Can Noah Can’t Even Even Be Talked About?
Feature by Maria Teresa Cattani
How does literary freedom function in a school with a specific, defined identity? Are restrictions logically, morally and ethically justifiable? Lately, this discussion has been all over the internet regarding different cases. This article will focus on a case that took place in the UK, exploring the influence of the Catholic Church on the freedom of expression and the search of identities of pupils in secondary school.
On World Book Day (3 March 2022), the governors of the London John Fisher School, a Catholic secondary school, invited author Simon James Green to talk about his novel Noah Can’t Even, which features a gay character. Green, who is a Young Adult (YA) author and identifies as gay, was planning to talk about “being an awkward teenager, the power of comedy, [his] career, and about an 8 min section of the importance of LGBT rep”, as the author states himself on Twitter. After his talk for years 8 and 9 (ages 12-14), there would be time for book signing of Noah Can’t Even. These plans, however, were cancelled due to an intervention of the Southwark Archdiocese, who stated just four days before the planned event in a first press release that “from time to time materials or events emerge for consideration that fall outside the scope of what is permissible in a Catholic school” and that “the book-signing event scheduled for 7 March 2022 at The John Fisher School is one such event.”
Noah Can’t Even, published in 2017, centers on the titular Noah’s search for identity, particularly in relation to his sexuality, during his time in high school. He describes this, in essence, as pure hell. He tries to achieve social normalcy by pursuing Sophie, but when his best friend Harry kisses him at a party, things change. The themes of the book draw on inclusion in the context of high schools, which was the main reason for the John Fisher School to invite Green. Why, then, did the Southwark Archdiocese intervene in such a drastic way? What have been the reactions of the people involved and of the general public? Does this reflect a larger general movement in terms of recent controversies that concern LGBTQ+ literature?
After the catastrophic event, the kiss between Noah and Harry, their classmates make fun of them using the structure and form of the Lord’s Prayer:
“Let us pray.”
“Our Father, who art the gay boy? Noah be his name …”
“He makes Harry come. He gives him one. On earth as it is in Heaven …”
“And lead him straight into temptation. Right into a gay bar. For Noah is a gay boy. Who likes to suck cock. For ever and ever. He’s gay.”
“OK, sit yourselves down!” said Mr. Baxter, head of year.
The year elevens all shuffled back into their seats. Noah despondently plopped back down, straight on to a banana that the hilarious occupants of the row behind had placed on his seat during the prayer.
“Awww – right up his arse!” said one of the lads. (It wasn’t.)
“He loves it!” said another. (He didn’t.)
“Oh, Harry! Do it to me!” sighed a girl. (Not a phrase he would ever use. He wasn’t a porn star with no class.)
In a second press release on April 28 2022, the Archdiocese quoted this part to show the public why they didn’t agree with “the use of this prayer in this way, and for this to be promoted in a Catholic school.” It was seen as a source of deep disquiet and as blasphemy. Another passage that has been quoted as problematic is the following:
Rumor had it, Connor was seeing a boy in year thirteen – two years his senior! How very edgy. That meant Connor was also probably sexually experienced now, taken under the wing of this sugar daddy in the sixth form, who would have doubtless shown him exactly what to do and when to do it …
“If the narrative were about a female pupil in Year 11 and a male pupil in Year 13, who was her ‘sugar daddy’ and had ‘doubtless shown [her] exactly what to do and when to do it,’ the concern would remain the same”, states the Archdiocese. Thus, the Archdiocese argues that the event’s cancelation was not based on Noah’s or Green’s sexual orientation. Especially since the book also uses inappropriate, sexual language towards women which is unacceptable in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Consequently, the Archdiocese stood up for the principles of the Catholic Church, such as the dignity of the school’s Christian identity, the sexual integrity of students and the use of the Lord’s Prayer in a respectful way. The school’s identity is being undermined, jettisoned, by prioritizing a book that goes against their values.
The question that comes up, however, is whether those passages that seem problematic for their offensive and sexual nature are written precisely to cause such discomfort and to make teenagers reflect on unacceptable behavior. They draw upon how – unfortunately realistically – sexuality is being discussed in some secondary schools. The school should offer students freedom and space to contemplate these topics and to agree or deviate from the core beliefs of the Christian faith.
As we have seen, the Archdiocese claimed that the ban doesn’t have to do with a LGBTQ+ “problem”. They judge more the fact that it is so explicitly sexual in a cruel, animalistic way, which is extremely opposed to sex within the context of marriage. This argument is even more powerful to them since it involves minors within an educational context. Nevertheless, I will expose that the parents in this discussion do see it as a LGBTQ+ problem, since they’re arguing, amongst others, that what their kids are being taught about the “LGBT+ side of life, with a huge emphasis on transgenderism, is nothing short of straight from Hell, truly diabolical.”
In the complexity of this case, it is important to understand the different parties that take a stance in this debate. First, the pupils’ parents play an important role on both sides. It was the parents who raised their concerns to the Education Commission of the Archdiocese. Moreover, it was the parents who created the petition “English Catholic School MUST Cancel Scandalous LGBTQ+ History Month Book Signing Event”, to cancel the signing event. On the petition website, people that supported the ban made several remarks such as:
Valiant MacCruiskeen: “There is a specter haunting Purely- the specter of homosexuality. A homosexual author of teenage fiction visiting a Catholic School is 100% as much of an issue as the ongoing war in Ukraine […]. Putin, as I’m sure you are aware, would not stand for what this school has done.”
Bernie: “These boys, some or even many, who are maybe at a confused stage in their life, could be swung over to think they are gay and get into a very sordid lifestyle.”
Laura: “By encouraging this book signing, and advertising books for them to buy about the gay lifestyle, he is risking setting the boys in those year groups on the entirely wrong road – away from their Catholic Faith.”
What is striking in these comments is the comparison being made between the acts of violence in the war in Ukraine and the visit of Green at the John Fisher School. The comparison is completely illogical and incoherent. It must be said that these reactions on the petition website might not give the most nuance, nor always depict the views shared by most of the parents. They are rather extreme.
Another questionable phrase is that of “lifestyle”. Not only did the signees of the petition against Greens’ visit suggest that being gay is a lifestyle choice, but also the schools’ chaplain insinuates a similar message: “No one is denying the existence of those who have differing views and beliefs to ourselves, the event is about promoting the literature of a lifestyle choice that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and therefore has no place in a catholic school.” How is it possible to think of one’s sexuality inherently as a choice of lifestyle? From the Churches’ perspective, the gay “lifestyle” that is being disapproved of, is not about being attracted to people from the same sex. It’s about acting upon it. The difference being between one’s identity and their actions, or one’s choice on how to express their sexuality. In the case of Noah Can’t Even, this expression is considered to be against human nature, almost animalistic.However, it is essential to underline that being attracted to a person of the same sex is often not a choice in itself.
The group of governors and the school head that invited Green in the first place also played an important role in this controversy. In reaction to the intervention and letters by the Archdiocese, they refused to cancel the event. The Archdiocese stated that: “the headteacher and some Governors decided to disobey the clear instruction from the diocese, and this will have serious consequences.” The serious consequences consisted in the removal of several governors on the leadership team, which then led to strikes by staff members of the John Fisher School to raise attention for the controversy, petitioning for the reinstallation of the governors. Instead, emergency governors were installed by the Archdiocese. These strikes had big consequences: some staff were dismissed, the school closed for a week because of understaffing, and the controversy caught the attention of the public.
Furthermore, the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (OFSTED) carried out an investigation on the John Fisher School. The study showed that, although the pupils described the school as one where ‘everyone just fits in’ irrespective of faith, background, or sexuality, some leaders, staff, and pupils have been left feeling angry, confused, and frustrated. Others are worried about the impression these events might give of the school’s ethos. The school’s chaplain shares this concern and says that the international reputation of the school is at stake. However, this worry is based on a different kind of ethos, namely one that cares more about appearances than students themselves.
As a consequence of the publicity, a lot of people reacted on Twitter, and other social media platforms. Green himself dedicated a whole thread on Twitter to explain what happened to him in which his pain, disgust, and anger are evident. He starts an important conversation on the importance and influence of literature in spreading awareness of inclusion problems at secondary schools: “You can’t be made gay by reading about gay characters in books. If you’re LGBT, you’re LGBT. I want LGBT kids to find comfort and understanding in my books, and non-LGBT kids to understand other lives, empathise, see we’re really not so different.”
Various Christians declared their unhappiness about the fact that the event was cancelled and their disagreement with the decision of the Archdiocese. One of them says: “As a gay Catholic, I find banning Green from giving a school talk incredibly sad. Hearing from a successful gay man would have done a lot to help me in the isolation and otherness I felt at school. Shame on you. Not in my name.”
Another stance was taken by the academic and rabbi, Jonathan Romain, who questioned the effectiveness and the consequences of the ban: “When the Catholic Archdiocese of Southwark bans a gay author visiting a school during World Book Day and sacking the governors who had invited him, is that an example of inclusivity or segregation, widening children’s horizons or limiting them?”
The last intervention in this discussion that should be pointed out is the one from education journalist Warwick Mansall: “This ongoing story shows how it is not only academies which can have a problem with overly-centralised control of governance. (This is a voluntary-aided RC school).” Here a bigger governmental issue is brought to attention: how is it possible that the Archdiocese has so much power over Catholic schools? Is this centralized control of governance a healthy system for a secondary school? Where should staff draw the line in letting their school be governed by the Archdiocese?
Curiously, outside the UK this controversy hasn’t received much attention, even though it’s not only in the UK that one can encounter such situations. Another example of a similar controversy is the court case on Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe in Virginia last summer. And, in the context of the contents of the school curriculum, one could also think about the ban on Maus in a school in Tennessee earlier this year. Should we worry about the freedom of speech at schools, especially regarding LGBTQ+ literature? Shouldn’t pupils be allowed to look in the mirror and see all kinds of possibilities? That mirror is needed to create a space for meaningful discussion, creating conversations.
Maria Teresa Cattani is this year’s managing editor of RevUU and she loves studying and reading texts of all kinds and forms. She is particularly passionate about Hispanic literature and teaching her pupils the French language and culture. Previously, she investigated forgotten writings of women in exile during the post Spanish civil-war era. She is currently a student in the MA Literature Today program, figuring out what the future holds for her.
- Caldwell, Simon. “What Really Happened with the ‘Gay Author’ and John Fisher School.”Catholic Herald, 7May 2022, https://catholicherald.co.uk/what-really-happened-with-the-gay-author-and-john-fisher-school/.
- Clarke, Amy. “LGBT Author’s Visit to The John Fisher School Cancelled.”Sutton & Croydon Guardian, 27Apr. 2022, http://www.yourlocalguardian.co.uk/news/20097237.lgbt-authors-visit-john-fisher-school-cancelled/.
- Green, Simon James. Noah Can’t Even. Scholastic, 2017.
- Hughes, Simon. “Formal Position Statement.” Education Commission of the Catholic Diocese of Southwark, 3Mar. 2022, http://www.rcaoseducation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/220303_TJFS_position-statement.pdf.
- Hughes, Simon. “Further Statement Regarding The John Fisher School in Purely.” Education commission of the catholic diocese of Southwark, 28 Apr. 2022, http://www.rcaoseducation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/28th-April-2022-The-John-Fisher-Purley.pdf.
- Lough, Catherine. “School Leaders Debate Intervention from Zahawi over Cancelled Gay Author Visit.” Independent, 28 Apr. 2022, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/nadhim-zahawi-ofsted-naht-catholic-sutton-b2067783.html.
- Sherwood, Harriet and Richard Adams. “Catholic Church Bans Visit by Gay Author to London School.” The Guardian, 9 May 2022, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/mar/09/catholic-church-bans-visit-by-gay-author-to-london-school.