5 min

Censorship in ‘the land of the free’

US book banners target queers (among others)

As young fans in the US awaited the Jun 21 publication of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth installment in JK Rowlings’ blockbuster series, anti-Potterites from Maine to California prepared to take up arms once more against the fictional British wizard-in-training.

Since the initial volume appeared in 1998, the novels have held top positions both on New York Times bestseller lists and on the American Library Association (ALA) survey of banned or challenged books.

In contemporary Canada, book censors usually focus on violence, hate, degradation, and child abuse. In the US, the censors’ agenda is more often grounded in fears that occultism, godlessness, and nasty sex might rip apart the fabric of society.

Christian fundamentalists contend that in portraying witchcraft as harmless, the Potter books lure young readers into neo-pagan acceptance of practices ranging from meditation to gay sex.

While similar concerns about the series have been voiced in Canada-notably in Durham Township, Ontario-objections seem more widespread south of the border.

In 2001, churchgoers in Almagordo, New Mexico tossed Harry Potter paperbacks, Ouija boards, and Pokemon cards onto a bonfire of occultic vanities. The Potter books have been dropped into a “fire box” in Pennsylvania, torched in South Carolina, and publicly slashed in Maine.

Christian columnist Michelle Fox compares Rowlings’ influence in schools to “letting in Wiccan groups and homosexual groups with their tolerance and agendas that strike the very core of Christian beliefs and principles.”

Reactionary US Christians raise similar objections to a spectrum of fantasy literature including Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Wizard of Oz, and almost anything by Stephen King.

Most attempts to purge these and other books from US libraries, classrooms, and bookstores are now the work of frightened parents likelier to apply economic and media pressures than to mobilize the police.

Censorship of books by state intervention-like the 1992 prosecution of Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop for selling the lesbian magazine Bad Attitude and Canada Customs’ repeated seizures of Little Sister’s shipments-has become a rare occurrence in the US.

There are occasional seizures of books containing allegedly sexualized pictures of children. But in 1998, when Operation Rescue activists sought to have bookstore owners indicted for carrying volumes of photography by artist Jock Sturges, whose subjects include nude children, the endeavor largely failed.

US law enforcement now reserves its keenest vigilance for the Internet. The days when books were banned in Boston ended decades ago, as legal victories affirmed the freedom to read for US citizens. By the 1960s, when forbidden classics like Lady Chatterley’s Lover became available, moral watchdog entities like Citizens for Decent Literature lost much of their power.


In the past two decades, however, the rightward drift of US politics has sparked a resurgence of book-banning efforts in the US.

Christian Right organizations like Concerned Women for America fuel parental outrage over classroom reading assignments and library books, and sometimes initiate censorship campaigns of their own. Apart from their objections to supernatural elements, profanity, and violence, these groups watch for material that promotes vegetarianism (like Alice Walker’s story “Am I Blue?”); advances ecological awareness (like Dr Suess’ The Lorax); or ridicules families (like Harry Allard’s The Stupids Step Out).

In the 1980s, Concerned Women helped wage a bitter, ultimately successful battle to liberate the children of Hawkins County, Tennessee from exposure to The Diary of Anne Frank, Macbeth, and other works. Authors targeted in recent years include Nobel laureate Toni Morrison.

According to the ALA, more than 6,000 challenges to books were recorded in the US between 1990 and 2000. Many of these complaints concerned sexual material and, most specifically, gay or lesbian content.

Family Friendly Libraries, an anti-ALA pressure group founded in the early ’90s by born-again christian housewife Karen Jo Gounaud, arose from efforts to stop distribution of the Washington Blade, a gay weekly newspaper, in the foyers of suburban public libraries near Washington, DC.

Generically despising gay and lesbian expression, the US Christian Right becomes unhinged in the presence of gay books aimed at children.

The two most notorious titles, Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate and Lesléa Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies, have been denounced, destroyed, restricted, and run out of schools.

Equally demonized is Robie Harris’ It’s Perfectly Normal!, an illustrated treatment of sexuality for pre-teenage children that discusses masturbation and charges that homophobic views of gay relationships are “based on fears and misinformation.”

In the ’90s, the banning of gay-themed young adult novels like Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind and Bette Greene’s The Drowning of Stephan Jones led to litigation and teachers’ dismissals. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was dropped from high school English courses in Merrimack, New Hampshire in 1996 because of cross-dressing elements thought to encourage “homosexuality as a positive lifestyle.”

In some US cities, self-appointed moral guardians have zeroed in on gay bookstores. In 1994, the Pink Pyramid Bookstore in Cincinnati was nearly shuttered for offering a VHS rental copy of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film, Salo.

In 1999, rightwing homophobes attacked the since-closed Boston sibling of Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop, accusing the management of promoting child rape by stocking publications like the much-scrutinized, irregularly published, legally saleable NAMBLA Bulletin.

The US government, meanwhile, pays closer attention to imported reading matter, including writings on foreign websites, than to publications of domestic origin.

US Customs inspectors act subjectively within guidelines, like their Canadian counterparts, but are likelier to intercept visual images than printed text. They sometimes tag film documentaries, including Canadian-made films, with official propaganda status.

Shipments of books published in Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and the Sudan, however-along with all other merchandise from those countries-are barred from the US.


Since the Supreme Court of Canada’s 1992 Butler decision, Canadian Customs officials have focussed on “deviant” material, impounding not just kinky porn, but literary works by Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet, and even anti-porn fanatic Andrea Dworkin.

US customs sometimes halts periodicals like the Italian gay monthly Babilonia, but the books and magazines most often seized in American ports of entry fall into two key categories of the unacceptable: material of interest to (1) child molesters, and (2) terrorists.

Child-snatching perverts and bomb-toting zealots are the phantom menaces most frequently invoked by US authorities selling new restrictions to a fearful public.

Among other repressive measures, the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (USA PATRIOT) Act of 2001-the Bush administration’s omnibus post-9/11 antiterrorism law-authorizes seizure of library and bookstore records and enables officials to keep tabs on who reads what. It also forbids librarians from discussing intrusions by government investigators.

“There’s no oversight we can exercise as citizens over these measures,” notes the ALA’s Deborah Caldwell-Stone.

Meanwhile, ex-librarian Laura Bush provides window-dressing for one of the least literate and most pro-censorship presidential administrations in US history.

The chill cast over American reading habits by the Bush administration is intensified by public acquiescence to reduced privacy, and a growing sense That social engineering through censorship can benefit society.

Although the present US social climate has been set in part by the Christian Right, the secular left is not guiltless. Since the end of the Vietnam era, US leftists have drifted away from social justice and toward an imagined right not to have one’s feelings hurt.

Mark Twain’s classic Huckleberry Finn, condemned for its anti-racism when it was published in 1885, is now on occasion banned as racist. Both left and right are trying to define the boundaries of people’s dreams, thoughts, and aspirations.

In a 1995 essay written in support of Vancouver’s beleaguered Little Sister’s, transgendered writer/activist Pat Califia warned readers on both sides of the Canadian-US border: “By limiting what we read about, the state limits our agenda for social change. When any medium of expression is hampered by police powers, we lose some of our latitude to criticize the institutions that govern our lives … to make these institutions accountable.”

* Jim D’Entremont is a Boston-area writer specializing in censorship issues.