This is part one of a three-part series on book bans in Pennsylvania.
Right-wing extremism is fueling attacks on public education nationwide, including efforts to ban curriculums and books that mention LGBTQ+ people, and, in some states, policies that forcibly out LGBTQ+ students to their parents.
In the shadow of the book ban movement, the state Senate’s Republican majority passed a bill last week that would mandate that school districts identify and list all books available to students that are deemed “sexually explicit.” The bill passed 29-21, with the support of one Democratic senator, Lisa Boscola.
Under Senate Bill 7, parents would have to participate in an opt-in policy; they would have to sign a form specifying their child is permitted to access the listed books.
Democratic legislators and education advocates in the Keystone State say these censorship efforts would likely end in the banning of books about LGBTQ+ characters and people of color, as has largely been the case in other states nationwide. Those bans, and aggressive rhetoric around the bans, are endangering already marginalized LGBTQ+ youth and students of color, lawmakers and advocates say.
“It’s incredibly disingenuous to pretend that this is about one or two books, that this is just about sexually explicit material, because when you look at the list of books that have been attempted to be banned here in Pennsylvania, it is about so much more,” Democratic state Sen. Amanda Cappelletti said. “It is about the LGBTQ community. … It is about communities of color and their experiences. It is about victims and their experiences. The marginalized individuals in our society are being erased from what is being taught in our schools and is available through literature in our schools and our libraries simply because one person is uncomfortable.”
Ronna Dewey, the Pennsylvania program director for Red Wine and Blue, said the opt-in policy amounts to a de facto book ban. Red Wine and Blue is a nonprofit organization that raises awareness around book bans nationwide as part of its work to engage women in politics.
“I’ve worked in schools,” Dewey said. “Trust me when I say that getting parents to sign a permission slip once takes effort. Getting them to sign off on everything will be futile. But, that’s the intent. It will essentially ban these materials for all but a few students.”
GOP lawmakers, including bill sponsor Sen. Ryan Aument, say the legislation is about parental control and not censorship.
“Senate Bill 7 does not target or discriminate against any group or person,” Aument said prior to last week’s vote on the legislation. “It strictly identifies sexually explicit content wherever it may be found, and, regardless of who it may be written by or about, it allows parents to decide if it’s appropriate for their own child. It would not remove a single book from school library shelves.”
In 2022, Aument and Republican Sen. Scott Martin introduced anti-LGBTQ+ legislation under the same guise of parental rights. The legislation, which passed the Senate but was never voted on in the House, would have banned instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through fifth grade classrooms. The bill also would have required school staff to out LGBTQ+ students to their parents.
Democratic lawmakers and education advocates vehemently disagree with Aument’s assessment of the bill. They say that the legislation, almost certainly doomed to fail in the Democratic-led House, and its largely Republican support are emblematic of a right-wing movement fueled by extremist groups such as Moms for Liberty and aimed at silencing the voices of LGBTQ+ youth, people of color, and other marginalized individuals.
Moms for Liberty, founded in 2021, is a right-wing organization that has been labeled extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group champions book bans; pushed an anti-transgender agenda during its annual summit in Philadelphia this summer; and works to elect far-right individuals to school boards. Democratic lawmakers and education advocates told the Pennsylvania Independent it was a major force behind the book ban movement in Pennsylvania.
“Politicians and politically motivated groups like Moms for Liberty and others try to confuse parents and community members by claiming they are targeting books with explicit content,” Dewey said. “But, the truth is that the books they try to ban are almost always by people of color and LGBTQ+ authors and/or about people who don’t look like them. They use fear of the unknown or potential danger to children to activate parents to ban books.”
Of the 1,477 book ban cases reported nationwide in the first half of the 2022-23 school year, 74% were connected to organized efforts by advocacy groups or elected officials, or to enacted legislation, according to PEN America, the human rights group that works to protect writers and is dedicated to fighting book bans nationwide. PEN America called Moms for Liberty the most influential of these groups and notes the organization was connected to 58% of all advocacy-led book bans in the country.
In Pennsylvania, there have been 642 books banned in public school districts since 2021, PEN America reported. The organization said that the books banned in Pennsylvania school districts in the 2022-23 school year included Pulitzer Prize winners “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “The Color Purple,” explorations of authoritarian hellscapes “Brave New World” and “1984,” and books that delve into sexuality and racism, such as “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou.
The surge in book bans, both in Pennsylvania and across the country, is rooted in growing right-wing activism that largely began with protests against COVID-19 health regulations in the early days of the pandemic and evolved into a national right-wing “parental rights” movement that is buoyed by bigotry, advocates said.
That right-wing activism includes a push in Pennsylvania to pass anti-LGBTQ+ legislation that includes a ban on transgender athletes participating in sports and to keep schools from teaching about race and racism, said Sharon Ward, the senior policy director for the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center. The center works with Pennsylvania school districts, librarians, teachers, parents and others navigating their rights in the face of mounting book bans and challenges.
“You’ll see the belief that at the heart of the focus on sexualized content is really a laser focus on discriminating against LGBTQ students and really further marginalizing those students and creating a very uncomfortable environment for them,” Ward said. “When you decide that books by Black authors, Latino authors, Indigenous authors, LGBTQ authors are on the list for banning and removal, it does create a hostile environment. It does affect kids, and parents want their kids to go to school and have the capacity to learn unimpeded.”
Liz Mikitarian, a retired kindergarten teacher from Florida who is the founder of the national group Stop Moms for Liberty, said the push for book bans is rooted in right-wing extremists trying solely to amass power for conservative voices in an effort to overtake education, government and other systems of power.
“We’re seeing these local school board pushes as our main target, but we know that that’s not really the target.” Mikitarian said. “It’s this big national push, white nationalist, white Christian nationalist push for taking over America.”