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Culture wars explode in Chicago suburb after protesters call H.S. library book ‘porn,’ but students decry censorship

Hundreds of people packed a Downers Grove District 99 High School board meeting Monday where some parents demanded the book, “Gender Queer,” be removed from library shelves — but students asked the board to keep it.

Protesters attend a Downers Grove North High School Board meeting Monday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Attacks on literature about race and gender that have spread throughout the country in recent weeks made their way to a west suburban high school board meeting Monday night as conservative protesters and some parents objected to the availability of a book on sexual orientation and gender identity in the school library.

The graphic novel they targeted, “Gender Queer,” is one of several works that have come under fire nationwide as part of a larger movement by conservative politicians, activists, commentators and small networks of parents to denounce and ban progressive teachings in schools.

Some critics have claimed children were being exposed to “homoerotic” or “pornographic” language and images. “Gender Queer” is an autobiography about author Maia Kobabe’s journey of gender identity as a teenager and young adult. A few pages that include illustrations of sexual acts have drawn the bulk of the ire, while other students, parents and community members see the book as a vital tool for youth discovering their identity and any efforts to ban it as censorship.

The opposition has turned school boards into battlegrounds for social fallout, from books to COVID-19 protocols such as masking and vaccination, to more recently mental and emotional health programs. In some cases, school board members have been threatened and needed police protection.

The Chicago area had largely avoided those dust-ups until Monday, when about 200 people packed into an auditorium with police officers and security at Downers Grove North High School for the Community High School District 99 board’s monthly meeting.

About a third of the crowd held “NO PORN” signs and posters showing illustrations and excerpts from “Gender Queer.” The first grumbling came at the very start of the meeting — and another few times over the next couple hours — when board president Nancy Kupka repeatedly asked attendees to put on masks. Groans and shouts also came when people realized an American flag wasn’t on display for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Members of the Proud Boys — a far-right neo-fascist group which has recently latched onto school board protests around the country — promoted the meeting on a messaging app commonly used by far-right activists and urged each other to attend, according to screenshots posted to social media. It’s unclear whether any members of the group showed up.

The school board did not plan to discuss or vote on any items regarding “Gender Queer” — the book was solely brought up during the public speaker portion of the meeting. Supt. Hank Thiele, addressing the topic before people shared their views, said “Gender Queer” met the district’s requirements for inclusion in its library, and it was not part of any class’ required reading. Only one copy of the book is available for check-out at each library at Downers North and Downers South high schools, which combined serve nearly 5,000 students.

But administrators will review the book once again since two formal challenges have been filed, he said.

In the public speaker portion of the meeting, Thiele called those who were Downers Grove residents first, before outsiders. Among that initial group, which included several students, all but three speakers showed support for “Gender Queer.”

Downers Grove North students Josiah Poynter (left), Lauren Pierret (middle) and Tabitha Irvin (right) were among those who spoke in favor of allowing the book “Gender Queer” to remain in the school’s library.
Downers Grove North students Josiah Poynter (left), Lauren Pierret (middle) and Tabitha Irvin (right) were among those who spoke in favor of allowing the book “Gender Queer” to remain in the school’s library.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Lauren Pierret, a 17-year-old senior at Downers Grove North, said she didn’t know “Gender Queer” existed until last week.

“This isn’t being forced upon your kids, but it gives kids who would be interested in this story a choice to read it,” she said.

Pierret also questioned why other books that feature sex scenes such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “Angela’s Ashes” were available in the library but not facing the same criticism.

“Let’s not present getting rid of ‘Gender Queer’ as censoring our children from sex,” she told the school board. “It’s homophobia.”

Josiah Poynter, an 18-year-old senior at Downers North, said he understands “this novel has scenes in it that are mature and sexual to say the least, [but] it’s not like we haven’t been given books with sex in them before.

“Inclusion matters to young people,” he told the school board. “This is why we must have this book in our school’s library. Inclusion brings an opportunity to grow in a safe environment. It brings comfort to people who feel unsolved and cast out.”

Tabitha Irvin, a junior at Downers North, said she felt it was “ironic” that people wearing American flag masks, hats and shirts were at the meeting calling for a book to be banned when, in her view, the issue was about free speech.

Linda Schranz, a longtime Downers Grove resident who said her daughter graduated from District 99, said “despite the noise in the community” she believes it’s a small minority who disagree with the board’s policies.

Schranz volunteers with Youth Outlook, a suburban-based nonprofit that supports LGBTQ youth, and said she sees “Gender Queer” and similar books “as an opportunity for a child who may be exploring or questioning [their identity] to take a look and look at more information.”

Terry Newsome, a Darien resident who said he has a son and daughter at Downers South, said his concerns about “Gender Queer” are not homophobic. If the book was only about LGBTQ students coming out, “parents wouldn’t have an issue with it,” he said.

“The problem is ... this is liberal code for teaching children how to perform oral sex, anal sex, wear strap-on dildos,” he said. “These graphic images are totally unacceptable regardless of their gender or sexuality.

“It’s not your right to decide if our minor children should have access to pornography.”

Before the meeting, one dad, who asked not to be named, said in an interview he had watched YouTube videos about “Gender Queer” and said it was “sick” to have the book available for high schoolers, claiming it “teaches kids how to be gay.” A mother said she was there to protest “medical tyranny,” while another parent repeated a recent talking point in the Virginia gubernatorial race that parents don’t know enough about the curriculum their kids are taught.

The American Library Association recently honored “Gender Queer” as a text with “special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” The book’s publisher says it is appropriate for high-school aged teenagers.

Virginia’s largest school district removed “Gender Queer” from its high school libraries earlier this fall while it considers parents’ concerns, while a Florida district banned it altogether and schools in New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington are among others that have heard challenges. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster told the state’s education department last week to investigate the book he deemed “sexually explicit” and “pornographic.” The banning of books in schools featured prominently in Virginia’s gubernatorial race.

Kobabe, the author of “Gender Queer,” wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed addressing the backlash that the book was originally meant for Kobabe’s parents and extended family to help them understand what it meant to be nonbinary. Then it became clear queer teenagers could benefit from the relatable story.

“By high school, I had met multiple out gay, lesbian and bisexual people, but I didn’t meet an out trans or nonbinary person until I was in grad school,” Kobabe wrote. “The only place I had access to information and stories about transgender people was in media — mainly, in books.”

Protesters hold signs with panels from “Gender Queer” at a Downers Grove North High School board meeting Monday.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times