Resting on the shelves of some public schools nationwide are two memoirs from LGBTQ+ authors detailing the growing pains they lived through while growing up and finding themselves.
Those books – “Gender Queer” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” – and others like them have become flash points in school board races nationwide, including in Maryland. Conservative candidates argue that drawings and passages in such books qualify as pornography.
“Any book with pornographic material should not be on school library shelves,” Frederick County school board candidate Olivia Angolia said in response to a Capital News Service survey of the state’s school board candidates. “There needs to be a vigorous process to review library books that are already adopted, and any prospective books.”
But Rae Gallagher, one of Rose’s opponents, offers a different take.
“I am not in favor of banning books within FCPS,” Gallagher said. “The primary purpose of our public education system is to expose students to a variety of resources, perspectives and experiences to help them develop critical thinking skills and teach them how to think for themselves.”
Disagreements like the one between Angolia and Gallagher can be found in school board races across the state. Conservative school board candidates who want to remove books dealing with gender identity, racism and other socially sensitive topics from school library shelves are running in at least 11 of Maryland’s 23 counties, according to a Capital News Service survey of the candidates.
But those socially conservative school board candidates are in the minority. About 25% of the 102 candidates who responded to the CNS survey said they favor banning some controversial books from school libraries – but about 41% opposed doing so. Meanwhile, about 30% chose a middle path, saying they trust the review process that screens books, or that they think that age should be a factor when deciding what is allowed in schools.
The scope of the debate
Some of the books that are prompting the debate in Maryland and beyond are quite different from what your grandparents would borrow from their high school libraries.
“Gender Queer” is a graphic novel by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe about finding one’s gender identity and experiencing sex for the first time. “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is the story of a queer Black kid, George M. Johnson, who describes their first intimate sexual experience after being assaulted by classmates in a high school bathroom.
Hundreds of schools have already banned either one or both of the books. Maryland’s Wicomico County school board took action against “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”
“We found two copies in two high school libraries and removed them. We had no objections about their removal,” said Ann Brittingham Suthowski, who is running for reelection in the county’s District 4.
However, the American Library Association this year released a survey that said 71% of voters are against any sort of book banning. The CNS survey shows plenty of Maryland candidates are against it, too.
“No education has ever been furthered due to the banning of a book,” said Emily Jackson, a Talbot County candidate.
‘Education Not Indoctrination’
In addition to voicing concerns about books with sexual content, conservative candidates complain about “indoctrination” in books that, they say, promote critical race theory: a college-level academic theory that examines the impact racism has had on American history, laws and policies.
In Frederick County, three board candidates – Angolia, Nancy Allen and Cindy Rose – are running together as the “Education Not Indoctrination” slate. The 1776 Action PAC, a conservative group backing like-minded school board candidates nationwide, is backing the right-wing slate in Frederick County, as is Dan Cox, the Republican candidate for governor.
Rose said at an Oct. 14 school board meeting that she wants to ban 35 books from schools, the Frederick News-Post reported. The list, which can be found here, includes Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war classic “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Jesus Land: A Memoir,” which details growing up in an interracial family, as well as several books with LGBTQ+ themes.
The conservative candidates object to “Gender Queer” because it includes a drawing of an older man and a younger man with their legs intertwined, along with a drawing of two young males engaged in a sexual act.
“We recently got ‘Gender Queer’ removed from one of our school libraries. It’s not just vulgar, it meets the federal definition of ‘pornography,’ ” Rose said.
Statewide, only 6.79% of school board candidate survey respondents mentioned LGBTQ+ content or one of the books – but 29.13% of candidates were concerned about sexually explicit literature.
Worcester County candidate Katie Addis said such books have no place in school libraries..
“Most of these books in question are meant for ‘young adults.’ I believe a young adult is someone 18-22 years old no longer enrolled in high school,” she said. “There are no ‘young adults’ enrolled at school, only minors.”
‘Regressive, myopic and detrimental’
Candidates like those on the Education Not Indoctrination slate have prompted a backlash, both from progressive activists and candidates who say that such conservative candidates want to take schools back in time.
In Baltimore and Frederick counties, the Marylanders for Freedom and Opportunity PAC has launched an ad series pushing back on candidates with “divisive, dangerous platforms.”
“Olivia Angolia, Nancy Allen, and Cindy Rose are pushing to censor our teachers and politicize our children’s education. Don’t let them take us in the wrong direction,” the ad says.
That concern about removing school library materials is shared by many candidates across the counties, including Jonathan Briggs, a candidate from Prince George’s County’s District 2.
“I am a firm believer that any book that challenges a student’s perspective is a good opportunity for them to ask questions and investigate the subject matter further to become more knowledgeable about it,” Briggs said.
Some candidates even said book banning is a blatant form of censorship.
“Banning books is regressive, myopic and detrimental to society as well,” said Leonard Arvi], a candidate in Wicomico County’s District 3. “Banning books is a fascism and has no place in democratic, open society.”
A middle way
Other candidates offered a more nuanced approach to selecting or rejecting school library materials.
Several candidates surveyed said that school library books should be age-appropriate, as determined by the media specialists the district employs. Many candidates referred to either the Maryland Library Blueprint or the American Association of School Libraries, both of which have guidelines regarding which books should be included in a public school’s library system.
The Maryland School Library Media Standards for Learners, Librarians and Libraries, from the Maryland Library Blueprint, does not explicitly state age minimums for certain genres or contents of books. Instead, the focus is on the overall curiosity and education level of the student.
Still, several candidates said that what’s right for older students may not be right for younger students.
“I never endorse banning books or free speech,” said Steve Whisler, a board candidate in Carroll County. “That said, I do firmly believe that we should limit student access to books that parents and educators deem not age-appropriate.”
In most counties, a book can be challenged by a parent or community member and it will be reviewed by the Board of Education. That’s exactly what happens in Montgomery County.
“In the event that a parent or staff question the appropriateness of a book, an ad hoc evaluation committee is convened to reevaluate materials whose appropriateness has been questioned,” said Karla Silvestre , an incumbent at-large board member running for reelection in Montgomery County.
But that evaluation process should not strictly limit the kinds of books that students can read, said Jane E. Lichter, a board candidate in Baltimore County’s District 2.
“It is critical that books are available for students to read about the world in which they live, as well as books that help students understand lives that are different than their own,” Lichter said.
CNS reporters Danielle Hodes and Jenna Bloom contributed to this report.