Virginia Republicans seek to stop Barnes & Noble from selling ‘Gender Queer’ and ‘A Court of Mist and Fury’

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Two Virginia Republicans have asked a court for restraining orders that would prevent private bookseller Barnes & Noble from selling two books to minors, marking an escalation in the conservative campaign to limit student access to literature.

The two books are “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, a memoir on identifying as genderqueer or non-binary, and “A Court of Mist and Fury”, a fantasy novel by Sarah J. Maas. Both Republicans, Del. Timothy Anderson of Virginia Beach and Tommy Altman, a candidate for Congress, on Wednesday sought the orders from the Virginia Beach Circuit Court as part of their larger, ongoing lawsuit targeting the books.

The restraining orders sought would also prohibit the distribution of the two books by public schools in Virginia Beach City. That school system’s board of trustees voted this week to remove all copies of “Gender Queer” from its libraries because of its sexual content.

The goal of the Republicans’ comprehensive lawsuit — in which Anderson, an attorney, is representing Altman — is to prevent distribution of the two books to minors without parental consent, Anderson said in an interview Friday. Restraining orders are a temporary measure; he and his client ask to remain in place during the trial. The Virginia Beach court has yet to respond to their request.

The request for restraining orders comes two days after retired judge Pamela Baskervill issued a ruling in the lawsuit finding on “probable cause” that the two books qualify as obscene. According to a little-known and little-used section of Virginia law, the judge’s formal pronouncement of obscenity paved the way for Anderson to seek the restraining orders. A retired judge rules because other Virginia Beach judges recused themselves, according to Anderson.

“These books…are hypersexual and contain extremely vulgar and sexual content,” Anderson said. “Tommy Altman is a father, he has kids in the public school system, and that’s what this is about.”

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Kobabe declined to comment on Friday. Maas did not respond to a request for comment, nor did a spokeswoman for Virginia Beach Schools.

Barnes & Noble said in a statement on Friday: “As booksellers, we carry thousands of books whose subject matter may be offensive to some. … We ask our customers to respect our responsibility to provide this range of reading materials, and also to respect the fact that, even if they have chosen not to purchase it themselves, it may be of interest to others.

Book bans, while nothing new in American life, have reached unprecedented heights this school year, with the highest number of book challenges or removals from school libraries since the American Library Association began reporting. track the issue decades ago. A Pen America report released in April found there had been 1,586 school book bans in the previous nine months, most targeting books by and about LGBTQ people and people of color.

Republican lawmakers around the country have also begun proposing legislation that would limit the titles students can search in school library databases.

But the restraining orders sought on “Gender Queer” seem to open a new front in the conflict.

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Patrick Sweeney, the political director of EveryLibrary, a nonprofit group that defends libraries, called the tactic novel but unsurprising. He said he expects Conservative lawmakers to stop trying to limit what schoolchildren can read by working to limit what the general public can read.

He called it “interesting” that the Republican Party, which has long encouraged the deregulation of private companies, “is now trying to regulate private companies according to their political and religious ideologies.”

Sweeney added that he finds the restraining orders alarming. “One of the things we often hear from people [who dismiss concerns about] the book ban is, ‘Well, you can still buy it at Barnes & Noble,’ he said. “Obviously soon you won’t be able to.”

“Gender Queer,” an illustrated memoir, was the most contested book in the United States in 2021, according to the American Library Association. Written in the form of a graphic novel, it traces author Kobabe’s journey from adolescence to adulthood and her coming out as gender non-binary and asexual.

It also includes graphic sex scenes, including depiction of oral sex and masturbation as well as a sex toy. Parents criticized him for these scenes and for a panel in the story that shows a sexual fantasy by the author in which a seemingly teenage boy is about to engage in oral sex with an older bearded man. The parents called this scene pedophilia.

“A Court of Mist and Fury” has garnered less attention and opposition, but has recently begun to appear on parents’ objectionable book lists, in places such as Brevard County, Florida; Nampa, Idaho; and Conroe, Texas. The fantasy novel is the second in Maas’ best-selling series, Court of Thorns and Roses, which retells and revisits well-known tales and myths such as “Beauty and the Beast” and the saga of Hades and Persephone. .

Common Sense Media, a book review site widely used by parents and educators, declares “A Court of Mist and Fury” to be a “dark fairy romance…full of sex, gore, magic” and recommends it to from 17 years old.

Anderson said the lawsuit against “Gender Queer” and “A Court of Mist and Fury” began last month when Altman hired his law firm and sought legal means to limit access to the two books. As Anderson pursued his client’s claim, he discovered a dusty section of Virginia law that hadn’t been invoked since the 1970s, he said, when used against pornography.

This law allows any citizen to bring a lawsuit “to adjudicate the obscenity of a book” offered for commercial distribution in any county or city in the state. Virginia state code defines something as “obscene” if it appeals to “lustful interest in sex”, goes “considerably beyond the usual bounds of candor in description or representation” and lack of “serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value”.

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If the judge finds that the book is not obscene, the deposit is rejected. But if the judge finds there is “probable cause” that the book is obscene, the case continues with the court asking for a response from “the author, publisher and all others interested in the sale or the commercial distribution of the book”. These parties have 21 days to respond.

Whether or not they do, the judge will hold a hearing after 21 days and make a final decision on whether the book qualifies as obscene. During this hearing, the judge is supposed to examine the “intention” and the “reputation” of the author and the publisher, “the degree of acceptance of the book by the public”, the way in which it was announced and promoted, and “the artistic, literary, medical, cultural and educational values, if any, of the book considered as a whole.

After the hearing, the judge decides definitively if the book is qualified as obscene. Otherwise, nothing happens – but if it does, it becomes illegal under Virginia law to distribute, sell, or lend the material.

Anderson has filed an application under that law, but he seeks a modified version of the obscenity ruling – namely that “Gender Queer” and “A Court of Mist and Fury” be deemed obscene only to minors. If successful, it will become illegal for minors to view these books in Virginia Beach school libraries or purchase them at the two Barnes & Noble bookstores in Virginia Beach. But, he noted, the children’s parents could still view the books on their behalf.

“It’s just going to put these books in an ‘available for adults’ category rather than ‘available for kids,'” he said. “It happens all the time in bookstores. Many bookstores sell adult magazines, and kids can’t come in and buy an adult magazine – there’s an age limit.

As of now, Anderson’s costume is still in its early stages. Baskervill ruled on Wednesday that there are “probable reasons to believe that [both books are] obscene for unrestricted viewing by minors. The Virginia Beach school system, Barnes & Noble, the authors and publishers of the two books have until early June to respond to the decision.

Virginia law also specifies that once a judge finds “probable cause” that a text is obscene, “the court may issue a temporary restraining order against the sale or distribution of the allegedly obscene book.”

Based on this provision, Anderson filed his two restraining orders.

“There is no First Amendment right to distribute sexually explicit material to minors,” he said.

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