The West Des Moines school board voted Monday to keep a queer author’s comic-style memoir on the district’s library shelves, though it may not have the final say.
Last year, Teri Patrick of Clive made a complaint about the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe that’s available on library shelves at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School, a campus for ninth grade students. The book, which does not appear to be in the Valley High School library, traces the author’s journey with sexuality and gender identity through adolescence and adulthood.
Patrick’s complaint moved through two review committees and the superintendent before she took it before the school board, which voted 6-1 Monday to keep “Gender Queer” at Valley Southwoods. Board member Liz Cox voted no, adding that she was the lone vote on a previous committee against keeping the book.
“I have to believe that there are books that support LGBTQ students that are age-appropriate and do not have this content,” Patrick told the board. She declined to speak with the Des Moines Register after the vote.
Parents in the metro and across the country have challenged “Gender Queer” over the book’s depiction of sexual activity, masturbation and sexual fantasy on the part of the narrator, calling the book pornographic and likening its presence in schools to child grooming.
Board members grilled Patrick with pointed questions but also praised her for coming forward to share her opinion, make thoughtful arguments and spark a discussion.
In written complaints, Patrick wrote that she believes the book is pornographic and brushed up against Iowa law that restricts giving explicit material to minors.
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She also took issue in the written comments over expletives in the book and its individual passages that describe pap smears as excruciating pain, pregnancy as a parasite and nightmares about menstruation. Patrick wrote that the she believed the book meant to “convince young girls to consider choosing to be genderless body haters who do not have children.”
Patrick told the board Monday that her initial thought was the school receives several books at a time, without time to review all of them, and that including “Gender Queer” was a mistake.
The previous review committees that decided to keep “Gender Queer” said the award-winning book has artistic merit meant to be an autobiographical coming-of-age story, not pornography. They found the images were being taken out of context, and the book could allow LGBTQ students to find support and a sense of belonging.
“I want to be very clear that I am supportive of books that students can connect and relate to,” Patrick said Monday. “I want everyone to feel like they fit in, and I want resources available to help kids navigate (those) challenging adolescent years where they are discovering who they are.”
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However, she said, students can still find literature to connect with in school libraries that do not contain images, language and adult situations like the ones in “Gender Queer.” She said she thinks there is a way to present sexual topics without going into graphic detail, but that “Gender Queer” crosses a line.
“I’m not here to censor our First Amendment rights or say this book shouldn’t exist,” Patrick said. “It is available at public libraries, book stores and online booksellers. However, I do not believe that books with these pornographic images should be allowed in our school libraries for kids as young as 14 to check out while the justification is that, overall, the book is good, therefore allowing a few instances of questionable content is okay.
“If you tolerate some images and language for the greater good, where will that tolerance end?” she said.
More:Iowa senator calls for felony penalty for distribution of ‘obscene’ materials in schools
Board member Jeff Hicks said that Iowa law on obscenity carves out exceptions for educational material and content that, taken as a whole, has artistic and literary value.
Hicks wondered about parents taking offense to other topics that might come up in books, like suicide. He said that having an appeal focused on specific images that are not appropriate for young teens at Southwoods would be one conversation, but that starting to use labels like “pornography,” “grooming” and “obscenity” changes things.
“Do you think our librarians are committing crimes by disseminating what you call pornography?” he said. Hicks said that it seemed insulting to teachers and others, who devote their lives to protecting children, to imply that they are distributing pornography.
Board member Fannette Elliott said that she looked at the examples of passages from “Gender Queer” that Patrick has brought up. She said that when looking at the pictures without reading the words, she could see the images as inappropriate.
“But when I sat down and I actually read the book — to not take the pictures out of context — this is really a coming-of-age book,” she said.
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Superintendent Lisa Remy reminded the board that families are able to request that their children not be able to check out certain books. And, under state law, Patrick can appeal the board’s decision to the Iowa Department of Education.
School districts across the country have confronted the issue of whether to take “Gender Queer” off library shelves, with mixed results. In Ankeny, a review committee decided to remove “Gender Queer” but keep other books that have been challenged.
Recent challenged books in the US often involve stories about LGBTQ people or people of color.
In Iowa, Republican legislators have pursued bills that would make changes to how schools and educators handle material for students. A bill that would involve charging teachers over books is dead, but a proposal requiring more disclosure of curriculum and materials is alive.
Chris Higgins covers the eastern suburbs for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-423-5146 and follow him on Twitter @chris_higgins_.