Josiah Poynter felt like an outsider when he transferred to Downers Grove North High School, in suburban Chicago, as a sophomore.
But his fellow football players filled the gap — providing a warm welcome and strong support. Poynter, who identifies as heterosexual and a Christian, cited that experience Monday night, when he told an audience of more than 100 at a Community High School District 99 board meeting that he strongly supports keeping the controversial LGBTQ graphic memoir “Gender Queer” on the shelves of the district’s high school libraries.
“Inclusion matters to young people,” said Poynter, 18. “Inclusion brings an opportunity to grow in a safe environment. It brings comfort to people who feel cast out.”
The local controversy over “Gender Queer,” which has drawn criticism at schools across the country, spilled into full view at the board meeting, with opponents characterizing images of oral sex and a sex toy as “pornographic,” and saying the book should be removed from library shelves. Supporters say that the book — about growing up asexual and nonbinary — sends a strong message of support and inclusion to LGBTQ teens at a vulnerable time.
About a dozen people spoke — among them students, parents and a former teacher. Most called on the district to keep the book on library shelves, while three speakers called for the book to be removed.
“Let me be clear: Parents don’t have an issue with books that help children cope with being gay,” said Terry Newsome, the father of twin freshmen at Downers Grove South High School. He praised books such as the graphic memoir “The Times I Knew I was Gay,” which he said is available at his children’s school.
“These books are empowering children to navigate their sexuality — without using graphic child pornography,” said Newsome.
Newsome told the school board “Gender Queer” should be removed, and “what you’re doing to our children in the name of politics is disgusting.”
“Gender Queer” is author Maia Kobabe’s story of adolescent crushes, coming out, and forging an authentic gender identity. A 2020 American Library Association Alex Award winner, the book received a starred review from the School Library Journal, which described it as “a great resource for those who identify as nonbinary or asexual as well as for those who know someone who identifies that way and wish to better understand.”
The book has been temporarily removed from circulation by the Canutillo Independent School District in El Paso, Texas, pending a statewide review of allegedly pornographic books, according to the TV station KFOX14. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster has responded to complaints about the book with a call to keep pornography out of the schools, and Brevard County Public Schools in Florida pulled the book from its libraries in October, according to ABC News.
District 99 Superintendent Hank Thiele told the Tribune that the book will remain on library shelves during a review process that will include a meeting with concerned parents.
“The idea is to have a logical, thoughtful discussion,” he said.
Students at the District 99 school board meeting said the book isn’t used in classes, and anyone who reads it has to seek it out. They also pointed out that other school library books such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” include graphic sexual content.
Julia Hanson, a junior at Downers Grove North, told the crowd that she had read “Gender Queer” the day before.
“Nothing about this book was new to me. Just like just about any other student at DGN, I have a cellphone, where I’m shown new ideas every day,” Hanson said. “Parents, I can guarantee your teenagers have seen it all.”