Censorship With a Happy Face
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.
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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.
The books were edited by a respected historian, New York University's Martin Duberman. He says he specifically instructed his writers to deal with their subjects' sexuality and "how it may or may not have influenced their achievement." When the series was first published, Duberman says, there were some angry letters from school principals, but in all far less than expected.
"I think [Chelsea House] expected an avalanche of angry responses," Duberman says. "What they got was a handful. After a couple of years, it all seemed to end."
That the books would be removed at Orangeview seemed unlikely since the school's library already contained several books dealing with homosexuality—books Enterline says are much more straightforward on the subject. Books about having a gay parent, books about the cultural debate over a homosexual lifestyle and books about gay rights. Enterline and Kovac had every confidence that Smith would understand, and from their conversation Friday, they believed she had.
Enterline says Smith apologized that they had to go through something like that and said that they shouldn't worry about it. Smith told them if Dunnam was upset it was unlikely he would come to her since they had had a falling out over a previous disagreement. If Dunnam had a problem with the books, he would probably go over her head to the district. End of conversation.
Then came the following week and Smith's request for the books. Kovac delivered them to the principal's office, along with another book in the shipment titled Beyond Gay and Straight. A few days later, Smith delivered the books to the district office, where, apparently, they remain. Smith declined comment. Neither district Superintendent Janice Billings, Dunham nor Martin returned several calls for comment.
Enterline believes Smith went to the school district for the same reason Enterline and Kovac had talked to Smith: she was trying to pre-empt Dunnam's complaint.
"I think she got scared," Enterline says. "I think she was scared of what Ron might say and what might happen after that."
The thing is Dunnam never went to anyone to complain about the books. Not to Smith, not anyone at the school district, no one.
"It's kind of funny," Kovac says. "Here everyone was concerned what he would do, and it might turn out that the moment he left the library, he forgot all about it."
No one has ever formally complained about the books, and although there are ways to do that and channels to be traveled, no one has traveled them. But the fear that someone might . . . Well, in Anaheim, that could be a very bad thing. A complaint could find its way to the Anaheim Union High School District, a board that, like many in Orange County, is decidedly conservative. How conservative? Until recently, the board was run by president Harald Martin. Martin, you'll remember, in 1999 had the board and staff consider suing Mexico for $50 million for educating the children of undocumented workers. The same Harald Martin who wanted the Immigration and Naturalization Service to begin culling school databases, trolling for children who lacked proper "documentation."
The same Harald Martin who also—though no longer president—remains on the board and has publicly criticized specific Anaheim teachers. Just a couple of years ago, he criticized the history text a Savanah High School teacher was using as too liberal. Gustavo Arellano, a 1997 graduate of Anaheim High, remembers his history teacher pointing out that he was teaching from a history book that Martin disapproved of. "Our teacher told us Martin didn't like it because it dealt too much with minorities and women," says Arellano, now student director of multicultural affairs at Chapman University and who applied to be appointed to the Anaheim school board last year. "I know it sounds crazy, but you have to understand: this is Anaheim. This is the same place where they banned sex education in the '60s."
What happened at Orangeview probably happened in part because people who knew better were concerned that the school board might step in and deal not only with this issue but also with the subject of books in general. But in trying to avoid the school board, they ended up with the ACLU—which, Enterline believes, may not be the worst thing in the world.
"I think [the school district] is scared, and I think the lawsuit is, on some level, a way out for them," Enterline says. "If it's decided that the books have to stay on the shelves, it's a way out for them without having to deal with the school board. The ACLU will take care of that for them."
Christine Enterline has been in the Anaheim Union High School District for 32 years: 27 as an English teacher, the past five as a teacher/librarian. She is, as Kovac puts it, "devoted to the district."
So when the books were taken, she did not doubt they would be returned. At first, she didn't much notice they were gone. Enterline not only works at Orangeview but also at Lexington Junior High School. She found herself far too busy with things like seventh grade library orientation and setting up book fairs to focus on the books.
But by October, she had started thinking about them again. In mid-October, she sent a message to David Steinle, district assistant superintendent. Trying to keep the mood light, she wrote something like, "How are my books? Hope you're keeping them warm."
When she didn't receive a response, she wrote a more straightforward memo requesting that either the books be returned or she be given a reason, in writing, why the books had not been returned. Steinle did reply, but only to say he had received her memo.
Earlier, Smith had given Enterline some unofficial reasons for the books' removal. Smith said the reading level of the books was too advanced for junior high. Indeed, the reading level spans ages 14 to 19. But Enterline points out that a number of Orangeview students are 14 and a number of them read at a high school, even at a college, level. And if reading levels are a concern, why hadn't the school district also seized The Complete Works of Shakespeare in the Orangeview library, not to mention books by Dickens and Melville?
Smith also told her, Enterline says, that the books presented a safety hazard: if one of the books were checked out by a student, that student might be harassed by other students. That one stuck with Enterline. The idea that a school would limit access to books based on a fear of intolerance seemed incredible.
"If that were the case, if there was that kind of homophobia," Enterline says, "we needed to combat it by having books like this available to our kids."
In fact, the actual plaintiffs in the ACLU are two students at Orangeview referred to as Daniel Doe and Megan Roe. In the suit, both children attest that they have heard students use slurs such as "fag" and "faggot" and the phrase "that's so gay" to express scorn.
If Enterline was incredulous at Smith's final reason, Kovac was angry.
Tom Kovac knew he was gay by the time he was in the fifth grade, and junior high turned out to be "the worst years of my life." Junior high is a pretty brutal place for just about anyone—fat, short, pimply, quiet, smart—but to be gay in junior high, Kovac says, is a daily test of survival.
When he was attending Yorba Junior High School in Orange, he dyed his hair and heard the word "fag" a lot. He lived in fear and confusion: Were they simply making fun of the way he wore his hair? Or did they actually know?
"I lived in mortal fear," Kovac said.
His friends would attempt to defend him, but even that had its price.
"They'd say things like, 'He is not!'—as if being gay were the worst thing in the world. Just when I thought I could handle it, something worse would happen. Like the time someone called me a 'fucking AIDS case.' That was just so cruel, so harsh, all I could think was that I had no life in front of me."
If anything got him through junior high, he says, it was books. Kovac has always been a voracious reader. He found refuge in books, indulging in something he later learned is called bibliotherapy: using books as therapy for problems in one's life.
During this time, he read and reread L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz and Tove Jansson's books about the Moomintrolls—tales of beings that live in peace.
"I just wanted to escape to somewhere where people treated one another kindly," he says.
The books are a big reason why he chose to work in a library—"When you can open a kid up or show him something new through a book, that's the best," he says—and books are probably also the reason, Enterline says, "Tommy has definitely been more gung-ho on this" than she has.
Still, even Kovac believed the school supported them for the first couple of months. But then came the cartoon. Kovac is a published cartoonist of titles like Skelebunnies and Stitch, the latter about a bunch of kids kidnapped by an old lady who steals their memories and forces them to live in her attic as dolls.
One of Kovac's monthly duties is to tally up how much copier paper each department has used and send the numbers to Smith. It's a dreary little job, one that takes up only half a page, and one that he brightens up by drawing a cartoon on the bottom of the page. It got so that Smith looked forward to the cartoons and, on the one occasion Kovac neglected to draw one, asked him, "Where's my cartoon?"
So in October, Kovac drew an angry little bunny with a speech bubble that said, "Fight censorship!"
He thought nothing of it, assuming that Smith was on his side of the book matter. He discovered differently when he was summoned to Smith's office the next day.
"I walked into her office, saw the cartoon on the desk and I said, 'Oh, God!'"
Smith told him she had been stewing about the cartoon all day, that she had been intensely offended and thought the cartoon was unprofessional.
"It was clear that what really got her was that I used the word 'censorship,'" Kovac says. "She kept asking, 'Why did you use that word? No one has called this censorship. Why did you use that word?'"
That day, Kovac went home and contacted the ACLU. Attorney Martha Matthews said she was interested in the case, but would rather proceed with a united front—that is, with both Enterline and Kovac onboard.
That would take months. But in December, Enterline, finally frustrated, decided to join the battle. On Dec. 21, a day before the school let out for Christmas vacation, the suit was announced. That day, teachers were instructed not to talk to reporters. Enterline says she was told by Smith and Billings how disappointed they were that she hadn't given them more time, that they were just about to attend to the matter. "I told them they should have told me about that, that all I've asked for this whole time is for someone to communicate with me [about] what's going on," Enterline says.
What's going on now is not much. Enterline has attempted to broker a truce by offering to send the offending biographies to one of Anaheim's high schools if she is allowed to order a set of similar gay- and lesbian-themed books with a lower reading level.
"I just want this to be over," Enterline says.
But in this regard, Kovac agrees with the school official who told Enterline that the books have changed the school's dynamic forever, that "nothing would ever be the same again."
"Yeah, it's changed for good. Well, we'll see if it's for the good," said Kovac, who these days is wading through The Gods Are Thirsty, a historical novel about the French Revolution.
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