”The Texas Association of School Boards has attempted to wash its hands clean of the issue by abdicating any and all responsibility in the matter,” Abbott wrote on Nov. 8. “Given this negligence, the State of Texas now calls on you to do what the Texas Association of School Boards refuses to do.” (He couldn’t just admit that he asked a group with no censorship authority to do his censorship for him.)
Abbott called on the Texas Education Agency, Texas State Library and Archives Commission, and State Board of Education “to immediately develop statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools, including in school libraries.” Providing pornography to children under 18, he wrote, is illegal. What he didn’t offer was any evidence that there is pornography in Texas schools, if we follow the generally accepted definition that pornography is material made for sexual stimulation, let alone that there is obscene content in the schools—obscenity has a legal meaning, and that includes that it is not just lewd or offensive but lacks literary, artistic, or other merit.
Abbott did offer two examples of content he objects to, and what do you know, both of them are LGBTQ books. One, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, is a memoir about an abusive lesbian relationship. The other, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, is a memoir in graphic novel form. As Gender Queer has become a frequent target in the right’s attacks on books in schools, Kobabe wrote in The Washington Post that the audience e originally wrote the book for was eir parents, who didn’t understand eir gender identity.
But there’s another important audience, Kobabe wrote: “Queer youth are often forced to look outside their own homes, and outside the education system, to find information on who they are. Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies, and health.”
That is, of course, part of the point. The Republican push to remove LGBTQ books and books by authors of color from schools is about limiting who kids see as fully human, what kids understand about justice and U.S. history, and what identities kids come to understand are available to them.
Abbott wasn’t done with two letters, though. On November 10, he followed up by directing the Texas Education Association to “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography. During this investigation, I ask the agency to refer any instance of pornography being provided to minors under the age of 18 for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.”
The Texas Education Association does not have police to investigate this alleged crime. And while Abbott is correct that showing kids pornography is illegal in Texas, one defense against prosecution is “having scientific, educational, governmental, or other similar justification” for doing so. We’re not talking about pornography here by any means, but if we were, teachers and librarians offering educational material would be safe.
Both Gender Queer and In the Dream House are critically acclaimed books that have won awards. That definitely doesn’t matter to Republicans purging books. In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin’s successful gubernatorial campaign was powered partly by an ad that never admitted it was targeting Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved. In Kansas, one of the books the Goddard school district is pulling off library shelves is August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Fences. There is no award, no critical acclaim enough to prevent Republicans from wanting to see it removed from schools, with howls of “pornography” and even threats of book-burning if the book in question doesn’t line up with far-right views of whose life deserves to be written about, to be understood, to be valued.