Stories Can Open Hearts And Minds
Editor’s Note: In recognition of Banned Books Week, we’re running a special series of blog posts featuring AU staff members discussing their experiences with banned books. Americans United has opposed religiously based censorship since the organization’s founding in 1947 because religious extremists and their lawmaker allies should not dictate what books other people’s children are allowed to read. Learn more about the #UniteAgainstBookBans campaign, then share on social media (and tag us @americansunited) why you reject efforts to ban books.
By Kayla Kaufman
The first time I read a book centering a queer story, I was 24 years old. I was living in San Francisco, a friend had begun a Queer Book Club, and I realized I needed that book club to rebalance my entire reading history. I borrowed “Rubyfruit Jungle” by Rita Mae Brown from the library and read the whole thing in one sitting.
I cried when I finished, not because it was an entirely sad book, but because I grieved the experience I never had as a younger version of myself, seeing myself reflected in book pages. As voraciously as I read as a child, I never put my hands on a book like this one. I never got to feel kinship with a protagonist like Molly Bolt of “Rubyfruit Jungle,” feeling proud of her as she persevered through a hostile world and perhaps feeling jealous of her, so sure of herself from such a young age.
I never got to cry with Little Dog of “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuyong as he learns his history through his intergenerational immigrant family and struggles through the joys and difficulties of young love.
I never got to read a story about finding and refinding oneself like “Detransition, Baby” by Torrey Peters, or mythology featuring queer love like “The Song of Achilles” by Madeline Miller, or nonfiction simply explaining the existence of different ways of loving like “Ace” by Angela Chen.
And for me? My lack of engagement with queer texts was not because they were banned. In fact, I grew up right outside of San Francisco, in one of the most liberal places in the United States. I grew up going to public schools and public libraries in one of the most theoretically affirming places possible, but still did not allow myself to access my queerness until far later in life. However, I had the happiness of finally recognizing my full, queer self and finding myself in a Queer Book Club in my 20s. Better late than never.
It is tough enough out there for queer youth, even when they grow up on the other side of a bridge from a city as queer as San Francisco. That’s why ensuring kids have access to books inclusive of all different kinds of writers, protagonists, and topics is so important to me. Like many queer folks who came out later in life, I wonder what my life would have been like if I had read a book and been able to realize “that’s me.” Not only that, but for my peers to also be able to read experiences of people different from them, recognize the humanity in these stories, and appreciate the queer experience as something just as deserving of gracing a library shelf. Storytelling is one of the most important devices we have in our toolkit for opening our minds and hearts to seeing and accepting ourselves and others. The better access we have to these stories, the better the world we live in.
Kayla Kaufman, a law student at Georgetown University Law Center, is a Constitutional Litigation Intern at Americans United this fall.