Censors and Heroes

A couple of weeks ago, Salem came to Humble, Texas, when Ellen Hopkins, a nationally acclaimed, bestselling young-adult novelist, was disinvited from the 2011 Humble Teen Literary Festival. According to the Student Library Journal, here’s what went down: Though Hopkins had spoken on two previous occasions to the students of Humble without incident, a certain middle-school librarian determined that Hopkins’ books—which deal with gritty subjects like teen drug addiction, prostitution and suicide—were inappropriate for the Teen Festival, which is open to students as young as 11. So this librarian spoke to several parents, who in turn spoke to School Superintendent Guy Sconzo, who is no Atticus Finch. Mr. Sconzo mustered all of his moral courage and instructed organizers to un-invite Ms. Hopkins.

Things were looking pretty bleak in Humble. But Pete Hautman, a young-adult novelist who’d also been scheduled to speak, withdrew in protest. He told the Tribune, a local Humble newspaper, “I think the main reason I felt I had to withdraw was that … the librarian and parents might easily find my books unacceptable as well.” Several other authors, including Melissa de la Cruz, Matt de la Pena and Tera Lynn Childs, followed suit. De la Cruz issued a particularly inspiring statement, explicitly raising the issue of censorship that she feels is at the heart of the school district’s decision to disinvite Hopkins: “I do believe that actions speak louder than words,” she said, “and the kids will learn that censorship should never be tolerated.”

After enough writers raised a ruckus and cried censorship, Superintendent Sconzo decided to bite the bullet and do the really brave thing: He canceled the literary festival altogether. For the record, Karen Collier, the executive director of public information for Humble I.S.D., does not believe any acts of censorship occurred. But Joan Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, disagrees. She told the Tribune, “It[’s] censorship whenever the government acts to silence a speaker … because it disagrees with their views.”

Personally, I’m convinced that un-inviting Hopkins was indeed a form of censorship. You might disagree. However, I think we can all agree that it was very bad manners, and would never be tolerated in the Junior League.

But of course I would feel that way, since recently, I was Ellen Hopkins. Earlier this year, I was invited to participate in a weekend literary festival in Amelia Island, Fla., scheduled to take place this October. Then, in June, my booking agent (fancy, no?) told me the gig had fallen through. I didn’t think another thing about it, as it is the nature of gigs to fall through. But about a week later, I received a very strange email from a local author. This author expressed her “shock” at my having been disinvited, and asked me not to hold it against the good people of Amelia Island. And right then and there, I knew I’d been fired because I was gay.

Now, I don’t want to make too much out of this, because believe me, this is not an extraordinary development. But something extraordinary had come of it. Just as those young-adult novelists rallied around the ousted Ms. Hopkins, my fellow authors rallied around me—only, they kept it all secret from me for fear of hurting my feelings. Apparently, after I was fired from the weekend for “budgetary reasons,” several other writers, far more familiar with the festival’s coordinators than I, began to smell a big homophobic rat. And after some sniffing around, the novelist Janis Owens circulated a letter of protest. One by one, the authors quit. The legendary Pat Conroy, who wasn’t even an official invitee of this particular weekend but was attending to lend moral support, signed the letter anyway, and put the coordinators on notice that he does not participate in prejudiced festivals. Bernie Schein signed twice for emphasis. In fact, so many people quit that the event, originally intended as a literary weekend, was reworked as a generic “retreat.” I believe they’re now teaching calligraphy—an innovation that Humble I.S.D. might file away for next year.

Anyway folks, here’s what I think about stinking situations like these—they offer you the opportunity to test your mettle, and be brave. You know, if the D.A.R. hadn’t booted Marian Anderson out of Constitution Hall, Eleanor Roosevelt would never have had the chance to give the nation a definitive lesson in character. Being a weasel-y little bureaucrat is human. But being Eleanor Roosevelt, or Janis Owens, or Melissa de la Cruz is divine.