i’m-a-gay,-black,-houston-writer.-will-the-texas-gop-keep-my-books-from-reaching-students?

A lot of the discussion about the banning of books in public schools rightfully focuses on what students stand to lose by not having access to literature that can help expand their understanding of themselves and the world around them. But for writers, like myself, there is a particular pain some of us are feeling about all of this. 

I have already seen other queer authors whose work I have supported on the list of books Texas lawmakers are trying to ban from public schools. It won’t be long now before I am punished for having a reality that makes Republicans uncomfortable. I know that means I could soon lose the ability to make more connections with the young people I hoped to reach back home. 

I always knew that the title wasn’t conservative-friendly, but I remain hopeful of the impact my book can make and the people it can reach.

As much as I love my home state of Texas, I am used to being told by some of my fellow Texans that my mere existence is a problem. 

My hometown of Houston can boast of its diversity in terms of both population and political representation, but it is still a city that exists within a power structure dominated by Republicans whose social conservatism has repeatedly made queer and trans people targets in rhetoric and legislation. It should go without saying that despite being the birthplace of Juneteenth, Texas tends to trail others in terms of progressive outlooks on racial politics. 

The latest example of this came in a letter Gov. Greg Abbott sent to the executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards on Monday. Abbot wrote that parents have the right to shield their children from obscene content in schools and that public schools shouldn’t have “pornographic or obscene material.” 

He also asked the organization to determine the extent to which such material exists and swiftly remove it.

Unsurprisingly, the letter doesn’t provide any specific examples of such content. 

The school boards association has not responded publicly to the letter, but a spokesperson did tell NPR that the group was “confused” as to why it received such a letter considering that it “has no regulatory authority over school districts and does not set the standards for instructional materials, including library books.”

The spokesperson went on to explain what the association’s role is, which “primarily includes establishing a strategic plan for the district, adopting policies in public meetings, approving the district’s budget, and selecting and evaluating a superintendent.” The decision about what materials are in school libraries “traditionally has been an administrative responsibility managed by professional district staff,” according to the spokesperson. 

Abbott surely understands this, but the point here is similar to recent legislation passed by Texas Republicans that placed even greater restrictions on voting, banned “critical race theory” and restricted transgender athletes’ participation in school sports. 

Of course there is no rampant voter fraud. Critical race theory is not being widely taught in public schools. Trans children aren’t dangerous. But Republicans make public menaces of the most marginalized as a political strategy. This is just a troll off for them. It doesn’t matter if real victims are Texans. 

Republicans make public menaces of the most marginalized as a political strategy.

Abbott’s letter comes on the heels of another letter from Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, who chairs the Texas House’s General Investigating Committee and is candidate for attorney general, to the Texas Education Agency’s deputy commissioner of school programs and school superintendents, announcing an inquiry into the books districts offer. Attached to the letter was a 16-page list of roughly 850 book titles, which many quickly noticed had a curious pattern. 

It’s not as if Krause was being coy about his targets, though. 

His letter said he was looking for books with the following content: “Human sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

And late last week, state Rep. Jeff Cason called on Texas’ attorney general to investigate “sexually explicit material in public schools.” Cason specifically mentioned “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and that he said the book was inappropriate and may be “criminal.”

Teachers and librarians who care about the well-being of students and are invested in preparing them to be knowledgeable and understanding of others (and themselves) should be offended by the actions and rhetoric of Texas lawmakers. 

To know me as both a person and a writer is to know that I am first and foremost a Houstonian. It’s how most people identify me and it informed much of the stories behind my first book “I Can’t Date Jesus: Love, Sex, Family, Race, and Other Reasons I’ve Put My Faith in Beyoncé.” I wrote a book explaining that I needed to unlearn what I thought it meant to be Black and gay based on dubious interpretations of religious dogma and stigmas about HIV/AIDS. The point is to figure out who you are on your own terms and love that person even if Republican policies tend to make that difficult. 

The point is to figure out who you are on your own terms and love that person even if Republican policies tend to make that difficult.

I always knew that the title wasn’t conservative-friendly, but I remain hopeful of the impact my book can make and the people it can reach.

Of all the places that I have been fortunate to speak at since becoming an author, it was a Houston charter school — focused on closing the education and wealth gap among students in underserved communities within the city — that has meant the most to me thus far. Because it was near my old middle school, an area often purposely overlooked outside of a police presence. Because it was full of Black and Latino students I could relate to on a socioeconomic level.

It is important for people who are  growing up in any sort of  struggle to see those like them have even the slightest semblance of success. It matters to be able to speak to folks in a language they understand. As a gay man, it is also vital for me to be my true self in front of those kids so that they know there is nothing wrong with queerness. 

I was asked to speak because the teacher wanted the students to learn to speak their truth unabashedly. I was flattered to learn they took a liking to my book during their free reading time. I could tell when I came to speak. As an aging millennial, it is an honor to not bore teenagers to death. 

Even better was to be provided the opportunity to encourage people and let them know that they are seen. I worry deeply that some of those moments may become fleeting in Texas as my identities are exploited in political gamesmanship. Talking about race and sexuality is not indecent or vile; it is human.

The students of Texas deserve better than this.

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