On Oct. 25, the Texas state representative Matt Krause sent notice to the Texas Education Agency that he was initiating an inquiry into “school district content.” He appended a list of about 850 books and asked each district to indicate how many copies of each book it had, where in the school those copies were located and how much the district had paid for them.
Quoting Texas law, the letter stated that the state’s Committee on General Investigating, which Krause chairs, may undertake inquiries “concerning any ‘matter the committee considers necessary for the information of the Legislature or for the welfare and protection of state citizens.’” Most of the books on the list deal with race, sexual orientation, abortion or gender identity. Krause is one of several candidates hoping to unseat the incumbent Republican attorney general, and this bit of extremist theater is a maneuver to raise his profile among the ardent Trumpists and social conservatives likely to be G.O.P. primary voters.
My 2012 book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity was on Krause’s list. Finding my work thus blacklisted disturbingly evoked a childhood during which I was shunned and abused for being gay, in which I felt ashamed, defenseless, sad and epically vulnerable. I had written my book to help people, and now it was being held up as derelict and unpatriotic. The story of my life as a gay person — which had been elevated (along with those of many others) by the 2015 Obergefell decision that legalized gay marriage nationally — was relegated anew to a margin I thought I had finally escaped. Could my book’s additional demonstration of familial compassion for transgender children injure the society within which I had long fought to be recognized and accepted?
I have had my work censored before, but never in the United States. My Chinese publishers censored two of my books — Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression — without informing me, despite being contractually required to reveal any editorial changes. They deleted references to the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989 in Tiananmen Square, as well as every reference to my being gay. The publishers had simply assumed I wouldn’t find out.
The Chinese censorship system, like the tactic being employed in Texas, relies on intimidation.
I try to serve the various communities of which I am a part, including LGBTQ people and those who confront mental illness. To find that my depression book had been stripped of references to homosexuality felt like a betrayal of gay people in China, whose challenges I have reviewed in my work with the LGBT project at Human Rights Watch. But I didn’t want to take the books out of circulation. My royalties from Chinese translations are minuscule, so my eagerness to see the book published in Mandarin stemmed primarily from a desire to offset China’s limited and sometimes nearly sadistic mental-health-care system and its persecution of gay people. In the end, my agent negotiated new contracts for both books from other Chinese publishers, and they were retranslated in new, inclusive editions.
The Chinese censorship system, like the tactic being employed in Texas, relies on intimidation. Chinese publishers excise material that might run afoul of censors before sending books for approval. This avoids bureaucratic hassle and ensures that whole books won’t be enjoined. Likewise, Krause’s order does not prohibit the books on his list from going into schools, but rather makes aggressive inquiries that are designed to intimidate, a bullying way of instilling fear.
The political historian and commentator Anne Applebaum wrote in Iron Curtain (2012) about how the Stalinization of Eastern Europe depended not primarily on the gulag and the firing squads, but on the intimidation of people who felt compelled to spew the same idiocy they heard, pursuing a grotesque conformity. “Actual censors were not always needed,” Applebaum told me in a recent email. “Instead, a form of pervasive peer pressure convinced writers, journalists and everyone else to toe the party line; if they did not, they knew they risked being ejected from their jobs and shunned by their friends.”
Friends of mine in China who lived through the Cultural Revolution describe a contagious zeal that drove them to act on beliefs they did not share. This process is brilliantly caricatured in Eugène Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, in which people who seem perfectly normal transform into violent beasts, more and more of them caving as the play goes on. A parallel process has taken place as an increasing number of Americans seem willing to abandon previously hallowed democratic norms, including freedom of expression. Krause has not banned the books on his list because he is not in a position to do so, but the chilling effect of such lists is incontrovertible.
I am working on a book that is partly about race, and, as a liberal centrist, I am anticipating a critical reception from both the right and the left. Ideological censorship in the form of shunning, hate-mailing and cancellation has come to pervade both poles of American social politics, but I had in some ways floated above this fray into which I have now been drafted.
Matt Krause represents a district in Fort Worth, where my 14-year-old daughter lives with her mother. Our family has a wonderful circle of friends there and our unorthodox arrangements have been greeted with unfailing civility. I have grown tired of defending my life in Texas to New York progressives who defame the whole state. Yet as my daughter reaches an age at which adolescents begin to explore sexuality and gender, my writing on these subjects has been blacklisted in her backyard. I feel more acutely than I have since the day I married my husband how the political is personal and vice versa.
The Texas document constitutes a cynical electoral stratagem by a bigoted politician in a beleaguered state.
When I was president of PEN America, the freedom of speech organization, I lobbied on behalf of foreign writers who were banned, tortured and sometimes threatened with execution. Many such courageous voices are galvanized by the need to speak the truth in places where the truth has become suspect, to stand in defense against mindless surrender — to avoid becoming rhinoceroses. Many know that their arrest is a matter not of if, but of when, and march into prison with heads held high. This sounded admirable but exotic a decade ago; now it seems alarmingly proximate.
In October, prosecutors in Wyoming announced that they were considering filing criminal charges against librarians in the state who had LGBTQ-positive books on their shelves. The Dallas Morning News reported that parents in Texas “have successfully campaigned against several books and questioned curriculum that delves into challenging subjects, including those addressing social justice and LGBTQ issues.” An all-white school board in Pennsylvania banned books and articles on a list of “racial justice resources,” almost all of them by people of color. (After protests led by high school students, the ban was temporarily lifted.) Toni Morrison’s work has been under attack in Virginia, and a Florida school board member filed a criminal report against a book about the Black queer experience that she judged obscene.
I don’t wish to overdramatize; I am on a proud list that includes Isabel Wilkerson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jeffrey Eugenides, Michael Crichton, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and William Styron. None of us is rotting in jail; nobody has been forcibly silenced. The Texas document constitutes a cynical electoral stratagem by a bigoted politician in a beleaguered state. But that same state has just passed the nation’s most misogynist abortion law — and after they go for the women, they usually attack the Blacks, the gays, the disabled and the Jews.
I believe that writing the truth as I perceive it is a constitutionally protected right, and that whether or not my books are in school libraries, they will reach their audience. But my daughter, should her peers take an interest in reading my work, may have to explain why it is unavailable to them; she will have to negotiate the proposition that our family’s love is a poison from which they need to be protected.
Since this essay was written, Matt Krause has dropped out of the attorney general’s race and entered the race for Tarrant County district attorney; and prosecutors have decided not to pursue charges against library employees for including sex education and LGBTQ-themed books available in the young adult and children’s collections.