Correction: A previous version of this story stated pornography is not protected by the First Amendment. Pornography generally receives First Amendment protections. Elon News Network regrets this error. 

Pornographic, pedophilia, discriminatory, helpful and a resource. These were all words used by attendees of the Alamance-Burlington School System Board of Education meeting on Sept. 26 to debate “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe and the book’s place in ABSS school libraries. 

New Superintendent Dain Butler pulled the graphic novel, which tells the story of the author’s journey as a nonbinary and asexual identifying individual, from the Western Alamance High School library earlier this month. Since then, Butler and some ABSS parents have expressed concern over the book’s themes and illustrations that depict sexual activity. 

“This book is a potential disruption to our learning environment,” Butler said in a statement. “Sexual content is a large part of this book and it runs counter to what is appropriate in a school setting. It specifically contains illustrations that are pornographic in nature.”

On Monday night, both current and former ABSS parents, the Western Alamance High School librarian, alumni, one ABSS teacher and one Board of Education candidate told the board what they thought of the book’s removal.

ABSS’s book selection process

Western Alamance High School librarian Tim Johnson was the first person to speak during the public comment section to explain how the book got chosen to be in the library. He said a book has to check nine criteria before it is selected. He highlighted three specific criteria to the board. 

“Is it age appropriate for our students? Does it have serious literary and artistic quality? Are there enough students at this school who might read it to justify its cost?” Johnson said. 

Johnson told the board he learned about “Gender Queer: A Memoir” after looking at the American Library Association book awards. The Alex Awards caught his attention, given to books that are written for adults but that may appeal to children ages 12 to 18. This book won an Alex Award in 2020. After reading more reviews and awards, he said he decided it did fit the first two criteria. 

Next, he said he consulted Western’s school social worker. According to Johnson, the social worker said at least 30 students were trying to understand their nontraditional gender identities. This, plus the number of students in AP English classes for which the book was being considered, justified the book’s purchase. 

Determining age appropriateness

Mayme Brooks attended the meeting as a former ABSS parent and a member of the FACTS Task Force 2.0, which approached the board over the summer with a list of books that her group felt were inappropriate. “Gender Queer: A Memoir” was on that list. 

“These books sexualize every child in this room tonight,” Brooks said. “And every child who reads them.” 

Board of Education candidate Lenard Harrison agreed. He said he plans on coming to the board as he finds more books that he thinks are inappropriate for certain age groups. 

“I will stand up here and scream as loud as I can,” Harrison said. 

The task force raised concerns about this book before Butler started on July 1. Atkins said Butler made the decision separate of the group’s concerns.

Book inspections and removals

Butler did not follow board policy 3210 before removing the book. ABSS Public Information Officer Les Atkins confirmed this. 

Atkins said the superintendent can use his authority as a leader to remove books that he thinks have the potential to disrupt the learning environment. Atkins said Butler used this authority to remove the book as opposed to board policy 3210. 

The policy says parents, students and school employees have a right to inspect school instructional material, and anyone who objects to the material must submit a written objection to the principal. The principal is then required to explain to the concerned party why the material is in the school, and if it is not resolved informally, the object is sent to the media specialist, media director, assistant superintendent for curriculum and superintendent to deliberate. Once this group decides what to do, a written recommendation is submitted to the principal. 

Help versus harm

Western High School class of 2021 graduate Andrew Jordan, who identifies as transgender and bisexual, also spoke at the meeting. He read the book his senior year and said it helped him feel included.

“Oh, there is people like me,” Jordan said. “And this is a normal thing. I’m not weird or a freak.”

He said he read books in high school classes that sexualized heterosexual relationships. Even though there weren’t pictures in those books, he said the imagery the words depicted were just as sexualized as the pictures in “Gender Queer: A Memoir”.

“Why is that allowed but not a memoir?” Jordan said. “Taking that away was totally discriminatory and not right at all.”

Legal and ethical implications

Generally, pornography is protected by the First Amendment and it can be regulated. Despite Butler defining the images as “pornographic in nature” in his statement, no one on the board provided a definition of pornography.

Legal Information Institute at Cornell University defines pornography as, “material that depicts nudity or sexual acts for the purpose of sexual stimulation.”

Elon professor and lawyer Israel Balderas didn’t clearly define pornography either. He quoted former associate justice of the Supreme Court Potter Stewart who said he can’t 

define obscenity but, “I know it when I see it.”

Balderas said in public schools teachers, staff, administrators and the Board of Education have to weigh the obscenity of the book against the educational value it provides. 

Balderas said what Butler did was constitutional. But Balderas does not think it was done ethically. 

“It lacks transparency,” he said. “And in a democracy we want to have that conversation in the open.”

He thinks the superintendent should have come before the school board and heard from the public before he made a decision. 

“Schools are nurseries of democracies and if that’s the case, then schools have a responsibility to make sure that schools complement what’s happening in society,” Balderas said. 

Book bans as a trend and concept

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” is in the American Library Association top 10 most challenged books of 2021. Elon is offering a core capstone class on banned books this semester and education majors talk about banned books in their classes. 

Multiple Elon education majors were also at the board of education meeting on Monday night. Elon senior and student teacher Maddie Volp said respecting different opinions in a classroom can be tricky. 

“It’s definitely difficult to balance that with making sure that your students are allowed to be who they are and the ones that believe a more heteronormative approach,” Volp said.

Elon senior and student teacher Ruby Espitia agreed. She said it’s not up to her to decide what books are allowed in her classroom. She has to follow federal, state and local regulations.

“I want to teach them all of this but I have to be careful about the way I say things and the way I do things because I don’t want to get in trouble,” Espitia said.

Elon education professor and President Emeritus Leo Lambert said banning books is dangerous.

“It’s a very bad idea. And you know this is kind of fundamental to how we think as Americans,” Lambert said. “And if we value a free society then the idea of book banning ought to be something that gives us a great amount of pause.”

Espitia and Volp haven’t read “Gender Queer: A Memoir” in its entirety but have looked at certain illustrations. Both of these student teachers said this particular graphic book is not appropriate for school, but broader conversations with students about gender and identity are important. 

“I will put flags all over my classroom. I will do anything to make sure my students know that maybe they have no one in their life to support them, I support them,” Espitia said. 

Jordan said he hopes the board will allow the book to return to the school library. 

Atkins said the superintendent wants to create groups of parents and school staff to work with the school librarians to evaluate which books are allowed in ABSS schools. This plan is in the brainstorming stage, and no plans have been finalized yet.