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FCPS decision on challenged books praised by LGBTQ students, staff

LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual/agender, and other gender and sexual minority identities (via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

Students and staff in the LGBTQIA+ community expressed relief yesterday (Tuesday) after Fairfax County Public Schools announced that it will return a pair of challenged, queer-centered books to library shelves.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe and Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” — a coming-of-age story about a Mexican American man that deals with race, class, and sexual identity — were pulled from circulation in late September after parents complained that they contained graphic sexual content unsuitable for children.

Two committees convened to review the books determined the complaints were without merit and that the books have literary merit in line with FCPS’ goal of supporting a diverse student body, including through its library materials, the school system said.

The Pride Liberation Project, a student-led LGBTQIA+ advocacy group, praised the decision as an affirmation of its argument that the books are “valuable sources of support” for vulnerable students, not pornography or pedophelia as alleged by the complaints.

“I am relieved that our libraries will continue to have books that depict people like me,” a Westfield High School student said in a news release. “It is isolating when LGBTQIA+ students are singled out and already limited Queer representation is taken away.”

FCPS Pride, an LGBTQIA+ advocacy group for employees, said its members were pleased that “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” will be returned to circulation.

Kobabe’s memoir will be reinstated at the 12 high schools that currently own it, and Evison’s novel will be available at seven high schools, according to FCPS.

“Having read the the books and knowing that FCPS has a commitment to including and welcoming all students, we had faith that the process would be followed and literature that allows LGBTQIA+ students to see themselves, and which allows their peers to see that they exist, would be returned to circulation,” FCPS Pride said in a statement.

With book challenges cropping up across the country in recent months, many of them targeting books about gender and sexual identity or race, FCPS Pride co-president Robert Rigby Jr. tied the complaints against “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” to a larger political backlash to LGBTQIA+ inclusion, pointing to a blog post accusing teachers of using Gay-Straight Alliances to “recruit” children that was shared by the Fairfax County Republican Committee as an example.

FCPS Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Department Noel Klimenko confirmed to FFXnow that formal complaints were filed against the two books, but the issue gained attention when conservative-leaning media outlets and advocates shared mother Stacy Langton’s remarks from a contentious school board meeting on Sept. 23.

“LGBTQ students and their peaceful existence in classes and schools have become ‘collateral damage,’ with uncaring people exploiting their existence for other purposes,” Rigby said.

Langton wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Examiner that her complaint stemmed from concern about pornographic materials in schools, not as an objection to LGBTQ characters, stating that she’s aware of the discrimination that community faces because her mother was lesbian.

Klimenko, who made the final decision to reinstate “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” says book challenges tend to get politicized since they deal with free speech issues and people’s subjective opinions about what constitutes objectionable art.

The publicity around Langton’s complaint and claims that the books depicted pedophelia, which turned out to be unfounded, prompted FCPS to remove the books from circulation — a departure from past practices, as the school system has historically left books on shelves while they’re under review.

“We decided we needed to have an abundance of caution and go ahead and remove those books,” Klimenko said. “But now that this decision has been made, the books will be returned to the libraries that had them prior to the challenge.”

FCPS’ regulation on handling book challenges doesn’t explicitly state whether books should remain available while being reviewed.

Klimenko says staff will consult with school board members and other stakeholders to see if there were any concerns with how the two-month-long process played out, but overall, FCPS upheld its established policies, which had not been tested since the last library material challenge in 2015.

“I think it’s really important that Fairfax County Public Schools has a procedure for both identifying books to put in our libraries and also for challenging them,” she said. “I feel like we’ve taken great care and deliberation with this decision.”

Fairfax County School Board Chair Stella Pekarsky, who represents Sully District, says there have not been any conversations so far about reexamining the challenged materials regulation, which was last updated on Feb. 16.

She expressed support for parents playing “a robust and active role in their children’s education.”

Langton told the Washington Examiner earlier this month that she was barred from the Fairfax High School library after visiting with her son to check out a book.

FCPS doesn’t accommodate unscheduled visits to school libraries or other instructional spaces during class hours, but it allows pre-arranged visits before and after the school day. Its library catalogs can also be viewed online.

“I encourage parents to be involved in conversations with their students about all aspects of their school experience, including their literary choices,” Pekarsky said in a statement. “I continue to trust the professionalism of our school librarians and appreciate the time and care they devote to procuring collections that will serve a diverse student body.”

Photo via Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

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