Fairfax County Public Schools has decided to return two controversial LGBTQ-themed books to high school library shelves following a review of both books by two special committees that vetted the texts in response to parents who filed complaints to ban the books.
The two books, Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, and Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, were yanked from the shelves of high school libraries in the district after parents filed complaints alleging that the books contained sexually explicit content and were inappropriate for minors to read, and that they contained scenes involving pedophilia.
Under an existing FCPS regulation, upon receiving a formal complaint about a book, two committees, comprised of parents, librarians, school administrators, and students over the age of 18, were formed to determine whether the two books were suitable (as optional independent reading material, not part of any curriculum) for high school students.
Following lengthy discussions on the merits and concerns of the book as a literary work, and the potential merits and concerns associated with retaining or removing the books from library shelves, the two committees unanimously recommended that the books remain available for high schoolers only. Based on that recommendation, Noel Klimenko, the assistant superintendent of FCPS’s Instructional Services Department, decided to reinstate the two books.
The committees noted in their analysis that Lawn Boy is “an accessible examination of race, class, socio-economic struggle, and sexual identity. It paints a portrait of the substantial obstacles faced by those who are marginalized by society. It is an uplifting and humanizing depiction of navigating through setbacks with resiliency to reach goals and will resonate with students.”
Those on the committee found that the themes of the book would be affirming for students who have experienced similar challenges or societal prejudices, and the book has literary value “as a narrative representing the perspective of a significant portion of students in Fairfax County Public Schools with a variety of backgrounds.”
The committee members found no evidence to support the claim that the book contains pedophilia. Evison has previously stated that the book features its main protagonist recalling, as an adult, a sexual experience he had as a ten-year-old with another ten-year-old — an experience of which he is ashamed, and affects his journey to self-acceptance. They also found that the book did not violate regulations within the Code of Virginia against the production, possession or distribution of material that is “obscene” or “harmful to juveniles.”
“With respect to the book content referenced in the complaint, the description does not go ‘substantially beyond customary limits of candor in description or representation,’ is not the ‘dominant theme,’ and is significant to the development of the main character, therefore contributing to the book’s literary value,” the committee wrote in its review.
The committee members found that Gender Queer, a graphic novel which appears in the catalogue of only seven of the district’s high schools, was a “well-written, scientifically based narrative of one person’s journey with gender identity that contains information and perspective that is not widely represented” and talks about issues that nonbinary and asexual individuals may face. They found that queer-identifying youth with similar or related experiences may feel affirmed, while other readers could gain understanding and empathy for nonbinary or queer individuals, and that the resources referenced in the book “provide access to additional, reliable information.”
Lastly, despite outrage over some of Kobabe’s illustrations featuring sexual situations, they determined that the book does not depict or describe pedophilia and would not be considered obscenity under Virginia law.
Stacy Langton, the Fairfax County parent who first raised objections to both books, told The Washington Post she chose to target the books after seeing media coverage of parents in Texas objecting to them. She then checked her children’s high school library and saw the books were available for checkout. Langton said the fact that both books contain LGBTQ content is irrelevant to her, as she would protest books that contained “filth” and “pornography” even if the main characters were heterosexual.
“I don’t care about the gender of the participants in the book, I don’t care about the sexual orientation of the characters,” she said. “It’s just pornography, full stop.”
Fairfax County Public Schools said in a statement that the decision to restore the two books following the committees’ recommendations reaffirms the district’s “ongoing commitment to provide diverse reading materials that reflect our student population, allowing every child an opportunity to see themselves reflected in literary characters.”
“Both reviews concluded that the books were valuable in their potential to reach marginalized youth who may struggle to find relatable literary characters that reflect their personal journeys,” FCPS said in a news release. FCPS also noted that it has in place a process, through which parents can challenge books they believe are inappropriate for school-age children, and, if they are found to be, removed from the shelves of school libraries.
“I am satisfied that the books were selected according to FCPS regulations and are appropriate to include in libraries that serve high school students,” Klimenko said in a statement. “Both books have value beyond their pages for students who may struggle to find relatable stories.”
The controversy in Fairfax over Lawn Boy and Gender Queer is being repeated in school systems throughout the country as conservative parents, activist groups, and enterprising politicians have seized on the appropriateness of school materials as the next battle in the ongoing culture wars. Critics of those protesting the books say that the larger aim is to eventually remove all books with LGBTQ content, sexual content, or works dealing with any remotely controversial issue from school libraries altogether.
In nearby Spotsylvania County, school board members began the process of removing any “sexually explicit” books from libraries, with two board members advocating for the books to be burned. The school board later walked back those comments and rescinded the decision to move forward with the purge after pushback from free speech advocates and local residents.
The Pride Liberation Project, a group of queer and allied students fighting for LGBTQ rights and LGBTQ-inclusive policies and regulations within schools, praised the district’s decision to return the books to the shelves of high school libraries, saying that’s the appropriate audience for both books.
Aaryan Rawal, a 17-year-old student at Westfield High School and the founder of the Pride Liberation Project, told Metro Weekly that the group had testified before the school board in favor of keeping both Lawn Boy and Gender Queer in libraries, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post pushing back against Langton and others calling for their removal, and circulated an open letter that received more than 400 signatures of students from every high school in the district to signal student opposition to the proposed book ban.
“We’re incredibly excited to see that these books are returning to our schools because we know that LGBTQIA+ students deserve representation and deserve to have their voices heard in our school libraries,” Rawal said. “But we also fully know that we need to continue to make sure that student voices are heard over those who are trying to politicize queer lives.”
Rawal pushed back against claims that those defending the books are justifying pedophilia, saying it’s an unfair, inflammatory attack — dating back decades — that seeks to equate LGBTQ people with pedophiles in order to demonize the community and rile up opposition to LGBTQ rights or inclusive school environments.
“The reality is, these books simply don’t depict pedophilia and pornography,” he added, referring to the challenged books. “Never in this books are we seeing characters engage in extensive sex. Do they include depictions of sex? Certainly. But that is not the focus of the books. We read the book from front to back. And the reality is that nothing in there can be construed as pornography or pedophilia at all.
“We’re confident that the FCPS school board will continue to reject these attacks against LGBTQIA+ students, regardless of what’s happening in Richmond, and we’re really glad to see that we have some really strong allies on the school board who are going to continue to fight for us,” Rawal said.
“With that said, we’re going to continue to organize, we’re going to continue to make sure that the school board is following its commitments to LGBTQIA+ students and every student,” he added. “We’re going to continue to fight to make sure that what what’s happening in Richmond and what’s happening at the federal level doesn’t impact the good work that’s happening in Fairfax County.”
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