Imagine a library without “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Harry Potter,” “Animal Farm,” or “Fahrenheit 51”. Librarians Janet Hamilton and Julie Hooper do their best to contribute reading materials to the school in an environment that has become increasingly wary about equal education on social issues. But if you start to see a lack of representation in the school library, a lack of independent ideas and educational resources, then look no further than the battle against “Gender Queer: A Memoir”.
Fort Mill and Rock Hill schools have been impacted by investigations into South Carolina school libraries by the state’s Department of Education as directed by Gov. Henry McMaster.
The graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by author Maia Kobabe is a tale of growing up and struggling with sexuality and gender identity. The book has been heralded as a gripping reflection of the queer experience, as well as a resource for any of those struggling with questions of sexuality or gender. The memoir’s place in schools has been scrutinized in several other states, including Florida, Texas, and Virigina. The debate has now been brought to South Carolina when Gov. Henry McMaster brought special attention to the subject in his tweet on Nov. 10, 2021 to what he called “…pornographic and obscene materials”. Since being brought to the attention of the Superintendent of Education for South Carolina Molly Spearman, the memoir has been removed from Fort Mill and Rock Hill School libraries (despite being checked out a total of once at only Nation Ford).
In light of upcoming elections, politicians are using the issue to drum up support, which puts them in opposition to the First Amendment and the rights of a student’s access to educational materials. Reading books is not a political issue but an issue of censorship that has been presented to the state and students.
Here are the facts: After the monumental court ruling on the subject of book banning, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982), the Supreme Court made the decision that “On the principle that the Constitution protects the right to receive information and ideas,” an American public school will not participate against banning books based on any content deemed too ‘controversial’ to be put on school shelves.
This decision, written by Justice William J. Brennan, means that the removal of books from the shelves of a public school library intrudes on students’ First Amendment rights, in part because of “the special characteristics of the school library” (Justice Brennan, 1982). Brennan then concluded that school officials may not exercise their discretion to remove books from a school library based on “narrowly partisan or political” grounds because doing so would amount to an “official suppression of ideas.”
It was also agreed upon by a fellow judge, Justice Harry Blackmun, that while the school library was considered within the district itself and not an independent entity, school officials’ removal of books for “…restricting access to political ideas or social perspectives discussed in them, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved” (Blackmun, 1982) is a violation of the First Amendment.
Now let’s apply this case to what we as students, teachers, and administrators are seeing today. The book in question has already been marked as age-restricted for grades 10 and above by the red dot system, which is a red sticker on the spine of a book indicating it contains more mature or explicit material. “Gender Queer: A Memoir” is about the queer experience, and is the first time a book has been removed from the Nation Ford Library.
This isn’t just a local occurrence, but instead a nation-wide phenomenon in which school boards are targeting books about people of color, LGBTQ folk, and those with varying religions and expressions.
Tennessee recently passed three bills protecting book banning, most notably an amendment to bill HB 0800, which states that public and state sponsored charter schools are “… prohibited from locally adopting or using in the public schools of this state, textbooks and instructional materials or supplemental instructional materials that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles.”
The Oklahoma state senate filed a bill to address “indoctrination” of students in public schools in December of 2021, stating “SB 1142 prohibits public school districts, public charter schools, and public school libraries from maintaining in their inventory or promoting books that address the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, gender identity, or books that contain content of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know about or approve of before their child is exposed to it.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott requested a criminal investigation in Texas school libraries in regards to the presence of queer books in the library, specifically “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George Matthew Johnson, a collection of essays regarding his experience as a queer black man in America. Book banning even spreads to Washington State, where Mukilteo School District, a suburb of Seattle, voted to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” in January 2022.
In the end, the power of education makes us into better people. The censoring of reading material is what drives a toxic environment for bigotry to thrive. Students being represented in the media that they consume is vital. Representation matters. -MT