For a country intent on the loosest possible definitions of free speech, one of our most marginalized populations is subject to an insidious degree of censorship.
The United States—the world leader in incarceration, imprisoning 2.2 million at this very moment—is fixated on free speech, but we favor the adjective over the verb. Prisons throughout the country are banning books that disagree with the racial disparity in U.S. prisons, the prison-industrial complex, and other incisive critiques of mass incarceration. And some are banning books altogether: one Georgia jail recently imposed a ban on all books, excluding only religious texts. Louisiana has banned non-Christian religious material, a decision that evidently violates the Constitutional provisions for religious freedom. Even the more liberal state of Washington forbade outsiders to make charitable book donations to prisons. Although the Washington Department of Corrections has rolled back the ban to accept donations from a small, specified list of charities, this compromise hardly changes the fact that WDOC only changed the rule because it couldn’t get away with it.
Recently, the Arizona Department of Corrections has banned Chokehold, a non-fiction work exploring the role of race within the criminal justice system. Written by a former prosecutor, the book dispenses advice for black men and details the rights people can use to protect themselves (for example, during searches). While this may be unjust, it’s not unprecedented: North Carolina and Florida have banned The New Jim Crow, another book dedicated to exposing racism’s inextricable link to mass incarceration.
This past week, the American Civil Liberties Union formally addressed the issue, requesting that Arizona overturn this ban. An excerpt from the letter explains the hypocrisy inherent in the ban:
The very people who experience extreme racial disparity in incarceration cannot be prohibited from reading a book whose purpose is to examine and educate about that disparity. Improving understanding of policing, incarceration, and racial bias is especially critical given Arizona’s stark racial disparities and overall high rates of incarceration.
Advocates have pointed out the practical issues with these bans, those that transcend moral or ethical arguments. There is no budgetary component to book-donation charities, meaning that there are no financial consequences for allowing these charities to stock prison libraries. It’s also likely that incarcerated people will not spend their entire lives in prison. Given that the average prison sentence is three years, state departments of correction should assume that most of these people will return to society. Shouldn’t we want them to be emotionally healthy when they do? Shouldn’t we want them to be educated?
Under the First Amendment, only books which would actively endanger the prison or the people in it are eligible for bans. This clause would, for example, bar a non-fiction work that might detail how to make explosives or weaponry. The intent is purely physical rather than psychological; ostensibly, there is no danger to society in allowing prisoners to understand the judicial system that keeps them confined. But there is a danger to the system that imprisons them.
Madonna and Oscar Wilde have more in common than their status as icons of the LGBT+ community: they’re both authors of ‘obscene’ works. After 136 years of censorship, Oxford University is opening its restricted collection—one of the world’s largest—to the public in a historic exhibition.
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Though her pop star persona has somehow eclipsed her literary career, Madonna is the author of controversial coffee-table book Sex. The carefully curated collection of erotic and soft-core photos landed her a spot in the Oxford Bodleian Library’s restricted collection alongside author superstars D.H. Lawrence and Oscar Wilde. Lawrence achieved lasting notoriety for his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the distinctly not soft-core tale of an unsatisfied paraplegic’s wife… and her trysts with the estate gardener. The novel was famously subject to an intense obscenity trial: the copy from the trial itself recently sold for a record-breaking $72,689.
Wilde never wrote anything so overtly sexual, but at one point, society deemed his work obscene. The Picture of Dorian Gray faced controversy for its homosexual elements. In Oscar Wilde’s own sodomy trial, accusers used his work as evidence to convict him. Wilde’s imprisonment (and his work’s original placement in the restricted collection) is yet another example of how society has historically conflated homosexuality with deviancy.
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Curator Jennifer Ingleheartacknowledgesthe censorship and misjudgments of the past, and she has created the exhibit to explore “how ideas about sexuality and suitable reading material have changed over time.” The ideas Victorian librarians had about suitable reading material were, in a word, Victorian (read: prudish). These are the kinds of ideas that cause restricted sections. Somewhat unbelievably, Oxford University students (otherwise known as real adults) had until recently needed a tutor’s approval to access the collection. Starting on November 15, 2018, the Bodleian Library’s ‘obscene works’ will be available to the public for eight weeks.
In 1960, D.H. Lawrence‘s sensual and scandalous Lady Chatterley’s Loverfaced 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 Loveris 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 Loverlasted 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 aninstant 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.
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 Farmand Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderlandon 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.
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 the1960s, though gender-nonconforming individuals were definitely present.
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 Grayremains 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 Grayfaced 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.
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.”
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‘sPassing, 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.
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.
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.