Education

Anchorage School District bans ‘Gender Queer’ book from its libraries

The Anchorage School District superintendent pulled a book from district libraries last week, one that’s been banned from several school districts around the country after calls from conservative leaders and parents to remove it from shelves.

In a letter to the district this week, Superintendent Deena Bishop announced her decision to remove the graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, a nonbinary and queer author, from the district’s circulation.

Bishop pulled the book after a complaint from Anchorage resident Pete Brown. Brown emailed School Board President Margo Bellamy about his concerns with the book at the end of October. Bellamy then sent Brown’s message to Bishop.

There was one copy of the book in a school district library, according to Bishop. A spokesman for the district did not answer a question about which school’s library the book was in. He also did not say what grade levels the book had been available to for checkout.

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In her message to the district, Bishop said that after she became aware of a community member’s concern about the book, she requested a team begin a research and review process that took place Nov. 1 though Nov. 10. On Nov. 11, Bishop decided to remove it from circulation, she said.

“The review process determined the book contained adult material, is not appropriate for our school libraries, and will not be in circulation at ASD,” Bishop said.

A school district spokesman said that the district purchased the book in a batch purchase of a library association “award winners” package, a common practice in libraries, and said that it was not deliberately requested by a librarian.

The book is Kobabe’s autobiography and explores themes of self-identity and what it means to be nonbinary and asexual. The book’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, describes it as appropriate for grades 10 and up. It is a “journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears,” according to the publisher. The book delves into sex and contains some comic illustrations of sex acts.

Brown, in his email to Bellamy, called the material in the book “graphic and objectionable,” according to the Alaska Landmine. Brown, when reached by Facebook message, said he was traveling and unable to immediately comment.

One student had checked the book out, Bellamy said in an interview.

Bellamy said that so far in her tenure as a board member since 2019, no other book has been pulled from shelves district-wide.

“I can’t personally recall an objectionable book in the last 10 years in the Anchorage School District,” she said.

“Gender Queer” has evoked fury and concern from some parents — one parent in Washington state even called for school officials to be criminally prosecuted for including the book in a school library and described the book as “graphic pornography to include pedophilia,” according to the Kitsap Sun. (The county prosecutor did not file charges.)

In some school districts, students and others have defended “Gender Queer,” saying the push to remove it is rooted in homophobia.

Kobabe discussed the controversy over the book in an editorial published by the Washington Post and challenged the idea that the book is pornographic, noting that it is “a common accusation against work with themes of queer sexuality.”

“Queer youth are often forced to look outside their own homes, and outside the education system, to find information on who they are. Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health,” Kobabe wrote.

Condemnation of the book appeared recently on a Facebook group for ALASKA Parents’ Rights In Education, a local branch of an Oregon-based nonprofit.

Members of the Facebook group have also been discussing other cultural flashpoints, including requiring masks in schools, vaccination requirements and critical race theory.

Some members of the group this week have been discussing challenging other books on ASD shelves.

Parents’ Rights In Education challenges some states’ sex education curriculums and vaccine requirements, has been outspoken on the topic of critical race theory, and takes issue with “extreme focus on LGBTQ initiatives” which it says has “created an unintended backlash,” marginalizing some students for holding “traditional viewpoints,” among its other issues.

MJ Thim, spokesman for the school district, said by email that Bishop’s decision was not about sexual orientation and was “solely based on the graphic content in the book and how it’s not appropriate for our school libraries.”

The district “fully supports the LGBTQ community. It has worked hard to create an inclusive classroom environment for all students. ASD has many books in circulation with subjects about the LGBTQ community, sexual orientation, gender identity and more,” Thim said.

“Publications on all types of subjects have been removed in the past,” he said.

He did not respond to questions about what other books have been pulled from its shelves or what other books have been banned for adult material. He also did not say who took part in the review process of the book or what the process entailed.

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When asked for examples of other LGBTQ and gender identity themed books that the school district keeps on its library shelves, Thim sent a link to the district’s online catalog.

A search shows the district has several books on LGBTQ and gender identity themes.

A search of the Anchorage Public Library’s collection shows that “Gender Queer” is available for checkout at several city library locations and as an eBook.

The district’s Teaching and Learning Department is gathering a committee to review its processes regarding controversial issues and materials, Thim said.

Bellamy said it’s unusual for the school board to directly hear concerns about a book, and it’s much more common for parents to take up issues with controversial materials at the school level with librarians and principals.

“As a former school librarian myself, librarians talk to parents all the time about what they believe is appropriate and not appropriate, and they work it out,” Bellamy said.

In some cases, books are removed or restricted to higher grade levels, she said.

In this case, Brown went straight to the school board president with his concerns.

“That particular book — I heard about it long before this situation surfaced in ASD,” Bellamy said of “Gender Queer.”

She’d become aware of controversy in other school districts surrounding the book, but did not know it had been stocked by a district library, she said.

“We depend on our our community to bring controversial issues or issues that they have concerned with, we want them to bring them forward. And we want to address it,” Bellamy said. “I think the process worked in this case.”

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