A parent holds up a page from a book at a Waukee School Board meeting. Photo edited to remove material that may be offensive to some readers. (Screen shot from Waukee School District video)
Gov. Kim Reynolds took time in her Condition of the State message to accuse Iowa teachers and school administrators of “pushing their world view” on students by allowing certain books in the school library or classroom.
The address came a day after Senate President Jake Chapman, an Adel Republican, accused both teachers and journalists of having a “sinister” motive and even promoting pedophilia and incest.
“Those who wish to normalize sexually deviant behavior against our children, including pedophilia and incest, are pushing this movement more than ever before. Our children should be safe and free from this atrocious assault,” Chapman said in his speech on the opening day of the legislative session.
Reynolds, while not naming any titles, mentioned one school district removing video from a livestream of a school board meeting at which a parent read passages of three books with LGBTQ themes. “These books are so explicit they’d be X-rated if they were movies,” Reynolds said, “… and yet many of these books remain in school libraries today.”
There is a video of a parent at a Waukee School Board meeting in October reading passages from three books centered on LGBTQ characters: “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson; “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. The passages the parent chose to read aloud were fairly explicit, and two of the three described sexual encounters involving underage boys. Waukee removed all three books from its school library.
I’ve only read one of the books, “Gender Queer.” It’s a graphic-format (comic book style) memoir about the coming of age of a nonbinary character. The passage the Waukee parent read aloud involved a same-sex encounter the main character, Maia, has when they’re over 25 years old, involving a strap-on dildo. Maia didn’t enjoy the experience and the scene, despite the illustrations, was not what I would call X-rated. Younger readers should have parental guidance if they choose this book, but I don’t agree with banning it for older teens.
What struck me most about this work, ironically, was how vital it was for Maia to have access to books and later the Internet to help explain the changes in her body as she was growing up and allow her to come to terms with her experiences and emotions as a gender-fluid person. The adults in her life hadn’t even explained menstruation to her, leaving her to deal alone with her first period. Taken as a whole, a book like this could help other kids, even cis-gender ones, navigate the awkward experiences of coming to terms with their sexuality.
Another often-challenged book I read over the holidays, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie, was both funny and poignant. Despite a brief, non-explicit passage about masturbation by a high-school age character, the novel would be appropriate for most teenagers. The Johnston School Board recently refused a parent’s request to remove it. I think it was the right decision.
Does that mean I have a “sinister” agenda or want to promote incest or pedophilia? Of course not, and I find the allegation from Chapman even more disturbing than any of the content in these books. Considering that the people most likely to prey on children are their parents or other relatives, the school library is not the first place I’d look for materials used to normalize sexual abuse or groom potential victims. In many cases, a child victim’s best hope is a trusted adult outside the home – these “sinister” teachers and school officials that Chapman and Reynolds are demonizing.
Reynolds is calling for transparency in school curricula and library contents (because transparency is important for other people, if not her own administration). As I understand the proposal, it would likely mean publication of titles and syllabi on school websites and a process for parents who want to raise concerns. I can’t find anything wrong with the concept, as long as all districts have the resources to accomplish it.
Parents should be able to opt out their own children from school programs or materials they find objectionable, however misguided those objections may be. As I’ve written before, parents are well-equipped to determine the maturity level of their children. There’s a lot of garbage out there and it’s wonderful to see parents paying attention for a change. Reynolds’ plan is unlikely, however, to go far enough for those pushing a political agenda and who want to decide what books are available to every child and not just their own.
It certainly won’t satisfy those who cheered Chapman’s proposal that educators who make books like these available to students be jailed on felony charge.
Again, this debate is not really about libraries or young adult literature. It’s about finding another source of outrage to rile up parents who were politically activated earlier in the pandemic by the debate over remote learning and mask mandates. It’s about raising campaign money in an election year, which is so much easier when you can manufacture threats against children and single out groups of people to vilify.
Iowans whose “world view” includes valuing public education might want to think about where this decision to target teachers is coming from and where it’s headed.
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