Protesting Ban of Gay & Lesbian Biographies in Orange County Schools – 2001

The last fifteen years has seen unprecedented legal gains for American queers. While participation in marriage and the military are now options for gays and lesbians who value such institutions, the increasing visibility of queer youth in public schools is proving to be one of the most revolutionary aspects of such anti discrimination legislation. When we protect the rights of youth to express their developing sexuality and gender, we create a more compassionate and just world. Society benefits from the unique gifts these people can contribute to an increasingly monolithic culture.

In 2001, when I heard that a series of biographies about notable gays and lesbians in history were not being allowed on the library shelf at Orangeview Junior High School, the issue couldn’t have hit closer to home. Not only was I a graduate of the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD) but also my Mother was a high school English teacher in the district. Orangeview was located directly across the street from the Methodist church where I was an acolyte as a youth. Though the ACLU had become involved, I knew that the issue needed to be taken to the street.

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Protestors and students gather outside Orangeview Jr. High on Feb. 1, 2001 to protest the banning of lesbian and gay biographies from the school’s library. Photo by Todd Swindell © 2001

Thanks to my dear queer comrade Mira Ingram, also an OC native, a demonstration was planned outside the school. It was imperative that students and administrators know this issue resonated with folks outside the Republican confines of Orange County. The controversy at Orangeview spoke to the issue of representation. Both the head and assistant librarians for the school were lesbian and gay respectively. It was becoming clear that the assumption by heterosexual educators that positive queer role models could be bleached from the school system was waning. No longer could they hold control of the cultural representation of queer people.

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Orangeview Jr High student’s sign questions the administrations banning of lesbian and gay biographies. Photo by Todd Swindell © 2001

Here is an audio clip from an interview I did to promote the demonstration. I’ve left in a number of the pro-censorship callers in the second half of the piece, as they illustrate the true agenda of such bigotry. The argument that twelve-year-old students are too young to be “exposed” to such material shows the callers’ entrenched homophobia. In their darkened minds the material is a direct route to gay recruitment to such a vulnerable age group. How is it possible to understand the life of James Baldwin or Martina Navratilova without mentioning their homosexuality? Better to just remove it is their viewpoint.

The books stayed on the shelf but at the high school level. The demonstration gathered  local press coverage and gave at least this one queer a chance to channel an attack on free speech and queer history into an open dialogue about what best serves the needs of queer youth navigating their way through a treacherous education system.

ACT UP San Francisco Press Release — February 1, 2001

OC Activists Say School’s Out for Homophobia
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Heated discussion turns to spirited dialogue as students join in protesting homophobic book ban at Orangeview Junior High

ANAHEIM – A group of fifty people protested against the homophobic book banning at Orangeview Junior High with Ban the Ban on Thursday, February 1. Protesters included people from such organizations as Liberate Orange County, ACT UP San Francisco, Queer Nation, PFLAG, Libertarian Party, OC Youth Drop-In Center, Loyola Marymount University Gay/Straight Alliance, teachers from several Orange County school districts and students from several Orange County schools.

As Orangeview students left school, protesters cheerfully greeted them with balloons, fake tattoos, stickers, rainbow-colored pencils that read “Don’t Censor Me!,” and flyers that explained the book ban at their school, with a list of 100 famous lesbians and gay men on the back. Flyers and pencils were so popular with students, all were handed out within the first ten minutes. Demonstrators held signs that read, “Ban Bigotry, Not Biographies,” “End Censorship,” and “Open Books, Not Closed Minds.” What had been planned as a brief 30-minute action turned in to a 90 minute dialogue and discussion between students and protesters.

Chelsea House, who publishes the series of banned books, donated biographies of poet Sappho, actress Marlene Dietrich, and economist John Maynard Keynes to Ban the Ban to distribute at the protest. The books are part of the series “Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians” that was banned from the school library by the Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD). The AUHSD claims the books were banned because they are too complex for junior high students. Additionally they claim students who check them out could be bullied, despite a recent California law prohibiting harassment of students on the basis of sexual orientation. Protesters demanded the books be returned to the library, and that the school enforce anti-gay harassment law.

Activists were shocked to learn the school administration had announced on the school PA system that students were to immediately go home after school. Administrators also warned students not to talk protesters or the media, despite the fact that the protest took place after school and off school property.

“If it’s not on school time or property, the school has no right to tell students who they can or can’t talk to,” said Mira Ingram of Liberate Orange County. “I was pleasantly surprised at the response of students who said they wanted the series of books on their library shelves. Many of the students were fully aware that their school is trying to violate their civil rights.”

School officials were punishing some students with Saturday School, four hour Saturday detention, for talking to protesters and the media. Despite these threats, 150 students joined the protest and made their own signs. One student-made sign read, “Gay is Cool,” and another asked “What Next, Ban the Bible?” While protesters answered questions from some students, other students spontaneously started their own chants. Dancing students chanted, “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Censorship Has Got to Go,” and “Teach, Don’t Preach.”

One student told protesters she was there because her uncle was fired from his job for being gay. Many others expressed similar sentiments. Students lined up to sign a petition for the AUHSD school board demanding they return the banned books to the school library.

“What surprised me most was how eager students were to know more about what’s going on,” said Queer Nation’s Todd Swindell, an Orange County native who came down from San Francisco to attend the protest. “In fact, some of the most vocal supporters were straight students. They appreciated being listened to rather than being lectured. Let the students make up their own minds.”

Energized activists vowed to remain vocal on the issue until the books are returned to the Orangeview library. In addition, they are donating the biographies from Chelsea House to the Orange County Youth Drop-In Center, where youth will be free to read them without the threat of them being banned.