Riverside Public Library trustees agreed unanimously at their meeting on Jan. 10 that Library Director Janice Foley did not abuse her discretion or act capriciously last month when she declined, in consultation with a staff committee, a request from two residents to remove the book “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe from circulation.
The vote followed more than an hour of often impassioned comment from both trustees and members of the public, the vast majority of whom spoke in support of library staff and of the book, a memoir in the form of a graphic novel illustrating – in a couple of instances too graphically for some — an adolescent/young adult coming to grips with their sexuality and gender identity in a world lacking vocabulary for such concepts.
Riverside library board meetings typically draw few members of the public, but on Jan. 10 around 75 people crowded into the library’s Great Room in reaction to the request to ban “Gender Queer.”
In all, six people urged library officials to pull the book from the shelves while 13 people spoke in favor of keeping the book. Another 11 people who had signed up to speak declared their support for keeping the book but declined further comment to avoid repetition.
Among the most compelling public comments were those made young adult residents of the village who, despite the very public setting, announced they were queer and argued that the book was a valuable resource.
“Being constantly told that your identity is not OK, is not safe for kids, is unacceptable really takes a toll on you,” said 21-year-old Hunter Morrison, who said his family provided plenty of support but that others have little to none.
“Plenty of my friends wound up in treatment programs in large part due to their families not being a safe environment for them,” he added. “I can’t even put to words how impactful having some healthy representation available to them has been, often from books like ‘Gender Queer.’”
Madeline Pollock, a 20-year-old college student who identified as queer, said that even though she had a supportive family, she suffered from anxiety and depression, struggling with coming out.
“If I had walked into this library when I was 13 years old and I read a book like this, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me seven years to tell my parents that,” Pollock said. “I can say firsthand, as a young queer person, that banning this book is ridiculous. People like us need books like this.”
Kobabe in published interviews has said the book was written as a memoir initially to provide adult family members with an understanding of a very personal, complicated journey.
In choosing the form of a graphic novel, Kobabe included a few images that have drawn condemnation from conservative critics who charge they are pornographic at best and could be used, at worst, to “groom” children.
The American Library Association, which in 2020 bestowed its Alex Award on “Gender Queer” for being one of the top 10 books that year “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”
In 2021, according to the ALA, “Gender Queer” was also the most challenged book in the nation, with critics successful in getting it removed from the shelves of school and public libraries across the country.
Two images of hundreds in the book have been used as the basis for the book’s removal, both brought up at the Jan. 10 meeting. One illustrates Kobabe, who identifies as asexual, recounting a not-particularly-erotic encounter with a strap-on dildo. The other illustrates a dream sequence using an image drawn from Classical Greek art, of a man touching a boy’s penis.
“I don’t know what kind of redeeming qualities that is,” said resident and former library trustee Michael Flight, who said he was only interested in removing “Gender Queer” from circulation, not the other roughly 30 other books dealing with transgender topics.
Maria Hawk, one of two Riverside residents who requested that “Gender Queer” be pulled from the collection, on Jan. 10 appeared to accuse library officials of inviting the sexual abuse of children by allowing “Gender Queer” to circulate.
Hawk called herself an expert having had a long career as an educator and mandated reporter of child sexual abuse. She quoted the definition of child sexual abuse from Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), which states “child sexual abuse does not need to include physical contact between a perpetrator and a child,” placing “Gender Queer” within that framework.
“This is why alarm bells went off with me the first time I was made aware of this book,” Hawk said. “It is contrary to everything I have ever been taught to keep children safe from exploitation.”
Of the six people who spoke against “Gender Queer,” only one, Michael Flight, said they had read the entire book.
“This is just theater,” said Riverside resident and former village trustee Kevin Smith, who said he had read it and called it very moving and personal. “Saying ‘pornography’ over and over and over again doesn’t make it so. By definition, this book is not pornographic … and it can’t be taken out of context.”
Jane Archer, a Riverside resident who also has worked in hospital and education settings and has been a mandated reporter, said it was impossible to take the book’s allegedly objectionable images out of context.
“It is not brainwashing or grooming. It is an informational book about a personal exploration to find the author’s authentic self,” Archer said. She said traditional sex education in the U.S. does not include sexuality and gender identity, which can be confusing to non-binary young people who are trying to understand themselves.
“Hiding this information doesn’t make these issues go away, it simply puts young people who are confused at greater risk of suicide,” Archer said. “The book ‘Gender Queer’ presents the process of understanding the author’s self-identity in context. It is, in fact, the opposite of pornography.”
Matt Wadland, a Riverside resident and psychologist who is gay, said that when he was growing up, there were no books available in his public library like “Gender Queer” and said attempts to label the book as pornography were “homophobic and transphobic.”
“If some kid comes into this library and finds their voice and feels that they’re not alone, then something beautiful happened,” Wadland said. “It’s not porn.”