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Fairfax school system pulls two books from libraries after complaints over sexual content

Fairfax County Public Schools has temporarily suspended circulation of two books after parent complaints over sexual content in the texts. (iStock)

Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest district, has removed two books from high school libraries after a couple of speakers at a recent school board meeting denounced the texts for sexually explicit language, scenes and imagery including what one speaker called “homoerotic” content.

The two speakers at the Thursday meeting, a Fairfax parent and a woman who said she was a former teacher, also alleged that the books — “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe — contain depictions of pedophilia, a charge that Evison denied. Both books were recently honored by the American Library Association as texts with “special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”

During and after the speakers’ remarks, the audience began applauding and refused to quiet down, forcing board chair Stella Pekarsky to temporarily recess the meeting. Twice, a crowd of about two dozen attendees chanted the “Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel,” which asks the saint’s help in defending Christians from the devil.

On Friday, Fairfax officials announced they are removing the books from school libraries until two committees made up of staff, students and parents can review the texts to determine if they are appropriate for school-age children.

The committees will then make a recommendation to the assistant superintendent of instructional services, who will decide whether the district of 180,000 should keep offering high school students access to the books in libraries. The books are not available at the lower and middle-school level.

A Fairfax spokeswoman said the review process will take up to 45 business days, per the district’s procedures for dealing with requests to remove instructional material. Fairfax Chief Academic Officer Sloan Presidio wrote to school board members Friday that student reviewers for the books will be over 18 years of age, “given the concerns” raised about the texts.

Citing the comments at the meeting, Presidio wrote to board members that “we are going to put these books forward for review immediately. While this process is underway, circulation of these texts will be suspended.”

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Fairfax school board member Elaine Tholen said Tuesday that she was disturbed by the sexually explicit language, themes and imagery included in both books, which one of the parent speakers read aloud and displayed in blown-up images at the board meeting. But Tholen said she has not yet read either book, and wants to learn more before coming to a final judgment on whether the texts are appropriate for school-aged children.

“If there are people that are uncomfortable with books for any reason, we have a process for dealing with this,” Tholen said. “I really want to be thorough and look into it and follow the process.”

Evison, the author of “Lawn Boy,” said Monday that he has received death threats since his book drew national headlines earlier this month, when a mother criticized the text at a school board meeting in Texas. Evison defended his book, which he described as a young adult novel that interrogates issues including capitalism, wealth disparity and racial assumptions.

He said that, contrary to allegations circulating online, the book does not describe or contain pedophilia. The scene people seem to be upset about, Evison said, involves an adult man recalling a sexual encounter he had with another fourth-grader when he was in fourth grade.

“If I had a statement, it would be ‘Read the book or sit down,’ ” he said. “I feel like these people are frightened because they’re losing the culture wars.”

Kobabe, author of the illustrated memoir “Gender Queer,” directed requests for comment about Fairfax’s suspension of the book to publisher Oni Press. Publisher James Lucas Jones said in a statement that the book is an important resource for students who identify as genderqueer or nonbinary, as well as others hoping to understand what those terms mean — and that “limiting its availability is short-sighted and reactionary.”

Parents in Texas and Virginia have alleged that two specific images in “Gender Queer” constitute pedophilia. One of the images shows the adult author engaging in fellatio with a romantic partner who is also an adult, while the author wears a dildo. The other image shows a sexual fantasy of the author’s — in which an apparently teenage youth is about to engage in fellatio with an older, bearded man — that the book states was based on Plato’s “Symposium.”

“Symposium,” a philosophical text, at one point details speeches on love given during a banquet — including an argument from one attendee that heavenly love can only occur between a man and a boy. “Gender Queer” provides no other information about the fantasy.

Asked about parents’ claims, Kobabe wrote in a statement Tuesday that the image is based on an ancient Greek pottery cup that shows “a courting scene” and is on display at a museum in Oxford, England. Kobabe wrote that lessons on Greek classical art and culture in high school marked the “first time I can remember learning about LGBTQ+ people” and left a “big impression.”

“I was so hungry for literally any type of queer representation,” Kobabe wrote. “I devoured every queer movie, song lyric, fantasy novel, manga series, and yes, erotic Greek pottery painting I could find.”

In addition to the accusations of pedophilia, one speaker at Thursday’s board meeting seemed to critique the books for their LGBTQ story lines and themes.

“I am here to protest the use of Fairfax taxpayers’ money in a campaign to normalize the use of homoerotic material with minors,” said Adrienne Henzel, who said she used to work as a Fairfax teacher. She further slammed the district for “promoting books that graphically depict homosexual acts.”

Some Northern Virginia parents wanted two books with LGBTQ characters removed from schools. Officials said no.

Henzel could not immediately be reached for comment.

Fairfax parent Stacy Langton, the second speaker who criticized the books at the meeting, said in an interview Tuesday that she is not opposed to the books because of their LGBTQ content.

She called the sex scenes detailed in the texts “filth” and theorized that if a man showed images such as those included in “Gender Queer” to a female colleague in the workplace, he would be written up for sexual harassment.

“I don’t care about the gender of the participants in the book, I don’t care about the sexual orientation of the characters,” Langton said. “It’s just pornography, full stop.”

Langton said she chose to target “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” both of which happen to feature LGBTQ characters, because she saw media coverage of the texts after parent outcry in Texas. She then checked her children’s high school library and saw Fairfax was offering the books, too — as do a number of school systems in the Washington region.

Langton said that, if she encounters books featuring similarly graphic sexual relations between heterosexual cisgender individuals, she will advocate to pull those books from school libraries, too.

Robert Norris Rigby, a longtime LGBTQ activist in Fairfax County and co-president of FCPS Pride, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said he is displeased but unsurprised by the controversy over the books.

He said LGBTQ texts and people are “old go-tos when other ‘outrage’ topics get stale,” and added that “we stand with our librarians and marginalized communities that must be welcomed in our libraries.”

A Fairfax board member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of harassment, said that since the meeting, several members have received messages promising physical violence or even death over their perceived support of the books.

It’s not the first time Northern Virginia parents have sounded the alarm over books with LGBTQ characters. Over the past three years, conservative Christian parents in Loudoun County have campaigned against LGBTQ literature, leading school officials to remove five books from elementary schools, although school board members later blocked an attempt to remove two more.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.