Banned Book Club: “Beyond Magenta” and the significance of context

by Kylie Chen (’24) | March 10, 2023

Photography by Matthew Tran (’23)

In October of 2022, Fox News published an article attacking Ms. Betsy Snow, media specialist for Sequoia High School in Redwood City, for “broadcast[ing] sexually explicit books” that included “kink and pornographic images.” I had the opportunity to talk to Snow, who recounted her experience, beginning with an email from Fox Digital News regarding her social media. “I was concerned, when I got this email, about what they were going for, because they didn’t ask anything…Our school district immediately decided not to respond… A few days later, I got a really terrible email [from a stranger], and I was wondering who on earth would have sent it. Then it dawned on me—people who hate libraries and teachers, so this must be a Fox News watcher and that story must’ve been published.”

Reflecting on the aftermath of the story’s publication, Snow said, “I was really really angry… and the article was essentially true [it just lacked context], so we couldn’t get [the author] for libel… I just had to live with the fact that they dragged me in the press.” Fortunately, Snow was met with an outpouring of support from her school community and has not experienced any serious backlash.

The same article that attacked Snow included examples of supposedly “pornographic” banned books, presenting excerpts to their readers without the context needed to fully understand them. One of the featured books was Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta. Published in 2014, Beyond Magenta is a powerful, heartfelt collection of narratives from six transgender teenagers that captures the diverse experiences of these individuals while highlighting the shared struggles of transgender youth. However, the author of the article pulled a quote out of context from the book, twisting a transgender girl’s story (and misgendering her at the same time) to argue that California schools celebrate young kids participating in sexual activities.

When I discussed this with Snow, she said, “The fact that they’ve removed any context… is their tactic of fear-mongering and is a dangerous thing… because it’s not considering the overall value of the work, and it’s not considering who the work is for. I’ve since learned that there are websites for conservative groups… to just grab excerpts without ever having read the books. It’s devastating because it’s one thing to read a book and want to have us reconsider it—as a district, we have a reconsideration process. This is not that.” She also noted that there are other books containing sexual material that are popular among teenagers but don’t get the same attention because they don’t feature LGBTQ stories: “This is a political agenda that these folks have against anything LGBTQ… Rather than embracing something… and trying to understand somebody who’s different, they are taking the extremist route of trying to silence.”

I reached out to the Saint Francis High School librarians for their thoughts on book bans. Ms. Mei Yang said, “Attempts to restrict access to books have been around for ages. The last few years have been different in that it’s become much more politicized… Librarians will continue to uphold the freedom to read, but when you see libraries being closed and individual librarians being threatened with lawsuits, fines, and even jail, you realize that they can’t do it alone.” She also noted, “Not every book is appropriate for every person, but every person should have the ability to make that decision for themselves.”

Fellow librarian Ms. Megan Birdsong reflected on how the drastic increase in book bannings has changed her perspective: “It feels like libraries and librarians are under attack. In some states, librarians are now personally legally liable for books on their shelves that some may see as objectionable. I used to consider my professional role as neutral… I’ve realized, though, intellectual freedom and inclusion require advocacy and that means actively taking a stand for those values.”

On how libraries build their collections, Birdsong said, “Most libraries, Saint Francis Library included, have collection development policies that they use to guide purchasing. The policy sets criteria for selecting books and acts as a reference for questions and decision-making.” For our own library Yang discussed her commitment to broad representation, stating, “People are complex. Cultures are complex. The only way to understand something or someone is to see it from many different perspectives.”

In my conversation with Snow, she said, “It’s my position, especially as a cis, het, white woman of privilege, that the feelings of affirmation, acceptance, and recognition that marginalized folks feel when they come into a diverse collection or diverse space—they outweigh any of the discomfort that other folks might feel when met with those challenging ideas. Yeah, there might be stories that I would’ve not been comfortable sharing with my teen, and yet, it’s not about me. It’s about the stories being there for the teens and for the folks that need to see themselves in this space.”

Ultimately, books like Beyond Magenta exist to create a space in which people from marginalized communities can validate themselves, and to educate people in positions of power and privilege about the struggles that others face. But when people twist the words of these books so maliciously, without even making an effort to look at the bigger picture that the words are a part of, to ban something that they are afraid of, they create an environment that is unwelcoming to those who want to share their stories and those who need to hear them.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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