One of the first books that I ever read with a gay character was The Boys on the Rock, by John Fox. Set in the late 1960s, it focuses on the life of high school swimmer Billy Collins, who is coming to understand the sexual attraction that he has to men. Billy is a smart kid, a good student, and comes from a large and conservative Catholic family. He has a girlfriend who he’s only passingly interested in, and eventually begins a relationship with his classmate Al. It’s hot and steamy, with some titillating scenes of furtive encounters in his house when nobody else is home. In the end (spoiler alert) things don’t work out with Al, but Billy ends up feeling more confident and sure of himself, at peace with who he has become.
I read this book in 1994, when the paperback version was first published. Even the cover photo–two young men, arms around one another–was exciting. I can picture it on my bedside table in my apartment in Seattle.
That book, with its frank and honest depiction of an individual so like myself in so many ways, was a lifeline. Here was someone who grew up Catholic, just as I did, who was a swimmer and dated girls in high school, just as I had, who was intent on living a life of happiness and loving men, just as I had–finally, in 1994–committed to doing. Reading the book, I had an experience unlike any other I had up until that point. It was as if my life were being reflected on those pages. I felt almost sheepish, and for the first time seen. How could this John Fox know me and my lived experience enough to write about it? What was this, some kind of black magic?
I was an avid reader growing up. Mom was an English teacher and books were a big part of our life, an expectation in our family. I loved the Hardy Boys mysteries and the Chronicles of Narnia, a bit later anything by John Irving and then the classics: Hemingway, Orwell, and all the others I read in my high school AP courses and into my years as an English major in college.
Never, in all that time, had I come across a book like The Boys on the Rock.
Recently, the Moms for Liberty annual convention took place in Philadelphia. This group, and others like them, are intent on keeping books like Boys on the Rock out of the hands of young readers. Formed during the pandemic, these women started protesting mask mandates and seeking to reopen schools. Once that was no longer an issue, they switched their focus. Now exclusively a “parent’s rights” organization focused on education, they are leading the charge to ban books in schools and public libraries they deem objectionable. In a surprise to absolutely nobody, the books they target include LGBTQ characters or issues, or discuss race and diversity.
The American Library Association (ALA) publishes an annual list of the top 10 banned and challenged books based on data gathered from public libraries and public schools. According to its website, the ALA “documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago.” A majority of the books in the top ten list were written by LGBTQ+ authors or were about LGBTQ+ characters or issues.
So Moms for Liberty have been, at least by some measures, successful. Through their work, these women are trying to essentially erase our lives. They want to take away our humanity. Perhaps some actually believe we are a threat. Maybe they hold religious beliefs that hold that homosexuality is a sin. You know what, that’s fine. Believe what you believe. I grew up in a religion that called me deviant, intrinsically disordered, a sinner if I chose to engage in sexual acts with another man, so I have a lot of practice hearing—and ignoring—demeaning and offensive insults. You can call me a pedophile, a groomer until you’re blue in the face.
But know this: What I actually am is a loving husband of almost 22 years. A father of two adopted children who my husband and I raised since they were young. A hard-working and committed educator. A devoted son, a brother, uncle, and friend. I am a neighbor and volunteer in my community. The only thing I groom is (what’s left of) my hair.
You may be attempting to take away our humanity, but your attempts are in vain. You may succeed in banning some books, but you will not erase our existence. As an educator, I will continue to provide students with richly textured, complex texts written by diverse writers just as I have done throughout my twenty-year career. You see, in public education teachers are charged with educating everyone who comes through our doors. It doesn’t matter what race or gender or ethnicity you are, you are entitled to be educated. It doesn’t matter your economic situation, sexual orientation, or gender identity. It doesn’t matter if you excel in school, or you need extra support.
Reading about folks like me helped me to know that my experience was real. It affirmed my humanity. It could do the exact same for the children of any of the children whose mothers are in Moms for Liberty. It can do the same for my kids. For any kid. I believe that reading can help save lives.
Reading about those who are different from me has made me a fuller, richer, more open human being. Reading about other groups who have experienced discrimination opened me up to a fuller picture of our shared cultural history and how people can not only survive but flourish. Don’t we owe it to each other to look beyond our lives and see others for who they are? Don’t we owe it to ourselves to learn how to make it through tough times?
Reading about straight people showed me that humans fall in love for good and bad reasons, make commitments they can and cannot keep, engage in loving and abusive ways. I don’t have to only read about gay men who fall in and out of love to learn something about loves trials and tribulations, it’s sweetness and perseverance.
If we only trust and value what we ourselves experience, then school is obsolete, it’s done. The entire point of schooling is to expand the mind. To become different than who we were when we stepped into the classroom that day, that week, that year.
And yes, reading can be a powerful, disruptive act. Throughout history, this has been recognized with both awe and fear. During the period of the Enlightenment, teaching the poor to read was looked on with deep skepticism lest those poor would learn to question their station in life. This fear took deep root in the American South during the slave period. Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography Narrative of the Life, writes that “It was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read” lest the enslaved “become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.”
Douglass goes on to assert that this view, in his experience, was proven to be correct. After he learns to read, he is filled with a certain regret: “I envied my fellow slaves for their stupidity. I have often wished myself a beast. I preferred the condition of the meanest reptile to my own. Any thing, no matter what, to get rid of thinking!”
Reading, for Douglass, becomes a hardship and ultimately a blessing. It provided insight and confusion, enthralled and bewildered, challenged and freed. For any of us who only want the lightness without the dark, the reinforcement of our current beliefs and values without the possibility that our minds will expand and our perspective change, reading is not the activity to pursue. However, as a society, we have said that teaching everyone to read is what we value. And so we are down that road already, however known.
We are also down the road of greater understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. Our community, with strong support from allies and friends, will not slink back into fear. We will no longer hide. We are your children, your relatives, your politicians and teachers, lawyers and doctors, hairdressers and garbage men. Banning books about us will not make us go away.
So, Moms for Liberty, why not choose a different approach? Meet us. Talk with us. Ask about our lives and loves, our pain and triumphs. They are actually not that different from your own.
But if that’s too scary, pick up a book and read.