Meet the historian who is driving a bus full of banned queer books across the U.S.

Jan 14, 23
Meet the historian who is driving a bus full of banned queer books across the U.S.

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Eric Cervini is turning a school bus into a library of queer literature

Actor Adam Powell and historian Eric Cervini have raised $100,000 for the Queer Book Bus. Credit: Courtesy Eric Cervini

With LGBTQ2S+ books under attack in the U.S. at record rates, author Eric Cervini and his boyfriend, actor Adam Powell, knew they wanted to take action. While others are organizing with protests, drag queen story hours, days of reading and other important acts of resistance, Cervini and Powell have their own spin on what to contribute to the movement—and that spin has wheels.

The pair are working on buying, then building, what they call the Rainbow Book Bus, a bookmobile carrying queer and trans books to small towns. After reaching their crowdfunding goal of USD $100,000 at the end of December, Cervini and Powell are now able to pay a specialized company to retrofit a school bus to become a beacon of queer literature. 

“Our goal is to have at least an early version of it ready by Pride [in June],” Cervini tells Xtra. “We want to have a bus that is converted—it may not be fully decked out, but it will be functioning as a travelling book shop/book fair—in the summer of 2023.” 

The conversion of the 28-foot bus involves tearing out all of the seats, installing bookcases and stocking it with queer books. The bus will travel the U.S. and host pop-up book festivals in places like parking lots, with tables and chairs, signs and information about local queer organizations and their resources in addition to books. They’ll be selling works including young adult fiction, history deep dives, landmark classics, memoirs and more, including the often-banned All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson.

A widely renowned historian who is the bestselling author of The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. the United States of America and the executive producer of The Book of Queer, Cervini is inspired by the Black, gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin’s activism involving buses: the Freedom Rides of the 1940s to 1960s.

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“The entire philosophy is that you bring your humanity and your dignity to these spaces that are trying to exclude you, and what that does is create this conflict—and unfortunately, that’s what it is, it’s a conflict—where one side is completely non-violent and doing nothing but trying to take a bus, and the other side goes ballistic,” Cervini says. “It becomes very clear who has the moral dignity in that scenario, who has the moral upper hand.”

“I think you’re seeing echoes of that now,” Cervini continues, “at drag story hours, where you have these incredible performers or educators or librarians who are simply trying to educate kids and make them feel welcome in their own communities, and they’re being attacked violently.” Cervini says he wants to use the bus to introduce queer books in places where queer and trans authors may take professional and safety risks to promote their own books. 

While the 2023 route isn’t planned out, he does expect it to cross the American South, with a dream of going to his hometown of Round Rock, Texas, about a 25-minute drive outside of Austin. Growing up there, Cervini wasn’t aware of any queer literature available—he wasn’t even looking for it since he wasn’t out to himself yet as a teen before he left home. The one stop he’s really hoping to make this summer is to throw a queer book fair in the parking lot of the church in Round Rock. 

Cervini fully expects uproar in the towns the Rainbow Book Bus visits, but that’s part of the plan. If the event draws attention, he hopes local youth will hear about it and will be able to hear about regional resources through the event. 

“If I had known there was an LGBT centre near me and all the amazing events that they threw—because certainly it existed, close to Austin—maybe I could have found a way to get into the big city. If I had known that they existed, I think that that would have been life-changing,” Cervini says. “So, creating that physical presence of saying we’re here and we’re queer despite how scary some of these areas can be for queer folks, hopefully that will get people excited about connecting with the resources and the volunteers and the heroes who are already working so hard in these towns.”

The $100,000 raised so far only funds the creation of the bus, but to keep it going, Cervini and Powell are still fundraising at rainbowbookbus.org. They also hope to partner with a non-profit organization to be able to give books away instead of selling them. Currently, the proceeds of the book sales go toward funding the bus, and to queer authors. The couple’s new online bookshop, ShopQueer.co, also benefits the bus and queer authors.

As an historian, Cervini takes the long view. “The targeting of queer literature is as old as queer literature itself, from Sappho to The Well of Loneliness to today. This is a tactic that those in power have used to consolidate their own power: they create a moral panic,” he says. 

“And yet, queer creators, whether it was James Baldwin or Gore Vidal, have persisted and created beautiful art that isn’t just important on a literary level, but on a personal level to so many readers who are growing up in towns that don’t have this literature in their libraries. And making these works as accessible as possible is something that got me really, really excited.”

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