Ali Velshi: “This Book is Gay” provides comprehensive, and inclusive, sexual education

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“This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson, starts with a welcome: “There’s a long-running joke that, on ‘coming out,’ a young lesbian, gay guy, bisexual, or trans person should receive a membership card and instruction manual. This is your instruction manual.” And “This Book is Gay” reads as exactly that: a guide.

Each fact-based chapter is interspersed with a candid, first-person narrative collected from real people.

Equal parts humorous and informative, this nonfiction young adult book is divided into sections: identity, stereotypes, queer history, coming out and relationships — including sexual relationships. Each fact-based chapter is interspersed with candid, first-person narratives collected from real people.

Dawson is a guide with credentials, having spent nearly a decade as a sexual education and wellness teacher in the U.K. before turning to writing full-time. She came out as transgender publicly in 2015 and is a staunch advocate for the LGBTQ+ community.

“The Ins and Outs of Gay Sex,” a chapter positioned toward the end of the book, opens with text outlined to make you take notice, “This Chapter is about sex. […] If you are a younger reader and feel you aren’t ready for the finer details of same-sex pairings, then simply skip this whole chapter.” The chapter goes on to include potentially lifesaving information on sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and AIDS, diagrams of sexual organs, like you might see in health class, and a commentary on love and relationships.

It is this section that is referenced most frequently in the relentless calls to ban this book across the United States.

Much has been written about the sheer number of books banned these past two school years (a record 1,477 instances of individual books banned in the first half of this school year according to PEN America) and the fact that a disproportionately high number of those titles tell LGBTQ+ stories. “This Book is Gay” is frequently near the top of the American Library Association’s list of most banned books.

Most of the books we feature on the “Velshi Banned Book Club” are literature, including contemporary works of poetry and graphic novels. The conversation surrounding the accessibility of those works is ultimately a conversation about the value of literature for students and for society. Conversely, the conversation surrounding “This Book is Gay” is about the necessity for comprehensive and, most importantly, inclusive sexual education. As Dawson so saliently reminds readers, the exclusion of same-sex couples in the typical sex-ed class is nothing short of “institutional homophobia.”

Sexual education of any kind is rapidly disappearing and changing across the nation. Florida’s Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, ended this school year with no sexual education at all. Georgia’s Gwinnett County, just outside of Atlanta, has voted to stick with abstinence-only education. School districts across Kentucky have had to overhaul their curriculum to comply with new bans on sex education, gender identity and student pronouns. This is happening all over the nation, state by state.

Of course, many of the arguments made against “This Book is Gay” center around antiquated views of gender expression and sexuality, but they’re also made in bad faith, including labeling this book as “inappropriate.” For a certain age group, this book is inappropriate. This book is not for young children — which is why it is not written for or marketed to them. Educators and proponents of inclusive sexual education, who may have used this book as an educational resource or noted its spot on a library shelf, are not intending for it to be used to teach young children.

Florida’s Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, ended this school year with no sexual education at all.

“This Book is Gay” is for those young adults already grappling with their sexuality and identity. It is for those who are already looking for a safe space, understanding, or a guide through the dense jungle of teenage years. A group, I might add, that has had access to the full depths of the internet for their entire lives. It is the best-case, and least-likely, scenario that any one of them learned about sex, relationships and sexual identity through school-mandated sexual education or with the help of books that could be read and discussed with their parents.

The reality is this: At some point between high school, college and young adulthood, most everyone will be confronted with a situation related to sex and sexuality. “I didn’t know anything about myself. […] I was so unprepared and, now as an adult I see that I was left very vulnerable. I didn’t fully understand consent, I didn’t fully understand boundaries, I didn’t understand that I could say no to things,” explains Dawson in an interview on the Velshi Banned Book Club.

Relationships can be the most beautiful and rewarding part of life, and they can also be the most damaging, physically and emotionally. By prohibiting access to valuable resources like “This Book is Gay,” we are leaving already vulnerable LGBTQ+ young adults with nowhere to turn.

Sending our young people, regardless of sexual orientation, into the world without a comprehensive understanding of how to prevent sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy is a huge problem. Sending our young people into the world without a conversation about what respect looks like within a relationship is a major issue. Sending our young people into the world without a conversation about who exactly they are is nothing short of a crisis.

This is an adapted excerpt from the Saturday, June 17, 2023 episode of “Velshi.”

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