The school board wanted it gone. The parents had other ideas.
In 1960, D.H. Lawrence‘s sensual and scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Lover faced one of the most intense obscenity trials of all time. The novel’s plot (a sordid affair between a wealthy paraplegic’s wife and the estate groundskeeper) is no longer the only shocking thing about it. Today, the original copy from the obscenity trial sold for over £56,000 at more than five times the pre-sale estimate, setting a world record for the sale price of any Penguin paperback. This copy is a constant record-breaker: its 1993 sale for £4,370 made it the most expensive paperback in history.
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D.H. Lawrence was no stranger to personal or professional scandal. In 1912, Lawrence began an affair with Frieda Weekley—his coworker’s wife. Shortly after the lovers fled to Weekley’s native Germany, Lawrence published his 1911 novel Sons and Lovers. It’s as (creepily) Oedipal as it sounds, and it became one of the top 100 most challenged books of its century. In 1915, authorities went on to restrict his subsequent novel The Rainbow under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. The Rainbow frankly discusses protagonist Ursula’s liberated sexuality, even going so far as to include an erotically charged lesbian scene—a detail so impossibly shocking to the chaste public that there wasn’t yet a law against it. The homosexuality wasn’t even the novel’s make-or-break sin—Ursula also has premarital sex with men she doesn’t go on to marry.
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This particular copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is particularly special: it contains the actual annotations from the prosecution, including many circled obscene phrases that we cannot include here. The trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover lasted for six full days before the jury acquitted publisher Penguin Books in a brief three hours. As is the natural course of events when something of interest is (nearly) restricted, the novel became an instant bestseller, with reports of individual stores selling over 300 copies in the first half an hour after the ruling. But the true legacy of Lawrence’s work is not financial at all. The trial was the end of government’s monolithic control over public morality; though it didn’t outright obliterate content restrictions, it opened the doorway into the world we now inhabit.
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The People’s Bookshop, a tiny Hong Kong establishment, used to be the last place to get ahold of censored literary contraband. Today, it no longer exists. Locals and activists believe that there was pressure from the government—and recent history seems to agree. Hong Kong bans literature to do with politics, religion, or sex, rendering topics ranging from BDSM to China’s own history nigh unspeakable. Now, literary censorship remains unchallenged.
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China adopted the ‘one country, two systems policy‘ in the 1980s, ostensibly with the intent to grant certain regions of China (including Hong Kong) with territorial autonomy independent from the rule of the Communist Party of China. In actuality, the legitimacy of Hong Kong’s autonomy is uncertain and possibly suspect. Many in the literary and political spheres questioned the role of literary censorship in regional autonomy back in 2015—when 5 controversial Hong Kong booksellers were abducted. One vanished overseas under deeply suspicious circumstances, with CCTV footage demonstrating that, although the victim was in Thailand, his kidnappers could only speak Chinese.
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China at large is infamous for literary censorship, with popular works like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland on its banned list. Yet even with the heightened efforts at Hong Kong censorship, which began in 2013 as penalties increased for smuggling texts from the city, Hong Kong’s literature has heretofore thrived. Exiled Chinese poet Bei Ling stated in a 2016 interview: “according to my estimates, about half of the books published in Hong Kong are on politics and cultural topics banned in China.” While the People’s Bookshop closure is certainly upsetting, it implies a far darker truth: that the Party may no longer be interested in protecting regional autonomy and may, instead, prefer to dismantle it.
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October is LGBTQIA+ History Month, which means it’s time to celebrate the stories so many writers and individuals have been (and sometimes still are) unable to tell. These five novels have persisted through ruthless bans and censorship efforts to fill our hearts and our bookcases.
It’s important to note that this list does not address the full history of LGBTQIA+ literature. Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway, published as far back as 1925, features a bisexual protagonist who reflects on her relationships with men and a young female flame— of course, Woolf does not call her bisexual. It’s perhaps for that reason that this book has been controversial more for its inclusion of mental illness than for its bisexual elements. Another of Woolf’s works, Orlando, features a protagonist whose gender abruptly changes halfway through the novel. This book also faced little controversy— perhaps the public saw this change in gender as more of a metaphor than a nuanced commentary on gender identity. The term ‘transgender’ as we know it did not exist before the 1960s, though gender-nonconforming individuals were definitely present.
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1. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
One of the most famous writers of all time, decadent intellectual Oscar Wilde reminds us of his wit, charisma, and tragic imprisonment. A notoriously well-dressed and charming member of the era’s wealthy intelligentsia, Wilde suffered a terrible decline at the end of his lifetime. Two years of hard labor and imprisonment laid waste to his health, psyche, and bank account. Destitute at the time of his death, Wilde himself said: “I can write, but have lost the joy of writing.” His crime? Homosexuality. Wilde was the subject of two sodomy trials in 1895, and he died at the age of forty-six— only three years after the end of his sentence. The courts used Wilde’s own works as evidence to convict him. Though the novel’s homoerotic passages contributed to its author’s imprisonment, The Picture of Dorian Gray remains a crucial part of Wilde’s enduring legacy.
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The novel focuses on young, attractive aristocrat Dorian Gray, whose soul is trapped within a portrait. As Gray sinks further into decadence and cruelty, he remains outwardly unchanged… but the new, visceral ugliness in the portrait shows what Gray has become. The Picture of Dorian Gray faced heavy criticism in its time. Contemporary newspapers called it “heavy with… the odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” In 1891, Wilde revised the original publication for its formal book released, removing the more homoerotic chapters. Fortunately, after over 120 years, the uncensored original text is now available to the public. As one of the original edits was the removal of the word ‘mistress,’ it seems Wilde’s intent was to present Gray as bisexual.
2. Maurice (1971)
Best known for his novel A Passage to India, E.M. Forster secretly wrote this novel depicting a loving homosexual relationship. As he feared the controversy his work may face, particularly as a gay man himself, he kept the work hidden with specific instructions that it must only receive posthumous publication. Attitudes at the time were so negative that Forster concealed his own desires for many years, not acting on his homosexuality until the age of twenty-seven. Though he wrote the work from 1913-1914 as a much younger man, the public did not read it until after his death. Famously, his final comment on the manuscript reads: “Publishable. But worth it?”
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Maurice is a groundbreaking work beyond its gay elements, featuring working class characters and situations that other historical gay writers, including Oscar Wilde, did not address. More importantly, it also gives gay characters happy endings. The ‘Bury Your Gays‘ trope, a phenomenon in which authors often kill LGBTQIA+ characters (or shower them with endless misfortune) is sadly commonplace in historic and contemporary works of fiction. This pessimistic viewpoint suggests that to be LGBTQIA+ is only ever awful, that these characters and people don’t get happy endings. Forster, conversely, regards homosexual love as one of the deepest forms of connection— as opposed to relationships with the motive of procreation, homosexuality’s “only purpose is love, so it can result in a spiritual union between two people.”
3. Giovanni’s Room (1976)
James Baldwin‘s impressive novel about an American man’s overseas affair with another man (Parisian bartender Giovanni) almost didn’t exist. When Baldwin himself arrived arrived in Paris in 1948 with no more than $41 to his name, he sought refuge from the bigotry of the United States, a place where he felt his writing came second to his race. Baldwin’s agent would eventually confirm these fears, telling him to burn the manuscript over fears that his sexuality would further alienate his audience.
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Baldwin’s novel explores themes of alienation reminiscent of Nella Larsen‘s Passing, the Harlem Renaissance story of a black protagonist with a lighter skin color that enables her to ‘pass’ as a white person. Giovanni’s Room also comments upon the eternal catch-22 of marginalized identities— concealing them may, at times, be safer… but it can also be infinitely damaging. The novel stands the test of time as a complex portrait of homosexuality and bisexuality.
4. The Color Purple (1982)
Alice Walker‘s renowned epistolary novel is the winner of the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the first black woman to ever do so. Walker’s novel unfolds in the format of letters written to God, starting with violent subject matter and ending in redemption. It is also one of the most banned books in the U.S. today. While some of the controversy has to do with violence and explicitness, much criticism also surrounds the open depiction of protagonist Celie’s lesbian feelings— particularly, the openly sexual description of Celie’s attraction to women. The film adaptation even participates in the novel’s censorship, limiting expression of Celie’s true sexual identity.
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The depiction of Celie’s sexual identity is unambiguous; Walker writes that Celie and lover Shug “kiss and kiss til [they] can hardly kiss no more.” (And no, it doesn’t stop there.) It’s a queer story, but it’s also so much more. Protagonist Celie is an illiterate black woman, pregnant at 14-years-old— not the kind of character canonized literature typically includes. The novel boldly depicts the transformative power of love, showing how love can make the powerless powerful in the end. While the novel has ranked on the Top 100 Banned & Challenged Books List, Walker’s story remains a powerful tale of underrepresented characters.
5. Middlesex (2002)
It’s difficult to imagine that a ‘historic classic’ could have been published within our own century. But up until this unique moment in time, both intersex and transgender stories have not been a part of the literary canon. When it comes to published books, they’ve hardly existed at all— despite the millions of people who live these stories daily. Jeffrey Eugenides‘ novel, winner of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, brought explorations of gender identity into public eye and onto bookshelves around the world. Texas prisons have banned the book due to its supposedly controversial subject matter.
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Intersex protagonist Cal’s parents raised him to be a girl. When he discovers his male genetics, he comes to embrace what he feels is his true identity. Eugenides’ bildungsroman is a novel of uncertain dichotomies (male and female, Greek and American, nature and nurture, present and future) and the nebulous space between two binary opposites. The novel opens: “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” These words address the oft-unheard voices of those throughout the world whose gender identities may not always correspond with their bodies.
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It’s incredibly important to note that this list does not address the full spectrum of LGBTQIA+ identities. Some identities, including pansexuality, asexuality, nonbinary genders, and many more, are only recently entering a larger public consciousness. As such, there are few overt depictions of such identities in classic works of literature. Likely, that will change in time. Maybe you will even be the one to change it.
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Banned Books Week is coming! That means that the period between September 23d and September 29th is a time to recognize and celebrate works suppressed by censorship for dubious reasons. This years theme is “Banning Books Silences Stories.”
Not everyone is jazzed for Banned Books week. Specifically, a group of pastors in Maine are distinctly not jazzed. In fact, they are so devoid of jazz that they recently sought to have a local library in Maine ban books from the banned book table they’ve set up for Banned Book Week. And the repetition in that sentence makes me think of that one Tyler, the Creator gif which I’ll put here for your amusement:
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The display, pictured below, featured several works of LGBTQ literature, and this seems to be the rallying point of the complaint made. On September 6th, Dan Pears of Rumford Baptist Church, Justin Thacker of Praise Assembly of God, and Nathan March of the Parish of the Holy Saint co-wrote a letter to the Rumford Public Library which read, among other things: “children should not be subjected to early sexualization” and that the display preaches “far left political views that sees homosexuality as acceptable.”
Here is the pastors’ letter in full:
Image via Wonkette
Image via Wonkette
The library in question has the support of both the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF). Even without the support of these organizations, the library, as a public institution, still has no obligation to curate its offerings based on the tastes of individuals or groups thereof in the local community. And the library said as much in the board meeting that was called to address the concerns of the pastors.
An article published by Wonkette has reported that, “after a brief hubbub and a rather pitched fuck-tussle,” the library stood its ground and refused to take down the display. The article also reports that author and Maine resident Katrina Ray-Saulis said that one of the letter-writing pastors “verbally expressed that he would like to pursue the destruction of all books regarding homosexuality in the library.”
In a satisfying end, the meeting concluded with a unanimous vote to preserve the display, with Board of Trustees chairperson Carolyn Kennard saying, “By moving that (display), it would be a form of censorship that we cannot do, under any circumstance.”
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