By Cameron Samuels | Special Guest Writer for Project Censored’s Dispatches on Media and Politics
Amid an unprecedented wave of censorship, many of our state legislators have left no mercy for LGBTQ+ Texans. Censorious legislation like House Bill 900 and Senate Bill 13 attempt to relate queer identity with sexual obscenity. The bills target educators’ expertise and diminish students’ right to read in a vitriolic attack on queer identity, and more broadly, the agency young people wield in our own education.
Students are the primary stakeholders in our education, but this legislation is among the slew of bills nationwide favoring so-called parental rights above those who learn, teach, and work in schools full-time. Students deserve a seat at the table in decisions directly affecting us, but these legislative efforts subvert our authority in life experiences we face daily.
In a recent survey by the New York Times, “the overwhelming majority of students were opposed to book bans.” Censorship bills seek to exclude and erase marginalized identities from the mainstream. Book banning ultimately harms students, especially when Gen Z is the queerest, most diverse, and progressive generation in America. Unfortunately, policymakers have an agenda to further marginalize the already-unheard and traditionally-silenced youth of our nation. Students deserve better.
Every student should feel the same comfort and passion I felt as a young child walking into a community library or bookstore with shelves lined with dynamic character arcs and magical, faraway lands yet to be discovered. Public school libraries should serve our diversity, not shutter stories and silence voices. We cannot spare losing narratives with the power to open our eyes to a world never before seen – a world that could exemplify the beauty of queerness and the compassion all could share when united as a community in acceptance and love.
Books save lives, and students need increased access to literature, not less. Aside from student retention or career success, readily accessible books in school libraries can be a lifeline for students seeking support for how to say “no” in uncomfortable situations or how to explain our first menstrual cycle. They can provide insight for how to handle an interaction with police or navigate ambivalent emotions. Americans routinely face these real scenarios, and our nation is failing its younger generations when our worth is not valued and our needs are not met.
Any effort to limit students’ access to knowledge is an attempt to erase our narrative as a generation, one that represents our nation’s future. Signed by Governor Greg Abbott June 12 in Texas, HB 900 will impose a state takeover of local school district policies, requiring vendors to rate books by their “offensiveness” to “current community standards of decency” or risk losing business from school districts.
Policymakers must not weaponize the status quo by mischaracterizing literature with subjective politics. Not one of the roughly 30 million Texans may have an identical view of what defines a “pervasively vulgar” book, but in exclusively selective committees like those described in SB 13 to review library collections, just a few parents could dictate decisions of an entire district.
While proponents of book banning may claim their intention is to protect children, book bans do not challenge explicit content. They primarily target books exploring race, sexuality, and gender. Censorship targets authentic, diverse stories that help youth navigate trauma and discover ourselves.
By mandating libraries to recognize “parents are the primary decision makers regarding a student’s access to library material,” these policies impact vulnerable students while denying us the agency to hold power in the policymaking.
We must never forget that reading fosters personal growth and inspires leaders who drive society forward. Young people, organizing with Students Engaged in Advancing Texas (SEAT) and other youth-led movements, contributed to the demise of SB 13. Student organizers developed debate talking points and legislative amendments that senators proposed against HB 900 during the proceedings.
In limiting the books students can access, policymakers further narrow students’ views on diversity and inclusion and dim what flourishes beyond the horizon. Students thrive when robust representation and affirmation can be found in the books of our school libraries because we come to discover a meaningful connection to education and our community.
It’s time students reclaim ownership of our education and our right to read and learn. We all must pave a clear path for progress in defending our libraries and educators before it’s too late. Young people depend on leaders who speak truth to power.
Our nation ought not to be silent when young people feel obligated to defend our own rights because we feel no others will.
Cameron Samuels (they/them) is a student organizer from Katy, Texas and co-founder of Students Engaged in Advancing Texas (SEAT). Banned Books Week honored Samuels as its Youth Honorary Chair in 2022 for distributing banned books and packing school board meetings in Texas. You can hear them discussing the contents of this article on the recent Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio.