Book Ban Attempts Increase in Connecticut

By Alli­son Lemas­ter | UConn Journalism
Novem­ber 30, 2023

BROOKFIELD — As Jer­mey Far­rell ner­vous­ly stood before the Brook­field Board Edu­ca­tion on July 19, 2023, a board that over­sees his old high school, he knew the fight to keep “This Book Is Gay” acces­si­ble to stu­dents was much more than a debate with­in his home­town. It was a fight to stop LGBTQ+ censorship.

When the Board of Edu­ca­tion vot­ed 5–2 to main­tain the high school’s access, Far­rell only let out a small sigh of relief. “This is the biggest book chal­lenge we’ve seen, and we know it isn’t over,” said Farrell.

Far­rell is just one of many activists across the state fight­ing against book bans. Accord­ing to a WSHU Pub­lic Radio arti­cle, “CT had over 100 book chal­lenges this year,” by Madi Sted­dick pub­lished on Dec. 7, 2023, many munic­i­pal­i­ties in Con­necti­cut face the same debate about book chal­lenges and cen­sor­ship— a debate at the cen­ter of many Boards of Education.

Bob Belden, the for­mer chair­man of the Brook­field Board of Edu­ca­tion, faced the brunt of this in July. In Decem­ber of 2022, Brook­field high school stu­dents were giv­en elec­tron­ic access to the Con­necti­cut State Library, where con­tro­ver­sial titles such as “This Book Is Gay,” were made avail­able. Belden said the first book chal­lenge hap­pened only a cou­ple of months lat­er. Dur­ing the book review process— a pol­i­cy put in place when­ev­er a par­ent chal­lenges a book— librar­i­ans, prin­ci­pals, school psy­chol­o­gists, the super­in­ten­dent, and the entire Board of Edu­ca­tion read “This Book Is Gay” to deem its appro­pri­ate­ness for stu­dents. Belden said this was the time he received an onslaught of hate.

I was labeled a pedophile over social media,” said Belden. Belden describes get­ting “3–10 emails a day” urg­ing him to lim­it access to mul­ti­ple titles. Face­book groups tar­get­ing Brook­field par­ents were cre­at­ed, telling them to join an excel spread­sheet to “audit” books in the CT State Library with LGBTQ+ themes.

Most of the noise we get is from peo­ple out­side of Brook­field,” said Belden. Belden’s loud­est crit­ic was an 83-year-old man from South­bury, with no chil­dren or grand­chil­dren inside the school district.

Despite the ral­ly­ing cries, Belden pushed for stu­dents’ access to “This Book is Gay.”

When it comes back down to rights, I know there are chil­dren dis­cov­er­ing their sex­u­al­i­ty,” said Belden, “It would be a shame for them to lose access.”

Accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion’s “Top 13 Most Chal­lenged Books,” pub­lished in 2022, “This Book Is Gay” ranks num­ber 10. “This Book Is Gay” by Juno Daw­son is a young adult, non-fic­tion book aimed to teach peo­ple about LGBTQ+ iden­ti­ties. It touch­es upon issues from LGBTQ+ stereo­types to queer sex education.

Since its 2014 pub­li­ca­tion, the book has been sur­round­ed in con­tro­ver­sy. This con­tro­ver­sy was at the heart of the recent Brook­field Board of Edu­ca­tion election.

[This Book Is Gay] tar­gets lit­tle boys and puts them in dan­ger­ous spots,” said Austin Mon­teiro, a can­di­date who ran for the Brook­field Board of Edu­ca­tion in Novem­ber. Mon­teiro spoke dur­ing the Board of Edu­ca­tion meet­ing in favor of ban­ning “This Book Is Gay,” where his anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric stirred up a local fol­low­ing. “I’m run­ning for this seat because par­ents deserve to feel heard,” said Mon­teiro, “We are falling into a moral degra­da­tion trap.”

Mon­teiro, who says he has read the book sev­en dif­fer­ent times, claims it “encour­ages under­age boys to go on Grindr and meet up with old men.”

Nowhere in “This Book Is Gay” are sex­u­al rela­tions between chil­dren and adults promoted.

Mon­teiro not­ed on sev­er­al occa­sions that every­one should read diverse books, but referred to “This Book Is Gay” as “ille­gal” and “obscene.” On Nov. 7, Mon­teiro lost the Board of Edu­ca­tion elec­tion, fin­ish­ing 5th out of 6, accord­ing to the Hart­ford Courant’s “Con­necti­cut 2023 Munic­i­pal Elec­tion Results,” pub­lished the same day. Mon­teiro lost a seat by less than 300 votes.

Mon­teiro got creamed in the Board of Edu­ca­tion elec­tion,” said Aaron Zim­mer, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Town Chair of Brook­field. “We knew we need­ed to run can­di­dates that would take a stand [against book bans],” said Zim­mer, “but that was not hard to find.” Zim­mer not­ed the “absur­di­ty,” of tar­get­ing an E‑book that he claims was only checked out twice by students.

[Mon­teiro] is prac­tic­ing nation­al pol­i­tics, but at a local lev­el,” said Zim­mer, “It is about mobi­liz­ing locals to attack the Board of Education.”

This sen­ti­ment was ampli­fied by Belden and Far­rell: the effort to ban books was not com­ing from inside Con­necti­cut. Accord­ing to Belden, dur­ing a meet­ing with BOE chairs fac­ing book bans in their dis­trict, most believed it was “a coor­di­nat­ed nation­al effort to go after the LGBTQ+ movement.”

Moms for Lib­er­ty, her­ald­ed as an “anti-LGBTQ+ hate group” by the South­ern Pover­ty Law Cen­ter, opened a Fair­field Coun­ty Chap­ter in 2022, accord­ing to its Face­book page, the same coun­ty where New­town, West­port, and Brook­field had attempt­ed book bans the fol­low­ing year. While no one can pin­point Moms for Lib­er­ty or any oth­er con­ser­v­a­tive group for the increase in book bans, the organization’s rhetoric seeps into local debates. On the group’s web­site, “Library 101,” pub­lished in 2022, Moms for Lib­er­ty tar­gets “This Book Is Gay,” and oth­er LGBTQ+ titles, label­ing the book “obscen­i­ty,” and say­ing it “teach­es” chil­dren to be sex­u­al­ly active.

While those in favor of ban­ning books want to shield stu­dents from this con­tent, many free speech activists view it as censorship.

Not every­thing is obscene because they claim it is obscene,” said Sapana Anand, a legal fel­low at ACLU Con­necti­cut. Anand stat­ed ban­ning con­tro­ver­sial books for “obscen­i­ty” has a “nar­row legal prece­dent” that does not include titles like “The Book Is Gay.”

She argues those advo­cat­ing for book bans are pro­hibit­ing stu­dents’ first amend­ment right to read from diverse per­spec­tives. “Stu­dents should be free from view­point-based cen­sor­ship,” said Anand.

While no book has been removed from a Con­necti­cut school library in the past two years, accord­ing to Anand, the ACLU keeps “a close eye” on book chal­lenges. She says the attempts have strength­ened both in Con­necti­cut and across the country.

Recent­ly, school dis­tricts that enact­ed book bans are fac­ing high-pro­file law­suits. On May 17, 2023, PEN Amer­i­ca, a non­prof­it lit­er­ary orga­ni­za­tion, pub­lished a press release titled “PEN AMERICA FILES LAWSUIT AGAINST FLORIDA SCHOOL DISTRICT OVER UNCONSTITUTIONAL BOOK BANS.” PEN Amer­i­ca cites first amend­ment pro­tec­tions against Escam­bia Coun­ty, Flori­da after offi­cials removed 10 books and lim­it­ed access to 150. In the release, Suzanne Nos­sel, the CEO of PEN Amer­i­ca is quot­ed as say­ing, “Chil­dren in a democ­ra­cy must not be taught that books are dangerous.”

Why are books so dan­ger­ous?” asked Sean Forbes, an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut, “Let’s say a 10-year-old picks up a book that changes their life. Isn’t that what lit­er­a­ture is sup­posed to do?”

Forbes, who taught a Young Adult Lit­er­a­ture class at UConn, would host a dis­cus­sion about book bans the first week of class. “A lot of stu­dents are aware of what their school board is say­ing,” said Forbes, “but adults don’t lis­ten to the students.”

Forbes not­ed the impor­tance of hav­ing LGBTQ+ sto­ries in libraries in high schools. “From 12–18 is the age of awak­en­ing for young adults,” said Forbes. “We need this discourse.”

Far­rell, a social jus­tice activist from Brook­field, had oth­er con­cerns. “The way these book bans have been done tar­gets the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty,” said Far­rell, “This means some­thing to stu­dents. How they inter­pret the rhetoric of these chal­lenges is what I’m scared of.”

Far­rell, a mem­ber of the LGBTQ+ com­mu­ni­ty, said it was the anti-LGBTQ+ cul­ture that kept him from engag­ing with queer mate­r­i­al while in high school— some­thing he wor­ries about for Brook­field stu­dents. “Queer peo­ple are told to speak up, and then book bans are telling us we didn’t do it right,” said Farrell.

Fun Home: A Fam­i­ly Tragi­com­ic,” by Ali­son Bechdel, anoth­er LGBTQ+ book, is the sub­ject of a chal­lenge in Brook­field. The meet­ing will be held after the stu­den­t’s win­ter break. On Novem­ber 15, 2023, the Brook­field Board of Edu­ca­tion edit­ed their book selec­tion pol­i­cy to “encour­age” teach­ers to read the mate­r­i­al going into the school library, after par­ents peti­tioned to change the media vet­ting process and reex­am­ine every book.

The new trend of tar­get­ing book selec­tion poli­cies has Sam Lee, the co-chair of the Intel­lec­tu­al Free­dom Com­mit­tee at the CT Librar­i­ans Asso­ci­a­tion, “deeply con­cerned.” “Every cor­ner of the state has faced a book or pol­i­cy chal­lenge” said Lee, “These chal­lenges give librar­i­ans less time to con­nect with their students.”

Brook­field High School Library, Brook­field Pub­lic Library, and the town’s Library Board of Trustees did not respond to requests for inter­views. While Lee could not speak on Brook­field, she not­ed some librar­i­ans have been scared to talk to the media after an increase in online attacks. Lee described cre­at­ing a “safe­ty plan” for librar­i­ans in 2020.

We now have to sup­port our col­leagues’ per­son­al safe­ty. Librar­i­ans have been threat­ened online, doxed, and had their vehi­cles post­ed on social media,” said Lee.

The Brook­field Board of Edu­ca­tion sup­ports our librar­i­ans,” said Belden. While Belden denies that chal­lenges have tak­en up too much time for the Board of Edu­ca­tion, he said only two par­ents have opt­ed-out of let­ting their chil­dren read “This Book Is Gay.” This is the same opt-out pol­i­cy put in place before the high school had access to CT State Library, and what Mon­teiro believed to be the com­pro­mise he “fought” for in July.

It’s all about mak­ing noise,” said Belden.