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Tenn. activists, librarians are fighting a wave of challenges to books, many with LGBTQ themes

According to the American Library Association, the vast majority of challenged books in the United States are written by or about LGBTQ+ people or people of color.
Robert Anasch
According to the American Library Association, the vast majority of challenged books in the United States are written by or about LGBTQ+ people or people of color.

Tennesseans sought to remove hundreds of books from library shelves in 2023, many of them containing LGTBQ+ characters or themes. But some activists and librarians are fighting to keep them in circulation.

Across the country, book bans are on the rise. The American Library Association recorded the highest number titles challenged since it began recording them more than 20 years ago. Nationwide, nearly half of the books targeted for restriction included the lived experiences of LGBTQ+ people or people of color. In Tennessee, the organization reported 21 attempts to challenge books in 2023, targeting 350 unique books.

More: Book bans are expanding from schools into public libraries in Sumner County

Based on data from the ALA, the majority of the top 10 challenged books in Tennessee included LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

A survey conducted by the Tennessee Library Association, or TNLA, found a similar trend among public libraries. The state-level survey included informal challenges, like when a patron verbally asks a librarian to remove or restrict a title, without filing any official paperwork. Large national datasets often don’t capture these kinds of challenges.

Of the 63 respondents to TNLA’s survey, more than half reported some kind of book challenge in 2021 or 2022. About a quarter said they had fielded a formal challenge.

Impact on libraries and librarians

Written responses to the survey also revealed that many librarians feel scared to do their jobs. Some reported facing threats and verbal harassment at work, leading to fears of being fired or physically harmed.

“When we start banning books and we start vilifying librarians, we slip into a very dangerous place where librarians are not considered human,” said Alex Sharp, who is on TNLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. “And suddenly we’re the enemy, right? When we’re trying to just provide for our communities.”

She emphasized that modern libraries offer more expanded services than in the past, calling them “bastions of knowledge and services.” They can offer anything from computer classes to eclipse glasses. Sharp said libraries have a duty to serve everybody in their community, “not one kind of person.”

Sharp sees book challenges as a slippery slope.

“Banning books and removing books from libraries is a fascist practice. It’s something that fascists do,” Sharp said.

How activists are organizing

In the face of these challenges, the Tennessee Equality Project published a toolkit this month for those who want to keep books on shelves. Author Aly Chapman said the goal was to educate those who are new to this kind of advocacy.

“There’s a very vocal minority of people who are pushing for book banning. But there are even more people in the communities who are against it, and they’re having to figure out how to organize and how to advocate,” Chapman said.

Those who support restricting books with LGBTQ+ characters and themes often say they want to shield children from mature or sexually explicit content. But Chapman said that argument excludes “the most vulnerable children,” who are often LGBTQ+ youth.

Chapman said access to the materials that have been challenged can help youth navigate questions about gender and sexuality without having to ask publicly. They note that many youth many not find themselves in communities or families that accept LGBTQ+ people. Chapman said access to materials for youth to educate themselves is “vital.”

A quote from one Anderson County public commenter in Chapman’s report illustrates that point. A young person named Eli asked the library board not remove titles that included LGBTQ+ representation, saying that growing up “I did not feel right in my own body.”

“Having these materials or representation would have helped me from preventing my first suicide attempt.”

Alexis Marshall is WPLN News’s education reporter. She is a Middle Tennessee native and started listening to WPLN as a high schooler in Murfreesboro. She got her start in public radio freelance producing for NPR and reporting at WMOT, the on-campus station at MTSU. She was the reporting intern at WPLN News in the fall of 2018 and afterward an intern on NPR’s Education Desk. Alexis returned to WPLN in 2020 as a newscast producer and took over the education beat in 2022. Marshall contributes regularly to WPLN's partnership with Nashville Noticias, a Spanish language news program, and studies Arabic. When she's not reporting, you can find her cooking, crocheting or foraging for mushrooms.
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