Billings Public Schools votes unanimously to keep two books in high school libraries

‘Lawn Boy’ and ‘Gender Queer’ will stay on the shelves, despite parent, community objections

By: - January 24, 2022 10:09 pm

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

The Billings Public School Board, the largest in the state of Montana, decided on Monday night unanimously to keep two controversial titles found in high school libraries, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison.

The move came as somewhat of a surprise as a subcommittee of the board had recommended keeping Evison’s book, but removing “Gender Queer.”

However, after nearly two hours of discussion, public comment and a review of the books, school district trustee Jennifer Hoffman changed her recommendation, setting off a series of votes that would ultimately lead to keeping both titles.

Parent Nathan Mathews objected to both books, appealing a district curriculum review committee’s unanimous decision to keep the books in the high school libraries. Originally, a subcommittee of the board recommended keeping “Lawn Boy” but discarding Kobabe’s coming-of-age graphic novel memoir.

During the meeting on Monday, more than 40 people either submitted comments or spoke in person. A tally of speakers showed that those who supported keeping both books outnumbered those who voiced objections by a roughly 2-to-1 ratio.

Both books dealt with coming-of-age and both have been classified as adult literature, but have enjoyed widespread crossover into young adult literature. Criticism of Evison’s book included concerns about profanity and one particular homosexual encounter described in the book.

Kobabe’s graphic memoir sparked the most controversy, largely because of its format as an illustrated or graphic novel. Often compared to a comic book, many objected to the depictions of sexual material in illustrated form versus the written content of the words.

The trustees said that discussions and trust with the school district’s staff, coupled with an in-depth discussion of the school board’s policies, which includes a freedom to read statement, led several to decide that though they found the material presented by Kobabe, including descriptions of oral sex and masturbation, questionable, the totality of the book outweighed the concerns about the individual passages.

“To date, this has been one of the most challenging and rewarding discussions across the district,” said board member Jennifer Hoffman. “Not all of us think this is right, but we have to do what our policy and the law allows us to do. If law or policy changes, then that’s a different topic.”

She told the board she had changed her perspective, and now supported keeping both titles. Hoffman said that while parents may be upset, then the school district’s policies should be reviewed. However, she said the book, in light of the policies on academic, intellectual and First Amendment freedoms, should remain in the collection.

On Monday, night the district reported that “Lawn Boy” had only been checked out twice and “Gender Queer” had been checked out eight times, including once by Mathews.

“The greater harm would have been in banning books, rather than the freedom to read,” said board member Mike Leo. “The selection of books never means an agreement with content.”

Previously in the board meeting, some members of the public accused Leo and board member Scott McCulloch of endorsing child pornography.

Parents, community members and people from around the state participated in the meeting, speaking to the perceived merits and drawbacks of both books.

Supporters of both books framed the arguments in terms of academic freedom to read, support for LGBTQ+ members of the community, and the books’ ability to teach differing viewpoints.

Opponents of the books said that the explicit content of both outweighed the benefits of the books, and many read the legal definition of child pornography, saying the passages dealing with sex or sexual encounters was a matter of endorsing illegal acts.

“No school should display or promote erotic material,” said parent Jennifer Sanchez, who said many of the accounts and words used in “Gender Queer” help normalize the acts of “pedophiles and sex traffickers.”

Parent Kate Freedman said that while she supported materials being available for LGBTQ students, four pages of sexual material in “Gender Queer” made it unacceptable and unfit for high school libraries.

“This is not about LGBTQ censorship,” Freedman said. “There is a real, tangible need to have more materials in the library and this is a fast-moving genre. But this one crosses the line.”

Luke Hudson told school board members that the district has adopted a policy on inappropriate or graphic content, so it should be able to control similar material in print.

Russ Hall, one of the school board members, said that in 5 ½ years of being on the school board, he’s had to rely on experts whether that’s on policies like wearing masks during COVID or educational materials.

“I disagree with content, but I support our libraries and our librarians,” he said. “I support our Constitution, even when it means I disagree with the outcome that I would prefer. These images I don’t like. I don’t like that they’re available, but I saw enough that there are students in the district that are in really tough situations with gender identity. I don’t know what that’s like and many youth in our schools don’t where to turn. There are many in our community who disagree wholeheartedly. Yet, in light of our mental health issues, this book (“Gender Queer”) belongs there.”

Editor’s note: Because of the public nature of online commenting, those submitting comments were not required to give the exact spelling of their names. The Daily Montanan has made every effort to transcribe the names correctly, but asks for readers’ understanding as many names were only read aloud, not spelled out.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.