Tennessee Seahorse Book Ban
On February 22 2023, two Imgur users (and one Redditor) shared screenshots of a tweet about Tennessee Republicans “trying to ban a book about seahorses” because it “normalizes gender fluidity”:
All three posts cited this February 21 2023 tweet:
In case anyone was wondering just how insane Republicans are:
In the state of Tennessee, they’re trying to ban a book about seahorses, claiming it ‘normalizes gender fluidity & the idea that males can get pregnant.’
This is where we are folks.
— Jo 🌻 (@JoJoFromJerz) February 21, 2023
For context, reproduction among seahorses was described as “notable” on Brittanica.com, for reasons mentioned in the tweet:
The reproductive behaviour of seahorses is notable in that the male carries the fertilized eggs. After an elaborate courtship, the female uses an ovipositor (egg duct) to place her eggs into a brood pouch located at the base of the male’s tail where the eggs are later fertilized. Depending on the species, the eggs remain in the pouch between 10 days and six weeks. During this time the male nurtures the developing young by regulating the chemistry of the fluid inside the pouch, slowly transforming it from that of his internal body fluids to that of salt water as pregnancy progresses.
Although the tweet was popular, it contained no links to news stories or additional information substantiating the claim. It didn’t name the book, nor did it described the scope of the purported ban — e.g., whether it was the state of Tennessee, a single school district, or something else.
Google suggested “Tennessee seahorses ban book” as a popular search, and the string did not link to any news about attempts to ban books about seahorses in Tennessee. Toggling to the “news” tab largely turned up news from 2021 and 2022, with the exception of a February 4 2023 article by Tennessee newspaper The Daily Times.
It was titled “Blount County Board of Education hears calls to remove books from school libraries,” and it began:
The Blount County Board of Education heard objections to school library books at its meeting Thursday, Feb. 2 , from two women whose comments audience members applauded.
Ladonna Bell characterized about a dozen books available in middle and high school libraries as having “all kinds of smut.” She spoke to the school board about the same concerns at its March 2022 meeting and said last week, “Nothing’s been done; the books are still there.”
Bell mentioned by name only “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini, a New York Times bestselling novel that includes sexual violence.
Comprehensive reporting on the meeting followed, with several books mentioned by name. A portion of the article referenced a “Wit and Wisdom curriculum,” which appeared to be an educational materials product, described by the manufacturer as “a Kindergarten through Grade 8 English language arts curriculum that empowers students to build important background knowledge in science, history, geography, and more while practicing reading and writing and expanding their vocabulary.”
In the article, a section about Wit and Wisdom curriculum read described objections to its lessons about seahorses in “previous school board meetings”:
Also during the public comment period [in January or February 2023], Pastor John Lowe of Tuckaleechee Chapel Baptist Church repeated what he has said at other recent board meetings, that the leaders of 28 churches that are members of Awake 21 are praying for the board, teachers and students every Wednesday morning.
He told the board that they are concerned about the moral impact of what is being taught in schools and asked the board again to remove the Wit and Wisdom curriculum, which the pastors consider inappropriate in the elementary grades, and replace it with one that “supports the Judeo-Christian values of our community” … [Faith and Family Coalition board member Mike] Garner also called the Wit and Wisdom curriculum inappropriate, without offering any specific examples.
In previous school board meetings opponents of Wit and Wisdom have said the texts seem to be “normalizing gender fluidity” in a first grade lesson on seahorses that shows the role males play in raising the young, and “designed to instill shame within the White children” with a second grade text about Ruby Bridges’ experience entering a previously all-White school in 1960.
Google News content about Tennessee, seahorses, and book bans primarily involved material published in late September 2021. A Salon.com item, “‘Moms for Liberty’ group demands schools ban books with ‘sexy’ pictures of seahorses,” attributed efforts to “ban” seahorse lessons to far-right, inauthentically organized “moms” groups. One of the previous efforts of Moms for Liberty was an attempt to drum up a moral panic about CRT, or critical race theory:
The ‘Critical Race Theory’ Coordinated Disinformation Campaign
The Salon.com story cited a contemporaneous Daily Beast report, “Far-Right Group Wants to Ban Kids From Reading Books on Male Seahorses, Galileo, and MLK,” and cited Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish In The Sea as the “sexy” book in question:
School books about Martin Luther King Jr. are too “divisive,” claims a conservative group at the center of a Tennessee book ban battle. A story about the astronomer Galileo Galilei is “anti-church.” A picture book about seahorses is too sexy.
[Moms for Liberty’s] Williamson County chapter also takes issue with a picture book about seahorses, in part because it depicted “mating seahorses with pictures of postions [sic] and discussion of the male carrying the eggs.”
The Daily Beast reviewed the text in question via a children’s story time YouTube channel.
Readers looking for a Kama Sutra of seahorse sex will be disappointed. Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish In The Sea contains nothing more risqué than watercolor illustrations of two seahorses holding tails or touching bellies (never—heavens—at the same time).
The passage that “describes how they have sex” reads: “they twist their tails together and twirl gently around, changing color until they match. Sea horses are faithful to one mate and often pair up for life. Today Sea Horse’s mate is full of ripe eggs. The two of them dance until sunset and then she puts her eggs into his pouch. Barbour sea horses mate every few weeks during the breeding season. Only the male sea horse has a pouch. Only the female sea horse can grow eggs.”
MFL recommends the book be reserved for older children, up to grade eight.
Common Sense Media, an organization that “rates” media for mature themes and other objectionable content, maintained an entry on Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish In The Sea (with no warnings for sexually explicit material):
Parents need to know that there’s nothing of concern in any of the fascinating facts presented in this nonfiction book. They will be as captivated and amazed as their kids will be.
A Huffington Post piece from September 2021 included an embedded June 2021 tweet, including video of a parent objecting to content about seahorses mating:
A mom 4 “Liberty” is upset a textbook teaches how seahorses mate… yes, seriously. #WilliamsonSchoolBoard pic.twitter.com/e89dDmUC3G
— The Tennessee Holler (@TheTNHoller) June 22, 2021
In January 2022, The Tennessean published an update on the seahorse controversy, “What to know about the seven books undergoing ‘adjustments’ at Williamson County Schools”:
“The Shyest Fish in the Sea,” “Separate is Never Equal,” and “Love That Dog.”
These elementary school-level English language arts texts — and others — in the “Wit & Wisdom” curriculum at Williamson County Schools will undergo changes in their usage … Overall, 31 texts were called into question by the local chapter of Moms For Liberty, a conservative parent group, via a formal “reconsideration” request process permitted by board of education policy.
Community members and Moms For Liberty members voiced objections at school board meetings for its mention of “gender fluidity” and its description and visual portrayal of the [seahorses]’ mating practices.
According to the WCS report, complainants said the book uses “social conditioning,” that it and the video—”Pygmy Seahorses: Masters of Camouflage” by science video series Deep Look—are “attempting to normalize that males can get pregnant” and indicative of an agenda,” and that the suggestion that gender is fluid is too early” for the first grade.
A February 2022 tweet from the Williamson County Moms for Liberty chapter mentioned seahorses:
The seahorse thing? Yeah it’s thing for the Queer theory crowd. They want to force their ideas about gender onto your kids. They know what they’re doing. Make no mistake. pic.twitter.com/uplKFr3R1g
— Moms For Liberty Williamson County TN (@Moms4LibertyWC) February 8, 2022
A viral February 21 2023 tweet asserted that “[in] the state of Tennessee, [Republicans are] trying to ban a book about seahorses, claiming it ‘normalizes gender fluidity & the idea that males can get pregnant.'” A June 2021 tweet showed a parent objecting to a book about seahorses, and localized, inauthentically organized controversies received brief national attention in September 2021. Seahorses were briefly mentioned at a 2023 board meeting in Williamson County, but the tweet lacked context about the “who” (Moms for Liberty), “what” (Wit and Wisdom lessons), “when” (2021), and “where” (Williamson County, Tennessee) of the claim.