‘Gender Queer’ stays. District 99 board agrees to keep controversial book in school libraries

A "No Porn" placard is held up Monday night during the Community High School District 99 school board meeting. The board heard comments from several individuals in support and opposition to including "Gender Queer: A Memoir" in the school libraries. (Photo - Erica Benson)

The controversial book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” will remain on the library shelves at Downers Grove North and South high schools, the Community High School District 99 board decided Monday.

The board voted 7-0 to accept the recommendation of Superintendent Hank Thiele and an ad hoc committee to keep the book in the libraries despite protests and objections from some parents.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir,” written by Maia Kobabe, who is nonbinary, is a 239-page graphic novel designed to help others who are struggling with gender identity to feel less alone. The book also explores questions around pronouns and hormone-blocking therapies.

The book has been banned in Florida and Virginia school districts and challenged at schools in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington and Texas. More recently, a Republican lawyer and Virginia House of Delegates member filed a lawsuit on behalf of his client, Virginia congressional candidate Tommy Altman, to prevent children from getting ”Gender Queer: A Memoir” from private booksellers.

The formal objection process in District 99 started in November when an instructional materials challenge was filed by 15 parents.

District 99 residents turned out in large numbers at a November board meeting to protest the novel. But only five residents addressed the board at Monday’s meeting.

Resident Eileen Bryner told the board it was hypocritical to allow “Gender Queer” to remain in the library while rejecting her request to have pro-life books included on the shelves.

“So much for diversity of thought,” Bryner said. “Books that align with your ideas are fine, but books that are with a different viewpoint are excluded. You’re not educating here. You’re indoctrinating.”

Thiele said librarians considered Bryner’s book recommendations and one of them has been purchased and is in the libraries.

Parent Barb Allen also spoke out against the book.

“By providing ‘Gender Queer’ in the District 99 libraries, District 99 is in fact promoting oral sex, sexual exploration and sexual promiscuity,” Allen said in reference to graphic images included the book. “Make no mistake, this is not about inclusivity, this is not about giving students safe spaces. No sexually explicit materials should be provided by our schools regardless of sexual orientation.”

Thiele outlined the district’s review process for the book at the start of the meeting.

“The initial concerned parents met with the school principals and librarians on November 23, 2021,” Thiele said in a statement that was read at the meeting. “After listening to the objections as well as why the title was selected to be included in our collection, the [Downers Grove North and South] principals determined that the book does appeal to an audience within the schools and that it should remain in our collection. The principals also shared that students have the choice to check this book out or not; those who do and find it distasteful can return it and select another book to read.”

The objection process continued in February.

A curriculum reconsideration committee was formed “that included volunteer representative parent leaders from booster and parent organizations that had not weighed in on the book. The committee’s charge was to review the book and make a written recommendation to me, the superintendent,” Thiele said in a statement.

During the committee’s single meeting, which was held on March 16, the concerned parents and district librarians presented to the committee separately. Among the parents’ objections was that the book included child pornography, but the committee did not agree. In fact, the committee agreed that the book did not meet the legal definition of pornography and did not believe its intent was to “cause sexual excitement.”

“The committee deliberated and recommended not removing the book from the collection,” Thiele said.

The committee had the option to limit the educational use of the challenged material or remove all or part of the challenged material from district use.

“I believe ‘Gender Queer’ belongs in our libraries,” Thiele said. “I strongly agree with the key tenets of the committee’s recommendation.” Those tenets include:

  • 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.
  • Students and/or parents may opt out of individual titles at District 99 libraries at any time.
  • The intent of the book is not to cause sexual excitement nor does the book include child pornography or pornography of any kind. This material does not meet the criteria of pornography as the images are not presented with the intent to show a sexual act, to encourage a sexual act or to be lewd, but instead to illustrate one moment in the author’s sometimes difficult personal journey.
  • The book meets the educational and social-emotional benefits connected to the Collection Development Guidelines, the Equity Vision of District 99 and the District 99 Statement of Values, and their overarching themes of belonging and empathy.