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The recent efforts to ban LGBTQ-inclusive books from schools and public libraries has been spearheaded by a number of relatively small conservative groups, many of which didn’t exist a year ago. That’s according to a new report from the free expression nonprofit PEN America, which details the role at least 50 advocacy organizations play in censoring LGBTQ-themed books in classrooms and libraries across the country.
Key findings from the report, “Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools,” show that many of these groups first went public in 2021, and many of the book ban cases counted by PEN America can be linked in some way to the 2,532 instances of individual books that have been banned between July 2021 and June 2022. Among the 1,648 unique titles at the center of these bans, PEN found that 81% of titles explicitly address LGBTQ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who identify as LGBTQ or non-white. Johnathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America and co-author of the report said that the field of activity is dynamic, growing, and changing. “Where we found groups named and associated with bans, that's where we logged it for our purposes,” Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America and report co-author, told Motherboard. “Sometimes that included smaller, local, and predominantly online Facebook groups. In other cases, it involved national groups that have supported a range of local partners.”The groups identified in the report range in size and scale, from local Facebook groups like the Jamestown Conservatives, who successfully swayed votes on a public ballot measure to renew funding for the Patmos Library, to national organizations like Moms for Liberty, which have established over 200 chapters across the country.
The report found evidence of at least 38 state, regional, or community groups unaffiliated with national organizations and at least eight national organizations with a combined count of at least 300 local or regional chapters. Aside from Moms for Liberty, the PEN America report lists US Parents Involved in Education, No Left Turn in Education, MassResistance, Parents’ Rights in Education, and Mary in the Library as national organizations pushing challenges against books across the US.PEN America said the actions of these groups can be “linked directly” to at least 20% of the book bans enacted in the 2021-22 school year. Those actions include members making statements at school board meetings, submitting lists of books for formal reconsideration, or filing paperwork to challenge books with school districts. Despite the success of these groups, book bans are overwhelmingly unpopular with the vast majority of Americans. According to a recent poll by the non-profit EveryLibrary Institute, 95 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents, and 53 percent of Republicans are against book bans, and 75 percent said they would consider book bans when voting in the November mid-term elections. Only 8 percent of respondents said they believed “there are many books that are inappropriate and should be banned.”John Chraskta, executive director of the EveryLibrary Institute, a nonprofit that helps build voter support for libraries, said the PEN America report offers an unimpeachable dataset. Elaborating on the report’s findings, Chraskta said that homegrown nationalists and entrepreneurial activists are mobilizing independent of national groups but are employing similar methods like swarming school board meetings, demanding libraries implement book rating systems, using inflammatory language about “grooming” and “pornography,” and filing criminal complaints against school officials, teachers and librarians. “What the national groups are doing is they're providing very easy-to-use lists and they’re providing very effective coaching and guidance on how to interrogate a public or school library database,” Chraskta told Motherboard. “They’re providing technical assistance that’s easy to adopt whether you’re a spontaneous actor, political actor or part of an organization of political actors.” The report also makes note of how state lawmakers and executive branch officials are using book ban talking points for political gain. The report distinguishes between groups espousing Christian nationalist political views with those that have mission statements oriented toward reforming public schools to offer more religious education. “These people are part of a movement that is very racist at its core,” Chraskta added. “It’s misogynistic, and it’s looking to recriminalize homosexuality, and that’s the most pernicious part of it.”