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JCPS board considers request to ban book

"Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe is the biggest target of book bans in the U.S., according to the American Libraries Association.
"Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe is the biggest target of book bans in the U.S., according to the American Libraries Association.

A Jefferson County Public Schools appeals board is considering a resident’s request to ban a book from school libraries. The book in question, “Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, is a graphic memoir about Kobabe’s experience as a preteen discovering they are nonbinary.

Activists say the book amounts to pornography.

“Accepting and loving children does not mean putting pornography in their hands,” Jefferson County resident Miranda Stovall told the appeals board during a hearing Thursday. “What adult would want to rob someone of their childhood innocence?”

School administrators and librarians say it’s important to carry books with LGBTQ characters. But those books have become targets of some conservative activists and parents. Book bans and challenges are up nationwide since 2021, dovetailing with the rise of conservative activism against equity initiatives.

“Gender Queer” was the No. 1 most challenged book in America in 2021, according to the American Library Association.

All books in the top 10 most challenged are centered on issues of gender identity, sexuality, race or racism. 

Stovall’s concerns

Stovall said she became aware of “Gender Queer” as a member of a “large group of concerned parents, and citizens, grandparents, taxpayers.”

Stovall is a member of Jefferson County Kids Matter, a Facebook group that began in 2020 to advocate for a return to in-person classes during the pandemic. The group has since evolved into an organizing space for conservative activism in education. Many group members overlap with the Louisville Tea Party.

The Site-Based Decision Making Councils (SBDMs) at Phoenix School of Discovery and Liberty High School denied Stovall’s initial requests to pull the book. So she went to the SBDM appeals board.

During Thursday’s hearing, Stovall told the board her issue with “Gender Queer” is that it includes drawings of the protagonist’s sexual fantasies. Those drawings are explicit and depict sex acts, use of sex toys, and a reference to a pornography website.

“I looked up Kink.com,” Stovall told the board. “And the first thing that comes up is ‘Pick your porn: straight or gay.’ So this book literally has the potential to lead children as young as 14 years old to actual pornography on the internet.”

Stovall’s lawyer, Clinton Elliott, argued that the book is “obscene matter” under Kentucky state law, and that the library carrying it amounts to “distribution of obscene matter to a minor,” a Class A misdemeanor.

Appeals board chair and teacher Maddie Shepard pushed back, noting that to be classified as obscene, the law says the matter has to meet a number of criteria. One of the criteria states that the material “taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

“I don’t see this book coming anywhere near that,” Elliott said. 

‘Suppression leads to oppression’

Lynn Reynolds, executive director of Library Media Services for JCPS, urged the SBDM appeals board to keep “Gender Queer” on the shelves.

“Every parent has the right to decide the parameters they are comfortable with when it comes to their own children’s reading habits and what they would like their children exposed to,” Reynolds said. 

“But they do not get to choose for the other parents.”

Reynolds said it’s important for school librarians to keep “Gender Queer” and other books with LGBTQ characters in stock because they allow marginalized children to feel seen, and build understanding across different students.

She pointed to the high rate of suicide among LGTBQ youth.

“Banning and censoring books divides us, engenders hate and mistrust, and isolates those who are marginalized,” she said. “This produces suppression of ideas, and suppression leads to oppression.”

Reynolds also called on board members to consider the First Amendment implications in their decision, and the precedent it will set.

The appeals board has 60 days to reach a decision.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.

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