Winning the Culture War Against Queer Kids’ Books

I was celebrating the release of my third middle grade novel, The Truth About Triangles, at a recent bookstore event when someone asked me, “How does it feels to write LGBTQ+ stories for young people?” I paused, overwhelmed by the tangle of words this question brought up. But one word stood out.

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“Impossible,” I said. “It feels impossible.”

I didn’t mean that it’s impossible to write these stories. It’s the fact that I get to write them that blows my mind. You see, I grew up in a conservative, evangelical household in the Midwest that upheld bigoted beliefs about the LGBTQ+ community. I knew early on that I wasn’t straight, but I felt like I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t know how.

There weren’t any queer role models. I didn’t have access to positive queer representation in media. I read voraciously, but I never saw myself in the books I loved so much. Without a sense of community or a reflection of myself, I withdrew. I lived with intense shame, fear, and guilt before reaching a crossroads in my sophomore year of college: come out as gay or end my life.

Coming out wasn’t easy, but I’m so glad—and so lucky—that I chose to say something instead of acting upon what felt like my only alternative. While I’m thrilled to report that my family is now completely supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, the impact of that upbringing is long-lasting. I will never forget the isolation, the depression, and the constant wondering if I was made wrong.

If you told my ten, twelve, fourteen, eighteen-year-old self that I would be living in California with my boyfriend, writing books that celebrate queerness, and sharing these stories with young people, I wouldn’t have believed you.

But where there was once a dearth of books written for children and teens about LGBTQ+ people and experiences, there are now bookshelves full. There is readily available queer representation in television shows, movies, video games, and music. My boyfriend and I can look forward to the day that we will be legally married. We have better access to healthcare, workplace protections, and human rights. These are all hard-won miracles.

But perhaps now you can better understand my use of the word “impossible.” In so many ways, I’m living my dream life. I’ve been very fortunate in my writing career thus far. I’ve published three middle grade novels in three years that star cisgender gay boys and a diverse cast of characters that shine along the LGBTQ+ spectrum. For the second year in a row, one of my middle grade novels is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award.

If you told my ten, twelve, fourteen, eighteen-year-old self that I would be living in California with my boyfriend, writing books that celebrate queerness, and sharing these stories with young people, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have said, “That’s impossible.”

Today, so much is possible for the queer community in the United States, but I’m growing increasingly concerned about our future. In recent years, the rights of LGBTQ+ people, the trans and nonbinary community especially, have been under heavy attack.

As of the writing of this essay, the American Civil Liberties Union is tracking five hundred and fifteen anti-LGBTQ bills in the United States. But the culture war against queer people—queer youth in particular—extends far beyond our legislatures.

Schools and libraries have become a battleground for right wing politicians and a small but vocal group of book banners claiming that they want to protect children. Their actions, of course, have nothing to do with protecting children. If people in positions of power wanted to protect children, they would listen to children. In doing so, they would discover possibilities of lived experiences beyond their own.

According to PEN America, the number of recorded book bans rose from 1,841 in Spring 2023 to 4,349 in Fall 2023, the highest recorded number of bans ever. (It’s important to note that these are unique titles, not repeat challenges of the same book.) The primary targets of these bans are Black authors, Indigenous authors, authors of color, women, and the LGBTQ+ community.

Authors with intersectional identities have been hit hardest. PEN America’s research goes on to say that “Books with LGBTQ+ characters and themes made up thirty-six percent of all bans from 2021 to 2023.” Some states, like Iowa and Florida, now have legislation that prohibits purchasing LGBTQ+ stories for schools and libraries.

These bans are taking a massive toll on marginalized authors, me included. Despite awards and critical acclaim, my books have been challenged and banned like so many others. My sales have taken a hit. Don’t be fooled—when a book is banned, sales rarely skyrocket. In fact, sales often decline, and author’s livelihoods are threatened.

More important than the impact on sales, these bans mean that young people aren’t getting to read my stories and stories like mine. I am a firm believer that books save lives. They provide a safe space to explore and wonder and dream. They let us try on situations and provide a quiet space to ask our most private questions.

Restricting or eliminating access to queer stories (or any stories) in schools and libraries cuts off an essential lifeline for so many LGBTQ+ youth who are filled with concerns and curiosities. And when stories by queer authors are challenged, it tells queer children that they do not belong, that their identities are erasable, that they do not deserve to take up space.

Young people are paying attention to—and absorbing the messaging of—the world around them. The Trevor Project reports that “ninety percent of LGBTQ+ young people said their well-being was negatively impacted due to recent politics.” Children and teens hear and see everything. They are aware that bigoted laws are being passed. They know books are being pulled from shelves. And our queer youth are not okay.

This breaks my heart. Getting to write queer stories for young people is one of the greatest honors, privileges, and joys of my life. I do not take the opportunity lightly. If I had access to these stories as a young person, I would have been spared a lot of strife. I may have come out sooner. I might have dodged some familial conflict. I would have pressed into my queer joy earlier.

And that’s the thing—being gay is a joy. I love being gay. I love being a part of this beautiful, creative, resilient community. And I want young LGBTQ+ people to feel that way too. Sharing queer stories widely affirms, validates, and rejoices in our varied and nuanced experiences.

That is one of the many reasons I will never stop telling stories about gay boys, nor will I stop fighting for all children to have equal access to them. My earnest hope is to spare queer young people as much pain as possible as they discover and celebrate all that they are.

If you want to support young people today, especially queer youth, please consider buying and talking up the outstanding collection of LGBTQ+ books being published today. Encourage your local bookstore and libraries to stock these titles. You can also support many of the organizations fighting for children’s access to literature like Lambda Literary, We Need Diverse Books, LGBTQ+ Reads, Authors Against Book Bans, EveryLibrary, and many others.

My wish is that a year from now we can think less about the erasure and silencing of the LGBTQ+ community; instead, I hope there will be more room to celebrate the joy, prosperity, and well-being of queer youth and adults. Getting there means working together as a society of empathetic humans.

If you want to support young people today, especially queer youth, please consider buying and talking up the outstanding collection of LGBTQ+ books being published today.

Many of us have been fighting, and I hope many more will join us, especially our non-LGBTQ+ allies. I am so grateful to everyone who has fought before me and to everyone who fights now. Thank you for making this world a better place. Our young people deserve it.

And if your heart is heavy, or you want to lean into some comfort, I highly recommend picking up a book written by an LGBTQ+ author. I promise that within the pages of our books, you will find warmth. You will find encouragement. You will find connection.

Imagine being a young person without access to stories that celebrate who you are. We are here. We aren’t going anywhere. Our stories will persist, just as they have always done. And in sharing our stories, we will find the hope and light we need to continue our journeys.

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