Debate over a memoir that contains explicit illustrations of sexual acts is surfacing in a handful of states where Republican governors are gearing up for reelection next year, foreshadowing a recurring theme for conservative leaders in the coming campaigns.
The book in question, Maia Kobabe's “Gender Queer,” has been the focus of ire from Republican governors in various states, most recently playing a role in the Virginia governor's race.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday released a letter — similar in nature to one days earlier by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — calling on Superintendent Molly Spearman to perform a systemic review of “inappropriate” materials in the state's schools.
In the letter, McMaster claims to have been alerted to the issue by concerned parents, although the book in question has become a strategic GOP talking point over the course of the past year.
Local, state and national politics
The illustrated memoir — a previous winner of the American Library Association’s Alex Awards, which each year recognize “ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18" — contains explicit illustrations of oral sex and masturbation.
In his letter, McMaster, a former state and federal prosecutor, also noted he had made state police aware of the book, which he referred to multiple times as “pornographic” and therefore “likely illegal under South Carolina law.”
On Monday, Abbott wrote to Texas education leaders, saying a district in the state had removed “Gender Queer” following “complaints of the book’s pornographic drawings.” Similarly, he called on education officials “to immediately develop statewide standards to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools, including in school libraries,” citing complaints about “the book’s pornographic drawings.”
In Virginia, one of a few states with odd-year gubernatorial elections, “Gender Queer” became a focal point. After parents spoke out against it during a Fairfax County schools meeting in September, Republican Glenn Youngkin posted video from the meeting, asking, “Are you a parent who wants to have a say in your child’s education? Too bad. Terry McAuliffe says you have to sit down and shut up.”
Youngkin went on to defeat McAuliffe in last week's balloting.
In September, the Fairfax County school system in northern Virginia voted to remove Kobabe’s book, as well as “Lawn Boy” — a novel that contains graphic descriptions of sex between men and children — from circulation pending a more detailed review.
Last month, Kobabe addressed the firestorm over the memoir, writing in an op-ed that it had also been banned in a Florida school district and challenged at schools in states including Ohio, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington.
“Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health," the author wrote.
In North Carolina, Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson weathered calls to resign last month over over comments he made criticizing sexual education and likening gay and transgender people to “filth," subsequently citing the presence of “Gender Queer” in the state’s schools as alleged “indoctrination.”
Districts in other states including Pennsylvania have removed the book as well, prompting organizations such as the National Coalition Against Censorship to call for it to be restored to school shelves.
“For the students who need this book, its removal from library shelves sends a devastating message," the organization wrote. "And for students who have no interest in this book, its presence on library shelves would not affect them at all.”
According to Ryan Brown, spokesperson for South Carolina’s Department of Education, superintendents across the state began reviewing their libraries “for appropriateness” last week after being alerted about the book's presence in one district.
Books in school libraries and media centers, he noted, “are not funded by and do not go through the state instructional materials process” and are “selected by local school and district officials.”