Recently Anna Waugh, an English teacher in Texas, wrote a piece offering an inside glimpse of the process that led to her old school banning the comic anthology Love is Love. It is an upsetting look at the bigotry that LGBTQ+ comics still face in many environments, as well as a cautionary tale for teachers and librarians everywhere about the reality of book banning that still happens all over the country.
In the spring of 2018, Waugh and her colleagues at Irving High School decided to put together a social justice graphic novel unit. Records showed that students were checking out three graphic novels from the library for every five prose novels, and they thought the inclusion of modern comics that deal with issues teenagers face would encourage the students’ interests. They wanted each student to choose two titles from the six offered in the unit: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, MARCH by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, In Real Life by Cory Doctorow, Hidden by Loic Dauvillier, Greg Salsedo, and Marc Lizanos, and Marc Andreyko’s anthology Love is Love (read an interview with Andreyko about the collection here).
According to Waugh,
What followed was the sudden removal of all six novels from the unit because of one LGBT-themed text. This was followed by silence from leadership, an eventual cover-up by the district, and a new policy gatekeeping teacher-selected materials.
Initially, the support for the teachers and the unit was “overwhelming.” The principal told the teachers to ask the foundation for a grant for funding, which they were able to successfully obtain. The principal, along with the department chair, and several other colleges all attended the grant presentation that Waugh and her college Carol Revelle put together. Revelle, the team lead for the project, has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction and more than two decades of experience in the classroom.
Then two days before the unit was set to begin, the principal walked into a room where Waugh and Revelle were working and demanded the books be packed up and returned, stating that a complaint had reached the superintendent. Revelle emailed the administration the following day asking for the comics to be returned and for the district to follow their own policy with regards to challenged materials. No one ever responded.
According to the Guiding Principles in the Irving ISD Instructional Material Challenge policy written in 2017 available online in the Board Policy Manual:
A parent’s ability to exercise control over reading, listening, or viewing matter extends only to his or her own child.
Access to a challenged resource shall not be restricted during the reconsideration process, except the District may deny access to a child if requested by the child’s parent.
The major criterion for the final decision on challenged resources is the appropriateness of the resource for its intended educational use. No challenged instructional resource shall be removed solely because of the ideas expressed therein.
Access was denied to these comics, and emails from Waugh and Revelle were met with silence. A committee was formed mostly of librarians and the Superintendent, despite formal policy for challenges requiring the committee to contain “at least one member of the instructional staff who has experience using the challenged resource with students or is familiar with the challenged resource’s content” it does not appear that Waugh or Revelle was included in this committee. The committee banned Love is Love. Waugh says in her op-ed about this incident,
Our librarian repeated a rumor that the committee took issue with the novel’s “extreme homosexuality.” I have thought long and hard about that description and can only say that it’s a hateful depiction for a graphic novel that memorializes the victims of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting, and that proceeds from the sale benefit the survivors of the deadliest attack on the LGBT community in U.S. history.
The official reasons for the ban were the lack of professional reviews (a common problem graphic novels face), the paperback format, and the mature nature of the work. Waugh points out that countless other comics at the school hit this trifecta of problems, and have not been banned.
Waugh and Revelle left Irving ISD. That summer they both secured new positions at other schools, but what had happened still bothered them greatly. According to Waugh’s article, she reached out to the Resource Center, an LGBTQ+ Community nonprofit, and they reached out to a local government official, whose staff was only able to reach the Superintendent for a meeting to discuss the ban after a sit-in. The Superintendent denied all knowledge of the events, despite hosting the review committee – he apparently never actually attended the review. The Superintendent resigned a week later at the school board’s request, no reason was ever given.
Revelle reached out to Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in April 2019. We were dismayed to hear about the events, and mobilized our partners to develop a response. Unfortunately, because no one had contacted us during the incident, by the time we learned of it the matter was officially closed. Since Waugh and Revelle had both left the school subsequently, there was no longer anyone with standing in the district to reopen the matter, so it became impossible to move forward with trying to reinstate the graphic novel. We asked Revelle if anyone from the school – a teacher, librarian, parent, or student – would get involved and complain about the ban, so we could advocate for them and work to reverse the ban. Revelle reached out to the school’s Gay & Straight Alliance advisor to ask if she or any of the students would fight this ban with them, but when the advisor tried to speak with another team member she too was met with silence. Sadly, the combination of the closed case and the absence of an affected party within the district to advocate for the material blocked any path for CBLDF and our partners to attempt to reinstate the book.
Additionally, the district is concealing this ban by not listing any of the graphic novels as challenged or Love is Love as banned in its records. In fact, the information obtained from the district is incomplete, as these events, as well as at least two emails, are known to be missing from records requests.
How to Fight Back
Waugh says in her article that “There are many avenues to fight book bannings. We chose to tread lightly and try to work within the system.” CBLDF commends the many different ways educators and librarians fight censorship, including trying to work within the system, which oftentimes has policies meant to protect intellectual freedom. But in all of the literature we publish, and our resources about adding comics to classrooms and libraries, we remind those faced with challenges and bans, to reach out immediately. It becomes exponentially more difficult to fight a ban after it has already been put in place. Censorship loves silence and prefers to work in the dark, the best thing anyone can do to fight it is shine a light on it.
An essential step in protecting access to comics is to report challenges when they occur. By reporting challenges, you help the free expression community gather necessary information about what materials are at risk so better tools can be created to assist. To report a challenge to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, here or email email@example.com.
Waugh says in her article,
I wish I could go back and fight harder from the beginning, but I can take away countless lessons from my first book-banning experience as a teacher and realize, as a masters of library science student, that those librarians failed students when they let their biases override their professional judgment.
At the end of the day, the LGBT students of Irving ISD deserve to see themselves represented in the curriculum and to have their stories told, not erased like the district has done with its recordkeeping.
The lessons Waugh took away from this experience and was gracious enough to share with the Dallas Voice will help future educators and students fight bans like this one all over the country. Sadly this isn’t a unique situation, but it is a unique opportunity to see behind the scenes at not only how comics get banned, but if Waugh hadn’t spoken up, how comics can disappear from curriculum without any official report on the challenge or the ban.