ORLANDO, Fla. — The tattoos on Jen Cousins’ arms speak to literacy and how books can take on 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.”
Texas state Rep. James Talarico challenged conservatives’ literary tastes in March, saying proposed restrictions could mean censoring “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry. The book, beloved by liberal and conservative Texans alike, contains sex scenes, including rape. A Democrat and former teacher, Talarico told a committee meeting that it would be a “travesty” to ban “the greatest novel, I think, in Texas history.”
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.”
The political action committee EveryLibrary is tracking more than 100 proposed bills nationwide that would limit what people can read and, in some states, could lead to criminal charges against educators. Teachers have been vilified as groomers, librarians have been cursed, and school administrators have been harassed to get rid of “evil” and “pornographic” books.
“I never thought I’d be a president who is fighting against elected officials trying to ban and banning books,” President Biden told a gathering of teachers April 24 at the White House. “I’ve never met a parent who wants a politician dictating what their kid can learn and what they can think or who they can be.”
“Book banning is being weaponized to harm LGBTQ+ students and students of color,” said Will Larkins, a senior at Winter Park High School in Florida, who was draped in a Pride flag while protesting alongside Cousins at the Orange County school board meeting. He said DeSantis and Florida legislators “know that Gen Z is on the side of freedom. They’re afraid, and they know in a few years they won’t have any power.”
Wearing green-tinted glasses and carrying a water bottle, Cousins, who has an art history degree, walked the lines of the protest. LGBTQ+ students handed out fliers and rainbow flags as older couples held umbrellas against the sun. A girl with peace-sign earrings danced not far from a man wearing an “Ask me about Jesus” T-shirt.
A New Jersey native who studied for a time in England, Cousins said she is alarmed at what is happening in her adopted state. A charter school principal in Tallahassee resigned in March under pressure for not informing parents of sixth-graders that a picture of Michelangelo’s nude statue “David” would be shown in class.
Talk of such cultural skirmishes was in the air as Cousins, with about 300 others, filed past metal detectors and into the board meeting. She watched as emotionally charged students and parents took to the microphone. One mother said she didn’t want books in school exposing children to “anal sex” and LGBTQ+ themes: “We want math, biology and education.”
“I’m hated for existing,” said an LGBTQ+ student, noting that she lives near Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, where a gunman killed 49 people in 2016.
Cousins listened and shook her head.
“We vacationed in Florida and liked the people and the weather,” she said after the meeting. When she and her husband, a software architect, decided to move here from Pennsylvania in 2014, “it was still the Florida of ‘Florida Man’ and alligators in hurricanes. Just weird stuff,” she said. “But now it’s a fascist hellscape. With all the laws they’re passing, my family essentially isn’t safe here anymore. It’s a nonstop attack on human rights. We are considering moving.”
Cousins and Stephana Ferrell founded the Florida Freedom to Read Project after meeting at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to support mask-wearing in schools. They confronted conservative parental rights groups, including Moms for Liberty, that opposed COVID-19 restrictions and would later challenge “liberal indoctrination” on the teaching of racial equality and gender. Those protests have resulted in the removal of more than 1,100 titles from Florida school libraries, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and 20 books by Jodi Picoult.
“I didn’t know it would lead to any of this when I was sitting in a school board meeting two years ago,” said Ferrell, a mother of two elementary students who shut down her photography business to concentrate on fighting censorship. “We chose public schools because of diversity. But diversity is under attack. They’re targeting minority communities whose stories are only just getting out there on the shelves.”
Cousins and Ferrell track school board votes and the fates of books across the state’s 67 districts. They file public records requests, travel to Tallahassee to appear before the Legislature (Ferrell was once given 15 seconds to speak), enlist volunteers and try to find wins in a state firmly in the hands of a conservative Republican Party.
“This is seven days a week,” said Ferrell. “I feel guilty at spending less time with my family. But I’d feel completely lost as a parent if I wasn’t doing this work. Someone has to push against the pendulum. It’s exhausting and empowering.”
She added: “It’s a David-and-Goliath situation. But we are having wins. A school district [in Pinellas County] recently reinstated ‘The Bluest Eye’ to its shelves.”
With its 2,000 members, the Florida Freedom to Read Project is outnumbered by Moms for Liberty, which claims 115,000 members across 280 chapters in 45 states. Last year, Moms for Liberty endorsed 500 candidates in school board elections nationwide, and 275 of them won. The group has grown into a political force. DeSantis spoke at the organization’s conference last summer in Tampa, which was also attended by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Betsy DeVos, who was Education secretary in the Trump administration.
Moms for Liberty criticizes what it regards as an agenda-driven education system that emphasizes race, gender and diversity at the expense of core subjects. The group notes that millions of U.S. children cannot read at grade level.
“American parents should not be villainized for asking any questions about their children’s education,” said Tiffany Justice, a former school board member and co-founder of Moms for Liberty. “But that is what’s happening.”
Justice said she wants to reform an “education system that is failing and an educational industrial complex that is working to hide that failure.”
Sonia Ledger, an Orange County high school resource teacher who works with families to prevent students from dropping out, stood near Cousins at the protest. “Public education,” she said, “has been under attack for so long, and now they’ve found something they can use to get rid of public schools.”
Ledger added: “My biggest concern is that students will not have access to books that represent everyone. We’re going to send these kids out into the world, and they’ll be competing against students in other states that have not banned books. They’re going to sound ignorant.”
Conservative fervor around book removal stems largely from stories about racial inequality and graphic novels, memoirs and sex education books aimed at LGBTQ+ students, including “Gender Queer,” “Flamer” and “This Book Is Gay.” Members of Moms for Liberty and other groups have held up explicit illustrations — depictions of sex and nudity — from these books at school board meetings.
A PEN America study found 1,477 individual book bans affecting 874 unique titles during the first half of the 2022-23 school year. Of those titles, 30% dealt with racial themes or characters, while 26% featured LGBTQ+ story lines.
“I think books need to be regulated more,” said Rick Johnson, who wore the “Ask me about Jesus” T-shirt at the school board protest. “We as a community have dropped the ball by not paying attention to what’s being brought into our schools.”
He couldn’t name the books he wanted taken off shelves but said “they’re of extreme sexual content. Some of the things even at an adult level are extreme, crude, ugly and pornographic in nature.”
While Johnson spoke, Cousins carried a bag of banned books, handed out flags and talked to students and a few adults wearing T-shirts that read “Moms demand action for gun sense in America.” Cousins has been an activist for years, canvassing for candidates and tracking issues, particularly those pertaining to the LGBTQ+ community. She recently attended a drag queens march in Tallahassee and believes Florida’s book restrictions are part of a broader effort to discriminate against non-binary and gay children like hers.
The Florida Board of Education recently expanded the state’s “Don’t Say Gay” law by forbidding the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in any grade.
“My kids know exactly what’s happening,” said Cousins, who scrolled to a picture on her phone of her 9-year-old son marching in a Pride parade. “I want them to be aware that their rights are being attacked. They definitely feel it. This state is trying to put these kids in a bubble and force everyone else who isn’t white or straight out of it.”
One of her favorite books is George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984,” which she noted is eerily relevant to the times. Her encounters with conservatives often border on the surreal: “One guy yelled at me for my ‘gay’ shoes because I had rainbow strings in them. He was up in my face, mad about my ‘gay’ shoes. It’s insane.”
When the protest was over, Cousins praised the students and headed home to her flags and banned books. She had to make phone calls and post on social media. Another trip to the state capital was in the works.