On Existing: A Personal Reflection | Facing History & Ourselves
Photo from trans rights march.

On Existing: A Personal Reflection

Facing History staff takes a moment to reflect on personal experiences of being a minority amidst a climate of hate and the ability to use reading as a tool for discovering oneself. 

One of my clearest memories of discovering how much I loved to read is of sprinting through Shel Silverstein’s poetry collections. I remember how delighted I was to learn that he had written many and how fascinated I was to understand that “author” was a job some adults in fact had. That, just like my parents who went to work everyday, authors like Shel wrote and got paid. I started filling my own notebooks with illustrations and the prose of an eight-year-old. Later, learning that Shel Silverstein was Jewish, just like me, made me weigh some of his words differently. It was my first understanding of what writing as a minority might look like. I was hooked. 

His first poetry collection, A Light in the Attic, published in 1981, was the first children’s book to make The New York Times’ bestseller list, and it would be tested in school boards across the country, being the first of his books to be subject to bans by concerned parents who saw his tone far too serious for young children. 

Banning access to literature has long been a focal statement of extremist political parties. In 1933 the Nazis burned thousands of books that were deemed to be “un-German.” The largest burning took place in Berlin, where 40,000 people assembled to hear Joseph Goebbels speak. He proclaimed that “Jewish intellectualism is dead.” 

As I got older, I searched for other books that would allow me to find myself. I sought out strong female leads, tomboys, adventure. Later, as a teen, I leaned on books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Woman in the Wall by Patrice Kindl—these stories about sexual assault and family trauma put into words all of the things I was feeling but had no outlet to release, no adult to say them too, friends I feared would be too judgmental if I dared speak. Those books were telling my story in a way that I wished I could. In the eighth grade, when Mrs. Dominick taught us To Kill a Mockingbird, I was floored for the rest of the year. Other than incredibly dry lessons in history classes, I had no access to what racism in America—in the South—really looked like. To Kill a Mockingbird gave me a view that felt like a friend telling me a story from their summer. Scout showed me what her life was like, and that picture has lasted forever. 

When I discovered The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan, another realization dawned on me. I was, like many of the characters he wrote about, gay. I had never read a book written like it before. Leviathan’s lyrical style gently reminded me of the reasons I had loved Shel Silverstein as a child. For some reason, the cadence of poetry allowed me enough serenity to understand who I was growing up to be, without being afraid. I had crushes on girls in my classes the way my friends yearned for boys. For the first time, I didn’t feel entirely broken or left out. Again, a book had helped me to grow into my truest self.  

As book bans become daily news stories, I feel myself growing more and more angry. I know that, without hyperbole, books saved my life. When I moved to New York City after college, I stumbled upon queer literature and gay community. Together the words on pages and endless nights on dance floors made me realize something else, I was transgender. 

“Being queer saved my life. Often we see queerness as deprivation. But when I look at my life, I saw that queerness demanded an alternative innovation from me. I had to make alternative routes; it made me curious; it made me ask ‘Is this enough for me?’” - Ocean Vuong 

What Governor Abbott is doing to trans youth in Texas, while beyond my realm of understanding, does not come as a shock. I refuse to understand hate, but as a Black queer person, I must often accept it—not as my truth, of course—but as a reality. From The New York Times: Gov. Greg Abbott told state health agencies in Texas on Tuesday, March 1st, that medical treatments provided to transgender adolescents, widely considered to be the standard of care in medicine, should be classified as “child abuse” under existing state law.

When one minority is attacked, it leaves the door open for others to be as well. The rise in antisemitism, and continued racism, we see in America contribute to trans bans and anti-LGBTQ legislation. When we ban our youth from reading certain authors, themes, and stories, and present them with exclusionary reading lists, what we are effectively saying is: this is the only way. I know that if I hadn’t read on pages that other ways existed, I would have hated the teenager I was becoming. We must not create schools full of kids who hate themselves because they are being banned from existing as anything other than a preconceived notion of what should be. Among others, we must stand up for trans youth, for Black kids, for Jewish people. No child is less special because of their religion, gender, or sexuality. Books teach us that, while bans refute the possibility of acceptance. And when we ban acceptance, we create hate. When we do not teach the history of each of us, we are doing a disservice to everyone.

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