Books about LGBTQ people are fast becoming the main target of a historic wave of school book challenges - and a large percentage of the complaints come from a minuscule number of hyperactive adults, a first-of-its-kind Washington Post analysis found.
A stated wish to shield children from sexual content is the main factor animating attempts to remove LGBTQ books, The Post found. The second-most common reason cited for pulling LGBTQ texts was an explicit desire to prevent children from reading about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary and queer lives.
The Post requested copies of all book challenges filed in the 2021-2022 school year with the 153 school districts that Tasslyn Magnusson, a researcher employed by free expression advocacy group PEN America, tracked as receiving formal requests to remove books last school year. In total, officials in more than 100 of those school systems, which are spread across 37 states, provided 1,065 complaints totaling 2,506 pages.
The Post analyzed the complaints to determine who was challenging the books, what kinds of books drew objections and why. Nearly half of filings - 43 percent - targeted titles with LGBTQ characters or themes, while 36 percent targeted titles featuring characters of color or dealing with issues of race and racism. The top reason people challenged books was “sexual” content; 61 percent of challenges referenced this concern.
In nearly 20 percent of the challenges, petitioners wrote that they wanted texts pulled from shelves because the titles depict lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, homosexual, transgender or nonbinary lives. Many challengers wrote that reading books about LGBTQ people could cause children to alter their sexuality or gender.
“The theme or purpose of this book is to confuse our children and get them to question whether they are a boy or a girl,” a North Carolina challenger wrote of “Call Me Max,” which centers on a transgender boy.
A Texas challenger wrote that “King and the Dragonflies,” which tells the story of a Black 12-year-old in Louisiana grappling with his attraction to men, will give “ideas to children [on how to] discover that they are gay [and] how to persuade others they may be gay as well.”
And in Georgia, a challenger wrote of “The Poet X,” which features a same-sex couple: “Books like this is where teens get the idea it’s ok!”
A small number of people were responsible for most of the book challenges, The Post found. Individuals who filed 10 or more complaints were responsible for two-thirds of all challenges. In some cases, these serial filers relied on a network of volunteers gathered together under the aegis of conservative parents’ groups such as Moms for Liberty.
The surge in anti-LGBTQ book challenges comes as Republican-dominated state legislatures are proposing and passing a record-breaking wave of laws and policies that restrict LGBTQ civil liberties, especially in the K-12 setting. At the same time, at least a half-dozen states have enacted laws giving parents more power over which books appear in libraries or circumscribing students’ access to books. And seven states have adopted laws that threaten school librarians with years of imprisonment and tens of thousands of dollars in fines for giving children “obscene” or “harmful” books.
Library and free speech advocates warn that the rise in book challenges, especially those targeting LGBTQ texts, will imperil teachers’ ability to do their jobs, undermine the mental health of LGBTQ students and rob children of exposure to lives different from their own.
“These censorship attacks on books have real-life human impacts that are going to resonate for generations,” said John Chrastka, co-founder and executive director of library advocacy group EveryLibrary.
But in interviews, book challengers say they are fighting for children’s innocence, sanity and well-being - and, some believe, for their souls.
Cindy Martin, a mother of four in Georgia’s Forsyth County schools, challenged three books last school year. In one complaint, lodged against “Check Please! Book 1: #Hockey,” a graphic novel about a college hockey team whose protagonist comes out as gay, she demanded that school officials “remove all copies and burn it.”
Martin said in an interview that she stands by her call to burn “Check Please!” which she criticized for “using the f-word, and it’s in the sexual sense.” She said titles available in school libraries promote casual sex and degrade women. She predicted letting children read those books will lead to pregnancy, abortion, sexual harassment, rape and sexually transmitted diseases.
“It has no place in the school system. It really has no place in society,” she said. “I am a believer in Jesus Christ, and I feel he has put this passion in me to protect children.”
LGBTQ books draw unprecedented attacks
Opposition to LGBTQ books is not a new phenomenon in America. But the current wave is probably unprecedented in scope and scale, according to a Post analysis of data provided by the American Library Association, which has tracked book challenges by calendar year for more than two decades.
From the 2000s to the early 2010s, LGBTQ books were the targets of between less than 1 and 3 percent of book challenges filed in schools, according to ALA data. That number rose to 16 percent by 2018, 20 percent in 2020 and 45.5 percent in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available.
Jennifer Pippin, a mother and book challenger in Florida’s Indian River County and a founding chairman of Moms for Liberty, attributed the concern over LGBTQ books not to homophobia but to the texts’ sexually explicit nature.
“In the past 10 to 13 years, the LGBTQ books have gotten very sexually graphic,” she said.
Pippin mentioned the frequently challenged “Gender Queer,” a memoir about being nonbinary, which depicts oral sex and masturbation.
“If that book was made without the strap-on dildo,” Pippin said, “that book wouldn’t be challenged.”
The Post’s analysis of school book challenges partly supports Pippin’s argument: In 62 percent of objections to LGBTQ titles, challengers complained of “sexual” content. But many challengers were also uncomfortable with LGBTQ books for other reasons. In 37 percent of objections against LGBTQ titles, challengers wrote they believed the books should not remain in libraries specifically because they feature LGBTQ lives or stories.
Book challengers’ attitudes in some respects track with the views of American adults, who widely favor limits on some classroom conversations about gender identity, a Post-KFF poll found. Roughly 70 percent of adults believe it is inappropriate for teachers to discuss trans identity in kindergarten through fifth grade, the poll found, while slightly more than 50 percent believe it is also inappropriate in sixth through eighth grade. Meanwhile, a third of trans adults said in the Post-KFF poll that they began to understand their gender identity when they were 10 or younger, and another third realized it between the ages of 11 and 17.
The developments across the nation contain a message, said Sarah Kate Ellis, president and chief executive of LGBTQ rights group GLAAD: “Being gay or transgender is somehow something to avoid.”
One woman who challenged two LGBTQ books in Georgia’s Cherokee County School District - and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job - said she did not object to the texts because she believes homosexuality “is a bad thing.” But, she said, it is dangerous to allow students unfettered access to such titles.
“You can’t just put it out there as if it’s okay for everybody,” she said, “because if people think it’s okay, then what are they going to do?”
The Georgia woman’s fears were repeated across dozens of complaints. Eight percent of the challenges lodged against LGBTQ books said they would “groom” children, priming them to adopt an LGBTQ identity and/or to become sexually deviant.
There is little research into the effects of LGBTQ literature on children, said Amy Egbert, a University of Connecticut assistant professor who studies youth mental health, partly because books about LGBTQ people have only recently become widely available.
But “we do have a lot of data about other topics that doesn’t lead us to think that reading a book would make a child suddenly become gay,” she said.
Egbert pointed to a 2014 study that found discussing suicide with adults and adolescents did not increase suicidal ideation (several studies have since concluded that asking screening questions about suicide is one of the best ways to protect against death by suicide). Egbert also referenced a 1996 study of lesbian families, in which children grew up constantly exposed to same-sex marriages, that found a large majority of the children nonetheless identified as heterosexual.
And, she said, there is a clear risk to removing LGBTQ books.
“Any time a certain identity is stigmatized, that tends to lead to more discrimination, more bullying, increased mental health challenges,” Egbert said. “Everything we know suggests this is very harmful to LGBTQ kids.”
The power of serial book challengers
The majority of the 1,000-plus book challenges analyzed by The Post were filed by just 11 people.
Each of these people brought 10 or more challenges against books in their school district; one man filed 92 challenges. Together, these serial filers constituted 6 percent of all book challengers - but were responsible for 60 percent of all filings.
One of them, Michelle Teague in North Carolina’s Catawba County schools, submitted 24 challenges against books in her district’s library last year, targeting titles from Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” to Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” to Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” She found the books through research online, she said, then checked them out from her public library and read each one cover to cover.
“I did spend some time doing it,” she said. “It was involved.”
Teague, 55, had a granddaughter in the district at the time. She said she didn’t mind pouring hours into inspecting and challenging books because she is determined to prevent children from reading about adult subjects such as rape, sex and violence.
In other school districts, serial book challengers had assistance from a well-organized group of volunteers - such as Pippin, the Moms for Liberty chairman in Florida.
Pippin recalls seeing excerpts posted on Facebook in 2021 from “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up queer and Black, featuring what she called a “graphic anal rape” scene.
She immediately emailed the superintendent and the full school board asking how to check whether Indian River County schools had the book in its libraries. A board member provided the link to an online catalogue, she said.
“And we did have it in one of our high schools here,” Pippin said. “And that’s what got us started looking into the library.”
Within weeks, her shock and outrage had spread to a group of 20 mothers, fathers and grandparents, the inaugural members of a Moms for Liberty book-challenge subcommittee. These volunteers began spending five to 10 hours per week hunting for problematic books in the school’s library catalogue, typing in keywords such as “incest,” “rape” and “pedophilia.” They also identified targets by looking up troublesome books on Amazon and seeing what other, similar titles the website’s shopping algorithm suggested.
Every member brought his or her findings to Pippin - and every challenge went out under Pippin’s name. This strategy, she said, protects other members from public exposure, professional retaliation and harassment.
Last school year, Indian River County schools received 68 book challenges bearing Pippin’s name. So far this school year, the tally is up to 251 pending challenges, she said.
Pippin does read books and file some challenges personally, she said, snatching time while her children are doing their homework. “While they’re reading books for school, I’ll pop open a book for school,” she said.
Other Moms for Liberty chapters are taking notice of Pippin’s system for churning out challenges.
“We have a lot of districts across the country where they are just having one or two people file,” she said, “but there are many, many people doing the legwork.”
Challengers argue books are illegal
The Post found that a significant portion of book challengers are turning to state laws as they argue for removing texts from school libraries.
Sixteen percent of all objections claimed that school books violated either state obscenity laws or legislation passed in the past three years restricting education on race, racism, sexuality and gender identity. Calling books “illegal” was the ninth-most common reason employed by book challengers.
This tactic was especially popular in Florida and Texas: Of the 153 complaints contending books were illegal, 56 percent were brought in Florida and 18 percent in Texas.
In 2022, Florida passed a law mandating that school books be age-appropriate, free from pornography and “suited to student needs.” In late 2021, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) directed state agencies to develop statewide standards to “prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content” in schools - leading the Texas Education Agency to issue guidelines giving parents more power over book selection.
Overall, Florida and Texas also saw far more book challenges than most other states included in The Post’s analysis. Texas school districts received 32 percent of all challenges in the database, and Florida’s drew 17 percent. The next closest state was Missouri with 11 percent, followed by Pennsylvania with 5 percent.
The Post also analyzed the identities of people challenging books, as well as how they became aware of the titles. The data is limited because not every book challenge form asked about these issues, and sometimes challengers neglected to answer if asked.
Of the 499 challengers who gave an identification, 21 percent said they were parents, 15 percent said they were filing on behalf of a group of concerned parents and/or residents and 14 percent said they were filing on behalf of a Moms for Liberty chapter. Just eight challenges were brought by self-identified school staffers, and two by self-identified students.
Of the 198 challengers who specified where they heard about the book they were targeting, 51 percent reported learning of the title through news reports. Thirty percent said they learned of the title from other parents. Eleven percent said their school district provided the book in the classroom or as suggested reading, and 8 percent reported that their child brought the book home of their own volition.