Innocent Children and Frightened Adults: Why Censorship Fails

—Philip Nel

Few things upset American adults more than books for children and adolescents. If you look at the American Library Association’s annual list of Challenged and Banned Books, the top 10 titles are nearly always those written for or assigned to young people: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. On those rare occasions when the books are not intended for school-age readers or given as homework, they’re on the list because young people are reading them anyway: E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, a favorite target for 2012 and 2013.

Banned and challenged books tell us very little about what is suitable for actual children. Instead, books targeted for censure offer an index of adult fears, reflecting, as David Booth says, “changing ideas about childhood and notions of suitability.”1 Censorship is also transideological, advocated by people of many political persuasions. Progressive censors seek to scrub away racism from Doctor Dolittle and Huckleberry Finn, creating Bowdlerized editions of the books. Conservative censors wish to protect children from knowledge of the human body: as a result, Robie Harris and Michael Emberley’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, and Sexual Health frequently lands on the ALA’s Challenged-and-Banned Books list.

While censorship will not keep young people safe, censors and would-be censors are right about two things. First, books have power. Second, responsible adults should help guide young people through the hazards of the adult world.

However, like all attempts to safeguard children’s innocence, removing books from libraries and curricula are not only doomed to failure; they are an abdication of adult responsibility and, as Marah Gubar writes of associating innocence with childhood, “potentially damaging to the wellbeing of actual young people.”2 A responsible adult recognizes that innocence is a negative state — an absence of knowledge and experience — and thus cannot be sustained. Shielding children from books that offer insight into the world’s dangers puts these children at risk. As Meg Rosoff notes, “If you don’t talk to kids about the difficult stuff, they worry alone.”3 Books offer a safe space in which to have conversations about difficult subjects. Taking these books out of circulation diminishes understanding and increases anxiety.

Separating children from books also fails to recognize that peril is not distributed randomly throughout the population, but concentrated in groups identifiable by their members’ race, gender, class, sexuality, disability, or religion. Preventing teenagers from reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings impedes them from learning about what survivors of rape endure, and how peers and teachers might better help them. Blocking children from reading Justin Richardson, Peter Parnell, and Henry Cole’s And Tango Makes Three prevents them from understanding that same-sex parents appear elsewhere in the animal kingdom, too. Banning Tim O’Brien‘s The Things They Carried and Walter Dean Myers’s Fallen Angels stops readers from discovering how war shapes a young psyche. Prohibiting Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian impedes young people from learning about the hard realities of life on a reservation, and from getting to know the novel’s resilient, funny protagonist. These books provide mirrors for young people of similar backgrounds or experiences, and windows for those of different ones.

Furthermore, preventing children from reckoning with potentially offensive works ill prepares them for the indignities that life will inflict. They should read books that trouble them, and have serious conversations about those books. For example, while Twain was a progressive nineteenth-century white author, if his Huckleberry Finn doesn’t offend contemporary readers, then they’re not reading it carefully enough. It’s not just the repeated use of the n-word, which should make people at least uncomfortable and at most angry (news flash: it was a racial slur in the nineteenth century, too). The portrayal of slave-owning Uncle Silas as a kindly “old gentleman” (Huck calls him “the innocentest, best old soul I ever see”) offers an apology for white supremacy. Assigning Huck Finn provides an occasion not only to talk about a classic American novel, but to teach people how to read uncomfortably, and to cope with experiences that upset them.

Though the motive is protection, restricting access to books hurts the children and teens who need them most. Young readers in vulnerable populations crave stories that help them make sense of their lives. Denying them access to these books contributes to their marginalization and puts them at greater risk. In any case, children often have experiences that they do not yet have the words to express: reading books can provide them with the words, and help them better understand. As Mr. Antolini tells Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (another frequently challenged book), “you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior.… Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now.  Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles.  You’ll learn from them — if you want to.”4

Young people do want to learn. Concerned adults should acknowledge innocence’s inevitable evaporation, and recognize that the young likely know more than you think they do. So, respect their curiosity. Take their concerns seriously. Let them read. Let them learn.


  1. David Booth, “Censorship,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, eds. Philip Nel and Lissa Paul (NYU Press, 2011), p. 26.
  2. Marah Gubar, “Innocence,” Keywords for Children’s Literature, eds. Nel and Paul, p. 122.
  3. Meg Rosoff, “You can’t protect children by lying to them — the truth will hurt less.” The Guardian 20 Sept. 2013: <>.
  4. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951; Bantam Books, 1988), p. 189.

Philip Nel has co-edited two books for NYU Press: Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature (2008, with Julia Mickenberg) and Keywords for Children’s Literature (2011, with Lissa Paul). His most recent books are Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children’s Literature (UP Mississippi, 2012) and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, Vol. 1 (1942-1943) and Vol. 2 (1944-1945) (2013 & 2014, both co-edited with Eric Reynolds, Fantagraphics). He is University Distinguished Professor of English at Kansas State University.

Are Jews Too Sexy for the Censors?

—Jodi Eichler-Levine

Jewish authors are tremendously popular when it comes to banned-books lists. Judy Blume, Lesléa Newman, and Anne Frank are all represented on the American Library Association’s 100 Most Banned Books of 1990-1999 and 2000-2009 lists. These are just a few examples of Jews whose work has been targeted, banned, and even burned in America. All of these women’s ouevres have one thing in common: sex. Sex, along with race and obscenity, is one of the most common rationales presented for banning books. Are Jewish authors too sexy for the library?

It is Banned Books Week, a time to reflect on how censorship has altered the American literary landscape and to take action on freedom of expression. For 2015, the week’s focus is on Young Adult literature: that mildly nebulous, wildly popular genre that crosses between “juvenile” and “mature” literature.

Jews, particularly Jewish women, have been stereotyped as licentious and sexually voracious ever since the nineteenth century brought us notions of the “exotic Jewess,” a seductive, Orientalized creature. More generally, the notion of “carnal Israel,” contrasted with “spiritual” Christianity, dominated many public discussions of Jews. As Josh Lambert argues in Unclean Lips, the very notion of obscene speech in American derives in part from reactions towards Jewish and other writing as insufficiently pure and “American.” Modern Jewish writers and filmmakers have received a disproportionate number of obscenity charges.

Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? caused a stir when it was first published in 1970. Censors charged that the book offends along axes of both sex and religion. On the one hand, Margaret famously discusses menarche with God, asking when she will finally get her first period; she also describes her early, and really quite limited, sexual experiences. At the same time, Margaret faces tensions as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and her Christian grandparents are particularly doctrinaire. As a result, the book was charged with “anti-Christian sentiment.” Blume’s Tiger Eyes, Forever, and Blubber have also been banned, typically for explicit sex scenes or “immoral content.”

Fast-forward two decades to 1989, when Lesléa Newman, an out Jewish lesbian poet and children’s book author, publishes Heather Has Two Mommies, a picture book about a lesbian family. Newman has written about her desire to have all children see their families represented in children’s books; she also connects this longing to her own experience with the lack of Jewish family representations during her youth. In the New York public schools, the book’s inclusion as a suggested reading for the “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum led to public outrage and the downfall of a schools chancellor.

Ironically, it was the protection of children—a very romanticized notion of the marriage as a primarily a venue for procreation—that drove Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bryer’s majority opinion in the very case that legalized marriage equality, just over a quarter century after Newman’s book. Heather Has Two Mommies was re-released just a few months before the decision, with some minor changes. Heather’s mommies now wear matching rings.

Think of the children! This is the double-edged refrain behind both intellectual censorship and legal progress. Both turn upon the notion of young people as innocent blank slates who lack the agency and discernment to make their own sense out of challenging material. This irony is starkest when we consider bans on one of the most popular Jewish authors across the globe, namely: Holocaust victim Anne Frank.

Various edited versions of her journal, usually titled Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, have been wildly popular and assigned in American schools since the book was translated into English in 1951. In 2013, the diary was almost removed from the Northville, Michigan. Most bans have stemmed from Frank’s explicit reflections on her emerging sexuality and the changes in her adolescent body. Once again, the Jewish female body is suspect: oversexed, potentially dangerous, and overtly described. Frank’s body is a particularly contested one, as her diary and other portrayals became fast forward forms of hagiography, leading contemporary Americans to resist associations between Frank and sex.

Does the censorship of Jewish-authored books truly stem from old, anti-Jewish caricatures? Is it mere happenstance? The causality is not simple. Intersectional identities cannot be neatly sorted out and untangled. I will say this: these particular Jewish authors do not shirk from our always-embodied lives. They trouble sexual taboos, portray powerful women, and challenge social mores, pushing for social justice in their lives and in their art. Like the much-maligned isha zara—the “foreign woman”—of the book of Proverbs, these women cross boundaries and give us new visions. What some see as transgression, others see as its flip side: wisdom.

Keep writing, Jewish women. Write strong.

Jodi Eichler-Levine is Associate Professor of Religious Studies and the Berman Professor of Jewish Civilization at Lehigh University (PA). She is the author of Suffer the Little Children: Uses of the Past in Jewish and African American Children’s Literature (NYU Press, 2015).

A Texas teenager’s arrest points to a deep and growing trend of Islamophobia

—Moustafa Bayoumi

By now you’ve heard about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old Muslim-American kid from Texas who built a clock at home and brought it to school to show to his teacher, only to be arrested on the ridiculous suspicion that his invention was a bomb.

Young Ahmed was handcuffed, taken to police headquarters, fingerprinted and questioned without his parents present. During his interrogation, as The Washington Post reports, the officers repeatedly brought up his last name.

Here is an inventive Sudanese-American teenager in a NASA T-shirt whose curiosity and ingenuity are rewarded with handcuffs and punishment.

Things turned out well for Mohamed in the end — President Obama tweeted at him, and Mohamed is fielding invitations to visit MIT and Harvard.

Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It’s what makes America great.

— President Obama (@POTUS) September 16, 2015

But the national attention his absurd arrest has garnered is an exception. Most of the time, bigotry against Muslims goes unremarked upon or even gets rewarded.

The same week that Mohamed brought his clock to school, vandals spray-painted hate-filled messages on a mosque in Kentucky. Days earlier in a Chicago suburb, Inderjit Singh Mukker, a Sikh-American father of two, was repeatedly punched in the face while his attacker yelled, “Terrorist, go back to your country, bin Laden.” (Sikhs are often the victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes because of their beards, turbans and skin color.) On this year’s anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a Florida gun shop owner offered $25 off any gun purchased online with the coupon code “Muslim.

In case you think anti-Muslim sentiment is limited to the fringes, consider this University of Connecticut study. Researchers there last year found that job applicants with identifiably Muslim names received “32 percent fewer e-mails and 48 percent fewer phone calls than applicants from the control group, far outweighing measurable bias against the other faith groups.”

Official agencies reflect these attitudes, too. The New York Police Department was caught spying a few years ago on every facet of Muslim life around the region. This was massive, expensive surveillance performed without even the hint of any criminal activity. And federal policies such as the Countering Violent Extremism initiative stigmatize Muslim-Americans as terrorists, even though the number of terrorist attacks that Muslim-Americans have committed are miniscule and far fewer than those that right-wing extremists have perpetrated.

Islamophobia infests our politics and our society. Republican presidential contender South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham supports the surveillance of mosques, while former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark recently proposed the reintroduction of internment camps for “radicalized Americans.” Muslims across the country regularly face opposition in constructing their houses of worship and are routinely demonized in the media.

What most Americans don’t realize is how exhausting it is to live a Muslim-American life in this environment. Many see anti-Muslim attitudes not as bigoted but as common sense. Ordinary things that Muslims do, such as cleverly making a clock at home to show off at school, can be interpreted as suspicious and threatening.

Islamophobia in the United States today is real and it’s growing. Like Ahmed Mohamed, we need to be inventive, and find solutions that will help our country live up to its ideals.

Moustafa Bayoumi is the author of This Muslim American Life (NYU Press, 2015), and How Does It Feel To Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America, which won an American Book Award and the Arab American Book Award for Nonfiction. He is Professor of English at Brooklyn College, City University of New York (CUNY).

[This piece originally appeared in The Progressive.]

Working it at Fashion Week

—Elizabeth Wissinger

It’s New York Fashion week and the Kardashian sisters have been here in force. Yesterday, after juggling interviews, runway walks, and Uber filled traffic jams, all five managed to descend upon the Apple store to promote their new apps, which, according to The Cut blog of New York Magazine, featured “videos, photos, and musings from the girls about their lives and projects.” A reporter taking in the scene was struck when Kim, in full audience view, checked her hair in her iPhone camera, carefully smoothing a wayward strand. “Did she forget that we can see her?” Not hardly. In a brilliant moment of “casual authenticity,” Kim reminded us that she does exactly what so many of us would do, to ensure we are perfect for our close-up. No matter that, for the rest of us, a close up of that caliber rarely occurs. The KKs are brilliant at popularizing a way of being in the world that prior to the Instagram age was reserved for a rare breed of insiders engaged in specialized practices that were not for you and me.

There was a time when only fashion models had to “put on that show, 24 hours a day,” as one model I talked to in the pre-dawn of social media put it. Now it seems that every young girl who considers herself somewhat in the know about fashion and style feels the urge to constantly document her grooming, outfits, and exploits. During this fashion week more than ever before, the streets have become runways in the world of Insta-girls populating our feeds. While everyone has always tried to stand out from the scrum of fashionistas milling about between shows, it is striking how many were named by name in the various news outlets’ now obligatory ‘street fashion’ slide shows. Editors, bloggers, and models all were carefully documented, with only the occasional anonymous shot of a fantastic peacock, a courageous unknown in a sea of bold facers. It seems the adorable fashion students who used to hang around the tents, hoping to soak it all up by osmosis, are now jockeying for position with the self branding fashion bloggers, already, or about to be, well known. Being always ready to be photographed has become a profession of sorts, and it didn’t start with the Kardashians.

Historically, models worked for the camera in the studio, at the fashion show, or on the runway. They carefully protected their image; a 1950s Ford model who had sashayed about in crinolines, carrying her model-signature hatbox, recalled ducking into movie theaters to make herself scarce between calls. Superstar model of that time Jean Patchett similarly didn’t want to overexpose herself, believing that “the more you are seen, the less you are wanted.”

Careful management to avoid over exposure now seems quaint, but the mid century titan of model makers, John Robert Powers, would have had no truck with the I-just-woke-up-this-way, #nofilter, mentality. He managed his ‘girls’ within an inch of their lives, carefully staging photo ops for the press, where his carefully coiffed models went about their anything but normal lives. He observed:

“If Mrs. Smith cooks and keeps house for her husband it is of interest to no-one but Mrs. Smith. But when a model has domestic tastes, she is photographed buying groceries, basting a roast, taking her baby out in his carriage.”

Socality-BarbieSounds a lot like everyone’s Instagram or Facebook feed, but before the image onslaught of the digital age, regular people weren’t staging their lives as if they were on a movie set. It was a model’s job to “epitomize romance for the average person, to represent the story-book heroine in real life, to live more colorfully than other people.” Fast forward to the Instagram age, and it seems that everyone feels the pressure to live more colorfully, beautifully, to be the hero of their own show, engaging in what I call “glamour labor,” the work to look like your tightly edited, highly filtered image in the flesh. In a perfect send up of these kinds of pressures, a fictitious Instagram account depicts a hipster Barbie doll’s golden idyll of sunny hikes, coffee dates, and rugged boyfriends. While completely contrived, it nonetheless rang true with thousands, going viral in a matter of days. “Socality Barbie” shows quite literally how “plastic” Instagram, and those of us who feel the need to feed it, have become. In the endless chase for the perfect image, Hipster Barbie might just have us beat.

Elizabeth Wissinger is an Associate Professor of Sociology at BMCC/City University of New York and Associate Professor of Fashion Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of This Year’s Model: Fashion, Media, and the Making of Glamour (NYU Press, 2015).

Chubby Guy Swag

—Jason Whitesel

There appears to be endless chatter among bloggers about fat women’s fashion, though less so when it comes to fat men. It seems that the fashion industry has continued to overlook big men in this regard. I must say, however, that as a scholar of queer and fat studies in a thin-privileged (white) body, who has written about middle-aged big gay men, I am encouraged to see the emergence of a couple of sites that are attempting to provide fashion inspiration for bigger guys, garnering visibility for them. One of these sites, Chubstr, slates itself as a style destination for men of size. It directs people to resources for them to find clothes they might love. It also alerts users to deals on clothing in extended sizes. I spent some time perusing another blogging community, Chubby Guy Swag (a.k.a. “CGS”), cofounded in 2010 by Zach Eser and Abigail Spooner in response to the lack of body-positive “fatshion” for plus-size males. From my rudimentary content analysis, I gather that this community has international reach providing a safe space for big men who don’t fit the mass media’s image of the “ideal” body type, but aspire toward becoming fashionable, and who therefore appreciate the information and wisdom users share on this site. In fact, several users submit selfies in their favorite outfit. I looked through many posts and photos by men of size who are queer, disabled, people of color, and/or “just plain broke,” most of whom are young adults who are underrepresented in the main.

The CGS website provides a judgement-free zone, as reflected by the compliments made to people who post pictures. Its message is clear: everyone is entitled to fashion, regardless of size. I am most impressed by the queer-positive, anti-racist, and anti-ableist environment that this fat-positive community has engendered. For example, one trans person wrote, “this blog is such a relief to find, since I am fat and trans [non-binary] and looking for fashion inspiration.” For another fat trans person, the blog is a fantastic resource – “nice to see some people shaped like me (even though I’m much shorter than many of the guys on here).” Yet a third gender-queer person says: “I wear almost exclusively women’s bottoms. (Gendered freedom!)” This comment implies the comfortable inclusion of gender nonconformists on the CGS site. It is also interesting that this loosely male-identified space allows for female inclusion, such as women who admire fat men. One of them says she loves everything about the blog, because “it fuels [her] love for men’s fashion AND [her] damn near obsession with cubby men.” Another woman, who is engaged to a big man, apparently follows the blog to look for ways to impart some body-positivity to her fiancé who “hates looking in the mirror.” Many women visit the site on behalf of their ample male partners who feel defeated by the exclusionary fashion industry and need to get their chubby-guy swag back. In fact, even a mother came to the site on behalf of her self-conscious “chubby boy.” Last, but not least, the CGS site is inclusive of persons with disabilities. For example, one person posts about how people with Down’s are built differently and “often lack access to well-fitting clothes, furthering negative perceptions of [DS] people . . . and increasing the condition’s social stigma.” To this post, one of the co-moderators has responded sensitively saying how it is indeed a “struggle to find clothing that fits in a society with misconstrued body standards. Everyone deserves to be happy and comfortable in their body!”

The CGS site offers its users a great confidence boost. To give just one example among many, one visitor to the site describes the big men as the “hottest, cutest, classiest, and the swaggiest guys.” This writer and others give us a sense of the more positive self-image some users celebrate. They check in to the site to see guys of a similar size to themselves pull off “awesome” styles. One recent urban fashion trend appears to be male jumpsuits. As one user reports, the site gives him confidence to pull off the sexy plumber look. Another user displays the catchphrase of the D-list celebrity, Latrice Royale, the plus-sized African-American drag performer: “Chunky yet Funky,” which resonates with the esprit de corps of this online community. Interestingly, even a big man who works with modeling agencies and designers reports on the site that he is constantly confronted by the reality that he does not “fit in” within his own industry.

Users also give and take advice on where to go for affordable, custom-tailored clothes in extended sizes. Such advice ranges from a biker – who shares contact info of a tailor on eBay who sews leather jackets without charging “an arm and a leg” – to users – who warn others of stores that size down (so that an XL is really L). Occasionally, a fashion industry specialist, who is well versed in the small field of fat men’s fashion, will post an editorial where he styled plus-sized menswear. In addition, one big man reported on having met with a free personal stylist he came across at a particular store, who was fat-friendly, had plus-sizing expertise, and was eager to work with him.

Bigger guys, just like everybody else, certainly deserve to have access to style references if they so choose. Given our society’s hyperconsciousness about appearance (which is another story in itself), when big men are denied the latest clothing trends, they miss out on yet another opportunity to be like their peers and differentiate themselves through fashion. Sites like Chubstr and Chubby Guy Swag allow fat men to resist the belief that others can deny them full citizenship because of their weight and size. As one user exclaims, “For big men right now—it’s truly a case of trial and error – we’re kind of on our own.” Voices like his, however, find reassurance: “It’s out there; we just have to look a little harder!” As one user suggests, the democratization of fashion may mean going retro or DIY: “Men’s fashion is evolving… shifting back to our vintage roots and creating, from our lack of options, our own styles and looks.” Users are further reassured that they can find both low-end and high-end options. One user who is operating on a budget posts about his outfit-of-the-day: “I’m a big guy, and I definitely think I have some sense of fashion. I also am a huge bargain shopper, so I’ll be posting what I’m wearing, where I got it, and how much it costs!” On the flip, some people post ensembles worn by fat male actors with the full breakdown of brands, prices, and where to get the same great styles big guys in the media are wearing. The majority of users sound comfortable with their bodies and fashion sense to declare feeling “glamourous,” “chubby,” and “proud.”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth and the Politics of Stigma (NYU Press, 2014).

Interview with Joshua Gamson, author of Modern Families

Why did you choose to write a book that focuses on the personal narratives of unconventional family making?

I started writing the book because I really wanted to get our stories down on paper for the kids I know and love. I kept going because of other people’s curiosity. In the early months of our first daughter’s life strangers routinely asked questions like, “Where did you get her?” and “How long have you had her?” At first I thought they were just being rude, but then I began to realize that people were asking to know the stories of how families like ours came to be. People had a sense that family structures were changing a lot, but they didn’t know how actual people went about making their actual families. So I decided to tell them, and to tell them as personally, honestly, and intimately as I could. Personal narratives are also a terrific vantage point from which to view the larger social structures and changes shaping family formation.

You describe two common ways of approaching these new ways of making family. Where does your book fit within them?

There are basically two genres in this territory. One, which the writer Anne Glusker called Repro Lit, tells the heroic stories of individuals who had to overcome great obstacles to become parents; the other, which I dub Repro Crit, critically assesses the institutions and industries of family formation, pointing to the exploitation, inequities, and commercialization involved. Modern Families tries to bring these two genres together. I think of it as the love child of Repro Lit and Repro Crit.

How has the historical myth of the nuclear family affected what constitutes is considered a “real” family, and how has it rendered other kinship models deviant and pathological?

The idea that a real family consists of a married heterosexual man and woman and their biological offspring is a relatively new one, and never historically accurate, as the historian Stephanie Coontz has shown. Still, this idea—in the book I call it the One True Family ideology—has been extremely powerful as a norm. Departures from it, whether they are single parents, adoptive families, blended families, same-sex parents, kinship networks that extend beyond a couple and beyond biology, have been made invisible, pushed into secrecy, or stigmatized. That’s clearly rapidly changing, which is part of what I’m documenting through the stories in this book.

How has the LGBT movement reimagined the model of kinship in a way that expands the legal and socially sanctioned versions of the traditional family? 

One of the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people has been to assert a model of kinship that is not reliant on biological or genetic ties—in part out of necessity, since many were dumped by their biological families and then developed family with people they chose as kin. This isn’t a new thing—many African American working-class communities have long operated with broad networks that mix biological and social kin—but LGBT people added their own version to the mix. Then there is the simple fact that many LGBT people raise children, either those from an earlier heterosexual relationship or those they’ve conceived or adopted. This, along with the shockingly successful effort to equalize marriage rights, has undercut the assumption that an acceptable, legally recognized family requires a heterosexual man and woman. Increasingly, too, we are seeing “queer” versions of family that are even more expansive departures—in which, for example, a family involves more than two parents from the outset, or in which kinship ties are built and maintained between foster and adoptive families and families of origin.

Yet some gay couples use assisted reproduction technologies and sperm banks, bypassing social conventions of the heterosexual family but not the idea that “blood” ties are more authentic than “families we choose.” Is the assumption that a genetic relationship to a child is what makes you his or her real parent still unassailable?

Not exactly. The idea that biology determines kinship does still dominate, and informs the family-making decisions of some gay people, for sure—and I see no reason gay people should be restricted to non-biological reproduction. Yet even those of us who have gone that route (and I am among them) routinely encounter people who want to know who the “real” father or “real” mother is, or the assertion that our kids are not “real” siblings. We throw a wrench in things when we reject the terms of such questions and assertions, when we respond that we are real parents and real siblings regardless of whose got what genetic ties. It also seems that when people know our story, it opens up the conversation because we embody some mix of biological and social that doesn’t fit with their ideas of what constitutes real kin.

What do you think about the commercialization of family formation? Does building a family through commercial exchanges—paying egg donors or gestational surrogates, paying adoption agencies and lawyers—represent the encroachment of a market mentality into aspects of intimate life that had previously been insulated from commercial forces?

Short answer: Yes. The profit motive, the exchange of money, what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has called the “outsourcing of intimacy,” the sense that pretty much everything can be bought and sold, are now part of family formation in ways that they weren’t before, just as they are part of dating, health care, marrying, childrearing, and death. That can be troubling and sometimes creepy. In many places, in fact, commercial surrogacy is banned outright as “baby selling,” but it’s pretty rare to find people treating family formation like a trip to the supermarket. As the stories in Modern Families attest, commercialization can also be the means of access to family-making for people that would otherwise be excluded, to make the process more legible to all its participants, and to facilitate new sorts of kinship relationships. The bigger problem, I think, is that market-based family formation is under-regulated, leaving too much room for abuse and exploitation, and that access is still restricted to the few who can afford it.

You write that your baby, like every other baby, “was a creature of a particular political moment.” What do you mean?

What I mean is that although making a family feels to many people like a private activity that is outside of power relations, it never is. For instance, women’s decisions about reproduction—whether, how, when to have a child—are shaped by their access to contraception, abortion, health care, and so on, all of which are themselves shaped by gender and race politics and by government actions. Access to assisted reproduction technologies is, at this point, restricted mainly to the economically privileged, and surrogacy is subject to a patchwork of contradictory laws. International adoption is structured by global economic inequalities, and intra- and inter-country politics, and domestic adoption by social class inequaly and family policy. Anti-gay prejudices, bias against single people, and racism continue to inform both government and private agency policies. These are the unavoidable—though changeable—political structures in which we all make family.

Has the success of the marriage equality movement, described at times as obtaining straight privilege for gays rather than challenging power and heteronormalcy, created a distinction between the family-making of “respectable gays” and the “shameful ones” who have no desire to procreate or create family?

The idea that people who choose to get married, make a family, or both—gay or straight—are somehow more deserving than those who don’t needs to be addressed head-on and resisted. We need a more expansive understanding of kinship, more expansive kinship structures, and more reproductive freedom, not just new versions of old hierarchies.

Institutional structures and legal reality dictates that a child can have no more than two legal parents. Do you think society and the law will start recognizing multiparent families?

Actually, I think society already recognizes some multiparent families without really calling them that: families in which parents have divorced and recoupled, so that the kids wind up with three or four parents raising them. The question is whether people can let go of the idea that a family can have more than two parents by design and from the get-go. If more people build multiparent families, the idea that a child can have no more than two legal parents may shift, unevenly, as more legal challenges emerge and as the law catches up to social reality. In fact, a couple of years ago, California passed a law that family courts can (but are not required to) recognize more than two legal parents of a child if they think it will protect the child from detriment. That’s a big, if cautious, change in the law. I’m not a great prognosticator, but I think it will be a long time before legal recognition of multiparent families really takes hold, partly because it calls up the specter of polygamy, around which the prohibition still seems to be very strong.

Social class stratification casts a dark shadow on the process of who is an egg donor (young and educated) versus who is the gestational carrier (often poorer and less educated), and on who can access assisted reproduction technologies. How can we ensure that this new form of family making does not take advantage of financially disadvantaged women and serve only economically privileged people?

In the bigger picture the obvious answer is that we have to push for policies that redress the gaping economic inequalities here, and that protect and build the safety net for economically vulnerable people—so that a choice to be a surrogate, though it can involve payment, is a real choice rather than one that one coerced by financial circumstance. In the narrower realm of family and reproductive policy, and in the shorter term, I think we need greater regulation of assisted reproduction markets—the sociologist France Winddance Twine advocates for a transnational regulatory agency. To equalize access to assisted reproduction technologies, we need government policies that subsidize costs of those technologies for people who cannot afford them.

Many states and countries give priority to married, heterosexual couples during the process of adoption. Yet there are many women who wish to be single mothers and gay singles and gay couples that wish to adopt. Your book includes the moving story of a woman who had to hide the fact that she was in a lesbian relationship to adopt her child internationally. What reasoning leads to this discriminatory practice and how can we enact change?

Besides some degree of good, old-fashioned anti-gay and anti-woman animus, I think the reasoning behind this kind of discrimination is the belief that the best situation for a child is to be raised by a man and a woman in a stable, intact household. So women pursuing parenthood solo (and men, too, though there are fewer of those) and same-sex couples face the same stigma: they aren’t making the kind of family other people think kids ought to have. Adoption policies and agency practices, everyday disapproval, and sometimes also the decisions of birth mothers, reflect this belief. It feels to many people like common sense, but it turns out that the research on children of single parents and same-sex parents refutes it. So part of the regulation of international and domestic adoption ought to be rooting out such discrimination. If people are genuinely concerned about the fate of children their energy should go towards policies that support rather than stigmatize parents—such as affordable childcare, minimum wage increase, paid family leave, and the like. The biggest danger to kids is poverty, often coupled with racial discrimination, not single or gay parents.

Joshua Gamson is Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco. He is the author of Modern Families: Stories of Extraordinary Journeys to Kinship (NYU Press, 2015).

Q&A with Jane Ward, author of Not Gay

Interview conducted by the Sexual Cultures series editors, Ann Pellegrini, Tavia Nyong’o, and Joshua Chambers-Letson.

Not Gay focuses on straight white men who have sex with other men, but who do not identify as gay. You carefully explain why you take their assertions of straightness seriously and do not just call them closet cases or diagnose them as in denial. Why aren’t these men simply “bisexual”?  As if there is anything simple about being bisexual – or straight or gay, for that matter!  

JW: What I think many people have misunderstood is that my book isn’t about a special subset of white straight men; it’s about all white straight men. I make the argument that the very culture of heterosexual masculinity—or white manhood as a cultural institution— produces a striking number of opportunities for men to touch each other’s anuses and penises, and to think of these encounters as non-sexual. Just as mainstream culture allows for straight women to have sexual contact with women and maintain a straight identity— straight men also have these opportunities, but they look different from women’s opportunities.  For straight-identified women, sexual contact with another woman is often a performance for male spectators, but for straight men it is also a performance for other men—expressed as a form of vulgar and homophobic joking, hazing or initiation, or daredevil stunts. So the actual mechanics of the behavior are basically the same for men and women, but the cultural narratives that justify it are different.

When lesbians see two straight women kissing each other on a dance floor to excite their boyfriends or when we see straight women licking each other in hetero porn, we don’t say, “Oh, look at these poor lesbians or bisexual women suffering in the closet! They need to come out already.” Why? Because we understand the heterosexual context in which these women are touching each other. Even if they are completely turned on, we recognize that they might be turned on for heterosexual reasons, like pleasing the men who are watching them. In contrast, essentialist interpretations of men’s sexuality have not only blinded us to the prevalence of straight men’s homosexual contact with other men, they have made it nearly impossible for us to see that sometimes straight men have sex with men for heterosexual reasons.

Interestingly, I have heard from bi-identified readers who want to argue that calling someone “straight” who has had sex with women and men is a form of bi-erasure; and that since what I am really writing about is bisexuality, I have committed a form of epistemological violence by writing about the subject without being bi-identified myself. But if we are defining bi so broadly (i.e., anyone with the capacity for attraction to both men and women, regardless of how they themselves identify), then I am certainly bi. And frankly, I think all humans are bisexual by this definition. Of course it is useful to point out that human desire is more expansive than we are taught, but I don’t think it’s productive to expand the category “bisexual” to all—or most—humans. Bisexuality, to me, is a queer identification, one that resists the hetero/homo binary.

I have also been surprised by some critics’ claims that the book is somehow defending or honoring straight men by allowing them to remain straight; some readers have implied that anyone engaged in homosexual sex should be forced, I suppose, to identify as bi or gay. Or at the very least, I should be forced to write about them that way. I think this is coming from the still common belief that being straight is always easier, better, more enjoyable than being queer, and therefore to identify as straight while sometimes having homosexual encounters is to pillage queerness while reaping the endless benefits of heteronormativity. But I offer a different perspective in the book, which is that straightness has been so damaged by sexism and the gender binary that to be straight is far more miserable, especially for women, than the dominant culture wants us to recognize. As I say in the book, I find heterosexual culture quite distasteful and I would never, ever want to be straight. So if some men who have sex with men want to identify as straight, I hardly think that allowing them to stew in the juices of heteronormativity is a reward.

How does whiteness/white privilege function for your argument and for the men you write about?  Does whiteness offer greater permission for them to have sex with other men without losing their status as straight? 

JW: Yes, this is precisely what I argue in the book. In the last fifteen years or so, social scientists, public health workers, and journalists have been quite interested in straight men’s homosexual encounters, but this interest has centered almost entirely on Black men. Black men “on the down low,” regardless of their own self-identifications, have been characterized as closeted gay or bi men who lie to women about their sex with men—and therefore represent a serious public health threat. Many commentators have suggested that when straight-identified Black men have sex with men, it has everything to do with race. Most often, the argument is that Black culture is so hyper-homophobic that Black men cannot be honest about their ostensibly real sexual orientations. Many scholars working in Black queer studies, like C. Riley Snorton and Jeffrey McCune, have offered brilliant critiques of this discourse. I hope my book adds to those critiques by pointing to the ways that white men have completely flown under the radar of these discussions about sex between straight-identified men. Psychologists and sexologists have been much more generous and forgiving with their interpretations of straight white men’s homosexual encounters, allowing for the possibility that they are developmental, circumstantial, and compelled—and therefore not indicators of straight white men’s sexual essence. And certainly no one has suggested that when straight white men have sex with men, these encounters might be happening in racialized ways that are specific to white culture! But of course, they are, and I offer numerous examples.

It’s become something of a cultural cliché (not to mention a staple of pornography and pop culture – think Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” for one notable recent example) to say that women’s sexuality is more flexible or “fluid” than men’s. Does your book show that straight men’s sexuality is more flexible than commonly thought? 

JW: It seems straight men will never be tired of the girl-girl fantasy, and I think that’s precisely the point. We are inundated with images of straight women in sexual scenarios with other women because these images appeal to many heterosexual men. So it’s generally much easier for people to see how girl-girl sex might, in some cases, be about heterosexuality more than it is about lesbianism. But mention the possibility of straight dude-on-dude action, and you’re met with guffaws. Straight men deny that it happens, and gay and bi men seem to want to claim that even a single sexual fantasy about another man signals a tortured life in the closet. So it’s certainly time to unpack and examine this double standard.

With respect to the term “fluidity,” many people posit that sexual fluidity is a capacity we are either born with or we’re not. I am not saying that straight men are sexually fluid at their core, or that straight men are actually bisexual or pansexual but they just don’t know it yet. Instead, I’m shedding light on the fact that straight men touch each other’s penises and anuses a lot, often in hyper-masculine environments like fraternities and the military, and in many cases they don’t understand this touching to be sexual.  Since they are often doing it as an expression of homophobia, or to prove exactly how hetero-masculine they are, I don’t know that “fluidity” is the most useful term for understanding the meaning of straight men’s sexual encounters with one another. Instead, it’s more productive to think about this in terms of the erotic flexibility of heterosexuality.

Congratulations, you have a cross over! Do you find that the feminist and queer critique your book offers is somehow being overlooked amidst all the positive coverage, though? Many responses seem caught up in the nominalist controversy of whether or not someone can have sex with someone of the same sex and still “be” straight? How would you hope the book might be received differently say, in a classroom setting? What might Not Gay be contributing to Queer Studies at this juncture?

JW: My hope is that I’ve made a case for theorizing heterosexuality differently, not as the absence of homosexuality but as a distinct mode of engaging homosexuality that is animated by very creative hetero-erotic alibis, performative disidentifications with queerness, and a fetishized relationship to heteronormativity. Of course I also hope students in queer studies will understand that I am not congratulating straight people for their imaginative efforts at having homosexual sex in sexist and homophobic ways! Instead, I am asking queer people—and especially gay men—to let go of the desire to claim all instances of homosexual contact as ours, or within the purview of queerness. I have to say that in many ways the response to the book is almost better fuel for classroom discussion than the book itself is. The onslaught of misogynist attacks from gay men has been telling: “you’re an idiot who needs to have your degree revoked;” “what could a lesbian possibly know about this subject;” “you must have been raped by a man and therefore your trauma accounts for this misandrous attack on white men”–and it goes on and on. That the book has gained the attention of gay men outside of academia, and then elicited this kind of response from them, is, I think, illustrative of the fact that gay men have largely controlled the dominant narrative about what it means to be gay, in the broad sense that includes “gay women,” and this book challenges that narrative. Queer women are rarely central in telling the story about the meaning of sexual identity categories. I have read several sound critiques of the book, but I do think a lot the push back, coming almost exclusively from men, reflects gay men’s investment in the heteronormative and male-centered premise that it’s almost always easier to be straight and that the benefits of being queer don’t outweigh the costs. Perhaps it’s often better for men to be straight, but if we keep in mind the abuses many women experience in relationships with men—domestic violence, sexual assault, unequal division of labor, etc.—then one could certainly argue that the homophobia women experience as lesbians or bisexuals is no worse than the sexism they experience in heterosexual relationships. I write from this perspective, my own perspective as a dyke who would be absolutely devastated to be straight.   What all this indicates to me is that it’s time to invest in Lez Theory, or a queer theory centered in the lezbo/dyke/lezzie experience.

The subjects of your book — straight white men — are decentered in most feminist and queer studies syllabi, and justifiably so. So what does bringing up the topic of straight masculinity, specifically within the context of feminist and queer studies, achieve? Does it have the capacity to address the question, for instance, of whether or not Queer Studies is dependent upon a reflexive antinormativity?

JW: Straight white men are often the invisible reference point used by science when it turns its pathologizing gaze toward the sexuality of men of color and women. So it can be incredibly helpful to look closely at how that reference point is being reproduced, what the stakes are for everyone else, and how we might want to resist. But with regard to antinormativity, taking sex between straight men as our point of departure can certainly helps us think more extendedly about how we want to define antinormative sex practices, for instance. I agree with Maggie Nelson when she asks in her memoir The Argonauts, “how can rampant, ‘deviant’ sexual activity remain the marker of radicality? What sense does it make to align ‘queer’ with ‘sexual deviance’ when the ostensibly straight world is having no trouble keeping pace?” By most accounts, the kind of sex I describe in Not Gay—straight white men eating potato chips out of each others anuses and the like—is deviant. It’s not subversive, certainly not consciously, but it’s deviant. In the book, I describe the erotic force of heterosexuality as a kind of fetish for heteronormativity, one that can incorporate no end of sexual deviance. But what we see is that these sex acts are nasty and naughty in the service of normalcy! Because the current imperative is to have a more or less “hidden” sexual freakiness that is reigned in when appropriate, exemplified by the heteronormative dictate to be a “lady on the streets and a freak in the sheets,” Nelson is absolutely right that freak sex is not a singularly queer domain. What I think is queer is to be a freak in the streets. What straight people want to view as meaningless, incongruent, non-subjectifying, and private, queers treat with sincerity, reverence, and a sense of collective pride.

Jane Ward is Associate Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Not Gay: Sex between Straight White Men (NYU Press, 2015). Visit her website at

Katrina’s Lessons: Learned and Unlearned

—Robert Verchick

In the last few years, I’ve commemorated the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in a new way: by pedaling along the self-guided “Levee Disaster Bike Tour.” I begin beneath muscular oaks along New Orleans’ Bayou St. John, and I weave my way around potholes and waterfowl to pay silent respects near three prominent levee-breach sites, each marked with a commemorative plaque. Ten years ago, those breaches, combined with more than 50 others to bring a great American city to its knees.

I lived in New Orleans then, and evacuated to Houston for six months. Like so many others I resolved to return to my flooded home and rebuild. I did just that, and for a decade since I’ve taught graduate students about disaster policy and the central role Katrina plays in shaping our understanding of catastrophic hazards. I’ve learned a lot along the way, as have my students, I hope. But I can’t say the same for policy makers. A decade after the levees burst, some of the most important lessons are still just soaking in. Here is what I hope we will remember.

New Orleans was swamped by an engineering failure, not just a storm, and other cities are waiting in line. Katrina was a monster, but much of its rage had dissipated by the time it reached land. When the levees broke, the storm was within that system’s design specifications. To its credit, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged the failings in its design and construction and has toiled since to build a supersized complex of ramparts, gates, and pumps as sophisticated as any flood-control project in the world.

But other time bombs tick across the country. An estimated 100,000 miles of levees protect tens of millions of households, from Sacramento to Miami to New York City, with nearly 1 million of those households in Houston. Yet we know surprisingly little about their fitness. In response to Katrina, the federal government is developing an inventory of all federal and many non-federal levees. Of those rated so far, only 9 percent have been found to be in “acceptable” condition. In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s levees a D- and estimated that repairs would cost more than $100 billion.

But even that isn’t enough. U.S. flood-control projects are normally designed to withstand only a so-called “100-year” event, or more accurately, an event with a 1-percent chance of occurring in any given year. If you own a home for the span of a 30-year mortgage, you have a 26-percent chance of being under water in the literal sense before you pay it off. By comparison, dikes in the Netherlands, where they know from floodwaters, are designed to withstand events that are up to 100 times less probable.

Social burdens linked to income and race make everything worse. As Americans learned watching television broadcasts of their fellow citizens, many of them poor and African-American, helicoptered off battered rooftops or trapped in the Superdome, disasters do not ignore social inequalities; they amplify them. Low-income and minority populations, for instance, are less likely to have first-aid kits, emergency food supplies, fire extinguishers, and evacuation funds, but more likely to suffer property damage, injury, and death. In the aftermath of Katrina, the damaged areas of New Orleans were 75 percent African-American, while undamaged areas were 46 percent African-American. Government assistance programs—crucial in the wake of large catastrophes—tend to favor middle-class homeowners over less affluent renters or the homeless.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy inspired a variety of indices and mapping platforms to identify “social vulnerability.” As with the federal inventory of levees, this information is critical. But, still, I wonder whether it will be used to its best effect. Will such mapping lead to safer homeless shelters, multi-lingual responders in immigrant areas, better public transportation for the elderly, better evacuation plans? If not, what’s the point?

Disaster is backlit by climate change. Experts agree that human-caused global warming is increasing average temperatures, disrupting rain patterns, and raising the seas. While scientists can’t link any individual storm to climate change, Katrina was perhaps the first to open the public’s imagination to what life on a warming planet could really mean. Thus the Federal Emergency Management Agency now incorporates climate impacts into its disaster recovery framework (now being followed in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) and has plans to fold climate projections into the flood maps that determine insurance needs across the country.

What Katrina really teaches is that we are all in this world together, surrounded by vulnerabilities. On the frame of my ten-speed is a bumper sticker with the motto, “Be a New Orleanian—Wherever You Are.” What you didn’t know, is that you may have little choice.

Robert Verchick teaches at Loyola University New Orleans and Tulane University, is the president of the Center for Progressive Reform, and is the author of Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World (Harvard University Press, 2010) and Feminist Legal Theory: A Primer (NYU Press, 2006).

[This piece originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle.]