A woman stands in a library of rainbow books, reaching up to grab one.
Image credit: Agustin Gunawan on Unsplash

Book bans have reached an alarming level across the country, particularly in the South, where books are targeted based on themes of race and gender. Among those most targeted by bans are books with LGBTQ+ themes. According to the American Library Association (ALA), a nonprofit that tracks efforts to ban books nationwide, of the 10 most challenged titles of last year, seven deal with LGBTQ+ themes.

This uptick in bans coincides with an uptick in anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in several states. Between 2010 and 2019, only 9 percent of unique titles challenged for removal in libraries contained LGBTQ+ themes. By 2022, 30 percent of titles challenged for removal included LGBTQ+ themes—and by 2023, nearly 50 percent of books challenged for removal included LGBTQ+ themes.

Many LGBTQ+ advocates and groups believe that these book bans are attempts to remove the very identities of LGBTQ+ people—but they are refusing to let that happen.

“It was just a true gift to be able to travel through a lot of areas that I think get counted out or considered to be lost causes.”

In 2022, for instance, the Brooklyn Public Library initiated the Books Unbanned program, which has since been expanded to four other libraries. The program allows teens and young adults living in states where book bans are rampant to have electronic access to book titles that have been banned in their own states. Meanwhile, last year, Kieran Hickey founded the Queer Liberation Library (QLL), which has since garnered more than 2300 members. QLL allows members to browse free collections of hundreds of eBooks and audiobooks of LGBTQ+ stories.

“For anybody who’s on a journey of self-discovery in their sexual orientation or gender identity, finding information and going to queer spaces can be incredibly daunting. So, this is a resource that anybody in the United States can have no matter where they live,” Hickey said in an interview with CNN.

In addition to expanding online resources for those wanting to read more books about and for LGBTQ+ people, in some places LGBTQ+ advocates are bringing books directly to people in areas where book bans are prominent. One such group is the Rainbow Book Bus. In March, the group held its first cross-country tour. Throughout the tour, the group held events in seven Southern states where book bans are in place and gave away around 7,000 banned LGBTQ+ books.

Showing Up to Push Back

In an interview with NPQ, Adam Powell, the cofounder and coexecutive director of the Rainbow Book Bus, noted that the tour was his passion project. Powell is based in California, where book bans themselves are banned by law. (In 2023, Illinois was the first state to pass such legislation, and California was close behind.) As someone with access to LGBTQ+ books, Powell wanted to find a way to help distribute books in places where access has been severely limited by law.

“Having that access to those centers, largely across the South, was just a huge advantage as we were planning this tour.”

Chris Kappel, the director of operations for Rainbow Book Bus, helped to plan the tour and told NPQ that doing so was a privilege: “It was just a true gift to be able to travel through a lot of areas that I think get counted out or considered to be lost causes—these places in the South that are subjected to an unprecedented number of book bans.”

“Getting to go into those communities, access the queer communities there, and see just how beautiful, flourishing, and thriving they are even in the face of all of this oppressive legislation was just a terrific experience,” Kappel said.

To embark on the tour, in 2022 the group started a GoFundMe to raise money to buy a retired bus and convert it into what Powell calls a “magical queer bookmobile,” which officially debuted at LA Pride in June 2023. The Rainbow Book Bus partnered with the wayOUT Foundation, a grantmaking organization that provides resources to LGBTQ+ centers across the country. The Rainbow Book Bus was able to tap into wayOUT Foundation’s previous grant recipients to better understand the landscape of the South and the resources that are needed in the region.

Powell and Kappel noted that they leaned on the experiences of those most directly working in the communities as they were planning the tour, understanding that those already providing resources in the South have expertise on the community’s needs.

“We were dependent upon those organizations to tell us exactly what they need and to tell us how we can throw an event that coincides with their own mission. Having that access to those centers, largely across the South, was just a huge advantage as we were planning this tour,” Kappel said.

“You can try and remove our books, but you can’t remove our stories.”

While traveling to places like Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana, Kappel and Powell met parents, teachers, and librarians who said they never thought a group like the Rainbow Book Club would come to the South. They also saw how resilient many people in the South are as they combat threats to their lives every day.

At one event at a church in Baton Rouge, LA, a group showed up to protest the Rainbow Book Bus, but attendees were unfazed. The pastor of the church noted that it was a common occurrence. Even as people face frequent protests and challenges against their very being, they refuse to stop being who they are. For Kappel and Powell, that’s why efforts like the Rainbow Book Bus are so important and why they are committed to coming back.

Powell mentioned the ongoing mental health crisis among youth, particularly those who are LGBTQ+. To him, this alarming trend is not disconnected from the book bans and policies that attempt to tell LGBTQ+ people that their lived experience is wrong. By continuing to show up and push back against this notion, he believes the Rainbow Book Bus is fighting the stigma—and ultimately working to save lives.

“After going on this first tour, we realized that what we’re doing is not only important, it’s essential,” Powell said. “And to those lawmakers out there that are trying to ban books that feel reflective of the LGBTQ+ community, I say, ‘You can try and remove our books, but you can’t remove our stories.’”