On eve of Banned Books Week, FCPS pulls books after mom protests sexual content

Stacy Langton (Photo via FCPS/YouTube)
Mother protests sexual content of book at Fairfax County School Board meeting (via FCPS/YouTube)

Fairfax County Public Schools has pulled two books from its shelves after a local mom complained to the school board that the titles contain graphic sexual content and pedophelia.

A spokesperson for FCPS confirmed to FFXnow that “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe have been temporarily pulled from shelves.

Two committees under the supervision of the school system’s library service coordinator will assess the suitability of both texts for high school libraries. The committee will include representation from staff, students, and parents, according to the spokesperson.

The recommendation of the committees will be put forward to the Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services who will make a final decision as to whether FCPS continues to provide access to these books in our high school libraries,” the spokesperson said.

Stacy Langton, a Fairfax County mother, held up content from the books at a heated Sept. 23 school board meeting. The material — which was blurred in a recording of the meeting — included details of a man having sex with a boy, oral sex, masturbation, and nudity.

“Pornography is offensive to all people,” Langston said. The recording also muted Langton’s descriptions of the books’ content, which she said includes a scene in which a 10-year-old boy recounts sucking an adult man’s penis.

A Patch review of the two books disputed that characterization, reporting that “Lawn Boy” — a coming-of-age novel about a Mexican landscaper — contains no scenes of adults having sex with minors and that the illustration that drew objections in “Gender Queer,” an autobiography, appears in the context of the author’s teenage fantasy.

Another county resident and former FCPS teacher — Adrienne Henzel — said she was appalled by what she described as “homo-erotic material” supported by county taxpayer dollars.

FCPS Pride, an employees’ group that represents the LGBTQIA+ community and formed in 2015, said the inclusion of books that represent “oft-excluded communities such as LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized groups” help feel students more welcome and safer. LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer and questioning, and asexual.

“These books are ‘mirrors and windows’ as  they ‘tell a story’ to give a window on a community that a reader may not belong to, and they share a narrative with which a given student may identify,” said Robert Rigby, co-president of FCPS Pride and an FCPS high school teacher.

Rigby told FFXnow that FCPS Pride is thankful for librarians who have established catalogs and collections that include all communities — especially marginalized ones.

Langton’s comments drew several objections from Springfield District board member Laura Jane Cohen, who noted that there were children in the room and that the books are available only in high schools.

She was cut off when she went over the three-minute time limit for public comments and refused to leave the podium for the next speaker, prompting the school board to take a five-minute recess “to clear the room.”

The incident was picked up by several conservative-leaning national news outlets and flagged by Asra Nomani, vice president of strategy and investigations for Parents Defending Education, a recently formed nonprofit organization that fights what it calls “indoctrination” in education.

Langton said she was inspired to protest the distribution of the books after a similar discussion at a school board meeting in Texas.

But Rigby says the current “attacks” on literature with LGBTQIA+ and Latinx characters reflect a longstanding trend of protests against books that center marginalized individuals, including Black and Asian people, people with disabilities, and immigrants.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, says her office has seen an increasing number of challenges to books focused on LGBTQIA+ characters and related themes based on the data it collects from censorship reports and media coverage.

Six of the top 10 most challenged books in 2018 and eight of the books on the 2019 list drew objections due to “LGBTQIA+ content,” though the 2020 list is dominated by texts that deal with racism and Black people’s experiences.

Protests of LGBTQIA-related material, which have targeted picture books like “And Tango Makes Three” as well as novels aimed at a more mature audience, often stem from a perception that it sexualizes children or is otherwise inappropriate, a stance that the ALA has “great difficulty with,” Caldwell says.

“There are families who have a desire and a need for this information,” she said. “There are young adults who have the ability to understand and want to read about other people’s lives, and they should be able to read this without another person’s values coming into play.”

The removal of “Lawn Boy” and “Gender Queer” from Fairfax County high schools came just before the start of Banned Books Week, an annual initiative organized by the ALA and other literary and free speech organizations to advocate for open access to information and spotlight censorship issues.

This year’s event kicked off on Sunday (Sept. 26) and lasts through Saturday (Oct. 2).

While parents can guide what their own children read, those personal beliefs should not dictate whether students in general have access to specific books, says Nora Pelizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), another group involved with Banned Books Week.

“It is imperative that books be judged based on the stories they tell, the way they tell them and what they can share about the world, rather than on passages taken out of context of the full book,” Pelizzari said in a statement. “When selecting books for school libraries, librarians have a responsibility to ensure that diverse voices and stories are available to all students, perhaps particularly those who have traditionally struggled to find stories they feel represent their lives and experiences.”

Both the ALA and NCAC argue that books should remain on shelves whenever a school or library reviews them in response to a removal request. Taking them out of cirulation before a review is conducted “privileges the personal viewpoints and opinions of the challengers,” Pelizzari says.

“NCAC encourages districts to ensure that they have strong book review policies in place and to follow them closely when challenges do arise, to ensure that educational reasoning and not personal viewpoints guides the selection of school materials,” Pelizzari said.

Angela Woolsey contributed to this report.

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