Tracking the Book Bans and Other Attacks

Sarah Hansen. Photo by Mara Rago.

More LGBTQ+ people have been fleeing their states as their governments clamp down on their freedoms, expression, education, healthcare, or legal recognition, especially for transgender folk. Queer and trans émigrés are moving to states they deem safer for them, including Pennsylvania, and becoming our new neighbors in the Pittsburgh region.

But how safe is Pennsylvania? The Movement Advancement Project’s Equality Index scores Pennsylvania as 16.5/44.0 or fair, which, compared to other states, is very mid-ground. Erin Reed’s anti-trans legislative risk assessment map ranks Pennsylvania as low risk, citing the lack of anti-trans legislation but also the dearth of protections for transgender people at a state level. So, arguably, Pennsylvania is safer than the most egregious states, yet could do more for its LGBTQ+ populace.

That relative safety should not beget complacency nor ignorance though. Culture war zeitgeists are attacking queerness at the state and local level, waging fear and power in any way they can to suppress us. After the Moon Township Public Library featured a book written by a drag queen on their Facebook page, librarians faced a deluge of violent threats, doxing, and harassment. Township supervisors have been hesitant to provide queer material since despite the undaunted librarians. Drag shows throughout Southwestern PA have been canceled or had to relocate after bigoted intimidation.

From sex-segregation, anti-drag discourses, book bans, and the “parental rights” movement, the LGBTQ+ community here needs to be aware of the attacks in our neighborhoods and schools to truly keep Pennsylvania safe.

State Legislation

With a Democratic governor and a Democratic-controlled State House, the Pennsylvania General Assembly is relatively secure for the LGBTQ+ community this year. Governor Josh Shapiro vowed to sign any LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination bills that made its way to his desk. None have come to pass.

Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination law does not cover LGBTQ+ people — it is still legal to deny someone employment, housing, or public accommodations because of their gender or sexuality. HB 300 aka The Fairness Act would amend Pennsylvania’s anti-discrimination law to include sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity and expression.

In the meantime, 74 municipalities and counties have passed LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination ordinances, including Allegheny County. Pittsburgh recently became a sanctuary city for gender-affirming care patients and providers.

That has not stopped Republican lawmakers from introducing anti-LGBTQ+ bills similar to those that have passed in other states, notably directed at the trans populace:

HB 216 would classify public school activities as male or female, forcing transgender student-athletes to compete in sports by their assigned sex. This is a reboot of the “Fairness in Women’s Sports” bill then-governor Tom Wolf vetoed in June 2022.

HB 138 would extend the statute of limitations for suing gender-affirming care providers. As seen in other states, if passed, health insurance companies operating in Pennsylvania would increase premiums or refuse to cover gender-affirming treatments, especially for anyone under 18.

HB 319, SB 7, and SB 340 are “parental rights” bills intended to enable parents further controls over their children in school and restrict LGBTQ+ materials. They would make instruction on LGBTQ+ topics illegal from kindergarten to fifth grade; require faculty to out a student’s gender identity or sexual orientation to their parents; notify parents if a student requested health care services; force school libraries to label books as “sexually explicit,” ban such books from kindergarten to eight grade, and require opt-in parental permission for high school students to read; and mandate schools post curricula online for parents to view and object to. These bills are incriminatory for queer youth and students overall, impeding their privacy, safety, and access to information.

SB 643 would classify drag shows as an “adult-oriented business.” This would ban drag performances from public spaces or anywhere someone under the age of 18 could be present, such as schools, libraries, and parks.

Many of these bills have carried over from the previous year but haven’t progressed far in the legislature. However, because they haven’t been overtly defeated and Republicans control the Pennsylvania Senate, they still pose a risk.

School Policies

For the LGBTQ+ youth who spend the majority of their day in school, keeping the academic environment safe and accepting of them is paramount. Pittsburgh Public Schools have covered transgender students under their nondiscrimination policy since 2016, as do the Southmoreland and Wilkinsburg school districts

Right-wing activists and organizations have been cracking down on Pennsylvania schools to overturn trans-affirming policies and implement anti-trans rules. Back in 2016, the conservative Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom penned a letter decrying Pine-Richland School District’s trans-supportive practices. School board candidates may belong to local Moms for Liberty chapters or were endorsed by the self-described “anti-woke” 1776 Project PAC. The Independence Law Center has been working to establish prejudiced “religious liberty” in fifty Pennsylvania schools, including the South Side Area School District in Beaver County.

 A board member of the Highlands School District in Natrona Heights wanted to reject an education equity policy because it stated there were more than two genders. In Westmoreland County, a school director of Norwin School District went on a racist and homophobic tangent about a book showcasing diverse families, where school board meetings are already uncivil.

According to PEN America, Pennsylvania had 457 book challenges in the 2021-2022 academic year and 186 during the 2022-2023 school year, ranking third and fifth in the nation respectively. Most of these books feature queerness and race. Community residents often contest books simply because they were listed as “sexually explicit” or “anti-American” with out-of-context passages on right-wing book rating websites.

Our youth deserve a learning environment that welcomes and embraces them as well as access to literature that accurately informs and represents them. This right-wing takeover is doing the opposite — creating a suffocating atmosphere, especially for students from marginalized racial, sexual, and gender backgrounds.

South Side Area School District of Beaver County

Trouble started when the South Side Area School District tried to do the right thing. In late 2022, the superintendent requested that faculty address transgender students by their proper pronouns. One teacher, Daren Cusato, refused, stating that it went against his religious beliefs to respect transgender people’s identities. He was then suspended.

Fierce community backlash followed — over 400 people flooded the next school board meeting to defend Cusato and spout transphobic rhetoric. Conceding to demands, Cusato’s suspension was lifted and the policy to respect students’ pronouns was rescinded.

The school board throughout 2023 attempted to mediate trans students’ rights and cis people’s prejudiced comforts. That February, the board formed a pronoun committee, hearing from pastors, legal counsel, and families of trans youth in tense meetings. Cusato in one meeting argued transgender identities were “blasphemous.” The school board dissolved the committee in May 2023.

Whatever balance South Side Area School District tried to navigate in this controversy collapsed when conservative candidates, including one Moms for Liberty member, swept the school board following the November elections.

Which comes to 2024. The school board established transphobic policies that are devastating to the queer student body. Now transgender students have to use public facilities correlating to their assigned sex, are being misgendered and addressed by their legal names to save the “conscience” of cis folk, require parental permission to be referred to by another name or pronouns, and cannot participate in school sports with their gender identity.

Cusato, whose flagrant bigotry started this mess, is glad he can practice his religious beliefs over the wellbeing of his students.

Pine-Richland School District (Allegheny County)

The debate around LGBTQ+ inclusion at Pine-Richland School District has been ongoing for eight years.

In 2016, during the initial culture war panic over transgender people using public bathrooms, parents swarmed school board meetings to fearmonger. Pine-Richland’s school board voted 5-4 to require students to use public facilities in accordance to assigned sex, forcing trans students into bathrooms that conflicted with their gender identity and risk their safety.

Aided by Lamba Legal and Kline & Specter law firm, three transgender students of Pine-Richland High School sued their school district, arguing the bathroom policy violated their Title IX protections. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District settled in July 2017 to end the discriminatory policy. In its place, gender identity would be added to the school district’s nondiscrimination clause, formally allowing trans students to use restrooms that align with their gender, requiring staff to respect trans students’ identities, and protecting student privacy by allowing students to express themselves however they wanted without notifying their parents.

Now these hard-won protections are under threat. This January, American First Legal sued Pine-Richland School District on behalf of an anonymous mother to end these transgender protections, specifically in regards to student confidentiality.

Under Pine-Richland’s policy, parents or guardians will not be notified about changes to a student’s gender identity or expression without explicit permission from the student. The lawsuit claims that the district would interfere with the client’s parental rights by affirming her child’s gender identity without informing her.

The student privacy provision is intended to protect students from transphobic parents. Were faculty required to out trans students and their parents or guardians not supportive of their gender identity, that student could face abuse or be kicked out of the home. It should be up to the student to decide when to come out to their family. The AFL lawsuit basically asserts that “parental rights” trumps student safety and privacy.

The book-banning wave has also struck Pine-Richland. Last October, residents accompanied by a pastor from North Carolina approached the school board to remove twelve titles from the middle and high school libraries, most of which concern queerness or race. The challengers complained the books were “pornographic,” “age-inappropriate,” or “had an agenda,” citing out-of-context passages and relying on the bigoted view that LGBTQ+ topics are always sexual or racial themes are anti-patriotic.

Because these were the first book challenges in Pine-Richland, there was no established protocol to handle them. The superintendent and the school board have been seeking legal advice on how to proceed.

For now, the books remain available and none of the nondiscrimination policies have been overturned. But after the last election, the Pine-Richland school board swung 8-1 to the right, making the future of these books and transgender students at the school district uncertain.

Mt. Lebanon School District (Allegheny County)

In June 2022, three mothers sued Mt. Lebanon School District over a lesson about gender identity and trans people to first graders. They argue they should have been given the choice to opt-out their children from the lesson beforehand.

Court filings for Tantel et al v. Mt Lebanon et al. are brimming with transphobic rhetoric and dogwhistles. They regard the children’s books read to the class — When Aiden Became a Brother, Introducing Teddy, and Jacob’s New Dress all aimed at discussing gender identity to young kids — as not age appropriate and “indoctrination.” They claim the first-grade teacher had a “transgender agenda” simply for mentioning her own trans child and had been “grooming” one of the students for supporting them as they questioned their gender.

In the wake of this lawsuit, the Mt. Lebanon community has been rising up to support its LGBTQ+ community members. Queer students have been attending school board meetings to provide testimony about the bigoted environment and demand the strengthening of the nondiscrimination policy. Lebo Pride filed an amicus brief this February, pointing out that opt-out policies stigmatize trans students and reduce the efficacy of LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum. In March, the judge presiding over the case rejected the amicus brief.

This June marks two years since the start of the suit.

Hempfield Area School District (Westmoreland County)

Each election cycle only amplified the right’s power over Hempfield Area School District. Last November added three more Republican school directors as opposed to two Democrat incumbents. Paula Cinti, the vice chair of the Westmoreland County chapter of Mom’s For Liberty, dominates the school board.

Cinti first challenged All Boys Aren’t Blue, George M. Johnson’s memoir on growing up Black and queer, in March 2022. She referred to the book as “obscene criminal material.” This ignited an eighteen-month battle over school book policies.

The school board finally settled in August 2023 to make it easier for community members to review school material. Before adding a book to a school library, it must be subject to a thirty-day public review period, during which anyone can raise potentially racist, transphobic, or homophobic concerns. Librarians must curate selections to exclude literature with “ethnic intimidation,” “offensive representations,” or “sexual content,” which can exclude books that discuss race or queerness.

Books weren’t the only target. In July 2022, the school board overturned a previous policy permitting transgender students to play on sports aligning with their gender. The new policy states that gender identity was an “irrelevant classification” and officially segregates sports teams by assigned sex. Transgender student-athletes were left with two choices: participate based on their assigned sex or stop competing.

These rules send a clear message to queer students at Hempfield — their existence is better censored and restricted.

Pennsylvania may not garner as much national media attention as the more egregious states do, but that doesn’t mean nothing is happening. We have politicians trying to legislate away our existence. Individuals and organizations are interfering with local politics. Without explicit legal protections, the anti-LGBTQ+ lobby is free to try and repress queer Pennsylvanians.

In this hostile political climate, what LGBTQ+ folk, especially trans people, need right now is not passive tolerance but active acceptance.

The Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus has worked with a coalition of trans organizations to introduce a package of bills aimed at protecting transgender students. If passed, they will protect students on the basis of gender identity while ensuring schools provide LGBTQ+ inclusive curricula and accommodations. You can contact your representatives to show support for this legislation as well as the Fairness Act to enshrine transgender nondiscrimination protections into state law.

Students whose access to the school library may be monitored or restricted can check out physical or digital books at public libraries. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh encourages browsing its collection of LGBTQ+ literature. This pride month, the Brookline and Woods Run branches will host 30 Books in 30 Minutes to discuss banned books. Guests can take free copies home with them. Meanwhile, you can attend local school board meetings voicing opposition to book challenges and anti-trans policies.

It is terrifying to witness these attacks occurring in our own backyards, though we have the power to prevent this hatred from poisoning our communities. Passing through neighborhoods with pride flags and #ProtectTransKids signs, an afraid trans kid can remember that they are welcomed here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Alasdair (he/him) is the digital editor of QBurgh. He is a recent graduate of Chatham University with a BFA and a MA in Creative Writing. He grew up around Pittsburgh and now wishes to become involved with the local LGBTQ+ community. Through his writing, he hopes to represent and advocate for queer people like himself.