One of the few books in Jefferson County school libraries focusing on a non-binary character may be pulled from shelves if a district panel sides with an upset parent.
Miranda Stovall, a parent tied to conservative groups including No Left Turn Kentucky, asked four schools to remove “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe from their school libraries over what she considers to be “pornographic” material.
Two of her complaints are still at the school-level. Two schools, Liberty High and the grade 6-12 Phoenix School of Discovery, declined to pull the book. Stovall appealed their decision to Superintendent Marty Pollio, who also refused to remove the book.
Thursday morning, she faced the final step in the appeals process: a district-level panel of teachers, parents and a school administrator in a public hearing.
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A few dozen protesters, including several known to protest in favor of conservative policies, showed up to JCPS’ central office to watch the testimony.
Told in a comic book-style format, "Gender Queer" is a memoir of how the author came to identify as gender non-binary and asexual.
Kobabe’s book is one of several works, largely by LGBTQ authors or writers of color, being targeted by a conservative push to remove what are being called “pornographic” materials from school libraries across the country.
Lynn Reynolds, who oversees JCPS’ library services, said all the books currently being challenged in the district contain LGBTQ or race-related themes.
Challenged works, including "Gender Queer" and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, have often been misconstrued by opponents. Sometimes the two books’ storylines are blended into one book and shared as an inaccurate meme suggesting a comic book showing a child performing oral sex is in classrooms, prompting fears of pedophilia.
A Courier Journal reporter who read the book counted fewer than a half-dozen instances of nudity or sexually explicit images. None of those scenes featured children.
Stovall, who told the panel she’s read the book several times, accused school and district leaders who have refused to pull the book of robbing children of their innocence during her opening remarks Thursday.
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On top of the graphic imagery, "Gender Queer" mentions the name of a pornography website, which Stovall called up online.
“And the first thing that comes up is, ‘Pick your porn: straight or gay,’” she said.
Her attorney, Clint Elliott, argued leaving the book in a handful of school libraries breaks a state law prohibiting the distribution of sexually explicit materials to minors.
At one point, he likened keeping the book to rape.
“You cannot consent for the children to distribute porn to them,” Elliott argued. “You cannot consent for their parents to distribute porn for them.”
In a letter from May rejecting Stovall's request to remove the book, Pollio said "Gender Queer" doesn't meet the law's definition of obscene material and disagreed with her assertion that the book depicts a "prutient interest in sexual conduct" or is "patently offensive."
Pointing to multiple literary awards, including one focused on young adults, Pollio wrote the "extensive literary value of the work makes it clear that it is not obscene material."
One panel member asked Stovall and Elliott what makes "Gender Queer" different from scores of other works already in schools that feature sex scenes. The audience laughed at the notion.
Elliott responded that, unlike classical works like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Gender Queer” has sexual themes woven throughout the book.
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Defenders of books argue LGBTQ students should be able to see themselves represented in stories and on library shelves. Reynolds noted schools don’t have many books featuring plot lines similar to "Gender Queer’s" exploration of identity.
“If we ban those from the other students that are also struggling with (their identity), if you restrict it, you're taking away opportunities for a child to live, find his space, find his voice and his purpose,” Reynolds told the panel.
Elliott argued it has no literary value to override obscene scenes. Reynolds, who spoke on behalf of JCPS, disagreed.
Literary value is when people gain something from a book, she said. In the case of "Gender Queer," non-binary people are humanized and readers build empathy, she said. It also gives students a chance to examine a complex character.
Restricting access to books, Reynolds argued, is “a threat to freedom of speech and choice.”
Library materials in Kentucky are selected at the school level. Decisions are made by school councils of parents and teachers, alongside school leadership and librarians. Reynolds could not think of a time when a book did not make it into a library, but there have been times when a book may only be available to older students. In the May letter, Pollio said "Gender Queer" is not available to middle school students at Phoenix.
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Stovall has been pushing against controversial books for months. A review of her records requests to the district show requests regarding books dating back as early as mid-December. She went viral online in March after reading a collection of quotes from "Lawn Boy" to the JCPS school board during a public comment period.
In mid-February, Stovall sent a dispute form to nine JCPS principals, asking them to remove the book from their libraries and conduct a review of library circulations for “any other pornographic materials.”
“I understand the controversy around ‘book burning’ however that is not what this is,” she wrote in the email. “This book offers no educational value at all. It is pornographic.”
Having the book on the shelves meant making it accessible to students whose families “absolutely do not approve of this type of material,” she wrote.
“A public school should keep in mind ALL families,” Stovall continued.
The district appeals panel has 60 days to issue a written decision regarding the book.
Reach Olivia Krauth at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @oliviakrauth.