Censorship With a Happy Face

How Anaheim bans books without banning them

Photo by Jack GouldIf you believe the court papers, this is what happened: on Sept. 8, 2000, Christine Enterline, school librarian and Tom Kovac, the library technician, were going about their jobs at Anaheim's Orangeview Junior High School, unpacking and shelving books Enterline had ordered over the summer. At some point, teacher Ron Dunnam walked in, looked through one of the boxes of new books, stopped at one of them, and asked Kovac and Enterline if they were really going to shelve the book and the series to which it belonged.

There followed a discussion between Dunnam and the two library employees that was pointed enough Enterline felt compelled to inform the school's principal, Barbara Smith. That was Friday. The following week, Smith asked for the books. Enterline and Kovac delivered them. They have not yet been returned to the library.

Since then, there have been more pointed discussions, reporters' questions, teachers told to keep their mouths shut, various memoranda, guilt trips and a cartoon that got the ACLU involved. On Dec. 21, the organization filed suit against Anaheim Union High School District for violating the First Amendment rights of students at Orangeview.

What happened and how it ended up in court may seem odd until you consider it happened in school board trustee Harald Martin's Anaheim and that the 10 books removed made up a series called Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians.

The day the lawsuit was announced, the ACLU's Martha Matthews said the books had been removed because of "deep-seated prejudice." But if you talk to Enterline and Kovac—the two who have dealt with this from the start—they'll tell you that all of this came about not so much because of prejudice, but because of its bunkmate: fear.

"I don't think anyone ever set out to censor anything," Enterline says. "I just think some people panicked and then the whole thing got out of control."

If you believe Christine Enterline, all of it started because Orangeview Junior High School is a pretty good place to work.

The day Dunnam walked in, Enterline was sitting at one end of the library—a long, narrow room—with her back to the front desk. The library was a mess. The more than 300 books that Enterline had ordered from Chelsea House Publishers had arrived, along with history textbooks from another distributor that were supposed to show up weeks before but had been misrouted. Amid the clutter of biographies, textbooks, workbooks and teacher's manuals, Enterline didn't notice Dunnam.

Kovac did. He and Dunnam had one of those odd relationships you find between complete opposites. Kovac describes Dunnam as a straightforward, conservative history teacher. Kovac is a 29-year-old, spiky-haired gay guy who's also a published adult-comic-book author. Yet the two have struck up, not exactly a friendship, but something more than an acquaintanceship, a relationship based partly on a fascination with the other's antipodal lifestyle and, on some level, a similar sense of humor. They enjoyed getting under each other's skin.

But Kovac thought there was something weightier in the way Dunnam said something like, "You aren't really going to put these on the shelves, are you?"

"I knew he meant it," Kovac says.

The discussion heated up immediately. The way Kovac and Enterline tell it, Dunnam soon said that the books were inappropriate because junior high kids should not be exposed to the words "gay" or "lesbian" at school. For that matter, he said, neither should high school kids. Except he didn't, or wouldn't, say the words "gay" or "lesbian." According to Enterline, Dunnam substituted "uh" and "uh" for gay and lesbian; Kovac remembers Dunnam using "blank" and "blank." Either way, they agree Dunnam wouldn't use the words and said students should be exposed to those words only at home by parents who want to talk about the subject, not at school.

"That's funny, Ron," Enterline recalls saying. "Because I was talking to a kid who said he hears kids at school calling one another faggots all the time."

The conversation ended after about 10 minutes with Enterline and Kovac returning to their work and Dunnam staying at the front desk, slowly leafing through the Notable Gay Men and Lesbians biography of Marlene Dietrich. When Dunnam finally left, Enterline and Kovac agreed that he would probably go to Smith to complain. As a pre-emptive move, they decided to go to Smith themselves.

Enterline says she had every confidence that going to Smith was the right thing to do. Both Kovac and Enterline agree Smith is not only good at what she does but is also a good person, and they say they had no reason to think she wouldn't see their side of things.

The Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians series was part of that larger order from Pennsylvania-based Chelsea House Publishers, an order that also included similar biographical series such as Black Americans of Achievement, Hispanics of Achievement, Heroes of Faith, and Overcoming Adversity.

The 10 books in Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians mix popular sports and entertainment figures—Martina Navratilova, Liberace, k.d. lang—with such cultural heavyweights as John Maynard Keynes, Willa Cather, T.E. Lawrence and Sappho. The books had been around since 1994, were critically well-received, and were lauded for giving children a contextual view of the accomplishments of gays and lesbians as well as positive role models for adolescents who either knew they were homosexual or were, perhaps, confused about their sexuality.

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