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Texas students push back against book bans for censoring LGBTQ, racial justice issues

Students are forming banned-book clubs and distribution drives to contest restrictions that focus mostly on LGBTQ and racial themes.​

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Alyssa Hoy, one of the students who created Vandegrift High School’s banned-book club, listens to another member discuss “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Pérez. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

For high school senior Gabrielle Izu, Texas’ public school book bans feel personal.

The books Texas is targeting — mainly novels that focus on discussions of race, sexual orientation and gender identity — tell the tale of Izu’s past and future. The 17-year-old high school student is Asian American, Black and Hispanic and bisexual, and she hates to see her identities or her peers’ censored.

“I ignored [my sexuality] for a really long time. And I think that as a young girl, if a book showed me that this is a life that could be lived, I could have had a lot more peace and coming to terms with bisexuality,” said Izu, who attends James E. Taylor High School in the Katy Independent School District near Houston.

Here and there, Texas students are forming their own book clubs to read what adults want banned. Books like Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Ashley Hope Perez’s “Out of Darkness” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “In the Dream House.” Books that, until last fall, were easy to find and access.

In Katy ISD, students have distributed hundreds of novels challenged by adults in Texas. They’re getting the books free of charge from a political advocacy organization and publishers. And in Leander ISD near Austin, students are coming together in a banned-book club to discuss those books. Some students are starting to attend school board meetings to fight for the freedom to choose what to read.

More than a hundred Katy ISD students of a variety of ages, races and gender identities met after school to discuss the bans and pick up contested novels. Among the books they’re reading is Kalynn Bayron’s “Cinderella is Dead,” a novel that follows a queer, Black teenager’s coming-of-age story. Izu, who saw herself reflected in the book, said her heart broke when Texas schools targeted it for a ban.

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“It felt like my identity was seen as dangerous because of the banning of a story like that. What about my story? Am I seen as a bad influence?” Izu said. “Am I seen as something that should be shamed?”

Students in the banned-book club often discuss how each book introduces to them new perspectives or historical events. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

Texas parents and politicians say they are protecting students with book bans. Many students, including Cameron Samuels, a senior at Seven Lakes High School in Katy ISD, aren’t buying it.

“It’s clear that these books address issues of race and LGBTQ identities, and that is the exact reason that certain people are seeking to remove these books from libraries and prohibit students from accessing them,” said Samuels, who helped with distribution efforts. “And these policies have dire consequences for us because they keep us struggling with our queer identities.”

Katy ISD students showed strong support at the events, Samuels said. But not all parents are happy, and some have even tried to enter the school to disturb student discussions on Texas’ book bans, they said.

“As far as I have seen, parents have been the center focus of the movement to ban books and remove them from libraries, where students have been at the forefront of advocating for having access to these books,” Samuels said.

Books on race are also targeted, especially after Texas lawmakers passed a social studies law to target what they referred to as critical race theory, though the law does not specifically mention it. Critical race theory is a university-level discipline that considers how racism is embedded in policies and systems. The new law states that a teacher “may not be compelled to discuss a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” in public schools. While this law primarily applies to social studies curriculum, some are also trying to apply it to any book found in a school library.

Katy ISD removed, temporarily, Jerry Craft’s “New Kid,” which explores how more subtle or indirect discrimination impacts Black students in a mostly white school. The school district took the action after a parents claimed the book presented harmful content about critical race theory.

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The district returned “New Kid” to shelves last semester, but Samuels said only students in fifth grade and up are permitted to check it out.

Students are forming banned-book clubs and distribution drives to contest restrictions that focus mostly on LGBTQ and racial themes.​
A slide showing a recap of the banned book the club just finished, Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, during the club’s meeting in Vandegrift High School’s library on Wednesday, Mar. 2, 2022. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

Samuels, who is nonbinary, said the novel comforted them, as they have often felt isolated as one of the few students at their school who use they/them pronouns.

“I have often felt alone and have experienced microaggressions,” Samuels said. “There’s no reason that addressing these issues should be something that students are prevented from doing or prohibited from learning about.”

Katy ISD does not allow students to distribute books the district banned. Samuels said it feels condescending that those in power decide what students can and cannot read.

“As students, we must take ownership of our education and not let others decide for us which resources we can access and which topics we can learn about,” they said.

At a recent Katy ISD school board meeting, students packed the room to call for the district to return books to libraries. Samuels and other students plan to continue to protest book bans at a Capitol rally on March 12.

“This is censorship. This is bad,” Izu said. “This is condemning things that shouldn’t be condemned.”

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Book bans exploded across the state and country during this school year. In October, state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, called on schools to disclose whether any of about 850 book titles were in their libraries. He said books “that might make students feel discomfort” should also be identified.

Weeks later, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas Education Agency to investigate the availability of “pornographic” books at school libraries.

Maghan Sadeghi, a James E. Taylor High School senior who is working with book distribution efforts, said Abbott’s statement sounds “like a bunch of ignorance.” She notes that her AP literature class requires many readings that reference sex. In “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” it is suggested on several occasions that staff rape patients. In “Hamlet,” sex before marriage is compared to a worm invading a flower before it blooms.

“They’re OK with heterosexual scenes, heterosexual ideas. But the second something turns slightly, slightly queer, slightly homosexual, it discomforts them. It’s the same thing with [people of color] viewpoints,” Sadeghi said. “​​Why do we have to remove books about Black people and Asian Americans simply for the sake of white people’s comfort?”

In Leander ISD, students gather together every two weeks to answer a similar question: Should this book be banned?

Vandegrift High School sophomores Ella Scott and Alyssa Hoy created the school’s banned-book club after looking at the list of books their district aimed to ban last year. The district would remove some of their favorite books from classroom libraries, and as a result, the students began having discussions about decisions they felt the district made without them.

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“I loved ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’” Scott said, referring to Atwood’s novel about a totalitarian society that forces fertile women to be raped so they can carry to term the offspring of elite couples. It’s now one of the restricted books in her school. “I love that book. Forever. It’s one of my favorites. Seeing it on the list was definitely disorienting.”

Leander ISD has so far removed the physical copies of 11 book titles from classroom libraries, but nine of those still reside in the school’s main and digital libraries, according to Matt Mitchell, Leander ISD’s communications coordinator.

During study hall, dozens of students from all grades meet to discuss one of the banned books’ plot and purpose, as well as who should have access to its storylines. So far, they generally agree the banned books furthered their education and should be freely accessible in the classroom.

Often, the students discuss how each book introduces to them new perspectives or even historical events.

Vandegrift’s banned-book club recently set up an Amazon wish list to fund book purchases, and one of its founders said the community has supported the students. (Lauren Witte/The Texas Tribune)

Pérez’s now-banned novel “Out of Darkness” follows a love affair between Naomi, a Mexican American high school senior, and Wash, a Black teenager, in the days before the 1937 gas explosion at the New London school, still one of the worst national disasters in history. Many book club students were unaware of this tragic event in the East Texas town of New London.

“These are very powerful stories,” Hoy said. “Most of the time, those tough decisions and tough scenes are reasons why they are so powerful and so meaningful to so many people.”

Last semester, the club had members purchase their books. Recently, the club set up an Amazon wish list to fund book purchases. In 24 hours, donated funds paid for the group’s books. Hoy said the community has supported the club through the semester.

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“Eventually, we hope our club won’t be necessary,” Scott said. “We just hope that our voices and our opinions will be considered.”

Disclosure: Amazon Web Services (AWS) has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Brooke Park is a junior at the University of Texas at Austin and will a spring 2022 reporting fellow. She has worked at Community Impact Newspaper, Austin American-Statesman and held multiple positions at The Daily Texan, including news editor.

Texas

Judge temporarily blocks some Texas investigations into gender-affirming care for trans kids

The state has been investigating whether parents who provide access to gender-affirming health care are committing child abuse. The temporary restraining order is part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of three families and members of PFLAG, an LGBTQ advocacy group.

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Activists and members of Austin’s LGBTQ community gathered on the steps of the capitol in 2017 to celebrate the anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots. A Texas judge on Friday temporarily blocked the state from some investigations into gender-affirming care for transgender kids. (Austin Price/The Texas Tribune)

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

An Austin judge has temporarily stopped the state from investigating many parents who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender children. The state has ruled out allegations of child abuse against one family under investigation, but at least eight more cases remain open.

Travis County District Judge Jan Soifer issued a temporary restraining order Friday in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three families and members of PFLAG, an LGBTQ advocacy group that claims more than 600 members in Texas.

Brian K. Bond, executive director of PFLAG National, applauded the decision to stop what he called “invasive, unnecessary and unnerving investigations.”

“However, let’s be clear: These investigations into loving and affirming families shouldn’t be happening in the first place,” Bond said in a statement.

This is the latest chapter in an ongoing legal battle stemming from a February order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott, directing the Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate parents who provide gender-affirming care to their transgender children.

The Texas Supreme Court recently blocked the state from investigating one family, which had brought a lawsuit challenging the directive, but overturned a wider injunction that stopped the state from investigating other families.

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This new lawsuit, filed Wednesday by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, seeks to block investigations into all parents of transgender children who belong to PFLAG.

During Friday’s hearing, Lambda Legal’s Paul Castillo revealed that the state has ruled out allegations of child abuse against Amber and Adam Briggle, who were under investigation for providing gender-affirming care to their 14-year-old son.

The Briggle family, outspoken advocates for transgender rights, once invited Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton over for dinner. Five years later, they ended up at the center of a child abuse investigation that stemmed, in part, from a nonbinding legal opinion that Paxton issued in February.

While their case has been closed, many others remain ongoing. Castillo said one of the families involved in the lawsuit was visited by DFPS investigators Friday morning.

“I do want to highlight for the court that every plaintiff in this case has illustrated the stress and trauma of even the potential of having a child removed, merely based on the suspicion that the family has pursued the medically necessary course of care that is prescribed by their doctor for gender dysphoria,” Castillo said.

Gender-affirming care is recommended by all major medical associations to treat gender dysphoria, the distress someone can feel when their gender identity does not align with their biological sex. Gender dysphoria can be exacerbated as a child approaches puberty, so doctors often prescribe reversible puberty blockers and, sometimes, hormone therapy. More than half of all transgender youth report considering suicide, but the rates are much lower for those who are able to access gender-affirming health care.

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The mental health impact of Abbott’s directive has already been clear, according to the lawsuit. One 16-year-old transgender boy, identified in the suit as Antonio Voe, attempted to kill himself after the directive came down. When he was admitted to an outpatient psychiatric facility, the staff reported his family to DPFS for child abuse because he was undergoing hormone therapy, according to the lawsuit.

In the hearing, Assistant Attorney General Courtney Corbello revisited the state’s argument that merely being under investigation by DFPS does not constitute harm to a family.

She also argued that PFLAG cannot bring this legal challenge on behalf of its members since there is no evidence that PFLAG members are being targeted for investigation based on their membership in the association.

Soifer disagreed, granting the temporary restraining order on behalf of the three named plaintiffs and PFLAG members. Soifer directed the lawyers to schedule a hearing in the coming days, where a judge will hear evidence and decide whether to extend the restraining order.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Austin

Austin Pride Rescheduled

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The Austin Pride Foundation announced that this year’s Austin Pride celebration, originally scheduled for Saturday, August 13, 2022, has been rescheduled for the following weekend. This year’s Austin Pride Festival and Parade will now be held on Saturday, August 20, 2022.

According the a post on Facebook, the change was made at the request of the City of Austin:

We will celebrate Austin Pride No! Matter! What! At the request of the City of Austin, our new date for Austin Pride is Saturday, August 20, 2022. One more week also gives us a chance to go Beyond the Rainbow for the Pride we deserve after two long years. This year the rainbow shines no matter what! See you there.

This will be the first pride celebration in Austin since 2019, after all events in 2020 were canceled as a result of the pandemic and canceled again in 2021 due to a surge of infections caused by the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

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Dallas

Dallas Southern Pride Announces the 2022 Juneteenth Unity Weekend

More than 20,000 people expected to attend the star-studded event featuring A-List celebrities including Moneybagg Yo, The City Girls, Saucy Santana, and Dallas’ own, Yella Beezy and Erica Banks

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DALLAS — Dallas Southern Pride will host its Juneteenth Unity Weekend celebration, June 16-19, 2022. This year’s celebration will include a myriad of events, including health and wellness screenings, COVID-19 vaccinations, concerts, their annual Juneteenth Unity Festival and Pool Party, various local club events, parties and The Emancipation Ball. Some of the biggest stars in hip-hop and entertainment are confirmed for this unforgettable four-day weekend of festivities, including the City Girls, Saucy Santana, and Moneybagg Yo, who will perform at the Juneteenth Unity Festival and Pool Party on Saturday, June 18 from 5 PM – 9 PM at Samuell-Grand Aquatic Center, 3201 Samuell Blvd., Dallas, Texas; and Dallas’ own superstars Erica Banks and Yella Beezy, who will perform at the Mega Party that Saturday at 10 PM at Amplified, 10262 Technology Blvd E, Dallas, Texas. The weekend of events will conclude with a signature brunch on Sunday, June 19, hosted by Kirk Myers-Hill, president of Dallas Southern Pride.

More than 20,000 people from across the United States and internationally are slated to attend this year’s Juneteenth Unity Weekend celebration, which was created to celebrate the brilliance and culture of Black people. An idea birthed by community leader, businessperson and activist, Kirk Myers-Hill, the Juneteenth Unity Weekend is the official annual celebration for Black Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans, and Queer (LGBTQ+) people to come together and celebrate their contributions to both American and Black culture, liberation and community.

“Juneteenth Unity Weekend is a celebration and representation of the many intersections and beautiful mosaics within the Black community,” said Kirk Myers-Hill, president of Dallas Southern Pride. “The Black community is only as strong as its Black Gay brothers and sisters. Juneteenth is an opportunity to showcase unity and display the belief that we are all stronger together.”

Juneteenth became a federally recognized national holiday in 2021. However, long before the nation started celebrating this holiday, Black people in Texas were celebrating this day, as it originated in Texas. The Emancipation Proclamation, which granted freedom to slaves, was signed 1863. However, it wasn’t until two years later on June 19, 1865, that slaves in Texas first learned of their freedom. Union troops entered Galveston, TX, announcing that all slaves were free. This marked the beginning of Juneteenth as it is known and recognized today. Since 2017, the Governor of Texas has submitted a proclamation recognizing the Juneteenth Unity Weekend. Additionally, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson continues to show her support by issuing welcome letters for the past five years. The Juneteenth Unity Weekend is a family-oriented celebration with events and programming for the entire community and is excited to bring the celebration of Juneteenth back home to Texas. June is also Pride Month and the Juneteenth Unity Weekend has been a staple event in the city of Dallas during Pride month for many years.

“VisitDallas is excited to support the 2022 Juneteenth Unity Weekend hosted by Dallas Southern Pride and Abounding Prosperity, Inc. Events like this continue to make Dallas a better place to live and visit,” said Craig T. Davis, president and CEO of VisitDallas.

Since its inception in 2008, the Juneteenth Unity Weekend continues to make a positive impact in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex by unifying the community, celebrating freedom, providing a safe space for community gathering, and infusing millions of dollars into the local economy. The 2021 Juneteenth Unity Weekend brought thousands of visitors to the Metroplex, and sold-out all its host hotels. The event generated more than $2.2 million dollars for local business hit hard by the global COVID-19 pandemic and created hundreds of jobs for “gig” workers. The event and leadership team also created other historic moments for the city of Dallas. As a result, the HIV positivity rate dropped below 10 percent for the first time in the event’s history among more than 200 attendees tested; the Dallas Police Department held a recruitment drive targeting LGBTQ+ applicants; the Dallas skyline was lighted in the Juneteenth and Black Pride colors for the first time and The Dallas Southern Pride Official Pride flag was debuted and flown for the first time at the Sheraton Market Center.

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The Juneteenth Unity Weekend is a collaborative celebration made possible by the support of the many companies and organizations that share the collective vision for this impactful event that advances the entire Black family and social justice movements and celebrates unity and peace. The 2022 presenting sponsors thus far are Gilead Sciences and Abounding Prosperity, Inc., along with Black Entertainment Television (BET) and ViiV Healthcare as diamond sponsors. Other key sponsors include the Dallas Mavericks, Radio One Dallas, Dallas TPID, AHF, Yale School of Nursing, Johns Hopkins University, HVTN, SBPAN, AIDS United, VisitDallas, Hilton, Center for Black Equity, United Black Ellument, Crawford Jewelry, and Don Morphy.

A portion of the proceeds from this year’s Juneteenth Unity Weekend will be used to support the free health, and wellness activities of its partner agencies, which offsets the cost of essential services to Black and Brown communities, with an emphasis on LGBTQ+ communities and their families in the DFW metroplex.

The Juneteenth Unity Weekend is still open for additional sponsors and vendors, particularly those in the arts, entertainment, health and wellness, skincare, clothing, beauty, food and beverage including food trucks, and lifestyle brands.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.dallassouthernpride.com.

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