From a secluded spot in her high school library, a 17-year-old girl spoke softly into her cellphone, worried that someone might overhear her say the things she’d hidden from her parents for years. They don’t know she’s queer, the student told a reporter, and given their past comments about homosexuality’s being a sin, she’s long feared they would learn her secret if they saw what she reads in the library.
That space, with its endless rows of books about characters from all sorts of backgrounds, has been her “safe haven,” she said — one of the few places where she feels completely free to be herself.
But books, including one of her recent favorites, have been vanishing from the shelves of Katy Independent School District libraries the past few months.
For more on this story, watch NBC’s “Nightly News with Lester Holt” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT.
Gone: “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” a book she’d read last year about a gay teenager who isn’t shy about discussing his adventurous sex life. Also banished: “The Handsome Girl and Her Beautiful Boy,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Lawn Boy” — all coming-of-age stories that prominently feature LGBTQ characters and passages about sex. Some titles were removed after parents formally complained, but others were quietly banned by the district without official reviews.
“As I’ve struggled with my own identity as a queer person, it’s been really, really important to me that I have access to these books,” said the girl, whom NBC News is not naming to avoid revealing her sexuality. “And I’m sure it’s really important to other queer kids. You should be able to see yourself reflected on the page.”
Her safe haven is now a battleground in an unprecedented effort by parents and conservative politicians in Texas to ban books dealing with race, sexuality and gender from schools, an NBC News investigation has found. Hundreds of titles have been pulled from libraries across the state for review, sometimes over the objections of school librarians, several of whom told NBC News they face increasingly hostile work environments and mounting pressure to pre-emptively pull books that might draw complaints.
Records requests to nearly 100 school districts in the Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin regions — a small sampling of the state’s 1,250 public school systems — revealed 75 formal requests by parents or community members to ban books from libraries during the first four months of this school year. In comparison, only one library book challenge was filed at those districts during the same time period a year earlier, records show. A handful of the districts reported more challenges this year than in the past two decades combined.
All but a few of the challenges this school year targeted books dealing with racism or sexuality, the majority of them featuring LGBTQ characters and explicit descriptions of sex. Many of the books under fire are newer titles, purchased by school librarians in recent years as part of a nationwide movement to diversify the content available to public school children.
“Why are we sexualizing our precious children?” a Katy parent said at a November school board meeting after she suggested that books about LGBTQ relationships are causing children to improperly question their gender identities and sexual orientations. “Why are our libraries filled with pornography?”
Another parent in Katy, a Houston suburb, asked the district to remove a children’s biography of Michelle Obama, arguing that it promotes “reverse racism” against white people, according to the records obtained by NBC News. A parent in the Dallas suburb of Prosper wanted the school district to ban a children’s picture book about the life of Black Olympian Wilma Rudolph, because it mentions racism that Rudolph faced growing up in Tennessee in the 1940s. In the affluent Eanes Independent School District in Austin, a parent proposed replacing four books about racism, including “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi, with copies of the Bible.
Similar debates are roiling communities across the country, fueled by parents, activists and Republican politicians who have mobilized against school programs and classroom lessons focused on LGBTQ issues and the legacy of racism in America. Last fall, some national groups involved in that effort — including No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty — began circulating lists of school library books that they said were “indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.”
And during his successful bid for governor in Virginia, Republican Glenn Youngkin made parents’ opposition to explicit books a central theme in the final stretch of his campaign, leading some GOP strategists to flag the issue as a winning strategy heading into the 2022 midterm elections.
The fight is particularly heated in Texas, where Republican state officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have gone as far as calling for criminal charges against any school staff member who provides children with access to young adult novels that some conservatives have labeled as “pornography.” Separately, state Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican, made a list of 850 titles dealing with racism or sexuality that might “make students feel discomfort” and demanded that Texas school districts investigate whether the books were in their libraries.