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To fight book banning, it’s time to get loud

Librarians, queer activists, free speech supporters unite to combat frightening trend



Alex Gino’s ‘Melissa’ is slated to be published in April. (Photo by Blake C. Aarens )

Cynthia Sherman, executive director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, recently saw something she never thought she’d see in the United States.

Sherman was online, and suddenly she says, “I saw a book burning, I couldn’t believe it!”

Sherman wasn’t imagining things. Earlier this month, in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., Greg Locke, a pastor, led a book burning, CNN reported. Copies of books in the “Harry Potter” series and “Twilight” series were burned.

There’s been an alarming increase in the number of books nationwide that have been removed from school classrooms and libraries, according to free speech advocates, writers, and LGBTQ activists and allies, interviewed by the Blade by phone and email.

Many of the books being banned, they said, are written by LGBTQ and/or BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) authors, and deal with racism, sexual or gender identity.

Over the last year, calls for the banning of LGBTQ books have frequently taken an ugly turn.
In October, Jen Cousins and Stephana Ferrell attended an Orange County Public Schools school board meeting in Orlando, Fla. Cousins and Ferrell are parents.

Cousins has a 12-year-old daughter named Saffron, who came out as nonbinary a month before the school board meeting.

Ferrell has two children, aged six and eight. “I don’t know what their sexual or gender identity will be,” Ferrell said.

At the school board meeting, a man read a short excerpt from “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe. “He was thrown out,” Ferrell said, “but based just on that brief excerpt the book was removed.”

Sometimes anti-LGBTQ attacks have been aimed at school board members and/or their families.

Rebecca Bender is a parent in Hastings, Minn. Bender and her partner have a son named Reese and a daughter named Reagan. Reese and Reagan, age 5, are twins.

Reese is transgender and out and proud. At two-and-a-half, Reese knew he wasn’t a girl. “I’m a boy, Mom,” he told Bender.

“I’m the brother!” Reese said, referring to his twin sister Reagan.

Reese, who is autistic, attended an early childhood program run by his school district. “We had to advocate for the correct pronouns to be used for him,” Bender said.

People in the community and school district knew Reese. His experience as an out transgender kindergartner has been good, Bender said. But things worked out badly for another mom with a transgender child in Hastings, Bender said.

Kelsey Waits’s youngest child is transgender (and uses they/them pronouns). Waits, who had served on the school board, ran for another term. During the campaign, a group called Concerned Parents outed her daughter as trans (before they were ready to come out).

“I have no issue with people critiquing votes that I have taken or stances I hold that they disagree with,” Waits wrote in a letter to the Paper Boy News. “However, even in this time of political division, a line must exist. Surely, this line was crossed when a group of parents decided not only to attack me, but to attack my children.”

Those concerned about censorship have reason to worry. “Book challenges and removals are significantly up this school year from last year,” said Nora Pelizzari, director of communications, National Coalition Against Censorship. “The most frequently challenged books are by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ people. All of the intersections apply.”

The American Library Association tracks reports of challenged books. From Sept. 1 to Dec. 1, 2021 alone, the ALA tracked 330 book challenges.

In normal times, a book challenge takes the form of a formal request to have the book reviewed, Pelizzari said, “to review if it should be removed or included in a school curriculum or school library.”

The challenge is filed with a school or school district depending on the policy, she added, “this initiates a process by which a school or district reviews the book to determine whether to take action or not.”

These reviews are conducted by committees of librarians, teachers, pedagogical experts, such as curriculum developers, parents, and, ideally, older-grade trained students, Pelizzari said.

But these are not normal times, Pelizzari said. This year, increasingly, people, often parents, are circumventing the review process.

They are demanding, frequently vocally, in school board meetings that books be removed without going through the review process.

Most of the books that have been challenged, such as “Heather Has Two Mommies” by Lealea Newman and “George” by Alex Gino (to be published in April as “Melissa”) have LGBTQ content, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director, American Library Association, Office for Intellectual Freedom.

‘Melissa’ was previously published as ‘George.’

“Heather has Two Mommies” is about a family headed by same-sex parents, and “George” is about a transgender girl named Melissa.

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, people have “challenged books about slavery – the lived experience of Black people,” Caldwell-Stone said, “along with books about LGBTQ+ people.”

The ALA encourages libraries to file reports with “us if they’ve had challenges or encountered censorship,” Caldwell-Stone said, “we promise confidentiality.”

The attempt to censor and ban books by queer writers with LGBTQ+ characters, shouldn’t be viewed as an isolated phenomenon, said Mary O’Hara, a GLAAD rapid response manager. (For info on GLAAD’s #BooksNotBans campaign, go to

The battle for marriage equality has been won. More than 21 percent of Generation Z adults identify as LGBTQ, according to a Gallup poll released on Feb. 17. “It’s no coincidence that anti-queer groups have made schools their new battlegrounds,” O’Hara said.

The effort to ban LGBTQ books is connected to proposed anti-trans bills that would limit transgender and nonbinary students’ access to health care, rights to participation in sports and use the bathroom, O’Hara said. (In the first week of this year alone, seven states proposed such anti-trans bills.)

“We’re seeing bills [such as the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill before the Florida Legislature] advance in state legislatures that would prohibit conversation about sexuality or gender identity in schools,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at Pen America.

People seeking to ban LGBTQ books have an unrealistic view of the world, author Newman said, “they want to show kids a society where all families are white, cisgender, Christian, able-bodied – with one mom and one dad.”

In October, Matt Krause, a Texas state legislator, compiled a list of 850 books that he would like to see removed from schools because they might make students feel “discomfort…because of their race or sex.”

Kalynn Bayron, author of the YA novel “Cinderella Is Dead” and the forthcoming middle-reader novel “The Vanquishers,” lived in San Antonio for many years. She was disheartened to hear that “Cinderella” is on Krause’s list.

“I write about Black, queer protagonists,” Bayron said. “Representation is so important. When books are banned, Black, queer, disabled and other marginalized kids don’t see themselves in stories.”

“And kids who aren’t marginalized won’t see people who are different from themselves,” she added.

LGBTQ activists and allies are fighting back against censorship.

Lily Freeman is a transgender and Jewish activist, and a member of GLSEN’s 2021-2022 National Student Council Cohort. Freeman and her mom run the Instagram and TikTok account @projectuncensored.

“Having representation in books creates acceptance and empathy,” Freeman said. “In online videos, my Mom and I talk about books that have been banned that folks should read.”

Bender and her partner held a fundraiser so that LGBTQ books could be donated to libraries and teachers in her community’s schools.

Early this year, Cousins and Ferrell established the Florida Freedom to Read Project, a group that advocates for the right for students, hetero and LGBTQ, to access ideas and information in schools.

Lisa Keating, director, My Purple Umbrella, and sweet pea Flaherty, owner of King’s bookstore in Tacoma, Wash., co-run the Queerest Book Club Ever. Flaherty, through her bookstore, runs 11 book clubs, including the Banned Book Club.

“We try to select books that tell stories that for so long haven’t been told,” Flaherty said.
It might be time to break through the stereotype of the “quiet librarian,” said Jennisen Lucas, president of the American Association of School Librarians, a division of the ALA.

The effort to ban books could place some librarians’ jobs in jeopardy, said Lucas, who is a librarian for seven schools in Cody, Wyo. “It might be time [for librarians] to get loud,” she said, “about standing against censorship and supporting the First Amendment.”

“It’s what makes the news,” Lucas added.

In December, NCAC issued a statement, “The Attack on Books in Schools,” which was signed by more than 600 organizations.

“It is freedom of expression that ensures that we can meet the challenges of a changing world,” the statement said. “That freedom is critical for the students who will lead America in the years ahead.”

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Tagg turns 10

D.C. magazine thriving post-pandemic with focus on queer women



‘Tagg is a form of resistance,’ says editor Eboné Bell. (Blade photo by Michael Key)

In a 10-year-old YouTube video, owner and editor of Tagg magazine, Eboné Bell, — clad in a white cotton T-shirt, gray vest and matching gray fedora — smiled with all her pearly whites as a correspondent for the magazine interviewed her outside now-closed Cobalt, a gay club in downtown D.C. that hosted the magazine’s official launch in the fall of 2012. 

“I want to make sure that people know that this is a community publication,” Bell said in the video. “It’s about the women in this community and we wanted to make sure that they knew that ‘This is your magazine.’”

As one of just two queer womxn’s magazines in the country, Tagg has established itself as one of the nation’s leading and forthright LGBTQ publications that focuses on lesbian and queer culture, news, and events. The magazine is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month.

Among the many beats Tagg covers, it has recently produced work on wide-ranging political issues such as the introduction of the LGBTQ+ History Education Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Supreme Court’s assault on reproductive rights through a reversal of its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling; and also attracted the attention of international queer celebrities, including Emmy-nominated actress Dominique Jackson through fundraisers.

“Tagg is a form of resistance,” Bell said in a Zoom interview with the Washington Blade. “I always say the best form of activism is visibility and we’re out there authentically us.”

Although the magazine was created to focus on lifestyle, pressing political issues that affect LGBTQ individuals pushed it to dive deeper into political coverage in efforts to bring visibility to LGBTQ issues that specifically affect queer femme individuals. 

“We know the majority of our readers are queer women,’ said Bell. “[So] we always ask ourselves, ‘How does this affect our community?’ We are intentional and deliberate about it.”

Rebecca Damante, a contributing writer to the magazine echoed Bell’s sentiments. 

“The movement can sometimes err toward gay white men and it’s good that we get to represent other groups,” said Damante. “I feel really lucky that a magazine like Tagg exists because it’s given me the chance to polish my writing skills and talk about queer representation in media and politics.”

Tagg’s coverage has attracted younger readers who visit the magazine’s website in search of community and belonging. Most readers range between the ages of 25 and 30, Bell said. 

“[The magazine] honestly just took on a life of its own,” said Bell. “It’s like they came to us [and] it makes perfect sense.”

Prior to the magazine becoming subscription-based and completely online, it was a free publication that readers could pick up in coffee shops and distribution boxes around D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. 

Battling the pandemic 

Eboné Bell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, newsrooms across the world were forced to function virtually. Additionally, economic strife forced many publications to downsize staffs and — in some cases — cancel entire beats as ad revenue decreased, forcing them to find alternative ways to self-sustain financially. Tagg was no exception. 

“We didn’t fly unscathed,” said Bell. “[The pandemic] took a huge emotional toll on me because I thought we were going to close. I thought we were going to fail.”

However, the magazine was able to stand firm after a fundraiser titled “Save Tagg Magazine” yielded about $30,000 in donations from the community. 

The fundraiser involved a storefront on Tagg’s website where donations of LGBTQ merchandise were sold, including a book donated by soccer superstar Megan Rapinoe. 

There was also a virtual “Queerantine Con” — an event that was the brainchild of Dana Piccoli, editor of News Is Out— where prominent LGBTQ celebrities such as Rosie O’Donnell, Lea DeLaria and Kate Burrell, gave appearances to help raise money that eventually sustained the publication. 

“There was a time where I was ready to be like ‘I have to be OK that [Tagg] might not happen anymore,” said Bell. “But because of love and support, I’m here.” 

While the outpouring of love from community members who donated to the magazine helped keep the magazine alive, it was also a stark reminder that smaller publications, led by women of color, have access to fewer resources than mainstream outlets. 

“It’s statistically known that Black women-owned businesses get significantly less support, venture capital investments, things like that,” said Bell. “I saw similar outlets such as Tagg with white people making $100,000 a month.”

Bell added that Tagg had to work “10 times harder” to survive, and although the magazine didn’t cut back on the people who worked for it, it ended free access to the magazine in the DMV especially as the places that housed the magazine were no longer in business. The publication also moved to a subscription-based model that allowed it to ameliorate printing costs. 

Despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic, Tagg remains steadfast in its service to the LGBTQ community. The magazine hired an assistant editor in 2021 and has maintained a team of graphic designers, photographers, writers and an ad sales team who work to ensure fresh content is delivered to readers on a regular basis. 

For Bell, Tagg mirrors an important life experience — the moment she discovered Ladders, a lesbian magazine published throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. 

“To that young person coming up, I want you to see all the things that happened before them, all the people that came before them, all the stories that were being told” she said.

Eboné Bell (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)
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Daisy Edgar-Jones knows why ‘the Crawdads sing’

Actress on process, perfecting a southern accent, and her queer following



Daisy Edgar-Jones as Kya Clark. (Photo courtesy Sony/Columbia)

Daisy Edgar-Jones is an actor whose career is blossoming like her namesake. In recent years, she seems to be everywhere. LGBTQ viewers may recognize Edgar-Jones from her role as Delia Rawson in the recently canceled queer HBO series “Gentleman Jack.” She also played memorable parts in a pair of popular Hulu series, “Normal People” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Earlier this year, Edgar-Jones was seen as Noa in the black comedy/horror flick “Fresh” alongside Sebastian Stan. 

With her new movie, “Where the Crawdads Sing” (Sony/Columbia), she officially becomes a lead actress. Based on Delia Owens’ popular book club title of the same name, the movie spans a considerable period of time, part murder mystery, part courtroom drama. She was kind enough to answer a few questions for the Blade.

BLADE: Daisy, had you read Delia Owens’s novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” before signing on to play Kya?

DAISY EDGAR-JONES: I read it during my audition process, as I was auditioning for the part. So, the two went hand in hand.

BLADE: What was it about the character of Kya that appealed to you as an actress?

EDGAR-JONES: There was so much about her that appealed to me. I think the fact that she is a very complicated woman. She’s a mixture of things. She’s gentle and she’s curious. She’s strong and she’s resilient. She felt like a real person. I love real character studies and it felt like a character I haven’t had a chance to delve into. It felt different from anyone I’ve played before. Her resilience was one that I really admired. So, I really wanted to spend some time with her.

BLADE: While Kya is in jail, accused of killing the character Chase, she is visited by a cat in her cell. Are you a cat person or do you prefer dogs?

EDGAR-JONES: I like both! I think I like the fact that dogs unconditionally love you. While a cat’s love can feel a bit conditional. I do think both are very cute. Probably, if I had to choose, it would be dogs.

BLADE: I’m a dog person, so I’m glad you said that.


BLADE: Kya lives on the marsh and spends a lot of time on and in the water. Are you a swimmer or do you prefer to be on dry land?

EDGAR-JONES: I like swimming, I do. I grew up swimming a lot. If I’m ever on holidays, I like it to be by the sea or by a nice pool.

BLADE: Kya is also a gifted artist, and it is the thing that brings her great joy. Do you draw or paint?

EDGAR-JONES: I always doodle. I’m an avid doodler. I do love to draw and paint. I loved it at school. I wouldn’t say I was anywhere near as skilled as Kya. But I do love drawing if I get the chance to do it.

BLADE: Kya was born and raised in North Carolina. What can you tell me about your process when it comes to doing a southern accent or an American accent in general?

EDGAR-JONES: It’s obviously quite different from mine. I’ve been lucky that I’ve spent a lot of time working on various accents for different parts for a few years now, so I feel like I’m developed an ear for, I guess, the difference in tone and vowel sounds [laughs]. When it came to this, it was really important to get it right, of course. Kya has a very lyrical, gentle voice, which I think that North Carolina kind of sound really helped me to access. I worked with a brilliant accent coach who helped me out and I just listened and listened.

BLADE: While I was watching “Where the Crawdads Sing” I thought about how Kya could easily be a character from the LGBTQ community because she is considered an outsider, is shunned and ridiculed, and experiences physical and emotional harm. Do you also see the parallels?

EDGAR-JONES: I certainly do. I think that aspect of being an outsider is there, and this film does a really good job of showing how important it is to be kind to everyone. I think this film celebrates the goodness you can give to each other if you choose to be kind. Yes, I definitely see the parallels.

BLADE: Do you have an awareness of an LGBTQ following for your acting career?

EDGAR-JONES: I tend to stay off social media and am honestly not really aware of who follows me, but I do really hope the projects I’ve worked on resonate with everyone.

BLADE: Are there any upcoming acting projects that you’d like to mention?

EDGAR-JONES: None that I can talk of quite yet. But there are a few things that are coming up next year, so I’m really excited.

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CAMP Rehoboth’s president talks pandemic, planning, and the future

Wesley Combs marks six months in new role



Wesley Combs took over as president of CAMP Rehoboth six months ago and is now focused on searching for a new permanent executive director. (Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)

June marks half a year since Wesley Combs stepped into his role as president of CAMP Rehoboth. In a conversation with the Blade, Combs recounted his first six months in the position — a time he said was characterized by transition and learning.

Since 1991, CAMP Rehoboth has worked to develop programming “inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities” in the Rehoboth Beach, Del. area, according to the nonprofit’s website. As president, Combs oversees the organization’s board of directors and executive director, helping determine areas of focus and ensure programming meets community needs.

For Combs, his more than three decades of involvement with CAMP Rehoboth have shaped the course of his life. In the summer of 1989 — just before the organization’s creation — he met his now-husband, who was then living in a beach house with Steve Elkins and Murray Archibald, CAMP Rehoboth’s founders.

Since then, he has served as a financial supporter of the organization, noting that it has been crucial to fostering understanding that works against an “undercurrent of anti-LGBTQ sentiment” in Rehoboth Beach’s history that has, at times, propagated violence against LGBTQ community members.

In 2019, after Elkins passed away, Combs was called upon by CAMP Rehoboth’s Board of Directors to serve on a search committee for the organization’s next executive director. Later that year, he was invited to become a board member and, this past November, was elected president.

Combs noted that CAMP Rehoboth is also still recovering from the pandemic, and is working to restart programming paused in the switch to remote operations. In his first six months, he has sought to ensure that people feel “comfortable” visiting and engaging with CAMP Rehoboth again, and wants to ensure all community members can access its programming, including those from rural parts of Delaware and those without a means of getting downtown.

Still, Combs’s first six months were not without unexpected turns: On May 31, David Mariner stepped down from his role as CAMP Rehoboth executive director, necessitating a search for his replacement. Combs noted that he would help facilitate the search for an interim director to serve for the remainder of the year and ensure that there is “a stable transition of power.” CAMP Rehoboth last week announced it has named Lisa Evans to the interim director role.

Chris Beagle, whose term as president of CAMP Rehoboth preceded Combs’s own, noted that the experience of participating in a search committee with the organization will “better enable him to lead the process this time.”

Before completing his term, Beagle helped prepare Combs for the new role, noting that the “combination of his professional background, his executive leadership (and) his passion for the organization” make Combs a strong president. Regarding the results of the election, “I was extremely confident, and I remain extremely confident,” Beagle said.

Bob Witeck, a pioneer in LGBTQ marketing and communications, has known Combs for nearly four decades. The two founded a public relations firm together in 1993 and went on to work together for 20 years, with clients ranging from major businesses like Ford Motor Company to celebrities including Chaz Bono and Christopher Reeve. According to Witeck, Combs’s work in the firm is a testament to his commitment to LGBTQ advocacy.

“Our firm was the first founded primarily to work on issues specific to LGBTQ identities, because we wanted to counsel corporations about their marketing and media strategies and working in the LGBTQ market,” he explained. By helping develop communications strategies inclusive of those with LGBTQ identities, Combs established a background of LGBTQ advocacy that truly “made a mark,” Witeck said.

Witeck emphasized that, in his new position, Combs brings both business experience and a renewed focus on historically underrepresented in LGBTQ advocacy — including people with disabilities, trans people and people of color.

Looking to the rest of the year, CAMP Rehoboth hopes to host a larger-scale event during Labor Day weekend. In addition, the organization will revisit its strategic plan — first developed in 2019 but delayed due to the pandemic — and ensure it still meets the needs of the local community, Combs said. He added that he intends to reexamine the plan and other programming to ensure inclusivity for trans community members.

“CAMP Rehoboth continues to be a vital resource in the community,” he said. “The focus for the next two years is to make sure we’re doing and delivering services that meet the needs of everyone in our community.”

Wesley Combs, gay news, Washington Blade
Wesley Combs (Washington Blade photo by Daniel Truitt)
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