A Northern Virginia school system has pulled a nonbinary author’s autobiographical graphic novel, which has been deemed “pornography” by social conservatives and concerned parents for its graphic depictions of some of the author’s own musings on sexuality and gender, from all school libraries.
Loudoun County Public Schools has effectively banned author Maia Kobabe’s 2019 graphic novel, Gender Queer: A Memoir — which usually gets classified as a “young adult” or “adult” publication for its sensitive content — in all school libraries within the district. The book was never made available in elementary or middle school libraries, but was found in several high school libraries.
In Gender Queer, Kobabe (who uses e/eir pronouns) discusses discovering eir identity and sexuality growing up, including instances where Kobabe, who is both nonbinary and asexual, as a teenaged character in the novel, engages in daydreaming or fantasizes about certain topics.
The autobiographical graphic novel contains references and explicit depictions of sexual contact; masturbation and sex toys; an erotic scene of a man and a boy on an ancient Greek urn, which critics say glorifies pedophilia; and depictions of menstrual blood.
As a result, many parents, not only in Loudoun but in districts across the country, have demanded the book be censored or pulled from school libraries due to inappropriate content. Recently, nearby Fairfax County pulled the book from library shelves — along with another frequently-censored book, Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, — but later reversed that decision after a committee of parents, teachers, and high school-age students determined that the book had literary value beyond prurient interests.
Loudoun County Superintendent Scott Ziegler asked for a review of the book after parents and activists raised questions about the inappropriate nature of its contents, and specifically, some of its color illustrations, LCPS spokesman Wayde Byard told The Washington Post. According to Byard, a committee recommended — on a split vote — to allow the book to remain in high school library collections, but Ziegler overruled that, deciding to remove the book from circulation. Ziegler’s decision was appealed, but the School Board appeal committee voted 3-0 to uphold his decision.
“I read every book that is submitted for my review in its entirety. I am not generally in favor of removing books from the library. I believe our students need to see themselves reflected in the literature available to them,” Ziegler said in a statement. However, he noted “[t]he pictorial depictions in this book ran counter to what is appropriate in school.”
Ian Serotkin, the vice chair of the Loudoun County School Board and one of the three appeals committee members who upheld Ziegler’s decision, defended his rationale for banning the book on social media in a Facebook post. Noting that he has been on numerous book appeal committees over the past two years, he said he had never before voted to remove a book.
“There have been some books appealed merely because they contained gay characters or LGBTQ themes. Other books were appealed due to brief passages of sexually explicit content. It has been a common refrain from some that this book and others like it are pornography, or sexual grooming, or pedophilia, and none of that is remotely true — for this book or for any other book appealed to the school board over the past few years. It is far too easy to take passages or screenshots out of context without considering the book as a whole, and it does our public discourse a disservice to do so,” he wrote.
“In previous appeals, I felt the literary and educational value clearly outweighed the material that might be considered objectionable or inappropriate for students, and I could draw clear parallels between the content in those books and classics with similar content such as The Catcher in the Rye, Brave New World, Romeo & Juliet, Native Son, and countless others,” he continued. “Gender Queer is different for a number of reasons. The district-level review committee was split. They did vote to retain the book, but on a close 4-3 vote. The Superintendent’s decision was to remove the book from the high school library circulation.
“Sexual content is a large part of this book,” Serotkin added. “It is not fleeting or brief. The sexually explicit illustrations which have gotten significant media and public attention may only appear on a handful of pages, but sexual themes are pervasive throughout the book. And, the sexually explicit illustrations themselves cannot be ignored. I think I can draw a line between something being described in writing and it being depicted in living color.”
That said, he noted that the book remains available at county public libraries, but not at schools in the district.
“None of this is to say that Gender Queer is a bad book. It is a good book and an important book. It was quite powerful in a number of places,” Serotkin concluded. I learned quite a few things from reading it that I didn’t know about asexuality and what it’s like to grow up as a non-binary individual. I have no doubt that it could be a useful book to students struggling with those questions about themselves or their peers, and I would hope that books like this are available to students as part of a comprehensive [Family Life Education] curriculum. The question we must ask is, ‘Is every good book an appropriate book for a student library?’ In this case, for the reasons I have listed, my conclusion is that this one is not.”
Kobabe, speaking with James Hohmann of The Washington Post on a podcast last year (e also wrote and illustrated a corresponding op-ed), said e believes that efforts to ban eir books from schools are part-political stunt, fueled by debates over transgender-related issues in schools, and part-backlash to increased transgender visibility.
E noted that the controversies in various school districts over banning the book followed a pattern in which conservative parents read about efforts elsewhere — often thousands of miles away — and sought to challenge the book in their own school districts. E also said that the books will be meaningful for other students who are struggling with their identity and are seeking out characters or representations that reflect their identities.
“There are queer teens, I promise, in every single high school where this book is being challenged,” Kobabe said.
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