Pinellas school district orders removal of ‘Gender Queer’ book

The book has become a “political football” in other schools across the state and nation.
"Gender Queer: A Memoir," was written by Maia Kobabe.
"Gender Queer: A Memoir," was written by Maia Kobabe. [ ONI PRESS | TNS ]
Published Nov. 19, 2021|Updated Nov. 19, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pinellas County school district has instructed two high schools to take the LGBTQ coming-of-age graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir off their library shelves.

The district did not receive any formal complaints about the book, and did not follow its procedure for when a book is challenged for removal.

However, the district said in a statement that it learned a Lakewood High School parent had raised concerns about the title, prompting a district-level review by the Teaching and Learning Services division, which is led by associate superintendent Kevin Hendrick.

“Due to the graphic illustrated sexual nature of some of the content, the book was deemed to not be age-appropriate for all high school students,” the district said in a statement. It said it regularly does administrative reviews of school materials.

The district said Gender Queer remains available to teachers and other school staff.

Other school systems around the state and nation also have removed the book from circulation amid calls from conservative leaders and some parents over what they say are inappropriate illustrations and sexual content.

The Lakewood High School student newspaper first broke the news about the book being removed from that school’s library. The book also was in Dunedin High’s library.

Lakewood High media specialist Heather Robinson said Friday that her supervisor called her late last week and said district leadership had decided the schools needed to “weed” the book from the collections. Robinson said she had heard from one student about parental concerns, but that the family did not pursue the issue.

‘Weeding’ books usually means culling materials that are outdated, irrelevant and unused, Robinson said. But she said she just purchased the book last year.

The graphic novel is about author Maia Kobabe’s coming to grips with sexuality as a youth. In one key passage, Kobabe — who uses the pronouns e/em/eir — writes about trying to figure out: Am I a gay boy trapped in a girl’s body, or is there a third non-binary option?

“It’s definitely a very timely book for our students,” said Robinson, who also serves as the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club sponsor.

It’s also one that has become a “political football” in recent months, said Nora Pelizzari, spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Censorship, a New York-based organization that intervenes on behalf of people and groups facing censorship in their communities.

“It’s almost become an easy entry point to censoring more LGBT books and any books with sexual content,” Pelizzari said of Gender Queer, noting that the book does have some sexually explicit references and imagery in it — including an illustration of two boys kissing while apparently nude.

Pelizzari viewed the rising controversy over this title and others as a backlash to school districts’ efforts to broaden the diversity of their book collections to represent more groups and viewpoints. The Pinellas district has touted its initiative to be more inclusive in its selections, though officials have noted some pushback from the community.

Related: Will strong DeSantis views on race stop Florida schools’ diversity push?

The Hillsborough County school district has Gender Queer in a “handful” of high schools, spokesperson Tanya Arja said. The Pasco County school district does not have the title in its collection, spokesperson Steve Hegarty said.

Pinellas School Board member Nicole Carr, a former high school administrator, said it’s critical that the district follow its prescribed process any time a book is proposed for removal.

Just this week, the district trained its media specialists on that process.

“We do not want to get in the habit of banning books,” said Carr, who was not familiar with the reasons for the administrative action. “We want to make sure our process is well-defined, uniform and consistently followed.”

That didn’t happen in this case, Robinson said.

That alarmed colleague Ginger Brengle, a media specialist at Pinellas Park High, which did not have Gender Queer on its shelves.

“I’m extremely disappointed in our district for not following the policy it just instructed us to use,” Brengle said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that school libraries, unlike school curriculum, are places for voluntary inquiry, meaning a district’s discretion over what is taught in the classroom does not extend to the library.

The court found that reading is an implied First Amendment right, so the curation of the materials cannot be based on personal viewpoints.

That’s why schools have review processes, Pelizzari said.

“When you pull a book off the library shelf, you’re dictating what other peoples’ kids are allowed to read,” she said. “That can’t be allowed to happen.”

Robinson said parents can choose to prohibit a book for their child only — something the school can do with a note in a computer file.

Angela Dubach, president of the Moms for Liberty Pinellas chapter, has questioned the availability of other books, including All Boys Aren’t Blue, a series of essays by George M. Johnson, a queer author.

“Parents don’t want books banned. They just want to restrict the age limits on what’s available to who,” said Dubach, adding that whether children read books about sex should be up to their parents, not the schools.

Maya Rish, editor-in-chief of Lakewood High’s student newspaper, said students were “really shocked” to learn Gender Queer had been pulled from circulation.

She said plenty of books aimed at teens discuss sexuality and gender identity. She speculated that Gender Queer — a book that friends who read it told her was a “really great memoir” — got extra attention because it has drawings.

“I have had people, friends of mine, people who have read the post, say ‘Okay, I’m buying this book right now,’” Rish said. “When something is removed from circulation, it makes people want to check it out more.”

Gender Queer author Kobabe recently lamented efforts across the nation to censor the book, which Kobabe wrote is aimed at an audience of high school or older.

“Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health,” Kobabe wrote in The Washington Post.

• • •

Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!

Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.