You can’t read that! Forbidden Book Review: This Book Is Gay

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book is gay
Juno Dawson

Presentation text:

There’s a long-standing joke that after “coming out,” a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans person should receive a membership card and an instruction manual. THIS IS THIS INSTRUCTION MANUAL. You’re welcome.

“This Book Is Gay” is one of many books for young adults targeted by right-wing culture warriors. They view it and other LGBTQ-themed books as insidious pro-gay propaganda designed to lure girls and boys into sex deviant and transgenderism. This particular book, billed as a “how-to” for LGBTQ youth (see blurb above), has been in their sights for several years.

Since its publication in 2014, “This Book Is Gay” has been challenged, and sometimes banned, from classrooms and school libraries in several states. In 2021, the American Library Association listed it as the ninth most disputed title in the United States A notable challenge and resulting ban was recorded in 2016, when the Wasilla Public Library, Alaska, was forced to move its entire young adult non-fiction collection to restricted shelves in response to community threats about “This Book Is Gay”:

Several Wasilla residents attacked the book at a city council meeting saying that “they didn’t want any ‘gay books’ or books about homosexuals in the library at all.” For defending the teen sex education book, the library director was branded a pedophile in highly controversial public debates.

My comments:

“This Book Is Gay” is at its best to provide useful information for curious gay boys and teens; less so for other groups on the LGBTQ spectrum. Several reviews on Amazon and Goodreads say the same, judging by comments posted by lesbian, bisexual, fluid, non-binary, and asexual readers. To be fair, Juno herself admits that she’s stronger in some areas than others.

The main aim of ‘This Book Is Gay’ is to help young people who suspect or know they are different feel better about being different, with helpful tips on how to find friends who feel the same. thing. In this, the book is similar to several other LGBTQ-themed YA books attacked across the country.

Juno goes a step further, however, offering specific, practical advice on how to find and meet like-minded people to socialize and have sex with. Some of his advice is geared specifically to high school teens. She candidly describes the different ways gay men and women bring their partners to orgasm. It includes illustrations (not sex acts, but bodies), less graphic than those of “Fun Home” and “Gender Queer”, graphic novels that feature in other book ban attempts.

Juno includes chapters on the dangers of gay promiscuity, STIs, genital diseases and AIDS, and includes a thoughtful final chapter with advice for parents of children who come out as gay and/or transgender. The overall tone is friendly, intimate and upbeat: Juno is an experienced gay person with answers, encouragement and advice for gay and bi-curious teens, a Dan Savage for the youngest.

By contrast, Juno downplays the very legitimate fears of kids considering going out. Regardless of the countries and cultures where being gay or transgender is literally illegal, even punishable by death, gay children in North America and Europe are still ostracized, sometimes thrown on the streets by their own parents, rejected by old friends and churches. It happens all the time, even today. Yes, Juno lists the countries where being gay will get you killed, advising children in Nigeria, for example, to stay in the closet for their own good, but in the next and subsequent chapters she sheds light on those concerns and those promises readers that coming out will be one of the most positive and liberating experiences they will ever have. From my own observation as an outsider, coming out can be dangerous, even for children from liberal enclaves within tolerant Western societies.

I love that Juno addresses the importance of vocabulary, including acknowledging that tortured constructs like “cisgender” and “cishet” come from wanting to separate sexual orientation and gender identity from the tyranny of “normal.” When the default majority sexual orientation and gender identity are labeled as normal, what remains quickly becomes “abnormal” and eventually “deviant.” I understand that and always have, but apparently a lot of people don’t, so in a book about gender identity and sexual orientation, it’s worth pointing out to straight readers, uh, cishet how harmful and discriminatory vocabulary choices can be.

Why this book should stay on high school and public library shelves, unrestricted access to teenage readers:

High school students already have access to tons of information about gay sex, gay lifestyles, sexual orientation, gender identity, and how to change it. Not to mention the access to straight, bi and gay pornography online. If my long-time experience as a teenager in high school is any guide, teenagers today have already studied this stuff, and more.

You can’t call anything pornographic in “This Book Is Gay” and still keep a straight face. Juno describes basic sex acts clinically, but never lasciviously. You can pretty much read the same kind of stuff in any other advice book for gay and transgender youth, not that there’s a whole lot out there (which is why Juno wrote the book first venue).

It can happen sideways, but I applaud when Billy Bob Thornton puts on a CPAP mask at night on the TV series Goliath. When I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, I felt a strange, shameful weakness, something akin to erectile dysfunction. And you’ve never seen anyone sleeping with a CPAP on TV. After Goliath, I felt less alone, less embarrassed.

You don’t know how important representation is until you’re the isolated minority, finally seeing people like you in books and on screen. Imagine how empowering and empowering those early prime-time television series featuring black actors were for black viewers. Or how important books like “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” are to Native American children. Or how meaningful and affirming “This Book Is Gay” will be for thousands of scared gay and transgender kids, each of whom thinks they’re the only kid in the world with the same feelings. Wouldn’t you rather they read “This book is gay” than log on to Pornhub? (As if we didn’t all know they would do both and there was nothing we could do about it anyway.)

I leave you with a link to a recent news. This is a prominent member of the main group urging angry “parents” and gun-toting Proud Boy thugs to disrupt school and library board meetings to protest “This Book Is Gay” and other LGBTQ books: Moms for Liberty activist wants LGBTQ students to be separated into special classes.

Because that’s what it’s all about. It’s not the books. It’s never the books. They are looking for children who are different. How will you react when they come after yours?

ps If you decide to read the book yourself and look for a copy in your library or on Amazon, you might be confused by early editions listing “James Dawson” as the author. Dawson was a gay man at the time of writing and publication. She has since made the transition and new editions bear her new name, Juno Dawson. Speaking of the author, here’s a link to his thoughts on the attacks on “This Book Is Gay”: “I wrote the ninth most banned book in America. It sucks.

pps As part of my You Can’t Read That! project, I read and review banned books, many of which are at the center of protests and disputes. You can see a full index of these reviews on my Shelf of banned books by Goodreads.

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