WASHINGTON — As Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., was laying the groundwork to beat up Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias at a Senate hearing Tuesday on book bans, he read out loud sexually explicit passages from “Gender Queer” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”
Those two titles are among the books most frequently banned by school districts over the last two years, according to PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for authors’ rights and free expression.
Both books, with some graphic passages, are memoirs dealing with sexual identity.
Giannoulias left the friendly blue state confines of Illinois, where Democrats control the legislative, executive and judicial branches and every statewide elected office, to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing organized by the chair, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., titled “Book Bans: Examining How Censorship Limits Liberty and Literature.”
State lawmakers in Springfield passed, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed in June, a first-in-the nation ban on book bans in Illinois schools and public libraries, drafted by Giannoulias. It’s effective Jan. 1 and strips state funding from libraries that have imposed book bans.
It passed with nary a burp in the blue haven of Illinois.
The heated Senate hearing, however, put on vivid display the national culture clash over library book bans — which generally mirror red state/blue state and liberal/conservative divides.
It is a sizzling issue in the 2024 GOP presidential campaign, and coincides with a related drive by some conservative groups to run candidates for local school and library boards.
Just using the term “book ban” to describe this hot-button issue, however, is not quite right. This is not about prohibiting the publication and sale of a book.
The debate is over what books should be in taxpayer-funded libraries, and who gets to decide what to put on the shelf — librarians or parents, or some combination of both.
Durbin in his opening remarks noted that “in 1928, the city of Chicago banned a book known as ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ from all its public libraries.”
He mentioned other books banned or restricted through the years: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou; “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood; “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” an autobiography; “A Raisin in the Sun,” by Lorraine Hansberry; “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison; and “Maus” by Art Spiegelman. Easels spread around the hearing room in the Hart Senate Office Building held pictures of those book covers.
According to a March report from the Chicago-based American Library Association, the vast majority of the most threatened books “were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color.”
But what is going on now is not a literary debate or an organized peaceful clash over values. Librarians and teachers, Durbin said, “have been threatened with physical violence and criminal prosecution by a small group of zealots.”
Giannoulias, who as secretary of state also serves as the state librarian, told the committee: “Tragically, our libraries have become the Thunderdomes of controversy and strife across our nation, the like of which we’ve never seen before. Those radical attacks on our libraries have divided our communities, and our librarians have been harassed, threatened and intimidated for simply doing their jobs.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the top Republican on the panel, said the Senate had no role in this local debate.
“And to all the parents out there who believe there’s a bunch of stuff in our schools being pushed on your children that go over the line, you’re absolutely right … To parents, don’t give an inch,” Graham said. “Violence is never the answer. But show up and speak up.”
When it was Kennedy’s turn, he focused on “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George Johnson.
Kennedy read a passage from “All Boys Aren’t Blue” with graphic details about two men having sex and the pain of first-time anal intercourse.
Kennedy read an excerpt from “Gender Queer” that started this way: “I got a new strap-on harness today. I can’t wait to put it on you. It will fit my favorite dildo perfectly.”
He continued to read more excerpts with sexual details, just for, it seemed, the shock value.
“Mr. Secretary what are you asking us to do?,” Kennedy said. “Are you suggesting that only librarians should decide whether the two books that I just referenced be available to kids?”
Giannoulias replied, “No.”
Kennedy pressed Giannoulias. “Tell me what you are saying.”
“With all due respect, senator,” Giannoulias replied, “the words you spoke are disturbing. Especially coming out of your mouth.”
Kennedy pushed his point on who gets to decide. ‘All I’ve heard is the librarians and parents have nothing to do with it.”
As Giannoulias answered, Kennedy talked over him. “Mr. Secretary, I understand this is good for your politics back home.”
Kennedy accused Giannoulias of not having a solution. He missed the point that Giannoulias was asked to testify due to Illinois passing its landmark law.
Said Giannoulias, “We solved the problem in Illinois. We fixed it.”