When a battle began brewing last fall in Community High School District 99 over whether to keep the graphic novel “Gender Queer” on the library shelves because of its LGBTQ+ themes, student Julia Hanson didn’t know what the fuss was about.
The memoir recounts the journey of how author Maia Kobabe came to identify as gender non-binary and asexual.
“People spoke about ‘Gender Queer’ as this controversial book that was either disgusting or misjudged,” Hanson said. “Everyone had strong feelings, but I realized nobody had actually read the book. I didn’t want to be another person that had strong feelings without having read it.”
Denounced as pornographic by some District 99 parents, the controversial book even brought members of the far-right Proud Boys group to a school board meeting in November to protest.
Soon after, a committee was formed to evaluate the book, with members ultimately recommending it stay on the shelves at the Downers Grove North and South high school libraries. In June, the school board voted 7-0 to retain the book.
Hanson is one of five District 99 students, including Lauren Pierret, Tabitha Irvin, Josiah Poynter and Emily Hernandez, whose advocacy is credited for preventing “Gender Queer” from being banned by speaking out against censorship and in support of intellectual freedom at school board meetings, as well as publishing articles about the book challenge in the school newspaper.
Hanson and Irvin are seniors. The other three students have graduated from District 99.
Their efforts led them to winning the Illinois Library Association’s 2022 Intellectual Freedom Award, which recognizes an individual or group for outstanding contributions in defending intellectual freedom, according to an ILA news release.
“Their actions reflect the reality across the United States. The vast majority of Americans do not support book bans,” the release said.
The awards will be presented at a ceremony during the 2022 Illinois Library Association annual conference in October.
For Hanson, the rumblings from those on both sides of the controversy prompted her to read “Gender Queer” the night before the Nov. 15 school board meeting.
“By reading the book and not just seeing a few out-of-context graphic images, I was able to understand Kobabe’s purpose in being so transparent,” she said. “When people don’t read the book and label it as inappropriate, they completely ignore its usefulness and positive aspects.”
During the November meeting, Hanson said the microphone was positioned in front of a group of people holding signs reading “No Porn.”
“As I spoke, they scoffed, laughed, yelled and told me to find Jesus. I understand what it’s like to disagree with something to the point of infuriation. I wasn’t too bothered by them. Just nervous and disappointed in how adults were behaving. I was actually more nervous about what my peers might say the day after the board meeting, but they were much kinder and quieter,” she said.
Irvin, who got involved with the school newspaper during her sophomore and junior years at Downers Grove North, was first introduced to the District 99 Board of Education for an assignment.
“As a part of the honors curriculum of advanced journalism, students are required to attend two BOE meetings. Walking into the October board meeting with a notebook and pen in hand, I was wholly unprepared for the politically charged crossfire that ensued,” Irvin said. “Of course, I had previously heard stories that a slew of angry, passionate parents often spoke at the D-99 board meetings, but I knew nothing of the larger and more organized force behind these attacks.”
Her board meeting notes were only the beginning of what would become an in-depth front page story and a student-led movement for intellectual freedom.
“As more and more community members addressed the board, each one with seemingly less stake in the actual district, my passive curiosity turned into impassioned anger,” Irvin said. “I walked the halls of DGN every day, and yet, my voice was silenced by those with personal and political vendettas. I decided that I would voice my opinion at the November board meeting as I left the South Auditorium that October night.”
She began researching the right-wing group that claimed critical race theory influenced District 99 curriculum and that the school libraries contained pornographic material.
“As someone who had experienced both the good and bad at DGN, I was confused why my voice was significantly smaller than that of distant, outside perspectives,” Irvin said. “Once ‘Gender Queer’ was fed to the fire, the student body began voicing concerns. As someone who has long advocated for elevating the voices of my peers, I jumped on the opportunity to address the board. This decision was made weeks before I heard about all the news coverage it would receive, so it was definitely nerve-wracking to speak before a crowd of people vehemently opposed to my speech.”
Irvin spoke at both the November and December board meetings, and while she received some positive feedback, she also faced some challenges.
“Some of my classmates began assuming things about my political and social affiliations, which I didn’t appreciate,” she said. “For weeks after the November board meeting, I was also nervous about my safety and well-being. … My friends and I were screamed at by members of the Proud Boys while walking to our cars after the meeting.”
The experience has given Irvin more confidence in the realm of public speaking.
“Even speaking in front of a small class used to make me incredibly anxious, so this step forward is one that is very exciting to me,” she said. “Of course, I had never expected so many people to connect with or even listen to my speech, so my nerves increased a lot when I first entered the auditorium and was greeted with a massive audience.”
The situation also led her to become more entrenched in the political atmosphere of both Downers Grove and the nation.
“I’ve learned that adequate research is imperative when formulating opinions, a realization that’s helped me remain educated and knowledgeable on current news,” she said.
Hanson is glad she was able to be part of the rallying effort.
“In many cases, teenagers are not taken seriously or listened to. It’s important to advocate for your intellectual freedom because our board of education wants to hear our opinions,” she said. “When a well composed and articulated student speaks for what they believe, it means something.”
Hanson appreciates that she and her classmates were given a platform to express themselves.
“I’m proud of how we used it,” she said.
How has the experience changed her?
“Growing up, I thought adults were almost always right – because they’re adults,” Hanson said. “However everyone has their own unique experience and oftentimes we fail to recognize that. This experience taught me to share my opinion and to be the calm, mature voice. Adults are not inherently mature and correct, and kids are not inherently ignorant and incorrect.”