How Queer and Trans Authors Are Fighting Book Bans | Crooked Media
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May 18, 2023
What A Day
How Queer and Trans Authors Are Fighting Book Bans

In This Episode

  • Publishing giant Penguin Random House and literary organization PEN America — along with a group of authors, students, and parents — sued Florida’s Escambia County School District and school board for banning books about race and LGBTQ+ issues from its libraries. Banned author George M. Johnson joins us to talk about the fight to free their book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, from censorship.
  • And in headlines: Senator Dianne Feinstein’s condition is worse than what was previously disclosed, Disney canceled the development of a $1 billion office complex in Orlando, Florida, and the L.A. Dodgers disinvited a legendary San Francisco drag activist group from the team’s upcoming Pride Night celebration.

 

Show Notes:

 

 

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TRANSCRIPT

 

Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Friday, May 19th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice and this is What A Day where the more we learn about Harry and Meghan’s wild ride, the less it makes sense. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Like quantum physics or the movie Tenet. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: It’s worse than the movie Tenet. With all due respect, the math is not mathing. [laughter] [music break] On today’s show, new reports indicate that Senator Dianne Feinstein’s condition is worse than what was previously disclosed. Plus, the Los Angeles Dodgers cut a legendary San Francisco drag activist group from the team’s upcoming Pride night celebration. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: But first, on yesterday’s show, we mentioned a federal lawsuit fighting back against a book ban carried out by Florida’s Escambia County School District and School Board. This suit brings together authors whose books have been banned. Parents and students in the school district who cannot access the books that have been banned. And a publisher, Penguin Random House, in a first of its kind challenge to this censorship. The organization PEN America, whose work is at the intersection of literature and human rights, is also involved. Now, we have been discussing on the show how these book bans, in addition to don’t say gay laws and anti critical race theory discourse, are part of a concerted effort to erase people and further marginalize communities. Trans people and queer culture and Black history especially. And a little over a year ago, we spoke to author George M. Johnson about their book All Boys Aren’t Blue, which at the time was being targeted in about 14 states. Well, in the years since, that opposition has increased significantly. And they ended last year with the second most banned book of the year. George M. Johnson is one of the authors part of that lawsuit against Escambia County. And so we wanted to reconnect with them about the fight ahead. I started my conversation with George by asking about what this last year has been like for them. 

 

George M Johnson: I feel like there are times where I live in like two separate worlds because I’ve been able to do a lot more traveling to speak to college students, but also to speak to high school students and uh even middle school students. So it’s like in one part of my world, I’m watching how this book is immediately impacting the lives of so many different students who need it. And then on the other part of my world, I’m watching parents of some of these same students say that they don’t want their kids reading a book that their child is literally telling me is the book that saved their life. And so watching and living in that duality of this uh has been very, very interesting. I saw this statement made by some lawmaker who basically was like, if their child decided to be trans, they would rather that their child just died by suicide. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Oh, my God. 

 

George M Johnson: That’s where we’re at with this. Right. Because at first it was about we have to protect the kids. We have to do this, we do this. But now we know y’all really don’t even care about the kids anymore, right? Like because you’re literally saying, well, to be dead is better than being trans. Or to be dead is better than being a part of the LGBTQ community. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Mm hmm. 

 

George M Johnson: I feel like the reason I keep fighting is because I want them to say it with their chest what this is about. This is not about parental rights. This is not about indoctrination. You do not want us to exist. And so that is pretty much where I’m at or what it has felt like. It is not just a fight now for curriculum and education. This is a fight about our existence. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. Absolutely. The American Library Association released a report earlier this year listing the 13 most challenged books in the country from last year. All Boys Aren’t Blue was the second most banned book, like the number two on that list. [laughter] You know, you been on a number of lists, but that’s not necessarily– 

 

George M Johnson: [?]. [laughing]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: –a quote unquote “good” list. And, you know, it’s no coincidence, right, that many of the books that are on that list right, are from queer folks, from trans folks, folks of color. These are books that conservatives, as you just mentioned, are, you know, calling indoctrination. They’re calling it pornographic. They say it’s race baiting. How do you respond to that idea that your life story is pornographic? 

 

George M Johnson: Isn’t that something like when you put it in those terms, your life story is pornography. Mind you, you get through ten chapters of my life story before I even start to even talk about sex. It just doesn’t line up with reality. Reality shows that the rate of sexually transmitted infections for that age group is climbing. So we know that they’re having sex, right? There is like this weird purity of fantasy where, like, they live in like these hypotheticals of like, oh, my God, like, my child has never heard about sex. And your book is now going to be the first thing to introduce them to it. Okay. Well, we could look at the STI rates or they could just, you know, hit Google and find whatever they want. So we know the books are not doing that. It’s really fighting back with that. The fact that there are too many other mediums that this information can be received from than my book and let’s be clear, we’re sometimes talking about my one copy of a book in a library of a school of a thousand students. And we’re also talking about a book that’s been removed from libraries that sometimes hasn’t even been checked out. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Wow. 

 

George M Johnson: But because they brought up and brought up such a ruckus. Now, my book is backlisted in most of the high school libraries, because now the students do want to know. What are y’all trying to keep from us? And then they gag because the kids get into the book thinking that, okay, it’s going to be sexual. And they found out about family, identity, about racism, about anti-Blackness, about how terrible the forefathers were. So, like, in a roundabout way, y’all are now indoctrinated with the actual truth. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: A year and a half ago, you gave me a little of your time, and we went to dinner, and you told me that you were going to be fighting back. And the latest stage of that fight is a lawsuit. 

 

George M Johnson: Yes. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Tell us about the lawsuit. We talked a bit [laughter] about it on yesterday’s show. Tell us a little bit about the lawsuit, who all’s involved and why this felt like the next right stage? 

 

George M Johnson: The lawsuit, realistically, is an attempt to set precedent, because what we’re finding that’s happening is in a lot of these counties, books are being challenged by people who actually, one, don’t live in these counties. Two, have no students in these counties. Three, are just submitting a list of books that they just got off of a random website, primarily a right leaning website or moms for liberty or no left turn in education, where they just have these list of books and people just challenged the books. They have never read them, so they don’t even know what materials are even in these books. They’re just challenging them. And so this is an attempt to start to fight back at the unlawful ways that they’ve been removing our books. I had a book that survived a school board vote and was voted back in by the school board, and the superintendent still illegally removed my book. So again, if you have precedent and laws in place and we follow those same laws and we beat those laws and then you still do something illegal to remove it, we have to challenge you. If this is the fight that they want, then this is the fight that they’re going to get. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. How do you articulate what is lost when a book like yours gets removed or banned? How do you articulate what is lost when Ron DeSantis is not only saying right, that books like yours should not be available to young people, but also that colleges can’t, you know, use state funding to support diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Like, it’s really fucking wild. 

 

George M Johnson: Yeah. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: But how do you articulate what is lost as all of this is unfolding? 

 

George M Johnson: For me and it’s funny because it kind of started to hit me about two days ago like that the next step in this for me anyway, is to like, start to really look at the past and actually look at what the Jim Crow laws were. Like I know what Jim Crow laws were, but I need to actually start to look at the language of what Jim Crow laws were, because that is what this feels like. This feels like a playbook that they’re using from the past. And we just haven’t connected that dot yet. And so that’s kind of where I’m starting to figure out, like what’s actually being lost here is, one, this has already happened before. And so now the whole Make America Great Again, oh we know what time period they’re choosing. Because before nobody said the time period, it just was we need to make it great again. And we were like, what which time period? [laughter] What are y’all talking about? But now I’m like pinpointing the period. Oh this is this is the period you all are trying to get back to. That’s how we can figure out what was lost because we know what was gained from that period moving forward. And so I think we have to start to remember what have we gained because right now it’s starting to feel like it’s so many laws and so many restrictions and this and that it’s like, well, damn, I don’t know what we got and what we don’t got right now. Like federally we got one thing, but statewide, we can’t do this like, it’s so chaotic. And I think that’s part of their strategy is to throw– 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. 

 

George M Johnson: –so much at it that you can’t really figure out like well who has what right at this point? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. Retweet, retweet, retweet. My last question for you and you mentioned this a bit earlier. Your book is a young adult book. I have seen in community the ways that the book has been impactful and useful and necessary for adults who talk about the ways that your book allowed them to, you know, reconcile some things they didn’t know they needed to reconcile. But I’d love to hear from you specifically what what the young people who are finding and accessing your book, what they’re saying to you about All Boys Aren’t Blue, that’s like sticking with you. That makes you smile, that makes you continue fighting back. 

 

George M Johnson: There’s a student I met, we did a Facetime because he had made a painting based off of the book. They all read the book and he was in art class. And they had to do these drawings and he made a beautiful painting. And so I just wanted to tell him, like, how beautiful the painting was and everything. And so the lit teacher that was on it was like, tell George how you felt about the book. He wouldn’t say it, but what he would say is, we have a lot of similarities and we’ve been through a lot of the same things, and that it resonated with me in a way that nothing I’ve ever read resonated with me. And so it’s funny, right? It was a we see each other moment and there was another student who, you know, said, I have a friend whose parents don’t accept the [?] and I said, okay. And I know what that means when we say I have a friend. The friend is is you and that’s okay. This is the best way for you to ask me this question. And after I answered the question, the other students started to clap for him and he started to feel a little bit lighter. That’s what I’m watching. I’m watching it activate people, but I’m watching it remove that heavy from them. I can see them light up when they meet me and hear from me. And that’s what it’s doing for young adults. It’s not only just validating their purpose. Validating their existence, but it is opening them up to light. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: That was my conversation with bestselling author of All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M. Johnson. Be sure to support their work. More on all of this very soon, but that is the latest for now. [music break] Let’s get to some headlines. 

 

[sung] Headlines. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: In a pair of rulings yesterday, the high court rejected two lawsuits that would have held tech giants Google and Twitter liable for content posted by their users and passed up on an opportunity to limit Section 230, a law that protects Internet platforms from being sued. In the first case, Twitter versus Taamneh, plaintiffs sued Twitter, Google, and Facebook, accusing them of aiding and abetting an ISIS attack at a Turkish nightclub in 2017 that killed 39 people. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected that lawsuit, saying that the allegations were insufficient and that the claims fell short. Based on that ruling, the high court sent the second case, Gonzalez v. Google back to the lower courts, writing that they, quote, “declined to address the application of section 230, to a complaint that appears to state little, if any, plausible claim for relief.” At issue in that case was a lawsuit by the family of Nohemi Gonzalez, a 23 year old California college student that was killed in a 2015 terrorist attack in Paris. Her family said that Google’s YouTube used algorithms to boost ISIS videos. The rulings are a win for tech companies, but Section 230, which has been criticized by politicians on both sides, remains untouched. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: It seems California’s Senator Dianne Feinstein is suffering from more health complications than previously disclosed. The New York Times reported yesterday that Senator Feinstein’s recent case of shingles triggered Ramsay Hunt Syndrome, a complication that can cause partial face paralysis as well as encephalitis, an uncommon but potentially serious condition that causes swelling of the brain. That condition can also cause confusion, difficulty speaking, and weakness, among other symptoms. A spokesperson for the senator’s office told the Associated Press that the encephalitis resolved itself back in March. But Senator Feinstein continues to deal with complications from Ramsay Hunt Syndrome. Feinstein, who is 89, returned to Washington last week after a nearly three month absence from the Senate. But questions linger about her ability to serve after the senator raised concerns in an exchange with reporters this week when she seemed unaware of that absence. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Disney has canceled the development of a $1 billion dollar office complex in Orlando, Florida, as the dispute between the company and Governor Ron DeSantis continues. The complex would have employed more than 2000 workers, many of which would have been relocated from Southern California. The beef between the two began last year after Disney criticized Florida’s Don’t Say gay law, which prevents public schools from talking about sexuality and gender identity. In February, DeSantis overrode the company’s long time control over the Disney World District and replaced its board, prompting Disney to sue the governor for a, quote, “targeted campaign of government retaliation” last month. DeSantis responded with a countersuit. In a memo to staff yesterday, the company, Florida’s biggest private employer and taxpayer, said the cancellation of the development was prompted by, quote, “new leadership and changing business conditions.” 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: The National Board for SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents screen actors across film and television, unanimously approved a strike authorization vote among its members ahead of its upcoming contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or the AMPTP. As we covered on the show, the Writers Guild of America is currently striking against the AMPTP today marking the 18th day of the coordinated work stoppage. SAG-AFTRA, which represents more than 160,000 entertainment and media professionals enters negotiations with the AMPTP for their next contract on June 7th. As their current contract with the studios looks to expire after June 30th. If a strike is authorized by the guild’s members, it won’t automatically initiate a strike, but rather will give the bargaining committee further leverage in their negotiations. In a statement, SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, the nanny herself, said, quote, “For the first time in a very long time, our member leadership stands in solidarity at the negotiating committee and the national board levels on moving forward with a strike authorization. The prospect of a strike is not a first option but a last resort.” Once voting opens, eligible members will have until June 5th to vote on the strike authorization. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Baby, these studios better get it together. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Come on. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: The writers are already striking. They don’t need the actors to also be striking. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: They really do not. They really do not. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: The Los Angeles Dodgers have disinvited the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a performance group and service organization featuring queer and trans nuns from their annual Pride Night this June due to backlash from conservative Catholics. The baseball team was going to honor the nonprofit’s L.A. chapter with its Community Hero Award for its work advocating for human rights, diversity and queer joy. But conservative Catholic organizations and even Florida Senator Marco Rubio protested the Dodgers decision to include the group in their pregame ceremony. This prompted the Dodgers to drop the nuns, which resulted in more backlash from groups like the L.A. LGBT Center and the ACLU, as well as progressive local politicians. The L.A. sisters responded saying, quote, “We are disappointed they have chosen to un-ally themselves with us and our ongoing service to the public” and quote, “We will go out and sin some more. May grace cover all your bases.” I love it. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Hate the choice, love this statement. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: More sin for everyone. And those are the headlines. We’ll be back after some ads to ask what is a wiener whistle and should it be called something else? 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Mm hmm. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Probably. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Friday WAD squad. And for today’s temp check, we’re diving into the deeply unserious world of mobile hot dogs. This week, the Kraft Heinz Company announced that their iconic fleet of Oscar Mayer Wiener mobiles, which have roved around the United States spreading their hot dog message since 1936, will be henceforth known as Frank Mobiles. Six wiener mobiles, giant vehicles that resemble the Oscar Mayer Wiener are currently operating in the United States. Furthermore, the people piloting the Frank Mobiles, the 12 college seniors who are chosen each year to drive the giant hot dogs across the country will now be known as frankfurters instead of hot doggers. And finally, their signature hot dog accessory, which we are just learning about today, the wiener whistle will follow suit. Now, to be known as the Frank Whistle. This frenzy of frankness comes as the brand touts its 100% beef franks, as well as a new recipe. So let’s just say the likelihood of the rebrand being a silly promotional stunt like when they changed IHOP to IHOB is high. But Josie, what’s your take on this extreme frank-over and will you miss the Wienermobile? 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Apparently I should be in marketing because I could have told them years ago that they should maybe not go with the name Wienermobile. I feel like [laughter] it’s pretty clear that this is not an ideal name. I’m thrilled about changing the name to Frank. [laughter] I support this 100%. What about you? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I mean, fine. [laughter] But isn’t it a little late? You know, I thought the reason that they were going to be changing from the wiener to the Frank was going to be some sort of, I don’t know, like they want it to not reference wieners all the time, you know Then that would be a legitimate reason alone to change the branding. But no it’s because they have beef hot dogs. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Like, come on. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Right. The reason is ridiculous. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: But you still support it– 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: The bottom line. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: –Josie. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: It’s just, Oscar Mayer wiener. I just feel like it’s been a schoolyard joke for a long time. Maybe we’re ruining the futures of many schoolyard jokes, but, like, let’s move on. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: [laughter] Fine. Let’s move on. And just like that, we’ve checked our temps they’re hot dog-ish. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Hot dog-ish. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Love that for you all. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: It’s true. [music break]. 

 

[AD BREAK]

 

Tre’vell Anderson: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe. Leave a review. Give your bologna a first name and tell your friends to listen. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading and not just timeline breakdowns of a two hour car chase in New York City like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson. 

 

[spoken together] And let’s all sin some more. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Absolutely. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Absolutely. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: But on that bologna tip– 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: Life is short. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: Did you know I used to pronounce it ba-lag-na? 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: [laugh] Well, I can’t blame you for that. It’s–

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I know right. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: –spelled bologna. 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: That’s what Oscar Mayer needs to be worried about. Okay? 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: That’s what they need to be worried about. Spell it right. What are we doing? Is life not hard enough? 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: I know. 

 

Josie Duffy Rice: What is the problem? [laughter] [music break] 

 

Tre’vell Anderson: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our show’s producer is Itxy Quintanilla and Raven Yamamoto is our associate producer. We had production assistance this week from Fiona Pestana. Jocey Coffman is our head writer and our senior producer is Lita Martinez. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka. 

 

[AD BREAK]