Wake County School Librarians Defend Contested LGBTQ Books

Some Wake County school librarians are advocating for several LGBTQ-themed books that some parents want removed from school libraries.

Parents in Wake County and across the country are challenging books, often with LGBTQ content, that they label as pornographic because of graphic language or sex-related imagery.

But a group of Wake County school librarians this week urged the county school board to dismiss the challenges and keep the books on the shelves.

“This board must decide what story will be told about WCPSS when the identities of our students have been challenged and access to books in our libraries has been compromised,” Chris Tuttell, the librarian at South Garner High School. “Have we spoken out for tolerance, empathy and compassion or have we remained silent?

“Our students watch and listen and they deserve a chart that shows them that our beliefs are not just words but actions.”

Critics, however, say the graphic content of the disputed books makes them unsuitable for school libraries.

“Remove books with extreme sexual content from school libraries,” Shelley Peele said in written public comments submitted for this week’s board meeting. “Why does a schoolboy need access to books describing how to engorge a clitoris with blood for orgasm or visual depictions of oral sex?”

Book challenges and legal complaints are being filed throughout North Carolina and the country.

A group of parents and community activists filed nine criminal complaints in December with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office accusing the school system of distributing obscene and pornographic material. Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman said she won’t press charges because she doesn’t believe the complaints rise to the level of a criminal case.

‘Lawn Boy’ challenged

Some of the targeted books include “Gender Queer: A Memoir”, “Lawn Boy” and “Melissa”, formerly called “George”. These books have already been criticized in North Carolina by Republican Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson and nationally for their sexual content.

Chad Slotta, a parent at Cary High School, had taken issue with the presence of Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” in the school library.

“Lawn Boy” is a coming-of-age story about a 22-year-old man who grows up in poverty. A News & Observer analysis of the book revealed that it contains three scenes involving sexual situations, including the main character recalling how, at the age of 10, he had oral sex with another boy during a a youth group gathering in their church.

A six-member committee made up of parents, teachers and Cary High staff unanimously rejected Slotta’s challenge. Slotta appealed the decision to a district review board, which in January backed Cary High on the grounds that the book has literary merit and contributes to diversity and representation of characters and experiences in the library collection.

Lawnboy.jpg
The Lawn Boy book by Jonathan Evison.

The district committee also pointed out that “Lawn Boy” is not used in classrooms, so reading it is voluntary.

Slotta told the school board last month that he planned to appeal Cary High’s decision. Slotta read aloud excerpts from “Lawn Boy”, saying the language would not be allowed if said in a classroom.

“We have a responsibility to protect and protect our children,” Slotta told the board. “Exposing them to obscene, sexually explicit and pornographic material harms their physical and emotional health by normalizing the sexualization of children and robbing them of their innocence.”

Wake County Public Libraries has dismissed a challenge against “Lawn Boy.” The library system briefly removed “Gender Queer” before putting it back into circulation while it reviews the process for handling book challenges.

“Gender Queer” is a graphic novel, or story told in comic book form, about the journey of author Maia Kobabe who identifies as non-binary and asexual. An analysis by The News & Observer found “some sexual scenes in this book, as well as some illustrations involving nudity and erotic scenarios”.

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“Gender Queer: A Memoir”, by Maia Kobabe. Oni Press TNS

Book challenges ‘harming students’

Amid the challenges, several Wake County school librarians attended this week’s board meeting to advocate that keeping these books helps LGBTQ students in the district.

Julie Stivers, the librarian at Mt. Vernon Middle School in Raleigh, called the challenge book an attempt to deny the ability of LGBTQ students to see themselves reflected in the books of their libraries and classrooms.

“These challenges target Black, Latina and queer stories,” said Stivers, Wake County School System Librarian of the Year. “Not only does this harm students whose identities are portrayed authentically and thoughtfully in this literature, it harms all students who fail to learn and develop empathy.”

Stivers read comments she said were from students who wanted the books kept. Students shared how having LGBTQ books makes them want to read again and makes them feel safe and seen.

“I mean people know that reading something in a book doesn’t mean we’re going to do it, right?” Stivers said reading one of the students’ comments. “Do they realize that I’m reading about dragons and not starting to breathe fire?”

But Peele, one of the parents who wants the books taken down, said in his comments that ‘this is not anti-LGBTQ propaganda’.

“It’s not about censoring ideas,” Peele continued. “This is one of the most basic and non-refutable arguments that simply cannot be ignored. You are indeed selling pornography to our children.

Some want to “fire” librarians

Oral and written public comments from the various school librarians have drawn both praise and criticism.

Some thanked the librarians, saying they make sure student voices are heard.

“A powerful plea from WCPSS school librarians at last night’s board meeting in response to the recent flurry of book challenges, most targeting LGBTQ+ titles,” said Casey Rawson , Assistant Professor of Library Science Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, tweeted Wednesday. “So grateful for the hard work these folks do to make sure ALL students are represented in the library.”

But some have called for school librarians to be fired.

“The position of these woke librarians is that pornography should be allowed in schools,” said Jon Warren, Republican candidate for the US Senate. tweeted Wednesday. “I get it. Now fire them.

This story was originally published February 4, 2022 3:59 p.m.

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T. Keung Hui has been covering K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. Its primary focus is Wake County, but it also covers statewide education issues.

About Joey J. Hott

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