Content Warning Not Needed

So this showed up in my twitter feed last weekend:

And I have Thoughts.

But first, a story. Like Kiersten White, I graduated from BYU, which was a great school for me and provided me with a thorough education…but it also happens to be one of the least LGBT-friendly schools in the country. Casual homophobia is pretty common on campus, which is a real shame, but that’s not exactly what this story is about. This story is about the conversation I had with a girl in the dorm cafeteria my freshman year.

This particular girl was the friend of a casual acquaintance. I didn’t know her terribly well. In fact, I’m not even certain of her name at this point. (I can’t even remember if I’m thinking of the right girl or if this conversation happened between me and this girl’s friend, who happened to look remarkably similar in that weird way that best friends or dogs and their owners tend to look like each other.) Anyway, for the sake of simplicity, we’re going to call this girl Alice. As far as I knew, Alice was a nice enough person. Friendly, though perhaps a little overeager to give hugs. (That’s another story. Remind me and I’ll tell you one day.)

Anyway, because Alice was the friend of a casual acquaintance who was friends with my friends, sometimes she ended up sitting at my table in the dorm cafeteria. Not a big deal. I’m a bit territorial but I know how to share. On this particular day, my friends and I and Alice and her friends were talking about books, which is one of the few topics that I could talk for hours about. Specifically, we were talking about favorite books growing up and one of my friends mentioned Tamora Pierce.

Now let’s be clear here. I’m a rabid Tamora Pierce fangirl. I practically have her Tortall books memorized. I have read those books so many times that the words have etched themselves into my bones and there’s a pretty good chance that I learned a lot of my feminist ideology from Tamora Pierce’s books. Between the ages of 9 and 18, if I wasn’t reading a Harry Potter book, odds were I was reading a Tamora Pierce book.

So when my friend mentioned Tamora Pierce, I immediately launched into a speech about my undying love for her and her books and how fundamental they were in shaping me as a person.

Across the table, Alice said something along the lines of, “Oh, I really liked her books for a while, but in the Circle of Magic books there was some…content…that I wasn’t ready for and I had a lot of issues with it.”

After some prompting, she admitted she was referring to Daja, the series’ young lesbian protagonist, and Rosethorn and Lark, an adult same-gender couple in the series who helped take care of the books’ four protagonists.

Now, if you haven’t read these books, first please repent and go to your local bookstore or library and fix the problem immediately. If you don’t have the time, let me explain a few things. Daja’s sexuality isn’t really explored until The Will of the Empress, which is a stand alone that takes place after the series’ two quartets. I’ve only read The Will of the Empress once, as I’ve always preferred Pierce’s Tortall books, and looking back, I hardly remember anything about Daja’s relationship with her girlfriend in that book. Considering I was a sheltered young Mormon girl when I read that book, I’m pretty sure I would have remembered if there was any sort of graphic sexual content. As for Rosethorn and Lark, well, I didn’t realize they had a romantic and sexual relationship until years after I had read the book. As far as I was concerned, the two women were friends who lived in the same house and took care of young magical children together. The fact that they were in a relationship—even though it was apparently stated explicitly in The Will of the Empress—never even crossed my mind.

But apparently these two portrayals of same-gender relationships was enough to scar Alice. She wasn’t ready for same-gender relationships. Seeing them portrayed—arguably in a non-graphic way—was enough for her to have “issues” with the books.

I don’t blame Alice for that. Having been raised in a conservative household where even opposite-gender sex wasn’t talked about, I know what it’s like to have to make nice with topics that make you feel a little awkward. A lot of us have had to do some learning when it comes to dealing with LGBT+ people and relationships.

But the thing is, books like Tamora Pierce’s or Cassandra Clare’s or David Leviathan’s help with that learning process. For kids from conservative homes where anything other than heteronormative relationships are taboo, being able to access these characters and these conversations in books is absolutely vital. They’re even more vital for the LGBT+ kids who grow up in those conservative homes. If you don’t understand how powerful it is to see characters like yourself in the books you read when you don’t know anyone like yourself, go check out the We Need Diverse Books campaign.

Here’s the thing that still bothers me about that conversation six years ago: Alice seemed to think that the homosexual content of those books—as innocent and clean as the heterosexual content in those books—was somehow deserving of a warning or a higher content rating. Having LGBT characters made her code those books as something bad, as something not for young people.

Because there’s idea that gets tossed around that LGBT people and their relationships are inherently perverse or dirty. It’s what conservative people mean by “the gay lifestyle.” They are coding relationships that are no better or worse than opposite-gender relationships as being different, as being Other, as being bad and dangerous and not safe to talk about. These relationships are seen as being adult with a capital A and not appropriate for children.

Now take a moment and think what that means to an LGBT+ teen who doesn’t have access to community support. Instead of getting access to books and stories where they can see their own puppy love and first crushes—the sort of stories that flood the shelves for their straight friends—they get told that the kind of relationships they want are too Adult for them to read about, that there is something inherently dirty or shameful about their love lives.

Do we all see how wrong that is?

Content warnings have their place. I don’t like reading or watching things with lots of graphic violence—especially violence against women. Other people don’t like reading or watching things with lots of explicit sexual content. Some people need warnings about sexual violence in a book or portrayals of abusive relationships or even something as simple as foul language.

But books with LGBT+ characters who are living their lives and having adventures and not engaging in any of those things doesn’t need a content warning. The existence of LGBT people in relationships with each other is not something that people need to be shielded from.

So next time someone suggests that a book might not be appropriate for younger readers because it tells the stories of an LGBT+ person, ask them if they’d feel the same way if all the characters were straight. If the answer is no, then a content warning is not needed.

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