By Greg Laughlin
In 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency” and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. The term “gross indecency” was an legal euphemism for homosexual behavior. As a result of his conviction, the librarians at the St. Louis Public Library and the Newark Public Library removed Wilde’s books from their collections. The books had been on the shelves for a while and the librarians apparently had no objection to their contents. The librarians removed them strictly because they disapproved of the behavior for which Wilde was convicted. In 1984, in her book, Forbidden Books in American Public Libraries, 1876-1939: A Study in Cultural Change, Evelyn Geller used this incident to criticize censorship, specifically, in this case, censorship based on disapproval of the author, not his works.
Today, Orson Scott Card finds himself in a somewhat similar situation, again because of “gross indecency.” However, this time, the author’s “gross indecency” was having the temerity to condemn homosexuality and oppose same-sex “marriage.” A group called “Geeks OUT” is calling for a boycott of the movie Ender’s Game, based on Card’s best-selling and award-winning book of the same title. The movie, which stars Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley and Oscar nominees Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Hailee Steinfeld, and Abigail Breslin, is scheduled to open in theaters on November 1, 2013.
On its web site promoting the boycott, Geeks OUT quotes Card from a February 1990 article in Sunstone Magazine: “Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.”
Geeks OUT also points to Card being a board member of the National Organization for Marriage, an organization which has worked to prevent legal recognition of same-sex “marriage.”
As with Oscar Wilde, the opposition to Ender’s Game has absolutely nothing to do with its content. Geeks OUT is calling for a boycott specifically because of Card’s conduct. There is division within the gay rights community over this call for a boycott. Oscar-winning writer and gay rights activist Dustin Lance Black has criticized the boycott, calling it “misguided.”
Free speech advocates who are aware of the censorship of Wilde’s work nearly 120 years ago condemn it as an indefensible act. And so it was. I am sure that those who are calling for boycotts of Ender’s Game would be among those condemning it if they are aware of it. And they would likely do so for the simple fact that an author’s conduct which has no relationship whatsoever to his work is an especially bad reason to censor it.
Admittedly, there is a difference between calling for a boycott of a movie and pulling a book from a library shelf. The former is a call for private action. The latter is a state action. Legally, they are different. But the spirit behind them is the same. As Dustin Lance Black observed, efforts to punish writers for their conduct unrelated to their work by in any way censoring their work is “misguided.” Further, it represents an intolerance which groups like Geeks OUT purport to condemn. Let’s hope that Geeks OUT recognizes this and withdraws their call for a boycott of Ender’s Game. Otherwise, they will, in time, come to be identified with the long list of those who have sought to censor authors and artists not for the content of their works, but because they disapprove of their conduct.