On the Top Shelf

They’ll read Gender Queer when they can reach it

In January, students in Ms. Amy Allen’s Banned Books class composed a series of Op-Eds in response to the controversy surrounding Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer. Since then, the library has changed its policy regarding mature graphic novels. The library has separated the graphic novels into two sections: one for middle and another for upper school. We are choosing to publish this article because we want to highlight the community’s voice on important issues. We hope this sets the precedent to our community: if there is an issue you are passionate about, we encourage you to send us an article. 

Our community allows for literature such as Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir to be ridiculed, as middle school students shared sexual panels grossly out of context. This presents several questions when parents were able to whisk away Gender Queer from the library shelves without explaining their reasoning or gaining the consent of the community. Are parents censoring books in our library because they are anti-LGBTQ+? Are the protocols and systems we set in place effective? Is our community dysfunctional when facing controversial decisions by our administration? 

Maia Kobabe wrote Gender Queer as a memoir for eir exploration and study of gender identity. In fact, a part of Kobabe’s journey was referring to eirself using gender-neutral Spivak pronouns (e/em/eir). Gender Queer was removed from shelves without due process, and this monumental decision from the administration shows how the protocols established to protect our reading materials are practically void, and our intellectual liberties are being robbed from us.

Head of School Mr. Ron Kim sent an email to the school on November 11, 2022, addressing the book in response to parent complaints. He first described Gender Queer as “a memoir of the author’s personal journey through gender dysmorphia, autoandrophilia (men who are sexually attracted to men and also sexually aroused by the idea of changing their bodies to become more sexually attractive men), and adolescence.” As Mr. Kim expressed in his letter, Gender Queer is an important resource for young people to explore themes of identity and gender. Then, Mr. Kim acknowledged concerns voiced by parents regarding their children “consuming media with themes that include sex and sexual identity.” Mr. Kim ended his letter with an unfair compromise that shocked many students and faculty: “This book will remain in our collection, and may be requested by students from a librarian.”

This compromise does not follow the library protocol. The Bishop’s School Library maintains an eight step protocol when concerns are raised regarding a book. During an interview with Library Director Ms. Alisa Brandt, she stated that this protocol should have been used when Gender Queer was petitioned to be taken off shelves. The Abbreviated Collection Management and Reconsideration Policies can be made available upon request at the library, and state that “no materials are excluded or removed from the library collection on the basis of the author’s race, nationality, political, social, or religious beliefs… Materials dealing with controversial views will be judged as entire works, not as isolated passages.” When Gender Queer was taken from public access, this protocol was not followed. A step that was undermined was that “The library director will schedule a meeting with the complainant, and the Assistant Head of School for Curriculum and Academics will be notified and may be present at the meeting.” In a dire mistake, this meeting was not held, and Gender Queer was removed without communication between the library, Head of School, and parents — rather parents saw their complaints be unconditionally accepted by Mr. Kim. Despite our community having protocols in place to prevent books from being unjustly removed from the library, the effective banning of Gender Queer demonstrates how our protocols have loopholes and are not implemented practically.

It is necessary that Gender Queer complaints be reevaluated according to the protocol for the reconsideration of materials. Had there been open discussions that the community could have participated in, and then collectively reached the conclusion that Gender Queer should be taken off library shelves, the removal of Gender Queer may not have been such an outrageous decision. As Eliana Birnbaum-Nahl (‘23) stated in her Daily Urinal article “Bishop’s Queer,” “parents are paying for their kids to be here, but it is our school and our library.” The premise of reading material being restricted without consideration of the desires of students is unfair. The response to Gender Queer by our community has been brash and ineffective because our administration made the decision to prioritize protests from parents over the wishes of students and faculty.

It is still unclear to many students and faculty why Gender Queer was taken off shelves, and in her Daily Urinal article “My Take on Gender Queer,” Annalise Chang (‘23) represents many students who can only assume that “the issue is not the sexual content itself but rather who the graphic novel depicts as engaging in the sexual activity.” Parents have been put in equally compromising positions because the protocol was breached. This misunderstanding can be attributed to the administration’s breach of library protocol on the reconsideration of materials. Had protocol been followed, these parents would have been asked to read the material in its entirety, which would have created an opportunity for them to deliberate and carefully examine how they voiced their complaints.

While Gender Queer does not deserve the treatment parents have demanded it face, there is validity to the concerns of parents. Specifically, parents point to the exposure of middle school students to graphic sexual imagery when calling for a restriction on Gender Queer, and this point has been left unaddressed by students defending the book. Ms. Brandt said that Gender Queer would likely not have met concern from parents should it have been a written memoir rather than a graphic one. 

When reading Gender Queer many people may ask, ‘is this effective at teaching people about sexuality and/or gender identity?’ There are some panels that are excessively graphic. On pages 166-167, Gender Queer depicts Kobabe’s sexual experience with a partner. E wrote, “Fast-forward: we’ve been dating for two months. We’ve made out, we’ve had sex, we’ve moved on to sexting at work.” These sentences tell the reader everything they need to know to understand this part of Kobabe’s life. Nonetheless, this is a graphic memoir, so Kobabe included a panel depicting Kobabe receiving oral sex from eir partner. However, there are a variety of literary techniques that could have been employed to present sex in a less explicit manner. An allegory to oral sex might have been a more appropriate way to depict Kobabe engaging in sex with eir partner, rather than the problematic fellatio panel that many parents have found inappropriate. 

The Los Angeles Times overlooked this point and quoted Louisiana librarian Amanda Jones saying, “People are saying they’re trying to protect children from pornography in school . . . But it’s false outrage. They’re targeting LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities.” Concerns about excessively graphic content are framed as an attack on the LGBTQ+ community. At Bishop’s this rebuttal made by Amanda Jones is a straw-man argument that falsely identifies parents’ concerns as an attack on the LGBTQ+ community. Instead, parents seem more concerned that children are being inappropriately introduced to sexual themes. This is not to say, however, that school districts in other states are banning Gender Queer because it is LGBTQ+.

Additionally, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster stated Gender Queer should be banned from schools and criticized Gender Queer for containing “sexually explicit and pornographic depictions, which easily meet or exceed the statutory definition of obscenity.” Returning to Annalise Chang’s “My Take on Gender Queer,” it seems that the issue is not “who the graphic novel depicts as engaging in the sexual activity,” but rather who reads this graphic novel depicting the sexual activity. 

Ms. Brandt stated that they had the opportunity to implement their protocol, but regrettably acceded to taking Gender Queer off shelves. So Gender Queer being restricted was a mistake by the library that should not be repeated, but it is wrong to disparage parents for voicing their concerns. Retracting the Gender Queer restriction by dismissing the points made by parents does not resolve anything and only creates greater divides in our community.

Kobabe mentions discovering the book Touching a Nerve by Patricia S. Churchland while exploring eir identity. Touching a Nerve discusses gender and gender dysmorphia, and Kobabe depicts eirself learning much about eir own identity from Churchland’s writing. Touching a Nerve effectively educates people on themes of gender and gender dysmorphia, and this book has not met the same outrage as Gender Queer. It seems that this can be attributed to the book being text-oriented rather than graphic.

The parents do not deserve criticism, however, the push from parents for a Gender Queer restriction is inappropriate. Rather, a wiser decision would be to offer alternative reading options, like Touching a Nerve, for middle school students to access. Further, Ms. Brandt and the library staff have already made efforts to move graphic novels, including Gender Queer to the first floor and into sections designated for middle school students and high school students. This way, the concerns of parents are addressed by ensuring that middle school students do not chance upon graphic material in the library, but nonetheless can read such material if they choose — and are conscious of the maturity required to consume such media.

The points made for and against Gender Queer are currently valid in their own respects but lack the nuance that comes with discussions. It was critical that the library protocol for the reconsideration of materials was followed. Since the protocol was not followed, a fracture has formed between the wants of parents and the wants of students. The administration has weakened the authority of the protocols set in place, and students were deprived of an informative and meaningful memoir. It is necessary that current measures set upon Gender Queer be reverted and protocol is followed accordingly, and discussions between the library and parents should come to a compromise — rather than considerations going to one side of this issue. 

Bishop’s parents are understandably concerned when they come home to discover explicit images of sex on their child’s phone and to learn that their child accessed such imagery from a school library is a source of discomfort. But to then snatch Gender Queer from the hands of students who are reading such material respectfully is irrational. It is the duty of parents, the administration, and students to work harmoniously, because deciding on changes to reading material that affects the whole community should consider the opinions of everyone.