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Amid nationwide challenges to sexually explicit books, West Chester school district keeps ‘Gender Queer’

The school board voted 8-1 to keep the 2019 book in high school libraries after students and residents spoke passionately about its value to the LGBTQ community.

Wesley Hiester, a freshman at West Chester East who is transgender, speaks in support of keeping the book "Gender Queer" in high school libraries during the West Chester school board meeting Monday.
Wesley Hiester, a freshman at West Chester East who is transgender, speaks in support of keeping the book "Gender Queer" in high school libraries during the West Chester school board meeting Monday.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The West Chester school board voted Monday to keep Gender Queer on its high school library shelves, voicing support for a graphic memoir that has come under fire nationally as parents demand the removal of books with sexually explicit content.

Many of the targeted books have LGBTQ themes, which was not lost on many community members who spoke passionately during Monday night’s meeting.

Among those speaking in support of the book were students, including a freshman at West Chester East who identified as a transgender teen and noted high rates of suicide attempts among LGBTQ students.

“Let the fact that you want to ban a book that could save those lives sink in,” said Wesley Hiester, adding that without parental support, “this book,” and the ability to play on the boys’ tennis team, “I might not be here today.”

For students struggling with gender identity, “the silencing of these stories in classrooms and libraries ... deprives these young people of voices necessary to develop their own,” and “denigrates and erases actual lives in our care,” said Diane Masur, a community member who served on a committee that reviewed the book and recommended it stay in the high school libraries.

The board voted 8-1 to accept the recommendation of the committee, which also included parents, students, teachers, and school administrators. The group found that explicit images cited by opponents of the book — which includes illustrations of two males being sexually intimate and others related to masturbation — were not pornographic when viewed in the wider context of the 240-page story.

The illustrations of concern “are just a piece of the larger mosaic that supports the tale and message of this memoir,” said Superintendent Bob Sokolowski, who described Gender Queer as a story of “coming into understanding of one’s sexuality and one’s orientation.” Keeping it, Sokolowski said, aligned with “the principle of protecting freedom of speech, as well as the rights and regard for our LGTBQ+ students.”

The 2019 book, an autobiographical story by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe tracing a child’s journey into adulthood while grappling with gender, sexuality, and awkward puberty experiences, has become a lightning rod in schools across the country amid a conservative movement that has been accusing public schools of pushing social agendas on children. The American Library Association said in November that it had seen an “unprecedented” number of book challenges last fall, many related to books about LGBTQ issues, written by Black authors, or documenting the experiences of BIPOC people.

At a Central Bucks school board meeting earlier this month, a group of parents objected to sexual content in a number of books, including Gender Queer, but also books like Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, in which the main character is raped by her father. (”We hired the teachers to teach them how to be successful in life,” one man said in opposition to sexually explicit material. “We did not hire them to teach them how to give blow jobs at the age of 14.”)

Nationally, some schools have responded by pulling books from their shelves — sometimes to preempt complaints — while others have considered the challenges but ultimately preserved the books.

» READ MORE: Efforts to ban books are on the rise. Philly YA authors say ‘silent censorship’ is also getting worse

In West Chester, which now falls into the latter camp, the review of Gender Queer was prompted by a complaint submitted in December, school officials said. The book has been in Rustin High School’s library since early 2020, and in East High School’s library since early 2021, according to spokesperson Molly Schwemler; Henderson High School’s library does not have the book.

Parents and community members who spoke against the book’s presence Monday said some of its images were inappropriate for school libraries.

Joanne Yurchak, a retired teacher, told the board she had once been a “staunch supporter of public schools.”

“Then DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] wrapped its pernicious tentacles of racial divisiveness and sexual indoctrinations around our schoolchildren before many of us realized what was happening,” Yurchak said, calling on parents to remove their children from “woke indoctrination centers.”

» READ MORE: Bill McSwain called a West Chester school’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance club ‘leftist political indoctrination’

Parent Amy Ficarra objected to high schoolers “as young as 14″ being able to access the book, and said, “I refuse to believe this book is the only option for students who need to see themselves” reflected in literature.

All but one board member — Stacey Whomsley, who said she had “questions around the process and procedure” of the book review — voted to keep the book. They noted that it wasn’t part of the district’s curriculum. But present in school libraries, they said, it could be a valuable resource for some students who want to read it.

As a young person, “growing up as a Christian, who is gay, I didn’t immediately find books of people I could identify with,” said board member Daryl Durnell. “But when I did, it made a huge difference.”

Others commended those who shared their personal experiences with the board — including a queer high school student who said that outrage over the book’s imagery was “out of proportion” and that their peers were “much more comfortable and in touch with sexuality than parents or teachers know or want to acknowledge.” A father said he better understood his children’s experiences after reading the book, while a young man who said he and his nonbinary partner were considering starting a family in West Chester told the board he hoped the district would be “inclusive and truly welcoming.”

“We have to be brave too,” said board president Sue Tiernan, “and we have to keep these books available to kids, to people, who can learn from them.”