Suburban Chicago school board keeps ‘Gender Queer’ book that conservative parents, Proud Boys wanted banned

The dispute has roiled the Downers Grove high school district, particularly at a rowdy board meeting at which adults in one case called a student a “pedophile.”

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Protestors against “Gender Queer” hold up signs during a school board meeting, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021 at North High School in Downers Grove.

Protestors against “Gender Queer” hold up signs during a school board meeting, Monday, Nov. 15, 2021 at North High School in Downers Grove.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

A west suburban school board unanimously voted this week to keep a book on sexual orientation and gender identity in its libraries after a group of conservative parents and members of the far-right Proud Boys group raised objections over the past few months.

The dispute has roiled the Downers Grove high school district, particularly at a rowdy November board meeting at which adults in one case called a student a “pedophile.”

The book in question is called “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel that has been targeted by conservatives nationwide. It’s an autobiography about nonbinary author Maia Kobabe’s journey of gender identity as a teenager and young adult. A few pages that include illustrations of sex 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 efforts to ban it as censorship.

The book is not part of the curriculum at either Community High School District 99 school, Downers North or Downers South.

But a group of 15 parents challenged its availability in the school libraries. Parents held signs reading “No Porn” at the November board meeting and said the book represented “indoctrination” of their children. The Sun-Times later confirmed 10 members of the extremist Proud Boys gang were also in attendance, including a leader of the group’s northern Illinois chapter who was at the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C. and another who had been charged with brandishing a knife at a Black Lives Matter demonstration.

Hank Thiele, the district’s superintendent, told the school board at a meeting Wednesday that principals and librarians at the two schools met with the concerned parents in late November. The principals decided to keep the book, but the challenge continued.

In February, a committee of seven parent volunteers — not among those who had complained — was formed to hear the arguments and make a recommendation. Those parents were among 30 in parent and booster organizations who were asked to participate, Thiele said. Nancy Kupka, the school board president, said the committee was fairly selected: “A lot of notes have come in about Dr. Thiele stacking the committee, and he certainly did not. Let’s be clear about that.”

The librarians and the parents who had lodged the challenge presented their cases, and the committee recommended not removing the book. Thiele made the same recommendation in this week’s 22-minute meeting convened solely for a vote on “Gender Queer.”

“District 99 libraries should continue to be safe spaces for students, to develop and champion beliefs of all individuals and to elevate students and readers of all levels, through text or graphic novels alike,” Thiele said.

Thiele told the board the book isn’t intended to “cause sexual excitement,” as some parents had alleged, it doesn’t include child pornography or porn of any kind, and it meets the district’s educational and social-emotional guidelines.

With little discussion, the board voted unanimously, 7-0, to keep “Gender Queer” in the two schools’ libraries.

About a half-dozen people addressed the board during the public comment portion of the meeting ahead of the vote. Stephen Magnusson, a recent alum, made the case against banning the novel.

“I go by gender fluid, that’s the gender I work with. Personally I have struggled a lot with that and my mental health over a long period of time,” Magnusson said. “Having a book like ‘Gender Queer’ would’ve been really nice for me when I was actually going here still. It might have helped me sooner come to terms with who I am as a person and help a lot with my personal mental health struggles and my issues with suicide.

“It’s very important that people should have the opportunity to learn more about who they are and they should also be able to learn more about people around them,” Magnusson said. “I don’t think you should be stopping [students] from learning what they are because all that does is make them hurt. ... The idea of removing a book about finding out who you are and going on a journey is backwards to me.”

Eileen Bryner, who identified herself as a resident, accused the district of ignoring her recommendation for an anti-abortion book to be added to the libraries. “So much for diversity of thought. Books that align with your ideas are fine. But books that are with a different viewpoint are excluded,” she said.

Thiele told the board a few minutes later that librarians had responded to Bryner and purchased one of her recommended books for the library.

Contributing: Tom Schuba

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