LGBTQ advocates: Book banning is precursor for rocky legislative session

By: - December 8, 2021 7:56 am

Students with Iowa Safe Schools, some draped in LGBT or transgender flags, wait for rides after being ejected from the State Capitol on March 12, 2020. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

As school boards around the Des Moines metro debate the inclusion of certain queer books in school libraries, LGBTQ advocacy groups are preparing for attacks in the upcoming legislative session.

Iowa school boards in recent weeks have seen spirited debates over allowing books with sexual content — including many with LGBTQ themes — in school libraries. Several districts have removed “Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe about gender dysphoria and sexuality. The comic book depicts scenes of masturbation and sexual fantasizing in a larger narrative about discovering one’s identity.

In Waukee, the school board also removed for review “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about coming of age as a queer, Black teen, and “Lawn Boy,” a fictional novel that includes a gay scene between two children.

In Johnston, the school board considered challenges to “The Hate U Give” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” two novels focused on young people of color. District parents said the books had sexually explicit content and “anti-police sentiment.” The Johnston school board voted unanimously to allow the books to remain in classrooms.

Becky Smith, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, said that she has closely observed the movement “remove books that contain either subject matter or characters or storylines of either students of color, Black and Brown stories, or stories around LGBTQ identities specifically.” 

Although many of the parent complaints are about explicit sexual scenes, Smith and other Iowa LGBTQ advocates said books with gay or transgender stories have received more scrutiny that their straight counterparts.

“I think that, if you look at all the titles as a whole and then analyze what the content is in there, what you’ll find is a disproportionate amount of queer titles are being targeted in that way,” said Keenan Crow, director of advocacy with OneIowa. 

Crow argued the books should be considered on the whole, not based on a single image or paragraph read aloud in a meeting. Crow has encouraged parents to consider the context of certain scenes and have conversations with their children about the books they read.

“What is age-appropriate for one kid might not actually be age-appropriate for another kid, and that’s really where parents come in … What is not appropriate is for one parent to decide for every other parent in the district what is appropriate for their kids too,” said Crow.

Smith tied the debate over book-banning to a larger movement in Iowa politics.

“Especially in the last legislative session, there were a lot of bills that were introduced that specifically targeted … transgender students, really trying to erase their civil rights and essentially say that their identity either does not matter or is not valid in Iowa schools,” Smith said. 

Representatives from OneIowa and Iowa Safe Schools said they expect the upcoming legislative session to include an onslaught of anti-LGBTQ proposals.

“We’re anticipating the exact same issues that we saw last year, the year before that, and even the year before that,” said Damian Thompson, communications director and lobbyist for Iowa Safe Schools. 

Potentially on the list: Gov. Kim Reynolds near the end of the legislative session asked lawmakers to prohibit transgender athletes from competing in school sports, and several bills were introduced to restrict transgender students from using certain bathrooms

Lawmakers are also likely to consider a law borne of the book-banning discussions: At a Johnston school board meeting last month, Sen. Jake Chapman said that teachers who give “obscene” books to students should face legal consequences.

Thompson said Iowa Safe Schools is prepared to lobby against that bill, in addition to the returning proposals from last year.

“We’re confident that we’re going to be able to stop all of those again this coming session,” said Thompson.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.