On a brisk mid-October evening, the public school board of Spring Lake, Michigan, convened in the intermediate school library. The meeting was called to order, the Pledge of Allegiance recited, the auditor’s report presented.
None of this accounted for the standing-room-only crowd of parents, educators, and citizens drawn from this town of 2,500 people, or the television news cameras that were trained on them.
They had come to see what the board would do about something usually more mundane than even a financial report—a library book.
The book had drawn three complaints from parents, calling for its removal from the high school library. The board would decide its fate.
One of the complainants was invited to speak.
“I also want to be clear that my objection to some of the content in this book has nothing to do with the LGBTQ+ theme,” he said. But he believed the explicit sexual content, including drawings of sex acts, was inappropriate for teens.
A board member read a statement in favor of keeping the book.
“Students need our affirmation and support much more than a segment of parents need another layer of control over other people’s children,” she said, slowing to emphasize the last three words.
Later, community members were given the opportunity to make three-minute remarks.
The first speaker expressed passionate disapproval of the book. The time limit came and went. The president offered a warning. Then another. And another. The speaker refused to yield. A school official removed the microphone from the podium.
At that, the woman leveled her final comment at members of the board. “You are all sick individuals,” she said and walked away. Cheers and applause erupted from the crowd.
The meeting was suspended for lack of order.
The Shot Heard Round the World
Similar scenes, mostly more civil, have played out at school board meetings around the country regarding the book “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. Less than two years after its publication, “Gender Queer” has become the book most removed from the nation’s libraries.
Presented in the style of a graphic novel, the book is the latest target of parental frustration over the sexually explicit material that is available to teenagers in public schools.
And the book has sent librarians and school boards ducking for cover in the face of withering criticism, revised obscenity laws, and even threats of violence.
In this struggle, both sides view their efforts as a holy cause.
Some see it as a mission to protect children from harm and realign public education with its original purpose: teaching core subjects free from social indoctrination.
Others see themselves as preserving the First Amendment, intellectual freedom, and the needs of the many against the demands of a small but militant faction of moral crusaders.
Each side accuses the other of education’s cardinal sin: bringing politics into the classroom.
Nearly forgotten in the fog of war is the author, who wrote the book with the humble purpose of explaining gender identity to family members.
“Please, leave the queer books on the library shelves, where the queer kids can find them,” Kobabe wrote in a Washington Post Op-ed. “As a queer teen, I desperately needed them. And queer teens need them today too.”
In some school libraries, the book remains. In others, it’s been removed or restricted. Either way, “Gender Queer” now occupies the no-man’s-land in a fierce battle for control of public education.
How We Got Here
“Gender Queer” traces the author’s journey to self-understanding as a non-binary, asexual person from early childhood to adulthood. The volume’s first printing in May 2019 numbered a modest 5,000 copies. But the book caught the eye of critics.
“A book to be savored rather than devoured, this memoir will resonate with teens,” Jenni Frencham wrote in Scholastic Library Journal in 2019. “It’s also a great resource for those who identify as nonbinary or asexual as well as for those who know someone who identifies that way and wish to better understand.”
The book won an Alex Award from the American Library Association (ALA) in 2020, awarded for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18.”
“Gender Queer” was also selected as the Stonewall-Israel Fishman Non-fiction Award Honor Book in 2020.
School librarians took notice and began to stock the title.
But by the time school resumed in 2021, parents had begun to call for its removal from public schools.
Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools pulled “Gender Queer” from library shelves in September 2021. A Florida school district did the same. The book was challenged in schools in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington, and Texas.
By the following year, other districts had followed suit, including Spring Lake Public Schools. The school board voted 4-3 to place the book in the high school counselor’s office where students could access it with parental consent.
Many parents objected to the book’s LGBT message. More were outraged by its sexually explicit illustrations.
It’s the Pictures
“The book may be called ‘Gender Queer,’ but that’s not what we’re arguing,” Katie Bauer of Battle Ground, Washington, told The Epoch Times. “It has to do with the fact that it’s pornography. It has nothing to do with it being LGBTQ.”
Bauer has been involved in efforts to remove the book from Vancouver Public Schools.
“I think you have to see it to understand where the concern and rightful outrage is coming from,” Bridget Ziegler, chair of Florida’s Sarasota County School Board, told The Epoch Times.
Even some parents who like the book are uncomfortable with making it available to students.
“Gender Queer is wonderful; it is controversial; I’m in favor of it being removed from the high-school library shelf; I didn’t pass it on to my own child to read,” a book reviewer wrote on Amazon.com.
She said the book’s content was a moving description of the author’s adolescent journey. But she found one illustration particularly inappropriate for a general teen audience.
The president of the Spring Lake Public Schools board drew a similar conclusion. “Because of the sexual explicitness of the pictures, I was uncomfortable with it,” Jennifer Nicles, told a reporter after the Oct. 17 meeting. She voted to restrict access to the book.
Yet personal feelings are no reason to remove books from a school library, according to advocates of intellectual freedom, because opinions about every book vary from parent to parent.
Literature or Obscenity
Defenders of “Gender Queer” maintain that it does not meet the legal definitions of either obscenity or pornography.
“It’s such a subjective term because I hear it used loosely all the time,” Pat Sales told The Epoch Times. “People may read a four-letter word and say that book is pornographic, but it’s not.”
Sales is a longtime librarian and former chair of the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.
State laws commonly exempt material from the charge of obscenity if it has literary, artistic, political, educational, or scientific value if taken as a whole.
“Parents and teachers know that sometimes books have controversial ideas,” Christine Emeran, director of the Youth Free Expression Program at the National Coalition Against Censorship, told The Epoch Times. “But sometimes, books are banned because particular scenes or passages are taken out of context.”
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain made the list of most-challenged library books twice in the early 2000s, for offensive language.
“Families have objected to the use of the [racial slur] in particular novels or classics. So we’ve had to defend the rights of books like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Emeran said. “Nowadays, it’s not politically correct.”
Even the Bible appeared on the list of most-challenged books, in 2015.
Guidelines for reconsidering a book in Washington’s Vancouver Public Schools take context into account: “Consider the entire work, rather than extracting passages or parts. Weighing the values and faults against each other and weighing the conflicting opinions based on the materials as a whole.”
Yet for many parents, sexually explicit content is unsuitable for teens regardless of context.
Parents Are Unconvinced
“If it’s illegal for a neighbor to show this to my child, why should it be legal for a teacher to show it to my child?” Gallager said. Aware that most challenged books would not meet the legal definition of obscenity in her state, Gallager still finds it irresponsible to provide explicit sexual material to minors.
“Gender Queer” is rated for readers 18 and older by Amazon, which includes some high schoolers. Yet parents complain that it is freely available to younger teens in school libraries.
“These children cannot get into an R-rated movie unless a parent brings them and show their ID, yet they want to make it easier for teenagers to gain access to inappropriate material,” Shannon Faas of Wyoming, Michigan, a member of Grandville Parents for Education, told The Epoch Times.
Defenders of the book acknowledge that illustrations in “Gender Queer” may trouble some parents. Yet many fear an even greater danger: using the charge of obscenity as a fig leaf to censor controversial ideas.
What It Says vs. How It Says It
It can be hard to tell whether people are objecting to the content of a book or only the way it is presented, according to Aaron Terr, director of public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.
“Given all the political controversy around topics of race and gender, it’s not clear whether the objections are really based on, say, references to sex or on objections to ideas surrounding race and gender,” Terr told The Epoch Times.
Jennifer Heine-Withee of Yacolt, Washington, thinks parents are troubled on both counts.
“I believe that parents are concerned about both the theme and content of the books they are finding in their kid’s school library,” Heine-Withee told The Epoch Times.
“Some of these books portray explicit sexual language that not too long ago would have had a parental warning on them.”
An analysis of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books lists for the last 20 years seems to confirm the analysis.
LGBT Content a Flash Point
The American Library Association (ALA) publishes an annual list of the 10 most challenged books. In recent years, the percentage of those books challenged for LGBT content has been rising.
Sexually explicit content has long been the No. 1 reason for book challenges. That charge was stated for 6 to 8 of the 10 most challenged books in most years since 2001.
However, LGBT content was cited as an objection to just 2 of the top 10 most challenged books each year, on average, from 2001 through 2017.
That number doubled in 2018 and has averaged 4.5 out of 10 books over four years.
Some books were cited for both reasons.
LGBT content has replaced offensive language as the second leading reason library books are challenged.
Regardless of the reason, the number of book challenges in school libraries has skyrocketed over the last two years.
Book Challenges Skyrocket
Book challenges were filed in school, university, and public libraries 729 times in 2021, a record high at that time according to the ALA.
From January through August of 2022, 681 challenges were recorded.
Both years saw a five-fold increase of the average number of annual challenges for the previous two decades, a towering increase over the early 2000s when ‘Harry Potter’ topped the list.
The number of unique titles challenged also reached an unprecedented high of 1,651 in 2022.
According to the ALA, 70 percent of book challenges last year targeted multiple books. In previous years, most involved only a single book.
“Schools are getting complaints from parents who are subscribed to associations that give them huge lists of books that they might find problematic,” Emerman said. “Parents or committee members are filing numerous requests for reconsideration of hundreds of books at a time.”
This dramatic increase in book challenges is an unforeseen consequence of an already consequential public policy decision, closing schools during the COVID-19 era.
The COVID Bump
Parents account for the largest share of book challenges and most take place in school libraries or classrooms. But that hasn’t always been the case.
From 2014 to 2019, 52 percent of challenges were in public libraries and 42 percent in school libraries and classrooms.
In 2021 the numbers reversed. Public libraries accounted for 44 percent of challenges, and schools and school libraries for 55 percent.
The change followed the switch to online learning during school closures in 2020, which gave many parents their first real glimpse into their children’s education. For some, that insight prompted greater involvement in public schools.
“We got to see a sneak peek behind the scenes of what was actually happening,” Carine Werner of Scottsdale, Arizona, said in an online video. “It was a rude awakening to see what our kids were being taught and how our kids were being taught.”
She said that prompted her to get involved in parent advocacy. Werner was elected to the Scottsdale United School Board last year.
Back to Basics
The focus of post-lockdown advocates has been to move public education back to teaching core subjects free from what they consider indoctrination into progressive political and social views.
“We celebrate the diverse communities that we serve,” Ziegler said. “We also need to respect the diverse communities, which all have different religious and political backgrounds and beliefs. I don’t believe the government should be infringing on that.
“We need to be narrowly tailored and focused on education that is not political. We all agree children should be able to read, do math, and understand the history of our country. We’re seeing parents and concerned citizens rising up and speaking up to give the necessary correction in public education to get back to what we all agree on: academic excellence.”
But that misses the point of having a school library, according to intellectual freedom advocates.
Freedom and Inclusion
“The whole purpose of the library is to provide access to a diverse range of perspectives,” Terr said. “And politicized decisions to ban library books undermine that goal.”
He thinks schools can consider whether readers of a certain age are mature enough to handle sexual content. “But it’s important for them to have robust and politically neutral procedures in place and to follow those procedures,” he said.
“Otherwise, there’s just too high a risk that schools will ban books from their libraries because they want to restrict access to certain views or ideas. And that’s censorship.”
“Nobody forces you to take out a book that’s in a library, and nobody forces you to read it,” Pat Sales told The Epoch Times. “It’s your choice. You can reject it. But somebody else may want and need it.”
Sales is a longtime librarian and former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. She sees libraries as a place for choice.
“We have to remember that libraries, public school libraries especially, serve all students, all families, all patrons, and we have to have materials that satisfy the needs of all people.”
She said, “We’re not an educational institution if we’re not providing material that will help kids learn and grow.”
Conrrado Saldivar, president of the Wyoming Library Association, sees the library as a place where all students should be represented.
“Within a school, you may have people in the LGBTQ community, black, indigenous, and people of color who need certain materials,” Saldivar told The Epoch Times.
“It’s that balancing game, deciding what meets the community’s needs and the student’s needs at that time, making sure that every community of students is represented in the library collection.”
Yet increasingly, parental rights advocates view the presence of material espousing controversial views of race, sex, and gender in school libraries as something that goes beyond fostering inclusion.
They see a concerted effort to influence the moral and political thinking of their children.
Education or Indoctrination
“I call it the gay lobby,” said Suzanne Gallager, President of Parents Rights in Education, referring to far-left activists. “They’re putting all these LGBTQ books on these reading lists,” she told The Epoch Times.
Gallager particularly objected to “George” by Alex Gino, a book about a child with gender dysphoria that appeared on a summer reading list for Gallager’s 3rd-grade grandchild. The book is intended for children aged 8 years and older.
Erin Gerlach of Hudson, Wisconsin, reacted similarly to a reading list for high school students that included books with passages on sexual behavior. “This is Grade-A grooming at its finest,” she said. “This is not educating our children. This is grooming them and indoctrinating them.”
“This is a widespread agenda to indoctrinate children, and it is being fought on several fronts,” Heine-Withee said.
“A majority if not all of the professional organizations associated with public education affirm education in gender theory, sexuality, and diversity, equity, and inclusion, or critical race theory,” she said, referring to the ALA and to education agencies in Washington state.
Intellectual freedom advocates see the matter in exactly opposite terms: a conservative social agenda aggressively imposed on public schools, resulting in censorship.
“When the book is already there and then removed, it raises suspicion that it was motivated by hostility to the position of being gender nonconforming because that is part of the culture war that we’re seeing happening,” Emeran said.
Sales says she’s seen this movie before, in the 1980s.
“It was in the 80s that the Christian Coalition began putting its claws into education, and they’ve been slowly working at it until we’ve reached the point we are now.”
Two tactics have become more common: direct pressure on school boards and anonymous threats to librarians.
Bauer and another concerned parent scheduled a meeting to discuss “Gender Queer” with high school officials, in keeping with Vancouver Public Schools policy. But the meeting was canceled because the librarian had received threatening emails, Bauer said.
“We’re appalled and horrified that that happened to the media specialists.”
Librarian Martha Hickson wrote about her experiences during a 2021 book challenge at North Hunterdon High School in Annandale, New Jersey.
“I received hate-filled email. Book banners attempted to file a criminal complaint with the local prosecutor’s office. Students who supported the book bans hid library books on LGBTQ+ topics so that others could not find them. And administrators peppered me with accusatory questions, such as ‘How can books with language like this be in our school?’” Hickson wrote in School Library Journal.
Even less threatening approaches can cause school boards to react defensively and ignore their own guidelines, according to Emeran.
“Just having one lone parent shout that [board members] could be criminally charged can make them preempt their district policies and remove a book without waiting for a complaint to be formally filed,” she said. “They’re just very fearful.”
Yes, It Is Political
“I’ve been doing this for many, many years,” Sales said, “and we went through a really bad time in the 80s. It was controversial then but so very different from what people are going after now. Now, it’s gotten so political.”
In fact, it has.
The rise in conservative activism extends beyond the school library to the ballot box as concerned parents are increasingly seeking and winning election to school boards.
Conservatives see this as a necessary correction to longtime political control over public education by liberals.
“Our goal is to get politics out of schools,” Micah Valentine told The Epoch Times. Valentine was elected to the Kennewick School District board in 2021 along with fellow conservative Gabe Galbraith.
The pair had campaigned on a platform of opposition to school mask mandates, a controversial sex education referendum, and the teaching of critical race theory, which holds that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, ensuring the dominance of white people.
“When a conservative comes in and is actively working hard, the left starts to lose a bit of power and they go crazy,” Valentine said.
State legislatures are also becoming more involved in the content of public education.
A Florida law passed in 2021 requires school library resources to be approved by an employee with a valid educational media specialist certificate. The material selected must be free of pornography and other prohibited material, and be appropriate for the intended age group.
At least three other states are considering legislation that concerns library content.
North Dakota legislators are considering a law prohibiting public libraries from including sexually explicit material, including depictions of sexual or gender identity.
Wyoming lawmakers are considering a proposal that would change the definition of child pornography to include cartoons, drawings, and “any other form of depiction” of sex acts involving children.
Indiana lawmakers are weighing a bill that would remove an exemption from the charge of disseminating material harmful to minors from schools and universities.
This Isn’t Over
“Gender Queer” likely will not retain the title of America’s Most ‘Banned’ Book for long. Few books make a repeat appearance in the top spot. Only “George” has topped the list three times in this century.
Yet both sides in the debate over “Gender Queer” realize it is just one skirmish in a long fight for control of America’s educational philosophy.
“The battle does not end with a reconsideration decision,” Hickson wrote. “To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, the war for students’ right to read ‘will never really be won because the price of freedom is constant vigilance.’”
Faas says her parental rights group intends to form a PAC and will continue supporting conservative candidates for the Grandville Public Schools board. “We were successful in getting two school board members elected,” she said. “And we’re not done.”