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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

Thou Shalt Not Burn Books

Coming from an eccentric family of writers and librarians, I always take an interest in Banned Books Week, which occurred the first week of October.

The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom always publishes a list of the 100 most frequently challenged books, compiled from formal written complaints to libraries or schools. This year, there were 5,718 complaints from which the list was chosen. (To view the full list, check out www.ala.org/bbooks/1999bannedbooks.) The complaints can come from just about anyone, although most frequently they come from the political and religious right (often one and the same), which encourages its sheep-like followers to stifle any sort of literature or intellectualism that does not comply with their agenda's version of "family values."

The targets of the opposition can include books considered too scary, such as "Scary Stories" by Alvin Schwartz, ranked No. 1 on the list, or the "Goosebumps" series by R.L. Stine, No. 15;. Some books' heroines may be too feminist --- take No. 3, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou, or No. 17, "The Color Purple," by Alice Walker. Both of these also might be considered "too black," which offends that segment of the right wing which gives moral support to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation.

To be fair to the white supremacists some books are just criticized for being "too real" or "too adult." That's the only reason I can imagine for anyone to object to J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," No. 10; Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," No. 10; and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," No. 54. Heaven help us if we dare expose minds to serious subject matter that challenges our thinking.

But the most sure-fire way for an author to run the risk of raising objections to his or her book's presence in public or school libraries is to touch on the subject of homosexuality. The aforementioned works by Angelou, Walker and Twain all have been taregeted at one time or another for having or allegedly having gay themes or sub-themes. So have "Of Mice and Men," by John Steinbeck, No. 6, and "Heather Has Two Mommies" by Leslea Newman, No. 9. The second most targeted book listed by the ALA was, in fact, "Daddy's Roommate" by Michael Willhoite. Willhoite's work was accused of "promoting homosexuality as a normal lifestyle," according to a PRNewswire report.

The reactionary homophobes and ethnophobes who are included in the right wing of our society fear and/or hate anyone who deviates from their Judeo-Christian, heterosexual, Eurocentric concepts of what is normality. They are unable or unwilling to accept the fact that our society is made up of a veritable rainbow of individuals from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds who bond together in an equally diverse combination of loving relationships. Some are straight, some are gay, still others are bisexual and some are just happy being single.

The First Amendment of the US Constitution allows anyone to write or say what they please and to publish their thoughts if they can find a publisher. Our public libraries and schools have an ethical duty to fill their bookshelves with books that reflect the widest range of topics and points of view that is possible. By making them available to the public, the librarians and educators are not necessarily giving their endorsement to any specific point of view. They are simply endorsing the idea that human advancement comes from knowledge and intellectual freedom and that all people should have the right to learn about any subject they choose, whether someone else agrees with them or not.

In a letter to the editor of the newspaper for which I write, a concerned local mother told of how her 9-year-old son brought home a book from his school's library and started to read it to her. "I was totally shocked by the contents of this book," she wrote. "Within the first few pages of this 'Harry Potter' book it talked about wizards, sorcery and putting spells on people you just don't like. I ask you, is this the kind of material you want your child to be reading about? I know that I do not!" The mother skipped around in the book to different chapters and was "appalled at the graphic description of Harry's mother being murdered by a demon and ... a woman being possessed by the 'Dark Lord' as she had a seizure and talkled in a deeper voice." The woman also expressed amazement that the Harry Potter books were "allowed to be in our local schools but the Bible is forbidden." In closing, she urged parents to "worry more about what our children are reading and learning about rather than what name brand clothes they are wearing" and urged all parents "to preview the contents of their children's books."

My first reaction was that I was glad her son did not bring home "Daddy's Roommate." The poor kid probably would have been locked in the family prayer closet for a month. My second thought was that the lady, while obviously coming from a Christian background, had some good points that could apply to many families, both religious and non-religious. Parents SHOULD be a part of their children's educational process. I think she was doing the right thing by having her son read to her. I hope she let him finish reading the entire book, because then there would be a perfect opportunity for her to discuss how the fantasy of Harry Potter is an escape from reality and to inform him what parts of it were not a part of the family values she wants to pass on to him. She also could say that not everyone in the world shares those values, but she hopes he will some day.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have an older sister --- now a professional library worker and the author of as-yet-unpublished romance novels about handsome vampires and Victorian librarians. She read books to me and later encouraged me to read them to her. We read some things that I'm sure would meet the approval of the conservative right --- Andrew Lang's "Blue Fairy Book" and other in the same Victorian series, as well as "Little Women" and other novels by Louisa May Alcott. There also were some that might not have met with approval. There was this lengthy novel about a liberated southern belle whose primary motivation in life was the dream of committing adultery with another woman's husband --- I think it was called "Gone with the Wind." Ever hear of it? There also was "Half Magic," Edward Eager's wonderful book about a family of children who find a worn-out magic amulet that grants them half of every wish they make.

When I became a father, I passed on Edward Eager's books to my sons --- they weren't interested in Scarlett O'Hara --- and also encouraged them to read another of my favorite stories, James Kirkwood's "Good Times/Bad Times." Kirkwood, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "A Chorus Line," told the story of a young man in a boy's prep school who falls in love with another student and murders the school's closeted headmaster who is jealous of their relationship. When my sons were assigned books to read in school --- "Lord of the Flies," "The Great Gatsby," "To Kill a Mockingbird," and "Romeo and Juliet," to name a few --- my wife and I read them as well so we could have family discussions about the literature. We never worried about what they were learning from books because we kept tabs on their assignments and encouraged them to share their thoughts and listen to ours.

Back to the concerned letter-writing mother for a minute: Most schools do not object to a student reading the Bible on his or her own time or even carrying a copy with them. What is objected to is the teaching of it --- especially by a biased instructor --- in a classroom funded by the tax dollars of people of many different beliefs about religion. Unless things have radically changed since I was in high school or since my youngest son graduated last spring, most school libraries keep a Bible on hand in its reference section, available for use by anyone with library privileges. As the father of two young men, a father figure to two nephews and a gtranduncle to two beautiful little girls, I would rather see future generations read about Heather's two loving mommies; Jem and Scout Finch's ("To Kill a Mockingbird") growing awareness of the inequities of the South during the Jim Crow Era; and taking a flight on a broomstick with Harry Potter, than all the pithy and narrow-minded religious instruction found in the Mormon Sunday School quarterlies with which I grew up.

While I have no objections to the Bible being available in public buildings for individual study by open-minded people on genuine spiritual quests, I am grateful that we have a separation of church and state that prevents our schools and libraries from those whose political agendas cause them to misuse and purposefully misinterpret its teachings to harm and abuse others of differing sexual orientations, personal spirituality and ethnic backgrounds. Banning books of any stripe is tantamount to denying others knowledge --- the quest for which took us from history's dark ages through the Age of Englightenment to our modern times.

Finally, in the spirit of "Banned Books Week," I would like to recommend some books worth reading.

In addition to "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker and "Good Times/Bad Times" by James Kirkwood, I suggest taking a look at: "And the Band Played On" and "Conduct Unbecoming," both by Randy Shilts. The former is the first and still the most readable history of the spread of AIDS and the early efforts to find a cure. The second is an important history of gays in the U.S. military --- a book that is still relevant and one which will make the reader seethe at the injustices described.

"Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man," also known as "Coming Attractions," by Fannie Flagg. This is the first book by the author of "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe" and tells the very funny and sometimes bittersweet story of a "different" young girl coming of age when Southern girls were supposed to be ladies and beauty queens.

"Best American Gay Fiction," edited by Brian Bouldrey. An annual series that started in 1996, it provides a terrific sampling of the wide spectrum of gay writers. * "Father of Frankenstein" by Christopher Bram. This fictional account of the last days of Hollywood film director James Whale was the basis for the recent film "Gods and Monsters," starring Ian McKellen, Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave. An excerpt appears in the 1996 edition of "Best American Gay Fiction."

"Dancer from the Dance" by Andrew Holleran, and "How Long Has This Been Going On?" by Ethan Morddern. These are two works of fiction that chronicle gay life in the pre-AIDS era.  "Tales of the City" by Armistead Maupin, and several sequels. In the same category as the works by Holleran and Morddern, this series covers some of the same historical ground in a satirical way and works its way into and through the spread of AIDS without losing its ability to make readers laugh.

For poetry lovers, I suggest two works by free spirits: "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman and "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg.

Two works of non-fiction: "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," a best-selling true crime story by John Berendt, and "The Gay Canon: Great Books Every Gay Man Should Read" by Robert Drake.

And lastly, check out the works of three writers of juvenile fantasy fiction whose works deal with dangerous subjects like magic and witches: "The Wizard of Oz" series by L. Frank Baum; "Half Magic" and other works by Edward Eager; and of course, the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling.

Read any of all of these books, first of all just for the pleasure and secondly because someone else probably doesn't want you to.

Published 9th October 2000


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