary fundamentalists don’t always get things their own way. And perhaps we still can do that, but first of all we have to follow our story into Act Two.
So far, Act Two has involved four elderly members of the Christian Civil Liberties Union launching a legal claim against the West Bend city authorities, claiming that the public display of a novel aimed at teenagers, Baby Be-Bop, has been harmful and offensive to them. As recompense, they want the right to publicly burn the library’s copy of the novel, and to receive $30,000 each in compensation. There seems to be little chance that the suit will succeed, but there are still a number of things about this that are rather…interesting.
First amongst these is the realisation that a group which proclaims itself to be interested in preserving and defending civil liberties wants to publicly burn a book. This is really rather surprising, since most people interested in civil rights feel that the burning of books is something to be campaigned against. It is often noted that regimes which engage in the public burning of books (like the Nazis in Germany, and chairman Mao’s ‘cultural revolution’ in China) tend to be fairly keen on drastically restricting many other civil liberties too. This raises the suspicion that the Christian Civil Liberties Union may take a rather partisan view of civil liberties, in which their ‘right’ not to be offended trumps everyone else’s right to freedom of speech. I am no lawyer, but it would seem likely that this skewed view of ‘civil liberties’ is what virtually guarantees that the suit will not succeed.
Something else that is surprising is the way in which they detail their objections to the novel. Their main concern is that the novel is ‘explicitly vulgar, racial [by which they would seem to mean racist] and anti-christian’. They also object, however, to the fact that the book uses certain words. For example, they object to the use of the word ‘faggot’, saying, quite rightly, that the word is ‘very derogatory’. It is perhaps worth taking a moment, though, to understand the context in which this word is used. (For the record, I haven’t read the novel, and am relying on second-hand plot summaries here.)
The novel apparently centres on a high school student, Dirk, who is attempting to come to terms with being gay. He falls in love with one of his friends, who feels the same way but is unable to cope with what such feelings mean, and as a result abandons him. Dirk is later violently beaten by a gang of homophobes, who also use the word ‘faggot’. While he is lying unconscious in hospital, he experiences a number of what seem to be dreams about his ancestors, and also one about a future boyfriend. He interprets these dreams as a message that, like his ancestors, he has to be true to himself, and that in time he will find love again. When he regains consciousness, he realises that these ‘dreams’ were inspired by the words of his grandmother, who had been sitting by his hospital bed and telling him stories.
In other words, this is a novel with a broadly positive message. Dirk does experience prejudice, and this includes hearing the word ‘faggot’, but the characters who use the term are shown by their actions to be violent thugs, and the novel condemns both the word, and the prejudice that lies behind its use. Objecting to the word ‘faggot’ in this novel is like objecting to the racist terms used by some of the characters in To Kill a Mockingbird. Yes the words themselves are offensive, but it isn’t possible to write realistically about the situations encountered by the characters without making use of this kind of language, and it is vitally important that these kinds of books are written and read.
But, of course, the fact that the book contains ‘very derogatory’ language about gay men isn’t what actually bothers the members of the Christian Civil Liberties Union – they claim instead that the word is offensive and ‘slanderous’ to heterosexual men. And what really concerns them is that the book promotes a message of tolerance and self-acceptance with regard to homosexuality, which they feel is ‘anti-Christian’ (even though there are plenty of non-homophobic christians who would disagree). In a strange kind of way you almost have to admire their chutzpah in using an objection to homophobic language in an attempt to further their own homophobic cause.
In other, rather older news that I have just come across thanks to a mention here, it would seem that homophobes in West Bend concerned about the effect on young adults of reading books that feature homosexuality need not worry. James Rutz, columnist for World Net Daily, has, it seems, discovered the ‘medical’ cause of homosexuality, and it’s not books being displayed in public libraries. No, it’s soya beans:
Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That’s why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today’s rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products. (Most babies are bottle-fed during some part of their infancy, and one-fourth of them are getting soy milk!) Homosexuals often argue that their homosexuality is inborn because “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t homosexual.” No, homosexuality is always deviant. But now many of them can truthfully say that they can’t remember a time when excess estrogen wasn’t influencing them.
Hmmm…so what about lesbians? If the ‘excess oestrogen’ in soya [sic. – soya actually contains no oestrogen at all] ‘feminises’ people, then shouldn’t all that baby formula make sure women are extra-straight? That’s assuming, of course, that you accept that gay women are all ‘excessively’ masculine and gay men are all ‘excessively’ feminine, which I don’t. It’s amazing how often commentators like Mr Rutz fail to understand that gay people aren’t a halfway house between one sex and the next (not that there’s anything wrong with people who do fall between the familiar sexes). We’re just men and women who are sexually attracted to members of our own sex, that’s all, and we display the same range of characteristics (including effeminacy and ‘butchness’) that all people do.
And that includes, for men, penis size – the idea that gay men ‘commonly’ have small penises simply isn’t supported by the available evidence. You don’t have to take my word for it, though, you can type ‘big gay dick’ into google for yourselves and see what comes up, although you probably shouldn’t use your computer at work…