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‘Book-banning’ measure nears final passage in Ky. General Assembly

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

Supporters say Senate Bill 5 is meant to protect children. Opponents ask, which children?

Kentucky parents would be able to challenge school materials they think are “harmful” to kids under a bill nearing final passage in the state legislature.

The Kentucky House Education Committee advanced Senate Bill 5 on Monday, meaning local school boards are one step closer to having to set up a complaint process for parents to report “obscene” materials, including books that contain “written descriptions of sexual acts.”

The measure has already passed out of the Senate and now only needs to be approved by the full House before heading to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear's desk.

Rep. Josh Calloway, a Republican from Irvington and supporter of the bill, said it’s “absolutely beyond important” to prevent so-called “pornographic” content from entering schools.

“This is not just parents — some parents — that have different ideas out in our society. This is absolutely sexualizing our children. That's what's taking place,” he said.

Some conservatives are seeking to remove titles that center LGBTQ characters from school libraries across the country, saying the materials are pornographic.

Calloway, who is sponsoring another sweeping anti-LGBTQ measure in the House, made specific reference to the book “Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe about growing up trans and nonbinary. Within its 200-plus pages, the book contains a few depictions of the protagonist’s sexual fantasies. The book has been challenged in middle and high schools in Jefferson County.

Those testifying in support of the measure, like Jerry Gearding of the conservative Campbell County group Moms for Liberty, said the bill is needed to shield children from the sexual content in books like “Gender Queer.”

“Kids don't need to see sexual, and read sexual content. They don't think about those things when they're that age,” Gearding said. “It goes back to just, you know, we're protecting kids.”

But opponents of the bill say it will do the opposite, and harm LGBTQ students, who they say need to see themselves in the books their librarians stock.

“Which children are we trying to protect?” asked Brenda Rosen, testifying on behalf of the Kentucky Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.

Rosen noted that LGBTQ youth have astoundingly high rates of suicide, due to lack of acceptance by their communities and society at large.

A 2022 survey by the Trevor Project found 45% of LGTBQ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide in the previous year. For trans and nonbinary youth, more than half have considered suicide.

“What about the child that needs that book? That that book might be something that helps to sustain, to support, to engage, educate and empower,” she said.

Mason Chernosky, who is trans, told the committee he used to check out identity-affirming books from the school library as a kid. He said he couldn’t tell his parents because they didn’t embrace his gender identity.

“The acceptance that I saw in those books was so important for me as a child, and I want every child all across Kentucky to have the same access to those books,” he said.

Emma Curtis, a trans woman who lives in Lexington, said she fears the bill could erase trans people from school curriculum. Some conservative lawmakers falsely believe that trans people are “inherently sexual,” she said.

“If I were a character in a novel, one that did not depict any sexual acts, you would still find the depiction of my existence, ‘patently offensive to the prevailing standards regarding what is suitable for minors,’” she said, quoting language from the bill.

Laura Obrien, who showed up to testify in support of the measure, said the bill is not meant to be discriminatory.

“We're not talking about the little second-grade books that talk about two daddies,” she said. “We're talking about graphic, violent, sexually inappropriate books that do not need to be in there.”

Other supporters’ remarks were more explicitly homophobic.Mirna Eads, with conservative education group Moms for Liberty, claimed educators were allowing “porn” into schools, which she said “introduces teens to same-sex intercourse,” along with “bestiality,” and “sexual violence.”

According to the Kentucky Lantern, Moms for Liberty Campbell County has successfully challenged and removed three books from Campbell County’s public school libraries, all about young people who experienced sexual assault.

SB 5 would allow parents to challenge books, materials or events if they appeal to a “prurient interest,” a phrase used in obscenity laws.

Democratic Rep. Tina Bojanowski, of Louisville, asked the bill sponsor, Republican Sen. Jason Howell of Murray to define the term.

“Would you consider that anything related to homosexuality?” she asked.

“The best part about it is I don't really have to define it,” Howell responded. “We leave that evaluation to the local school boards.”

The GOP-controlled committee passed SB 5 along party lines, with a vote of 16-4. It heads next to the House Floor.

If passed, the bill would go to Gov. Beshear’s desk. He'll have the opportunity to veto the measure, but it’s very easy to override a governor’s veto in Kentucky, only taking a majority of members in each chamber.

Support for this story was provided in part by theJewish Heritage Fund.

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