Images in gender identity book at heart of debate in Downers Grove high schools

Darien resident Terry Newsome stepped to the microphone during Monday night's Community High School District 99 school board meeting and made abundantly clear his feelings about the inclusion of the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” in the district's two high school libraries.

“You and your friends are trying to convince us that ‘Gender Queer,' a child pornographic sketchbook, is acceptable in our schools under the pretense of inclusion and comedy,” Newsome told the board. “Additionally, you say it's OK because it is not assigned reading. It's only in the library. None of this justifies offering our children pornography.”

Newsome said parents aren't opposed to books that deal solely with children coming out. Rather, it is the illustrations featured in “Gender Queer” that have sparked outrage among some.

“It's not your right to decide if our minor children should have access to pornography,” he said.

Newsome wasn't alone in his displeasure over the graphic novel's availability to students at Downers Grove North and South high schools.

Several individuals sitting in the Downers Grove North Auditorium displayed placards throughout the meeting that said “No Porn” while others held large posters featuring graphics in the book that depict two teenage boys engaged in a sexual act.

“Tell me how these pictures are educational in any purpose,” Downers Grove resident Jim Devitt said. “This is pornography plain and simple and it does not belong in our schools.”

Author Maia Kobabe, who is nonbinary, wrote the 239-page graphic novel to help others who are struggling with gender identity to feel less alone. The book also explores questions around pronouns and hormone-blocking therapies.

Complaints about “Gender Queer” are the latest chapter in a fight conservative activists have brought to the monthly school board meetings over the past several months.

District 99 Superintendent Hank Thiele said the book “meets the criteria for inclusion in our library under the guidelines of our collection development policy.” He added that it is not required reading in the district's curriculum.

The district has received two objection forms regarding the book, which has been the subject of protests in school districts across the country as education becomes the new battleground for right-wing activists.

The book has been banned in Florida and Virginia school districts and challenged at schools in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington and Texas. Meanwhile, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster last week urged his state Department of Education to remove the book from school shelves, calling it “obscene and pornographic.”

But several individuals who attended Monday's meeting, including District 99 students, addressed the school board in support of the book.

Julia Hanson, a junior at Downers Grove North, said she recently read the book and opposed its banning.

“It is not OK to diminish the accessibility of new ideas to students,” Hanson said.

Downers Grove resident Jill Bartelmay said students should have the choice to check out books and materials at the library.

“As parents, it's our job to make sure they follow our wishes. It's called parenting,” Bartelmay said.

“They know what's best for them,” she continued. “They know what they can figure out. That's what high school is for. They come here. This is the time of their life between being a kid and becoming an adult. When they leave here they are expected to become an adult. They sure as heck can figure out what books they can read and cannot read. And it's not for us the decide what's accessible to them because we find it inappropriate.”

Kylie Spahn, a Downers Grove resident, said calls to ban the book “is part of an effort to target and marginalize the Pride community.”

“They are not calling for the banning of graphic novels that depict hetero sex. They are solely targeting books that represent the Pride community,” Spahn said of the group opposed to “Gender Queer.”

She added that high school students are expected to make big decisions and take on a growing number of responsibilities, “yet we have a small group of parents who believe students are childlike when it comes to selecting literature.”

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