The Riverside Public Library Board of Trustees will place a request from two local residents to remove a book from their collection on its Jan. 10 agenda following a discussion in December of staff’s decision to keep the book available to the public.
At the library board’s Dec. 13 meeting, trustees expressed support for the decision made by a committee of Library Director Janice Foley, Information Services Manager Diane Silva and Children and Youth Services Manager Nora Durbin to keep the 2019 book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe in circulation. That decision included moving the book to the library’s adult collection.
“We do not practice censoring and we follow our collection development policies, and we felt this book fulfilled all of the criteria, but that we were going to take it out of the teen collection and put in the adult graphic novel collection,” Foley told library trustees last month.
The book, which is in the form of a graphic novel, had been part of the Young Adult graphic novel collection in the new Teen Room, where middle and high school students tend to congregate.
“Gender Queer,” Kobabe’s memoir of coming out as nonbinary, has been a particular target of conservatives who have lobbied to get it banned from both school and public libraries throughout the nation.
A New York Times story in May 2022 about “Gender Queer” and its author called it “the most banned book in the country, with those objecting to it contending that it contains sexually explicit images that are inappropriate for children.
Riverside resident Maria Hawk, who was the first to contact Foley about removing “Gender Queer” from the library’s collection, claimed the book was inappropriate for children due to “pornographic/obscene images” while Dawn Burda, the other objector, in her request to remove the book called it “blatant pornography” and said, “In conversations with several police officers, this resource as a whole is pornographic material. And this should not be made available to children in a public library.”
In their requests to the library, both Hawk and Burda said they had not read Kobabe’s entire book, which is more than 200 pages long.
“I’ve seen enough of the book to know that the book format as a graphic novel contains pornographic and obscene images,” Hawk wrote in her request for removal. “The ‘context’ of the storyline is immaterial in this case as this book is housed within the Youth Services Department.”
Hawk objected specifically to four pages of the book, whose content she described as a “full-frontal nudity image,” two “explicit sexual acts” and “promotion of sex toys.”
Hawk, who teaches at a Catholic elementary school in Oak Park, argued that as an educator, she was a mandated reporter obligated to report suspected abuse “including sexually explicit material that has been supplied to an underaged child” and argued that the “Riverside Public Library is now the willing supplier of pornographic material that might lead to the abuse of a child.”
In an April 2022 interview with the National Public Radio station KBIA in Missouri, Kobabe, whose pronouns are e/em/eir said “Gender Queer” was “a story of my own life – of being a very shy, dyslexic child who was questioning gender and sexuality, and a lot of facets of my own identity into growing up into an adult who came out as non-binary to my family and friends and community.”
“Writing it was a process of examining my own identity and figuring out how to articulate – in like the clearest, most concise form – what I was trying to say, when I was talking about gender.
“And a way to get across – specifically to my own parents, and aunts and uncles – what I meant when I was talking about gender, and why nonbinary pronouns are so important to me.”
Riverside Library Board President Ken Circo said he supported the staff committee’s decision regarding “Gender Queer.”
“We’re not in the business of censoring,” Circo said. “Our responsibility is education, providing the materials and for our community and our patrons. To limit what people have access to, especially something that could be helpful to a marginalized community, in my personal opinion, is something that should never [happen].”
Kobabe addressed just that issue in an op-ed published in the Washington Post in October 2021 amid a wave of “gender Queer” bans in school and public libraries in Virginia, Texas, Ohio, New Jersey, Washington and other states.
“Queer youth are often forced to look outside their own homes, and outside the education system, to find information on who they are,” Kobabe wrote. “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.”
Foley said the staff committee’s decision to maintain “Gender Queer’ in the library’s collection conformed with the American Library Association’s “Freedom to Read” statement which argues against suppression and censorship, stating, “These efforts at suppression are related to a larger pattern of pressures being brought against education, the press, art and images, films, broadcast media and the internet.”
The book’s inclusion in the collection, Foley told library trustees, also reflects the library’s collection development policy, which seeks to “provide a well-balanced and broad collection of materials for all age groups.”
In addition, that policy sets out three general principles: That the library doesn’t practice censorship, that it doesn’t promote particular views or beliefs and that “supervision of a minor’s access to materials rests solely with his or her parents or guardians.”
Library board Vice President Courtney Greve Hack said the requests to pull “Gender Queer” from the library’s shelves were not just about that particular book.
“This is not about one particular title, it’s about somebody thinking they should have control over what is in our library and thinking that they are the experts,” Greve Hack said. “Everyone should have the freedom to access the information that they want, period.”
The book “Gender Queer” is widely available at public libraries throughout the System Wide Automated Network (SWAN) across the Chicago area, including at the Linda Sokol Francis Brookfield Library, North Riverside Public Library, Berwyn Public Library, Forest Park Public Library, LaGrange Public Library and LaGrange Park Public Library.