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Virginia Beach School Board group removes ‘Gender Queer’ book from libraries, calls it ‘pervasively vulgar’

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The graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe is set to be removed from Virginia Beach public school libraries after a work group determined many illustrations in it are “pervasively vulgar.” The decision overruled a previous staff recommendation to keep the book on the shelves.

Virginia Beach Public School Board members Trenace Riggs, Carolyn Weems and Jessica Owens were appointed by School Board Chairwoman Carolyn Rye to review the book after it was challenged. According to the group’s report, they found that “Gender Queer” contained illustrations of “genitalia, bodily functions and sexual acts” and recommended it be pulled from library shelves.

The American Library Association lists it at the top of its Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2021 list.

Debate around “Gender Queer” and several other books began in October 2021 when board members Victoria Manning and Laura Hughes demanded that it, along with several others considered sexually explicit and divisive, be removed from the libraries and curriculum.

At the time, Manning also listed concerns with “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines and “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison.

A memo from Chief Academic Officer Kipp Rogers dated Jan. 28 recommended “Gender Queer” be kept in high school libraries. The book, along with five others, was reviewed by a committee made up of a high school student, a teacher, a parent of a high school student, a high school Library Media Specialist, a coordinator from the Department of Teaching and Learning and a literacy coach.

One key point considered as part of the committee’s recommendation was that “students will see that the protagonist is experiencing many of the things they do — growing up, feeling awkward in a variety of situations ...”

The parent was also quoted in the memo as saying, “For high school level students, this is a great fit.”

Rogers and Superintendent Aaron Spence did raise concerns regarding the images in the book but “the concerns did not warrant removal of the book from school libraries for student voluntary checkout.” They added that the book was secured as directed in division policy and that removing the book could be reviewed under the Island Trees School District v. Pico case from 1982, which speaks to the First Amendment limiting removal of books by school officials due to their content.

Other books were reviewed by separate committees. These were “A Lesson Before Dying,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Lawn Boy,” which Manning brought up in October, as well as “Good Trouble” by Christopher Noxon and “Beyond Magenta” by Susan Kuklin.

Of those, only “A Lesson Before Dying” and “The Bluest Eye” were on the approved supplemental title list for secondary English. All books were recommended to remain in libraries or as part of the curriculum.

In the memo directing staff to take “Gender Queer” off library shelves, Rye wrote, “work is underway to assess our policies and regulations pertaining to the matter of challenged controversial materials.” Currently, materials are selected and evaluated by suitability of subject and style, format, accuracy, relationship to already existing material on the subject and attention to critiques and reviews, according to the School Board policy listed online.

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