National fight is creeping into Illinois schools over what is read, taught and who belongs

A push to ban a book about coming out as non-binary erupts in the suburbs amid reports of a spike in harassment against Illinois LGBTQ students.

WBEZ
LGBTQ students in Illinois this fall are reporting a spike in harassment as an effort to ban a memoir about coming out as non-binary is underway in a west suburban high school district. tedeytan / Flickr
WBEZ
LGBTQ students in Illinois this fall are reporting a spike in harassment as an effort to ban a memoir about coming out as non-binary is underway in a west suburban high school district. tedeytan / Flickr

National fight is creeping into Illinois schools over what is read, taught and who belongs

A push to ban a book about coming out as non-binary erupts in the suburbs amid reports of a spike in harassment against Illinois LGBTQ students.

With the return of in-person learning this fall, American culture wars are igniting in some Illinois schools.

This week, critics of “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a book about coming out as non-binary, turned out in force to call for its removal at a high school district board meeting in west suburban Downers Grove. And Equality Illinois, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said groups around the state this fall are seeing an influx of reports of harassment toward LGBTQ students.

This comes as conservative politicians, some parents and others nationally have turned their attention from masking policies in schools to what is taught, with a focus on trying to end policies and ban materials they consider too progressive and harmful for students. The arrival of the effort here comes just two years after Illinois passed a law that requires public schools to include LGBTQ history in the curriculum.

“We’re really in an anxious time right now so I’m not surprised that we have an increase in book bannings,” said Emily Knox, an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Knox says this is the latest iteration in the cyclical nature of efforts to ban books, which tends to ebb and flow depending on the community. But she says there seems to be a growing effort to ban LGBTQ and anti-racist books.

“This is really the outcome of the pandemic, the insurrection, the killing of George Floyd, all of those things have created kind of a perfect storm for people to really think about their local institutions and what is happening in them,” Knox said.

“No porn”

The fight in the school district based in Downers Grove is over a book that’s been at the center of controversy in several other states. Fairfax County Schools in Virginia and some schools in Florida are among a few that have moved to ban “Gender Queer” in its libraries.

“You and your friends are trying to convince us that “Gender Queer,” a child pornographic sketchbook, is acceptable in our schools under the pretense of inclusion and comedy,” said Terry Newsome, who spoke during the public comment period at Monday’s board meeting in Downers Grove. “Additionally, you say it’s okay because it’s not assigned reading. It’s only in the library. None of this justifies offering our children pornography.”

Some meeting attendees held up signs that read “No Porn” or enlarged graphic images from the book showing sexual content. A social media message circulated before the meeting showing a message that appeared to be from the Northern Illinois Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group. The message urged people to come to the meeting to “keep pornography out of Downers Grove schools.”

The book wasn’t on the agenda, but critics turned up to speak against it. The superintendent said the district has received two formal objections and an independent process will determine if the book will remain. The school district libraries have just two copies of the book, one in each of the district’s two high schools.

Supporters of keeping an array of books in libraries say removing them is erasing experiences some students identify with. High school student Lauren Pierret told the board there are other books available to students that depict heterosexual content like “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “It,” but no one has challenged them.

“Why are these books not being censored,” she asked board members. “Let’s not present getting rid of “Gender Queer” as censoring our children from sex. It’s homophobia. It’s an outward protest of media for queer students. It’s telling kids that who they are is wrong.”

The price of censorship

Knox says LGBTQ books tend to be sexualized even if they don’t contain any sexual content. She says it speaks to how critics characterize the queer community as a whole and why some of these books are challenged, including ones about gender identity like “Gender Queer.”

“That’s really about ‘My kids don’t need to know about this,’ ” Knox said. “You can see the anxiety that ‘what if my own child questions their gender identity?’ ”

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, says public school libraries provide information to students who are coming from all backgrounds and experiences. She says they need to be able to find information about their identities and needs. For some students, the school library is their only access to a larger collection of books.

“What you wind up doing with this book censorship is not only teaching a deeply anti-democratic lesson that flies in the face of our promise of freedom of speech, freedom to read, but also, you’re essentially erasing the experiences of particular groups who’ve been marginalized, who’ve been without voices,” she said.

The group of LGBTQ advocacy groups around the state that reported the rise in harassment toward LGBTQ students on Tuesday said the climate is difficult for LGBTQ students this fall. They say harassment is coming from staff or fellow students. It’s also happening at the local level at school board meetings like in Downers Grove.

Grecia Magdaleno of Illinois Safe Schools Alliance says some students may have become more vocal about their identities since returning to in-person learning, which may result in an increase in discrimination.

“But there are many other factors for it as well,” Magdaleno said. “I think it’s because of the rise in anti-trans legislation that we’ve been seeing across the country.”

In 2019, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker signed a law that requires public schools to include LGBTQ history in the curriculum. Magdaleno is helping to build that curriculum. They say the most common push back toward LGBTQ affirming material is that it isn’t age appropriate. Magdaleno says the curriculum is designed to reach students at the appropriate time in their development.

“We need to really fight to make sure that we advocate for these books that are offering information on different identities by stating that it’s not a politicized issue,” Magdaleno said. “It really is just about identity at its core, and that it’s not meant to be controversial in any way. It’s really just about capturing the experiences and information of people whose lives haven’t been captured in society before.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.