Meet the Other Grassroots Moms Movement—The One Fighting For the Freedom to ReadBreaking News
tags: Florida, censorship, Book Bans
The tattoos on Jen Cousins’ arms speak to literacy and how books can take us on trips across strange and extraordinary universes: an owl for wisdom, a drawing from the novel “Wonder,” multicolored glasses from Harry Potter and a saying from one of her children: “The world is only what you shape it to be.”
But as any Hogwarts wizard knows, and as Cousins, a mother with a defiant streak, was quick to discover, many forces are conspiring to shape the world.
At a school board meeting here two years ago, her ideas clashed with those of conservative parents and a Proud Boys member who called for “Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe about sexual identity, to be pulled from library shelves.
“This is the 21st century. We don’t ban books, right?” said Cousins, recalling that day when school board members “freaked out” over the memoir’s depictions of sexual acts that she said were taken out of context. “It was even more personal to me because my child, who was 12 at the time, had just come out as non-binary. I gave them ‘Gender Queer’ after that so they could find acceptance and confirmation and know they were not alone.”
Cousins said she grew incensed at the encounter, the way she did when she was 10, watching the first Gulf War on CNN. “We were latchkey kids,” she said. “My mom worked nights at a drugstore, and I’d call her and say, ‘I can’t believe this war is happening. We shouldn’t be there. Stop it.’”
The mother of four is still at the center of an inflamed culture war that has pitted teachers, librarians and parents against conservative parental rights groups and powerful politicians, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who are pressing school boards to remove hundreds of books on gender identity, race, sex education and LGBTQ+ issues. Cousins was back in front of her Orange County, Fla., school board last month, protesting against censorship.
In 2022, a record 1,269 demands were made to forbid books and other materials in schools and libraries nationwide, according to the American Library Assn., up from 156 in 2020. But the book-banning opponents are gaining momentum.
Red Wine & Blue, a national, politically active “sisterhood” founded in Ohio, helps people speak out against censorship at public meetings. A librarian who was threatened and harassed for condemning book bans started Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship.
Texas teacher Frank Strong publishes the “Book-Loving Texan’s Guide”, a report on state school board races that rates candidates with a color chart.
“These conservative groups show up like clockwork to school board meetings,” said Strong, a high school English teacher in Austin. “It’s clear to me that if you want to combat them, you have to organize, get out early and be disciplined.”
He said resistance to book bans was significant in November, when only eight of the 38 “pro-censorship” school board candidates he tracked were elected.
“Anti-censorship people are building a network in Texas,” he said. “They’re savvier and more aware now of what the other side is doing.”
The passion around book banning in public schools underscores the dangerous rancor in the nation’s politics.
Many of the debate’s most potent issues — parental rights, gender identity, race and the future of schools — are emerging as campaign themes in next year’s presidential election. DeSantis, a likely Republican candidate for president, has drawn praise from conservatives and parental rights groups for leading one of the most aggressive states in policing library shelves and the teaching of racial history.
“It blows my mind,” said Cousins, who tucks her disdain into a half-smile and travels across Florida rallying against what she sees as an attempt to narrow the minds of children. “This goes hand in hand with right-wing groups wanting to destroy public education.”
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