‘This Book Is Gay’ Author Says America’s Teens Have Bigger Problems Than Her Book
Juno Dawson didn’t want to write This Book Is Gay.
Dawson, a U.K.-based author, had spent seven years as a sexual education and wellness teacher. But when she was approached in 2012 by her publisher to create a comprehensive guide to LGBTQ+ sex education, she tells Rolling Stone she was initially unsure about tackling such a massive project.
“To reach out to all the LGBTQ+ youth in the world felt like a huge undertaking,” Dawson says. “Other than the fact that I had been a teacher, I didn’t feel that I was the best authority to be telling anybody about how to find a partner at that time when I was in my 20s—given that my love life was such a hot mess. But when I was a teenager, this would have answered so many questions. And I knew there was nothing like it. So I said yes.”
First published in 2014, Dawson’s how-to about gay relationships has become a staple for sex ed classes. But as the movement by conservatives to prohibit information about LGBTQ+ topics in public schooling has taken hold around the U.S., Dawson’s book has come under fire. According to Vanderbilt University, in 2022, This Book Is Gay became the ninth most-banned book in America.
In light of the recent rise in book bannings, Rolling Stone spoke with Dawson about why her 2014 book remains such a hot topic, why she thinks This Book Is Gay is necessary, and how she thinks politicians could really help keep America’s kids safe.
How do you think sex education and available information have changed since you wrote ‘This Book Is Gay?’
I grew up in the 90s and I left school very unprepared for adulthood. I had cobbled together basically gossip from my high school, and from the early days of the Internet and little snippets I’d read. It was the shadow of HIV and AIDS as well. So I was very scared of sex. I made some very risky choices. And I just didn’t want that for the next generation. I wished there was a way that young queer people could go out into adulthood armed with better knowledge, and ways of being smart about sex and dating.
That felt like a good thing to me and I still think that’s true because the internet has only gotten more powerful. In my childhood, I wasn’t seeing hardcore pornography. I wasn’t inundated with guys in my DMs on Snapchat or Instagram, which is what I see happening to my teenage nieces now. So I think we have a responsibility as adults to say this is what the internet is like now and this is how you need to stay safe. That’s why I think the most responsible thing we can do as adults and educators and librarians is giving people as much information as possible.
Did you have any books you read growing up that had a major impact on your life?
Yes, although they were not necessarily books that I should have been reading when I was a teenager. That’s why I will always defend young adult fiction because at least it’s made for young adults. I was reading Poppy Z. Brite. Stephen King. I also remember the impact that Forever by Judy Blume had. When we were 11 years old, so middle school, one copy of Forever basically went from hand to hand teaching us all what sex was. But as a queer teenager, I just wish there had been something like This Book Is Gay. It would have made my life so much easier.
Were you surprised that in the United States, your book has become one of the most frequently banned books in public schools, especially since it’s been almost nine years since it was published?
It was not surprising. It was disappointing. It didn’t happen overnight. It was a bit of a trickle. Since 2017, what started as the odd, isolated incident became a flood. And the book was being challenged widely in a way that it just hadn’t been for nearly 10 years. But we know why. It’s because the people challenging to ban books in the U.S. became a much more organized campaign.
Much of the conservative pushback around your book calls it ‘pornographic’ and ‘sexually explicit.’ Do you think that’s a legitimate critique or one in good faith?
I definitely don’t think it’s pornographic. I would challenge anyone to be titillated or aroused by what is essentially a textbook. What I would say, however, is that it’s thorough. We teach young people who are 11, 12, and 13 years old how babies are made. We teach them about sexual intercourse, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections. And that’s great and we should be doing that. But I also think LGBTQ+ people should be taught about sexual relationships.
We’re all very clear This Book is Gay is not for children. This is a book kept in the young adult section, like a lot of the books that are on those banned book lists. But of course, that is the agenda that people like Libs of TikTok push—They’re saying that librarians are giving these books to kids, which is very vague, isn’t it? Because that could mean anything. Throughout the book, there are content warnings and trigger warnings. But of course, that’s not what people do on the internet. They screengrab it out of context. The complaints about this book are not about keeping kids safe. Because if we really wanted to keep kids in the United States safe, we wouldn’t be talking about books. We would be talking about guns.
In a lot of your comments about This Book Is Gay, you’ve pushed back against the idea that the manual is a danger to young adults. In your eyes, why is it so important that more books like This Book Is Gay exist and are available to teens growing up?
I’m not just talking about how to have sexual intercourse, but also the well-being and the relationship and the nurturing side of it as well. As an educator, that was really important to me, so that young queer people can picture a future for themselves as well-adjusted queer adults. This is how to keep yourself safe and healthy. This is how to be in a relationship that is nurturing and not coercive or controlling.
Most recently, ‘This Book Is Gay’ went under a formal review as part of investigations into bomb threats sent to several public schools. And much of the fervor against the book in recent months has been stoked by popular right-wing accounts on Twitter and Reddit. Do you feel like your book has become a scapegoat?
My heart goes out to the people who’ve received that threat. How absolutely horrific to feel unsafe at your place of work. In the U.S., I think the new tactic is for people to make a nuisance of themselves on a very local level. They organized and said ‘This is what you do. You go after books, you go after librarians, you go after teachers.’ And that’s who I feel really sorry for in all this. The people on the frontline are these librarians and teachers who are having an absolute nightmare, all in the name of a political bargaining chip.
Do you see any good coming out of the book-banning situation? What’s your hope for queer kids who are watching their education be considered a threat?
The notoriety of This Book is Gay has only increased. So I’m sure at the same time that people are talking about it, young, queer teenagers are listening to everything. I think it’s a shame, like a real crying shame, that in 2023 queer teenagers are still seeing that there’s something controversial about them. At the same time, they’re getting to hear about a bunch of really good books. As unpleasant as this discourse is, hopefully, the right reader might be connected to the right book at the right time when they need it the most.