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banning books is, like, so last century.

Or at least that’s what I hoped.

Turns out, my hope was in vain. Rancocas Valley Regional High School District Board of Education, in Mt. Holly, NJ, banned a book this week. Which book? Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology, edited by Amy Sonnie (who, by the way, is no stranger to controversy – looks like she’s all over this). According to one local resident, Beverly Marinelli, the book is “pervasively vulgar and obscene.”

In addition to Revolutionary Voices, Marinelli unsuccessfully attempted to have two other books banned: Love and Sex: 10 Stories of Truth, and The Full Spectrum: A new generation of writing about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender questions and other identities.  Apparently those were pervasively vulgar, too.

But let me ask you a question: when was the last time you met a high school student who hadn’t already been exposed to something vulgar in his or her life? Or a high school student who hadn’t said or done something vulgar? Most teenagers, by the time they reach high school, already know about sex, queerness, and language their mothers perhaps wouldn’t like them to use. Some of them (a large percentage, I’d say) use this language already. Some of them are having sex, some of them are coming out, some of them are doing the things that these books talk about. Which means that these books will have little impact on how they are sexualized – especially if they’re removed from the school library.

But it also means that teenagers who are searching for answers, for people like themselves, will be unable to find it.

In case you forgot: it’s hard to be a teenager. It’s lonely and scary and frustrating. People–usually other teenagers–are mean to each other for no reason. They target each other over simple, ridiculous things like clothes, hairstyles, patterns of speech, academic or intellectual ability, hobbies, sporting prowess. The physical and overt verbal bullying that took place on the playgrounds and in the lunchrooms in grade school continues into high school, sometimes remaining overt, but sometimes morphing into something more subtle, more terrifying because of its difficulty in identifying and explaining. Behavior like this can make it difficult for teens who are struggling with some aspect of their sexuality to talk about it – and books tend to be a good resource. They’re a private, quiet way of letting kids know that there are other people in the world just like them.

And now this Beverly Marinelli has started weeding out these hugely important resources.

I was incensed when I heard the news yesterday, for a few reasons. Obviously, the censorship issue is first and foremost on my mind: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I do not support censorship in any form. The idea of restricting access to ideas is horrifying to me, reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and symptomatic of our partisan culture in which, it seems, the right wants to homogenize society as much as possible. And it pains me, as a parent, that some one who doesn’t know me or my family is trying to make decisions that will impact my child as he grows up. But too, I was frustrated to learn that Marinelli is a member of Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, an alarmist, right-of-center organization with a mission statement that indicates:

“This is a non-political movement. The 9-12 Project is designed to bring us all back to the place we were on September 12, 2001.”

So, Mr. Beck, you want to bring us back to a place of incredible fear and grief and anguish?

(it seems to me, too, that some of the 9 principles and 12 values directly contradict each other.)

It’s a complicated little tie-in, but here are the basics: last year, Beck verbally attacked Kevin Jennings, former director of GLSEN and current member of the Obama Administration, for a number of reasons (not least of which because of the fact that Jennings, who is openly gay, was appointed to the position of Assistant Deputy Secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools). The 9/12 Project, picking up on Beck’s alarmist behavior, started challenging books that appeared on GLSEN’s recommended reading book list- including Amy Sonnie’s Revolutionary Voices.

Marinelli and Co. have further plans to continue petitioning local school districts to remove books like Revolutionary Voices, and they’re going to Lenape Regional High School District next.

While I understand the identifying work and art that is vulgar or obscene is a judgment call, I believe wholeheartedly that it’s a judgment call that needs to be made by individual families, not by one person who is seeking to apply the decision to an entire student body. The information I choose to share with my son is different from what my friends might choose to share with their children, and the time frames for sharing info is also different. Jacob has spent the past several years knowing what it means to be part of a non-traditional family: his parents are divorced; his father has a new, blended family; his mother is in a same-sex relationship; he has learned that family can be both the people you are related to, and the people you choose. It is my responsibility to teach Jacob these things when and how I feel it’s appropriate, and to allow him to make his own choices at the pace I feel is appropriate. It is not Beverly Marinelli’s or Glenn Beck’s decision – and yet, Marinelli has ensured that, in at least one circumstance, I will not get to make that choice.

Are you as frustrated as I am? Feel free to leave a comment here, or send me an email (rachel [dot] bunting [at] gmail [dot] com). I happened, in some strange fashion, to end up on Beverly Marinelli’s email list, which means I now have her personal email. While I won’t publish her email here, I’ll be happy to forward your comments on to her.

8 thoughts on “banning books is, like, so last century.”

  1. Kick-ass post, Rach. Everything about this story is truly horrifying, and I sincerely hope that someone in power stops this from going any further.

  2. As a mom with two sons at RV one Andrew in the Gay straight alliance I absolutely agree being a teenager is hard. as a teenage bookworm myself books were my friends and my solice. I agree that kids need good books to support them and for them to curl up with.

    Kids may have some exposure to some issues in these books but that doesn’t mean parents aren’t out there fighting to keep it down to a minimum. It doesn’t mean we give up and allow it in books in the schools. It also doesn’t mean that your kids and mine can’t have acecss to great books about these subjects. Just not Revolutionary voices that the supreme court in it’s wisdom recognizing the sanctity of chiildhood via the pico case allowed to be removed from school libraries for Pervasive Vulgarity, Sexual Explicitness and Educational Unsuitability.
    It’s a book that can still be addressed carefully and ,at least in my home, under supervision, for all the wonderful stories it has. At home.
    Yes I have read it and it has great stories. The obscenity however doesn’t belong in school.
    I personally plan to offer a check to replace the book at the school for a same subject book so the children don’t suffer the loss of books to read on the topic.

    1. Maryann,
      Thanks for your comment!

      I’m happy to hear that you support these kinds of conversations at home with your kids – I think it’s something all parents should do, as too many seem to think that if we don’t talk about them, our kids will never have to know.

      However, I wonder where we draw the line? How do we decide what’s “educationally unsuitable” and what’s not? For instance, I find lots of religious literature inappropriate for education in a public school – but I want nothing more than for kids to be able to access this info at their own leisure.

      Further, how do we define what’s obscene for other people? Clearly you find this inappropriate for school; I do not. My best friend also doesn’t, but obviously Beverly Marinelli was extremely unsettled by the fact that it’s in the library. There are still more people who probably don’t care either way. So who’s right? And why does any one individual’s opinion get to restrict the rights of any one else?

      And finally, again, I’m really glad that you’re having open discussions about sexuality and the struggles of being a teen in your home. But not every home is like that. There are too many homes where these kinds of conversations are stifled, and yet in these homes live kids who desperately need to have them. How else are these kids supposed to figure it out? Sure, there’s plenty of info online now, but researching this stuff “in secret” requires some sort of privacy – again, not all kids have this.

      We’re slowly removing paths to knowledge that so many kids desperately need, and it just doesn’t sit well with me at all.

    2. This seems to me to be such an incorrect reference to the Pico case. First, it implies the Pico case is somehow directly connected to Revolutionary Voices, as if the Supreme Court endorsed banning this book in particular, but this is a case from 1975 with a broad and vague ruling on book banning. The Pico case certainly did help to limit book banning based on ideas, but the judgement’s wording has done quite a bit of damage to LGBT books in our libraries.

      The terms “Pervasive Vulgarity, Sexual Explicitness and Educational Unsuitability” are purposefully and extremely vague. There is no set of guidelines as to what would fall under this. We don’t ban all books with descriptions of sexual encounters, we don’t ban all books with accounts of sexual assualt, sexual education, etc. It really does give power to Boards of Education to decide what they do and don’t find vulgar, and it often leaves LGBT content on the chopping block in particular.

      The judgement with its many flaws led to Virgil v. The School Board of Columbia County in Florida in 1989 upholding a ban on a literature textbook containing things like Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” which were deemed by that school board to be “vulgar.”

      Obivously, I’m sure you don’t think “The Miller’s Tale” should be banned. However, those people did. And now you want this book to be banned, and you want people to agree with your interpretation of “vulgar.” This book is clearly not intended as a piece of pornography; it’s been published, reviewed, and endorsed by countless legitimate organizations, yes GLSEN, but also the American Library Association.

      There are young adults at this High School who are legally able to go to an NC-17 film in the theater, but are now not allowed to consult this book through the free and private means of the library. And let’s be honest, the young adults who will want to seek out this book are already an at-risk minority, extremely more likely to be subject to violence and bullying. Well done.

  3. I’d like to clarify that in that last Florida case, the textbook was allowed to remain in the library, but the classroom ban was upheld. I still think it’s a good example of how it’s unwise to let small groups of people control access to literature and shows how interpretations of “vulgar” greatly differ.

  4. To anyone else who happens upon this, I want to point out that Maryann Lange appears to be a member of the 9/12 Project, and I believe she has misrepresented her views in her comment on this blog.

  5. awesome post! along with a group of other young theatre artists, we are reading text from revolutionary voices in a performance titled REVOLUTIONARY READINGS. our goal is to combat the rvrhs school board decision and show that the book is not pornographic, as its opponents claim. we have several dates in the nj/ny area coming up this summer and would love if you could come out and/or share the info! visit us online at http://www.revolutionaryreadings.com to learn more 🙂

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