The Moral Panic Merchant

Has my old frenemy Bradford Broyles become a pillar of purity? Or does he simply see a marketing opportunity in fanning the flames of hate? It’s hard to tell, but my bet’s on the latter. Either way, he’s jumped with both feet onto the book-banning bandwagon, hectoring a Vermont high school for including a transgender person’s memoir on its library shelves.

Oh, you need some background? Broyles is a wannabe Hollywood producer of tediously unfunny right-wing “comedy” in partnership with Len (billed as “Lenny” because comedy?) Britton, former ski resort operator and very unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate in 2010. (Pat Leahy spanked him by a better than two-to-one margin.)

Brad and Lenny are best known around these parts for producing “News Done Right,” a series of short videos critical of Vermont’s left, Phil Scott included. The “stars” of NDR were a couple of aspiring actors willing to don flannel shirts and pretend, not convincingly, to be Vermonters.

Last I heard, Broyles and Britton were flogging a sitcom starring Kevin Sorbo, the guy who played Hercules for five years on the teevee and went on to became a QAnon-style conspiratorialist. Sorbo plays a politically incorrect (read: asshole) suburban dad in “The World According to Billy Potwin.” A handful of episodes have been produced; somehow, it has yet to be picked up by any major media outlet. (You can find clips and a whole episode on YouTube if you’re a glutton for punishment.)

Lately, Broyles has been making waves, or should I say ripples, here in Vermont. Last summer he was the campaign manager for Republican Burlington City Council candidate Christopher-Aaron Felker. I don’t know why Brad bothered; Felker was a sure loser in a Prog-heavy ward even before his history of transphobic remarks on social media was uncovered. Afterward? Well, he finished with 14% of the vote. (And he is now, because desperate times call for desperate measures, the chair of the Burlington GOP.)

Broyles’ latest caper involves sending a letter sent to the Essex-Westford School Board (and sharing it for publicity purposes with Vermont Daily Carbuncle), decrying the inclusion of “Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe about Kobabe’s search for gender identity, in the high school library. (The story was picked up by, you guessed it, John Klar on True North Reports.)

“Gender Queer” has become a flashpoint, three years after its publication, thanks to the far-right outrage grapevine. It’s been attacked in multiple states; Kobabe answered in an illustrated op-ed in The Washington Post.

According to Broyles, who is mimicking attacks made elsewhere, “Gender Queer” is nothing more than child pornography due to its “multiple graphic sexual images” and descriptions of bodily fluids and such.

Well, as it happens, I own a copy of “Gender Queer,” so I can tell you that Broyles’ claims are almost pure hyperbole. The book is an often painfully honest account of Kobabe’s years-long struggle as a gender-nonconforming teen and young adult. It’s a beautiful book that would help any young person going through similar struggles. The above image is the message of the book, a distillation of how the author came to view gender identity.

In the 240-page book, I count a total of three images that are barely questionable and definitely not explicit. There’s one panel on page 61 depicting the author’s fantasy of two young men either having sex or something sex-adjacent; you can’t tell because you don’t see any genitalia. After that, it’s all the way to page 167 where you see two images of a young woman performing oral sex on a dildo. Again, no real genitalia. And that’s it.

The book deserves a place in any library, it’s that good. It’s raw, to be sure, but the rawness is necessary to depict the reality of a young person’s struggles, self-doubts and explorations. And it’s nothing that any teenager doesn’t see or experience or talk about.

The audience for the book is young people unsure of their gender identities; it’s unlikely to appeal to kids who have no questions on the subject. It’s not going to fly off the shelf into the hands of Little Emma, fall open to page 167, and instantly make her transgender.

Broyles claims that the book’s mere presence in the library — not on the curriculum, mind you — ” is breach of fundamental (sic) rights of parents to raise children as they see fit.” Well, I’m sorry, Mom and Dad. If your kid gets hold of this book and comes home asking questions, you’ll have to deal with it. That’s called “being a parent.”

The alternative is banning “Gender Queer: and all other gender-questioning books, which would be a huge disservice to young people who are unsure of their identity. They have very high rates of suicide because they see themselves as solitary misfits. This book can be a lifeline for them. They shouldn’t have to suffer because somebody who doesn’t even live in the district got the moral fantods.

And if we get to the point where any book can be removed from any library because a single person objects to it, well, it’s gonna be a small library. I was going to say the only remaining book would be “The Cat in the Hat,” but that cat was a vandal leading children down a path to perdition. No, I think the only survivor would be “Pat the Bunny.” Unless some parent sees it as propaganda for the furry community.

If Broyles thinks this book is child porn, he’s never visited Pornhub or discovered his dad’s Playboy collection. His moral furor reflects a man who’s deeply insecure about the power of his own beliefs and the morality of our youth. All it takes, apparently, is a single book being in the same building with students to trigger eternal perdition.

Recently, I wrote a piece called “Weenies of the Revolution,” which considered the extreme fragility of the shouty right. Broyles, in his attempt to ban “Gender Queer,” is being a real weenie.

Or perhaps a performative weenie. He is, after all, trying to peddle a TV series to conservative outlets. And while I was watching — should I say, trying to watch — an episode of “Billy Potwin,” this opening credit appeared on the screen. It explains much about Broyles’ belated reinvention as a cultural scold.

That’s right, Brad and Lenny share Creator credit with none other than Lenore Broughton, the reclusive heiress and bankroller of conservative politicians and causes. Vermonters with long memories may recall her ineffectual 2012 SuperPac, “Vermonters First.” She threw more than a million dollars down that rathole. (I should also remind you that Broughton’s right-hand man in Vermonters First was none other than Tayt Brooks, now one of Gov. Phil Scott’s top aides.)

Now, Broughton is no TV producer. She notoriously hates cameras, especially when they’re pointed at her. Her status as co-creator, I’m sure, is all about paying the freight for “Billy Potwin.” Brad knows he’s got to keep the old lady happy or risk losing his sugar mama. Being a culture-wars megaphone benefits his bottom line.

Even if this is pure opportunism, it has real-world consequences for children, parents, and schools. Essex-Westford already has to deal with the outrage factory that is Liz Cady. They don’t need another one. They especially don’t need someone who is going through the culture-war motions just to keep the Broughton Bucks flowing into his TV enterprise.

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