Author of Most Banned Book in America Alex Gino Speaks at Stuyvesant

Issue 5, Volume 113

By Matthew Huang, Daniel Chang, Xueming Li, Sadat Ahmed 

Genderqueer activist, writer, and author of “Melissa,” the most banned book of 2020, Alex Gino (’95) was invited by English teacher Annie Thoms to participate in information sessions with her Writing to Make Change classes on October 25.

Thoms’s Writing to Make Change class focuses on teaching students to reach an audience with words beyond the scope of the classroom. “Each semester in Writing to Make Change, I bring in five to six guest speakers, and many of them are student alumni, but they are all people who are using their writing in some ways to make change in the world and in a variety of genres,” Thoms said.

Though Thoms (’93) and Gino had two years of overlap during their Stuyvesant education, she officially met Gino at a Brooklyn Public Library event where they discussed having the same teacher back at Stuyvesant. “We recognized the connection, and I asked Gino if they were willing to come and speak for my classes and they were totally down for it,” Thoms said. “They were just a really good author and doing exactly the work that we’re talking about in this class, which is they write for a middle grade audience but they write about queer and progressive issues in a totally age-appropriate way.”

The event was divided into two parts, the first being Gino’s discussion of “Melissa” and the second for answering general student questions. Attendees had the opportunity to learn more about Gino’s efforts to raise awareness for the struggles LGBTQ+ communities face as a minority group in America as well as to express their own opinions on certain current topics.

Gino expressed that their inspiration to get “Melissa” published stemmed from their determination to make sure readers were well-informed and giving attention to the communities that they felt deserved it. “The fact is that a book with a trans character for kids didn’t exist. I think that if I had seen a reflection earlier, my life would have been a lot easier in some ways,” Gino said. “I was in Stuy in 1995, and so I didn’t have access to language and information that showed that there were gender-queer and nonbinary people in the world, and so I didn’t know who I was. So if I could make that difference for someone else, that was my goal.”

In addition, Gino explained that the media’s reasons for banning “Melissa” were all inconsequential, even though Gino knew the book was directly challenged due to the presence of a transgender character. “The first year or two, a lot of the reasons were that there was a transgender character in it. Over time the complaints have gotten more deceptive because that complaint didn’t play as well as they might have thought it would,” Gino said. “When a book is challenged because maybe there’s a sex scene in it, that’s a question about the action. But when a book is challenged because there’s a person like me in it, that’s challenging my existence. And that’s just awful.”

Through hearing about the opposition Gino faced in publication, students recognized the severity of censorship in current environments. “This event made me realize how systems in power will try to censor your writing if they don’t like what is being talked about or the discussions your writing is creating,” senior Nora Loftus said. “All you can do as a writer making change is to keep writing what you know and fighting the power.”

Students also noted that Gino highlighting the underrepresentation of genderqueer communities demonstrated the importance of recognizing marginalized perspectives to more effectively incite change. “One of my main takeaways is that despite people being in different backgrounds that could possibly shape their identity and perspectives, change is not [as] challenging as it seems,” junior Donghyun Kang said. “As a teenager, I will go through many changes in my life, yet in order to become truly mature and virtuous, it is important to meet people with various viewpoints, like Alex Gino.”

Students were also inspired by Gino’s journey as an activist and planned to start making change in their own classrooms. “After listening to [Gino’s] lecture, I realized that to make a social change, I myself have to change first,” Kang said. “Therefore, I am planning to write my two remaining pieces which would include my support of changes of both individuals going through hardships and minorities being secluded in our society.”

Thoms also shared the same resonance with Gino’s work. “One of the things that stayed with me aside from the importance of having more positive tilting narratives about the LGBTQ+ experience, realistic but positive, is that [Gino] was talking about how they write their books for queer kids but also for kids that are straight and cisgendered and who may not have been exposed before to narratives of formative personal experience for a queer kid,” Thoms said.

Despite seeing societal progress, Gino believes the journey of activism is not over. “We still live in a world in which trans women of color in particular are at risk of violence; we still live in a world in which the general expectation is heterosexuality. But the fact that there are bans and pushbacks [against] my book is itself a sign of progress,” Gino said. “We’re doing that zigzag arc toward justice.”