COLUMBIA, Miss.—Rose, a South Mississippi mom, remembers her gay 17-year-old child Jordan beaming as they descended the staircase of the Columbia-Marion County Public Library one day in June. They had just seen a display featuring the first four volumes of the “Heartstopper” graphic novels by Alice Oseman, which tell the story of two teen boys who fall in love, arranged in a circle with small pride flags.
“And that made me genuinely happy,” said Jordan. (Both Rose and Jordan’s names have been changed for this story because Jordan has not come out to others in their family or community.)
“Seeing that gave me at least a little bit of hope that maybe this town was OK and that people like me, kids, would feel like it’s not a bad thing and feel like they can have something relatable to connect with and make them feel hopeful and happy and secure—something as simple as a book,” continued Jordan.
But the young Columbia resident’s elation would not last. Earlier this month, a local woman named Heather McMurry filed a complaint over the books after she said she found them in the young adult section. After a meeting on Aug. 9 in which only opponents of the books showed up, the library’s board of directors temporarily pulled the books from the shelves to review them; the board is holding a special public meeting on the matter in the library’s meeting room at 2 p.m. today, Friday, Aug. 18.
In recent weeks, multiple local residents have submitted comments to the library board about the Heartstopper series. In a statement, Columbia-Marion County Public Library Branch Manager Mona Swayze told the Mississippi Free Press that “the Library Board of Trustees will review all written requests and comments, consider the comments expressed at any library meetings, review the books, and make a decision when a thorough consideration of the matter has been completed.”
“However, I can assure you that this series has not been removed from our library collection,” the statement said, noting that some remained with patrons who had checked them out and others were with board members who were reviewing them. Copies of three of the four volumes were being kept in Library Director Ryda Worthy’s office when this Mississippi Free Press reporter visited Thursday afternoon. None remained on the shelves.
McMurry declined an interview with the Mississippi Free Press but told the Columbian-Progress this week that she wanted the books “pulled from the children’s section” and moved “somewhere appropriate,” but not banned entirely. She also complained that the section overall contained a number of books she considered inappropriate.
“There (are) so many places they can get negative information or sexual content—why does it have to be here?” she said in the local newspaper’s Aug. 17 edition.
But the Heartstopper graphic novels, which have since been turned into a hit teen romance show on Netflix, do not feature any overtly sexual activity. The Mississippi Free Press reviewed the books, which at most feature depictions of the young couple, Charlie and Nick, holding hands and kissing one another. The Heartstopper graphic novels are published by Hatchette Children’s Books, and the Scholastic online bookshop recommends the young adult series for ages 12-18 or grades 7-12.
‘If The Bible Says It’s Wrong, It’s Wrong’
During the Aug. 9 hearing, the residents who showed up to speak against the books described them as “pornography”—a claim the Columbian-Progress report did not correct.
Marion County’s library system is far from the first to be targeted for book bans in recent years. Other libraries in the state, as across the country, have faced efforts to ban books not only about LGBTQ+ people but also books about topics like systemic racism. Last year, Madison County, Miss., residents spent weeks debating over an effort to ban LGBTQ+ books from Ridgeland’s library after an anti-LGBTQ+ group from Massachusetts began lodging complaints.
Proponents of LGBTQ+ book bans have begun frequently describing such works as “pornography” even when they contain no sexually explicit content, blurring the lines between hardcore sexual depictions and content that simply portray LGBTQ+ characters.
Though not by name, the Columbian-Progress quoted several residents at the Aug. 9 meeting who made it clear that their issue was with the series’ positive depiction of a gay teen romance.
“If the Bible says it’s wrong, it’s wrong. I don’t care who you are or where you come from, we have one authority and that’s God. … Homosexuals don’t reproduce, they recruit. That’s what this is about. Someone is trying to recruit your kid, my kid and grandkid to get in that lifestyle,” one attendee said, repeating a decades-old anti-gay trope that has mostly fallen by the wayside in favor of the more recent “groomer” slur.
Another resident said they were “all for the word ‘ban’ to get rid of some of these things that are just not appropriate.” One asked why it was necessary to have such books “out there and presented to” children at all: “Why can’t we have good, uplifting books that would tell them the good news about God and the right things?”
‘The Real Issue Is The Entire Young Adult Section’
Though she did not agree to an interview, Heather McMurry said in a subsequent message that Heartstopper is not her only concern. “The media has focused on heartstopper but the real issue is the entire ‘young adult’ (13+) section,” she wrote. She said that in the book removal form she filled out, she asked “that all books of a sexual nature … be removed from the kids section.”
Asked what she finds objectionable about Heartstopper, she linked to BookLooks.org, which claims the graphic novels contain “sexual activities; alternate sexualities; alternate gender ideologies; profanity; and violence.” The only “sexual activities” the site’s reports for the Heartstopper books appears to describe, though, are instances of kissing and hugging. For example, the report for Volume 1 cites pages 249 for an “illustration on the bottom of the page (that) depicts two young men kissing.”
“Heartstopper has been what everyone seems to have focused on but it’s not the biggest issue,” McMurry wrote. She said another book she specifically has an issue with in the library’s young adults section is “What Girls Are Made Of” by Elana K. Arnold, which BookLooks says “contains explicit sexual nudity and sexual activities; controversial religious commentary; and profanity.” The examples included are passages that describe a boy putting on a condom and descriptions of heterosexual sex between teens.
The BookLooks directory McMurry linked to included a list of other books that the website warns parents against, including other LGBTQ+ books and also books by Black authors like Mississippi native Angie C. Thomas’ “The Hate U Give,” which deals with issues of systemic racism and police brutality. Its BookLooks report warns that it “contains inflammatory racial commentary; excessive/frequent profanity; and inexplicit sexual activities.”
Moms For Liberty member Emily Maikisch launched BookLooks in Florida in 2022 as the organization ramped up efforts to push for book bans in school libraries and public libraries nationwide. Though Moms For Liberty began as a pandemic-era organization focused on fighting mask and vaccine mandates, it has since focused much of its energy on removing books about LGBTQ+ people and systemic racism from shelves. Two days ago, a school board in Virginia ordered school librarians to purge books based on BookLooks’ reccomendations.
‘It’s Saying We Don’t Want These People To Exist’
For Jordan, the 17-year-old Columbia resident, books like Heartstopper could be a lifeline for kids who don’t fit the small, heavily Baptist town’s mold. Due to bullying, Rose now homeschools her child.
“Whenever I was in school, I only knew a couple of people at my school who were gay and all of them were scared to be open about it, scared to even say anything because they were afraid of being harassed, afraid of people attacking them,” Jordan told the Mississippi Free Press. “ … Having nothing and having just completely no representation is what made me feel afraid and made me scared. Not knowing whether someone would hurt me if I told them I was gay—people did try to whenever I did.”
“And that made me afraid to even just exist, even with having her supporting me,” they continued, gesturing to their mother. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have (a parent) who doesn’t, where something like a book, something that simple is enough to make them feel OK.”
Rose told the Mississippi Free Press that she does not think taking the books away “is really about the books.”
“It’s saying we don’t want these people to exist, so we’re going to confiscate it from here because we don’t accept this. We don’t accept you. We are against you,” she said.
When Jordan learned that the Heartstopper series was being removed from the library shelves after the Aug. 9 meeting, they became infuriated. Rose said she remembers her child telling her that when they saw those books, they thought about other LGBTQ+ kids who felt alone in Marion County and who experienced suicidal ideation—and how such small symbols of representation could make the difference between life and death. Studies have found that LGBTQ+ teenagers are over four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers.
“They were thinking about the other children who were seeing this book and having some sort of hope for the future, like they mattered, and then being told by the people at the (Aug. 9 meeting at the) library that you don’t deserve to be represented here,” Rose said.
She said a relative of hers lost a 19-year-old friend to suicide when he came out as gay to a close friend who responded with rejection.
“He was around my age,” Jordan said.
One person who showed up at the Aug. 9 meeting told the board that they did not think the books should be on the shelves because children’s “minds are not ready for that,” warning that the books risked “robb(ing) them of their childhood, of just playing” and that it’s “a subject they don’t even need to be thinking about.”
But Jordan said those adults who are so incensed by the Heartstopper novels are worrying about the wrong things and took umbrage at the idea that this is about “trying to protect children.”
“The children who may genuinely need something like this (are the ones) who may be suicidal and the only thing they may have in their life to attach to and feel connected with is something they are trying to take away,” the 17-year-old said.
The library board will hold its special meeting in the library’s meeting room at 900 Broad St. at 2 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 18. Residents can contact the library by email at [email protected].