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Fairfax schools will return 2 books to shelves after reviewing complaints over content

Fairfax County Public Schools temporarily removed the books “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and “Lawn Boy” after complaints. (iStock)

Fairfax County Public Schools has decided to return two books to its high school libraries, following a review into complaints that the books contained sexually explicit language and scenes that weren’t appropriate for a juvenile audience, the school system announced Tuesday.

Over about a month, one committee read, discussed and reviewed “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and another assessed “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. Each unanimously recommended that its respective book remain in libraries because the panels consider the books diverse reading material that students with underrepresented identities could relate to, according to a news release from the largest school system in Virginia.

The books have been the center of a public debate in the Fairfax district. At a school board meeting in September, two speakers — one a parent, the other a woman who identified herself as a former teacher — said the books were inappropriate for a high school audience because of their sexual content and alleged that they contained depictions of pedophilia.

Kobabe’s publisher, Oni Press, has said the illustrated memoir is an important resource not only for people who identify as nonbinary or gender queer, but also for people who want to understand what that means. Kobabe previously wrote in an October op-ed in The Washington Post that, “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.”

Evison said in a statement Tuesday that his novel interrogates important issues such as capitalism, wealth disparities and racial assumptions — “pornography was nowhere among them,” he said.

“I’m glad that the book has been reinstated, where I hope it will continue to inspire and comfort young adult readers who have been marginalized economically, racially, or by virtue of their sexual identification, so that these young people might find their rightful place within the large culture,” he said.

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Stacy Langton, a Fairfax mother who filed the formal complaint about the books, said Tuesday that she learned from reporters about the books being reinstated to school libraries. She intends to go through the school system’s appeals process because she thinks the material is offensive and obscene, she said.

Langton added that her stance had nothing to do with the fact that the books contain LGBTQ characters, noting that she grew up around the LGBTQ community since her mother was a lesbian.

“It’s never about that,” Langton said. “I’m not looking to remove the LGBTQ book collection as a whole.”

Fairfax is one of many school districts in recent weeks to debate what should and shouldn’t be available to students in school libraries. The Spotsylvania County School Board began the process of removing all “sexually explicit” books from its school libraries, with two board members apparently suggesting that the books be burned. The school board later rescinded the decision.

The Fairfax district has a regulation in place that mandates a committee of parents, staff and students review each library book that is challenged, so the school system pulled the books and began the process, said Noel Klimenko, assistant superintendent of instructional services. Each committee participant was older than 18 because of the nature of the complaints.

Both groups concluded that the books had literary value, and neither committee found depictions of pedophilia.

“In this case, the way that it came forward, the committee was very clear that they both did not think that the complainants’ complaints were upheld and that they felt that this was a piece of literature that was very important for students to have access to,” Klimenko said in an interview about the books.

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Both committees submitted a report to Klimenko on why the books should remain in school libraries. The committee that reviewed “Lawn Boy” found the book was “an accessible examination of race, class, socio-economic struggle, and sexual identity” that could be affirming for a significant population of the school system’s students.

The committee that reviewed “Gender Queer” found the illustrated memoir was a “scientifically based narrative of one person’s journey with gender identity that contains information and perspective that is not widely represented.”

Klimenko read each committee’s report and approved both books. The school system plans to make the books available for checkout again soon, a spokeswoman said.

The Pride Liberation Project, a student-run group of LGBTQ students in Fairfax schools, applauded the decision, saying in a statement that the books are “valuable systems of support” for LGBTQ students. The group previously wrote a letter calling for the two books to be reinstated, and it was signed by more than 425 Fairfax students.

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Robert Norris Rigby, a longtime LGBTQ activist in Fairfax County and co-president of FCPS Pride, an LGBTQ advocacy group, also agreed that the school system made the right decision. During the past 20 years in his advocacy role, he has seen similar debates unfold in the school system, and often, LGBTQ students become “collateral damage” amid the politics, he said.

“I trust FCPS to use its process and with inclusion and fairness to LGBTQ students,” Rigby said. “Change takes time, it’s frustrating. But FCPS is steering in a more equitable, inclusive direction.”