Book chronicling transgender teens to remain on Chesterfield school shelves
Editor's note: The following article mentions suicide.
When middle and high school students go back to Chesterfield County Public Schools, they’ll return to libraries that have Susan Kuklin’s “Beyond Magenta” on the shelves.
The book, which chronicles the transition stories of six transgender and nonbinary teenagers, was challenged by the parent of a James River High School student at the end of last school year over the claim that it contained sexually explicit content.
After the book made its way through multiple levels of review in Chesterfield, a committee voted unanimously to keep the book on shelves countywide.
Challenges like this one are nothing new, with Thomas Morton’s “New English Canaan” being the first book banned from American shelves in 1634. The book was banned in Plymouth Colony, and Morton was subsequently arrested for his critiques of the Puritans' religious fanaticism and their harsh treatment of native people.
Anti-slavery books, like “ Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” faced similarly negative responses in the years leading up to the Civil War. But in the early 20th century, the obscenity laws which enabled these bans fell out of use, relegating attempts to censor publications to public school committees, rather than state legislatures.
The first major wave of challenges within the public school system lasted through much of the civil rights era, when white backlash targeted books — like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird ” and “The Rabbits’ Wedding ” — that critiqued racial segregation, the Confederacy and slavery.
The American Library Association and PEN America, which advocates for free written expression, have made comments that suggest the current wave of challenges is more like a flood.
PEN chief executive Suzanne Nossel told the Washington Post earlier this month that the intensity of the current book challenges are unprecedented in the American context.
Nossel made international comparisons, alluding to a 1933 photo of a book bonfire in Berlin. The infamous book burnings targeted works by Jewish, communist and queer authors, as well as any publication that contained material with an “un-German spirit.”
Last year, the ALA’s list of banned books climbed to 1,597 books, about three times the number challenged in the previous nonpandemic year (566 books in 2019). According to experts, a disconcerting number of challenged books discuss the experiences of marginalized people — primarily those of LGBTQ+ and Black people.
Nine out of the 10 most frequently challenged books in 2021 broadly fit within one of those two categories. The exception is Jesse Andrews’ “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the seventh most challenged book, which the ALA said has been banned because “it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women.”
“Beyond Magenta” came in at No. 10 on the ALA’s list last year. Parents, like the one from Chesterfield, often cite the sexually explicit themes when submitting challenges on books centered on the experiences of queer people.
According to the book's author, Susan Kuklin, “Beyond Magenta” did not face any challenges until two years after its 2014 publication. Before these challenges, Kuklin said her book received wide praise from librarians, mental health providers and most importantly, the trans community.
“I've gotten the most beautiful letters from people, including some young transgender people who were considering suicide,” Kuklin said. “In fact, I've gotten at least six emails from people from here, in Japan, from England, who just didn't know what to do, and then [they] read the book and just felt so clear about who they were and what their next steps were.”
This is the effect Kuklin said she aimed for when writing “Beyond Magenta.” She began research for the book project after a Chicago librarian contacted her complaining about the lack of LGBTQ+ literature for their students.
Kuklin started by calling her niece, who inspired the writer to focus on transgender teens after informing her that she was engaged to a trans man. Although her niece formerly identified as a lesbian, after meeting her partner, she realized “it's the person. It's not the gender, it's not anything. But it's who the person is that counts,” according to Kuklin’s telling.
“That just peeled away so many layers of the onion. I mean, that is so right to the core of what it is,” Kuklin said. “I started to think about, if I do a book on LGBTQ [people] directly, it really should just be on [transgender people].”
That was when she started the process of writing “Magenta,” selecting her subjects with the assistance of the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center, an LGBTQ+ health clinic in New York City.
They ended up choosing the six teens in “Beyond Magenta” to represent a diversity of backgrounds and identities to help make the book relatable to the broadest possible audience.
Despite Kuklin’s efforts, some members of the trans community criticized the book for not touching on every possible perspective. Others critiqued the book for focusing too heavily on the darkest moments of her subjects’ lives.
Kuklin said she felt it was important to include both positive and negative experiences: “You can't ask a person to tell their own story and their own narrative, and then say, ‘No, but leave that part out.’ Right? You're either in or you're not.”
Kuklin and her publisher are updating some of the language in the next edition of the book to reflect changes in the trans community and its visibility, since the book’s initial planning began about 10 years ago. That includes changes to be more inclusive of nonbinary gender identities, like the addition of “Non-Binary” to the subtitle, which first was “Transgender Teens Speak Out.”
Donna Knott, a librarian at James River High School, said this focus on representation is why she keeps “Beyond Magenta” on her shelves. Knott said that after supporting a school's curriculum, a librarian's next consideration when selecting books is to “buy for our community, our school, our kids,” because “it is so important for kids to see themselves in books.”
That’s why Knott is grateful that the book’s review committee, of which she was a member, voted unanimously to keep “Magenta ” in school libraries throughout the county.
Chesterfield County Public Schools review
Before making its way up to the final review committee, Knott said that the concerned parent had to jump through a number of hoops after a librarian denied their initial request for the book’s removal.
According to documents obtained by VPM News, the parent wanted “Beyond Magenta” to be banned for two brief descriptions of oral sex involving a minor. Both instances come from the story of Mariah, a transwoman from an unsupportive family in the Bronx. In its first reference, Mariah engaged in consensual oral sex with other minors at a young age. The second reference comes later in Mariah’s story, when she was coerced to perform oral sex while still a minor.
In the parent’s request, they described these two passages — which make up about four paragraphs out of the book’s 161 pages — as “pornographic,” despite scant description of either act and Mariah’s characterization of the second experience as traumatic.
In the same document, the parent admits to not having read the whole book, something that Knott said is oddly not a requirement to submit a ban request. The librarian acknowledged that in certain instances, a requirement to read the material might mean someone is exposed to triggering content.
After the book made it through two levels of review, following a librarian’s initial denial, CCPS formed the final review committee of seven people connected to JRHS. The panel included the school’s principal, Knott, two teachers, three parents and a student.
This group met on three separate occasions to discuss the parent’s objections, the book’s content in general and expert testimony on the importance of representation before making its final decision.
The written opinions from the seven reviewers each mention the value a book like “Magenta” provides for children experiencing situations similar to what’s depicted in the text. Some members also mentioned how books like Kuklin’s can add to the education of cisgender, heterosexual teens, who benefit from exposure to a diversity of perspectives and experiences.
Knott declared her strong belief in “biblio-therapy” — or the practice of giving people in tough situations a book that shows someone overcoming a similar obstacle in their life.
Some of the committee members, including Knott, suggested they would be open to restricting middle schoolers’ access to “Beyond Magenta,” because it does include sexual content. Specifically, a few members cited testimony from school nurses explaining that students aren’t taught about oral sex in school until ninth grade.
No actions have been taken to restrict access to the book, according to Knott.
Challenges facing LGBTQ+ youth and the importance of representation
Mark Loewen, child counselor and founder of the Richmond-based LaunchPad Counseling, understands the fear that “children can’t handle this information that is too heavy.” But he cautions that taking away access to material can push kids to seek out the information online, where the content is not curated.
He also advised parents to support their children in processing potentially difficult information, rather than limiting its availability.
Loewen intimately understands the struggles that LGBTQ+ youth face, both from his time providing counseling to queer youth and from his own experiences as a gay man. As he puts it, LGBTQ+ people are different from other minorities; their parents and other relatives might not have had the same experiences and are sometimes ill-equipped to provide guidance. The vast majority of LGBTQ+ people have heterosexual parents.
“So, again, even in your family, [LGBTQ+ youth] are kind of alone in [their] experience. And that is really difficult for a teenager,” said Loewen.
This makes representation exceptionally important for queer children. Without access to people who have shared experiences, media becomes the only connection they have to their identities.
Restrictions on information can drastically delay the process of self-discovery.
“[I]t's hard to figure out who you are, when you're not presented with all the options of who you might be,” Loewen said.
This can be particularly hard for transgender youth, who are more than 7 times as likely to attempt suicide, compared with their cisgender peers. This is also about twice the rate of cisgender queer children, who are about 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.
With LGBTQ+ children facing such circumstances, as well as potentially having unsupportive homes, schools are often their sole place of refuge. Loewen said that policies — like the one recently proposed in Hanover County that would give the school board authority to determine access to certain gendered facilities — will make things even harder.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin helped spark a national debate, campaigning on empowering parents to be more involved in decisions made at their children's schools. Despite the outcome of the recent CCPS book challenge, librarian Donna Knott is expecting “to see an uptick in the next few years” of proposed bans at schools, which could give activist parents the ability to affect access for all students.