I’ll be honest. When I started writing seven years ago, I dreamed of rave reviews, hitting The New York Times Best Sellers list, and movie deals. What I never dreamed of was seeing one of my books being dissed on Fox News. But recently, Laura Ingraham’s show “The Ingraham Angle” made that bizarre prospect a reality.
I received an email from a school board director who wanted to let me know they’d just finished reading my middle-grade book, “Middle School’s a Drag: You Better Werk!” and loved it. They said that if they had been a gay kid in middle school, the book would have made them feel like they weren’t alone. Based on my own childhood experiences, I couldn’t have agreed more.
This school board director, like many educators, teachers and librarians around the country, was facing a looming fight over banning books in schools. They were watching “The Ingraham Angle” as reconnaissance when Ingraham did a segment on problematic books in schools — specifically targeting books that highlight queer identity and racial inequity. The school board director saw the cover of “Middle School’s a Drag” filling the screen. The book was on a public school teacher’s suggested reading list for her students, which one of Ingraham’s guests deemed “sickening.” When I found the clip and watched it, surreal as it was, I was not surprised. (See the clip below.)
Not long ago, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican, launched an “investigation” into public schools statewide over some of the books on classroom and school library shelves. A list of roughly 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex” was provided. Most of the books on the list deal with topics of sexual orientation, gender identity and anti-racism. “Middle School’s a Drag” was on that list.
For context, the book is a sweet and humorous story about a 12-year-old boy named Mikey Pruitt who considers himself quite the entrepreneur. Mikey is gay and out to his supportive family and friends, but he doesn’t yet feel comfortable having the world (read: his middle school) know that he’s gay. Mikey’s latest brilliant business idea is to start a junior talent agency and sign the most talented kids in school to his roster.
Mikey’s first client is a 13-year-old aspiring drag queen named Julian Vasquez (stage name: Coco Caliente, Mistress of Madness and Mayhem). Julian is an out and proud queer kid despite being bullied at school and fear of his disapproving father. Mikey also signs a girl with a three-legged pit bull rescue named Fifi who is blind and can do some awesome tricks. There’s also a kid who uses a wheelchair and impersonates superheroes, a 12-year-old mystic, and a kid comedian. But I’m pretty sure it’s the gay kid and the aspiring drag queen that ruffled Laura Ingraham’s and Matt Krause’s feathers. The obvious message of the book (obvious if you actually read it) is to love yourself and be proud of who you are.
Is that message inappropriate for students?
Unfortunately, if you exist outside the margins of the dominant discourse, there are those who see your story as less valuable and your experience therefore as inconsequential.
The author, age 5, at his mom’s last birthday party.
I grew up in a small town in South Carolina in a religiously oppressive environment. This was the early ’70s and I knew I was gay from a very young age; I just didn’t know what to call it. Somehow though, I inherently knew that I shouldn’t tell anyone, and I was sure there was something wrong with me. I was also positive I had a one-way ticket to hell.
Do you know why I thought those things?
One big reason was because I didn’t see myself in books, on TV, in movies, or in everyday life for that matter. If I’d had access to books like “Middle School’s a Drag” back then, it would have let me know that I wasn’t the only boy in the world who felt the way I did. That there was nothing wrong with me. That I wasn’t alone. Simply put, having access to a book in which I could see myself, my experience, my story, would have made all the difference in the world to me.
I was around 12 years old when I first remember wanting to die because I was attracted to other boys. Society, my family and my church offered no other viable alternative. I was doomed even though I prayed every single night for God to change me — to make me normal. I went to some dark places in my mind and thought suicide was my only option.
I shouldn’t have been worrying about my immortal soul, or about being exposed and fearing the rejection of my family. I shouldn’t have been terrified of my classmates finding out, or of the bullying that would surely come as a result. I should have been playing outside in the wet, sticky heat of the Lowcountry sun with my friends. I should have been crushing on boys without shame or self-loathing. I should have been laughing a whole lot more and thinking about death a whole lot less.
The author’s school photo at 12 years old.
If I had seen myself represented on TV, or in movies, or in the books available to me at school, it would have not only changed my life, but it would have also saved me years of anguish, depression and self-hatred. It would have saved me from years of wishing I would just die. But I didn’t have access to any of those things. So instead, I felt alone, worthless, hopeless.
According to data compiled by The Trevor Project, an American nonprofit founded in 1998 focused on suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning youth:
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24.
LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
LGBTQ youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
LGBTQ youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as their LGBTQ peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
Each episode of LGBTQ victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.
The books that could help queer youth currently considering suicide are being challenged and ripped from the shelves of school libraries this very moment. And the people making it harder for students to get their hands on these books are not protecting children, they are doing them great harm — sometimes fatally so.
A silver lining does exist. It exists in people like that school board director I mentioned earlier, who was so moved by “Middle School’s a Drag” (thanks to Laura Ingraham!), that they are recommending the book be added to all the middle and high schools in their district. It exists in the brave librarians and teachers out there who are giving students access to books they desperately need.
I’ve been called many things because of my books. I’ve even been accused of pushing my “homosexual agenda” onto kids through my writing.
So, I will confess: They got me. I’m guilty. I do have an agenda. I’ll even lay out my agenda for you now. Here it goes.
My agenda is to write the kind of books I wish I’d had when I was young. To write good books in which queer kids feel seen and represented. To give queer kids their happily ever afters. And most importantly, to give them hope.
Originally from the South Carolina Lowcountry, Greg Howard lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he writes the kind of middle-grade books he wishes he’d had access to when he was young, focusing on LGBTQ+ characters and stories. Greg’s newest book, “The Visitors,” will be published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons/Penguin on Feb. 1. Connect with Greg Howard on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @greghowardbooks or, visit www.greghowardauthor.com.
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