- When you sit down to read, you might just be standing up to centuries of censorship and oppression.
Meet Richie Wills.
- Welcome to Buffalo and can't wait to have you in conversation today.
- [Devin-Norelle] He co-founded the Gray Wills Book Club in 2021 which brings Queer Black people together to read and discuss literature that reflects and celebrates Queer experiences.
- And we'll be sitting right over here.
- Gray Wills is carrying on a long tradition of resistance through writing.
Before Stonewall, protests, and pride parades, the written word was one of the foundations of the gay rights movement.
So, how did literature inspire Queer liberation as we know it and as dozens of states consider don't say gay bills today.
What is really at stake if these stories are silenced?
I'm Devin-Norelle, and this is "Brave Spaces".
- As a young person, I didn't really know much about my sexuality.
I was very quiet.
As a result of being very quiet, my internal world was bursting at the seams.
Books allowed me to kind of fly into different spaces around the world, different places where people had healthy relationships with each other.
So there's this fear that if there's enough of our stories being told out there, then we will dare to live more freely in the world.
Good to see you.
- Good to see you.
- It's so good to see you.
I'm so glad you're here.
- Nice to meet you.
- So everyone else is here.
Everyone, this is Seth.
- Hi Seth.
- How you doing?
We are at the Just Buffalo Literary Center the literary org that believes in the power of the literary arts to transform and change communities.
For many of us, books have kind of been a lifeline.
I know it has been for me.
And so I just want to express like gratitude for you all being here.
What we're focusing on today, which I really want to shed some light on is "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George Johnson.
This memoir takes us through the author's journey, through blackness and queerness at this intersection, right?
Because you can't really separate the two.
- We all come from different walks of life but we are all so similar in more ways than we think.
This person was assigned male at birth and I was assigned a woman at birth, and for some reason I related to this book more than any of the books I have related to in my entire life.
- I was like very jealous of their experience in a lot of ways because like even though most of their family was like predominantly straight, they were all still like very loving and accepting of this person.
- It's good to feel validated too and it's like when you read books like that, you're gaining awareness of who you are, and what other people's story are.
- And in relation to what you just mentioned, I think it's also incredibly beneficial for people who are heteronormative just to really understand that side of perspective.
- [Group Member] Right.
- We didn't have that literature growing up where we're able to see in writing somebody expressing those same sentiments, those same feelings.
So, a lot of times when books are banned that are so crucial, we're left blind to figure out by ourselves.
- What I've noticed is that every individual who has come to the book club is somewhere different in their journey.
So, what spaces like this provide is for us all to really come and share our experiences and use the literary medium as a tool to be able to discuss those experiences.
- Today, people who are writing about LGBTQ+ life are the target of politicians and hate groups.
In the past, they were fined, arrested, and even convicted for obscenity, especially in the 1950s.
Greenberg Press located in New York City was producing volumes of queer novels until in 1953, it was sued and fined by the federal government for obscenity.
They slammed the brakes on LGBTQ+ storytelling and other publishers got shook and followed suit.
A year later, the Los Angeles Postmaster General prohibited one magazine from being distributed by mail.
Even the FBI got involved, with the director, Jay Edgar Hoover, requesting that the magazine be charged with obscenity.
Side note, their speculation that Hoover, himself, was gay and some historians argue he targeted gay organizations to distract from his own sexuality.
This period of targeting and institutionalized homophobia was known as the Lavender Scare.
But in this era, fueled by homophobia and censorship, literature transcended the hate and the laws that fueled it.
One magazine incorporated clapped back by suing the Postmaster General of Los Angeles.
The LA Postmaster took a major L on this one.
It was the first time an LGBTQ+ issue was brought to the Supreme Court and the magazine won.
- We are well aware of how books can cause revolutions.
Books can cause movements and some of these stories where we can feel seen can make us feel empowered to actually get onto the streets and advocate for ourselves and advocate for each other.
Discovering James Baldwin really helped me in my journey as a Queer person.
It helped me in my journey as a Black person and also my journey as an immigrant because, of course, James Baldwin ended up moving because he couldn't tell the stories that he wanted to tell here.
- The irony of reading a book only after you've immigrated to the US, reading a book that couldn't even have been written here.
- You know, it's a terrifying thing to think about because had I not had access to all of those work, I don't know where I'd be today.
- Although Queer books are being seized and destroyed in the fifties, they were still being read.
But way before the internet, how do these books get around?
Let me introduce you to the resistance.
In 1951, Professor of Sociology, Donald Webster Cory published "The Homosexual in America".
Tucked inside the book was an invitation to Corey's book service, a monthly list of queer literature.
At its height, Corey's book service had 3,000 subscribers.
While it doesn't seem like much by today's standards, it helped to inspire some of the earliest Queer activists.
The Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization founded by women of color, produce "The Ladder", the first national lesbian magazine in the US.
The FBI and the CIA hounded groups that gathered to read the magazine.
The group kept its list of subscribers on the DL, literally, in their pockets at all times.
In 1960, "Transvestia" became the first widely distributed transgender publication in history.
This explosion of accessible Queer literature and the self acceptance it fostered for its readers began to inspire more direct action.
In fact, the first New York City pride parade was organized at an LGBTQ+ bookstore.
But the fight against censorship is far from over.
In the 2021 to 2022 school year, 138 school districts across 32 states issue bans on over 2,500 books.
Four out of 10 included LGBTQ+ subject matter.
That is a lot.
Just as many books have been banned that future characters of color.
So LGBTQ+ stories from BIPOC authors are particularly at risk.
Those in favor of banning LGBTQ+ books claim they want to protect their children from sexual content, gay or straight.
But if it was really about sex why are they all over books about LGBTQ+ identities?
- It's so ridiculous.
- It's interesting that they talk about a agenda but their agenda is to erase us again out of history.
- Honestly, when you ban things, it just becomes a forbidden fruit.
Everybody wants it.
Everyone wants to see it and they will try and get it anyway, safe and unsafe ways.
- You want your kids to grow up to be as like well versed as possible and you know, and healthy mentally.
And if we don't listen to like what they need, we're doing them a big disservice.
- And I think people are very averse to being uncomfortable.
But the truth is this comfort is where growth can happen.
- Just as the LGBTQ+ community did in the 1950s, they're fighting back.
The American Library Association shares censored books during their banned books week and LGBTQ+ inclusive children's books continue to be published in record numbers.
I'll even let you in on a little secret.
If you live in a state that's banning books, you can access the Brooklyn Public Library's full collection online for free.
- We are actually saying no, we are going to actively fight against that by creating a space where people can feel big and whole and standing their truth and be seen.
And so, yes, this is a brave space because outside of these walls, there are so many different powers that are trying to disappear who we are.
- So many of us, regardless of what gender that we're born, so many of us have felt so isolated for so long.
- Like we're saying, there aren't a lot of spaces for queer people to come together and just like talk about stuff.
I think that a lot of these books that are banned could be the start of a family for someone that doesn't have it at the time.
You know what I mean?
- One of my favorite writers, Bell Hooks, once wrote, "Home is the place where I was forced to conform "to someone else's image of who and what I should be."
Books helped me escape a tragic childhood and create a world of my own free from maltreatment, judgment, and constraints of who I was expected to be.
Books liberated me and it unlocked worlds I never knew were possible.
Never underestimate the power of writing, reading, and sharing our stories.
It takes a lot of courage and it just might be the first step towards real change.
- I just want to thank you all for being part of this discussion.
This is a very important discussion.
We are really pushing back against this like, book banning chaos that's happening by being in spaces like this, by reading one of the banned books, and by discussing and humanizing the author.
So again, once again, you know, you are all now official members of the Gray Wills Book Club, so give yourself a round of applause.
(group applauds) (gentle music)