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LGBTQ Advocates Condemn Passage of De Facto “Book Ban” in West Virginia

“The language is so vague that anything could be deemed obscene,” a West Virginian said on social media.

The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill on Friday allowing for the criminal prosecution of librarians, teachers, and museums for displaying “obscene” material to minors. Democratic Delegate Evan Hansen has said that the bill, HB 4654, is “a de facto book ban.”

“It doesn’t explicitly ban books, but in order to mitigate the risk, librarians are going to make different decisions,” Hansen said.

Under state code, “obscene matter” is defined as material that “an average person, applying community standards, would find depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexually explicit conduct” and material that “a reasonable person would find, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”

Currently the state’s obscenity law exempts schools, public libraries, and museums from being prosecuted under the code, but this bill would change that. A person charged with violating West Virginia’s obscenity laws could be subject to significant fines and a jail sentence of up to five years.

“The language is so vague that anything could be deemed obscene. Violent history? Obscene. Political history? Obscene. Literature? Obscene,” West Virginia University PhD candidate Tristan Williams said on social media. “All anyone would have to do is say nah. Don’t like that. Children shouldn’t be taught that.”

This bill is opposed by the West Virginia Association of Museums (WVAM), which has said that “This vague definition [of obscenity] opens the door for attacks and legal challenges on any exhibit, program, lecture, publication, or other project that some member of a community may not agree with.”

LGBTQ advocates have also criticized this bill as a thinly veiled attempt to censor LGBTQ material in schools, pointing to Republicans’ inaccurate and offensive conflation of LGBTQ material as “pornographic.”

“HB 4654 is a book ban aimed at harming LGBTQ+ & other marginalized communities,” West Virginia-based transgender advocate Ash Orr said on social media. “Legislators would rather focus on harming marginalized communities instead of addressing real issues impacting our state.”

Following the bill’s approval in the House, Orr said on social media that he expanded a community library he runs and requested community members support the library by purchasing books for it, such as “Julián Is a Mermaid,” “What Are Your Words?: A Book About Pronouns,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

“The WVGOP is hoping to both ban books & erase the LGBTQ+ community,” Orr said. “To push back, I upgraded and expanded The (mostly) Banned Books Library! This library is filled w/banned books for all ages & LGBTQ+ resources.”

A 2022 survey revealed that 70 percent of parents across the U.S. are against book banning. However, in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year alone, PEN America uncovered 1,477 cases of banned books, impacting 874 distinct titles. 30 percent of the books dealt with topics of race, racism, or featured characters of color, while 26 percent included LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

Eli Baumwell, interim executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, reports that the extremist group Moms for Liberty has been notably active within the state, particularly in legislative and school board meetings. This group is funded by the Heritage Foundation, whose Project 2025 outlines a plan for the future Republican presidency. In this blueprint, the conservative think tank argues that “transgender ideology” is pornographic and should be outlawed, with those involved in its production and distribution facing imprisonment. Additionally, the blueprint calls for registering educators and public librarians who support such ideology as sex offenders.

Legislative measures such as HB 4654, along with similar attacks on LGBTQ individuals both in the state and across the country, are aimed at creating a world where such discrimination is normalized.

“[T]he open ended vagueness in the language of HB 4654 has terrifying implications and need[s] to die in the state senate,” Williams said. “I’m saying this as a parent of WV public school students and as a historian. This bill does no good.”

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