The Riverside Public Library is not exactly a place you’d consider a hotbed of controversy. It’s nested in a scenic setting overlooking the Des Plaines River in a vaguely medieval building where gargoyles stand sentinel at the rooftops.
But the culture wars playing out elsewhere in the United States, where zealots have succeeded in banning books from libraries in schools and communities and where even the idea that people might not fit neatly into traditional notions of gender is heresy, visited late last year.
Two residents in November called for the removal of the book “Gender Queer” – a memoir told in the form of a graphic novel – from the shelves of the library, saying it amounted to pornography and a tool to “groom” impressionable children – using the latest right-wing outrage terminology meant to strike fear in the hearts of “real” Americans.
Like other book and curriculum ban demands elsewhere in the country, this is about deciding who has power to control information – about the nation’s complicated history, about the impact of race on the American experience and about people who a segment of the population refuses to consider fully human because they don’t conform to their narrow understanding of gender.
In December the library’s staff informed the two residents that the book would remain on the shelves, compromising a bit by moving it from the Teen Room to the adult graphic novel collection.
That wasn’t good enough, and so the library board took up the subject again at their meeting Jan. 10, after the Landmark’s print deadline.
We, of course, don’t know at the time of this writing what transpired at the meeting – that will be the subject of a news article in the days to come – but we have a pretty good idea.
In the week or so since we published our first article on the ban request on Jan. 4, the vast majority of Riverside residents on social media, at least, strongly supported the decision by library staff to keep “Gender Queer” on the shelves.
That’s because it was the correct decision.
Whether some want to believe it or not, non-binary and transgender individuals do exist and they are entitled to the same compassion and empathy we all expect and deserve. Imagine trying as a teenager – is there a more difficult time of life to navigate? — to understand how and why you are feeling so different than those around you. Imagine there being no resource that can put those thoughts into words. Imagine trying to explain yourself to those who also lack those resources.
Of course, that’s the point. Such conversations make some people very uncomfortable, and simply pretending such concepts don’t exist provides that comfort. And those people are willing to punish those seeking to broach such subjects in order to maintain that comfort.
Here’s the thing: Human existence is complicated and our understanding of it is ever evolving. Those grappling with these ideas will give language to them; it is inescapable.
No one is forcing anyone to read any of it. And no one should have the power to silence it.