Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.
The debate surrounding a few LGBTQ-themed books in a Kent middle school library continues in the community after the books were temporarily removed and put under district review after a student found issue with sexually explicit content and scenarios in one of the books.
Many parents and community members have expressed support for the removal of the books as well as the principal of Cedar Heights Middle School, who reportedly was the first to remove the books from the library.
A letter from Douglas Franceschina sent to the Kent School Board members expressed his concern surrounding scenes and language in “Jack of Hearts (and other parts)” by Lev A.C. Rosen, which was the first book to be removed at the school.
Franceschina found issue with the language used in the book, which included words like “fuck,” “cock” and “dick.” He also included in his letter an excerpt from the book that reads as tips and instructions for fellatio.
Additionally, he cited an excerpt from the book regarding a sexual relationship between a student and an employee that worked at the fictional high school where the story takes place. Some residents accused the book of glorifying statutory rape during the public comment period at a Feb. 9 school board meeting.
“The principal was merely trying to protect students and the graphic details of the book,” Franceschina wrote in his letter to the Kent School Board. “Students at Cedar Heights are 11 and 12 years old. They aren’t even mature enough to read this type of book. Shouldn’t the parent make the decision on what their child should be exposed to?”
During the Feb. 9 Kent School Board meeting, other parents and community members echoed similar sentiments about the school district’s responsibility to “protect” students while supporting a removal of this book and others from the school libraries. Many of them also reiterated that their opposition to the literary titles was solely based on their sexually explicit content and themes and not on the fact that they all notably featured LGBTQ characters and themes.
Others testified against any sort of book ban or library censorship of these books, urging that their inclusion of LGBTQ characters, themes and experiences is exactly why they were valuable books for the school’s library to include.
Kent School District employee Jason Fields testified to the school board on Feb. 9, giving his perspective on the context of the removal of LGBTQ books from public libraries.
“It has been a decades-long conservative argument that any content related to gender or sexual minorities isn’t appropriate for children,” he said. “Meanwhile, frank expressions and discussions of straight-sexuality are ubiquitous in the hallways of schools, the media, and the shelves of school libraries.”
Fields went on to say that the removal of books and content for children that may otherwise normalize non-heterosexual or non-cis-normative experiences and stories only serves to further stigmatize LGBTQ experiences and make their sexuality, or identity, a taboo.
“The removal of queer content goes beyond the physical act of removing books from shelves,” said Fields. “It is a statement that queerness is unreadable, thus unspeakable.”
Michelle Mahurin, the Inclusive Education Program Specialist for Kent School District, made a written statement to the school board regarding her own experience growing up gay in Idaho in the 1970s and 1980s, knowing she would have to hide her own identity for fear of alienation.
“I had zero role models, not counting Jack Tripper on ‘Three’s Company,’” she said, joking about the lack of LGBTQ-representation in the media. “We didn’t talk about how I felt. I was lost.”
Mahurin said library day at school was a special time for her to freely explore books and content that she was interested in — content that may not have been considered gender-appropriate by her family or by society’s standards at the time.
“On library day I could find the Boys Life magazines and read about camping trips and being outside. I checked out ‘Hardy Boys Mysteries’ to supplement ‘Little House on the Prairie’ and my mom’s other required reading,” she recalled. “I could not imagine how broken I might have felt running up to the magazine rack and finding my treasure was gone, or since I was a girl, my choices weren’t appropriate.”
Mahurin said she believes banning books is to send a message forbidding certain ideas or even people.
Mercury Kirkpatrick, who signed up to testify as student, spoke both about the issue of age-appropriateness in school reading materials and to the importance of LGBTQ literary representation, especially for students who identify as queer.
In 9th grade, Mercury was required to read a book called “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson. The book follows a high school girl who suffers debilitating trauma after she was sexually assaulted — themes that are both mature and sexually-explicit.
“I personally found that book very helpful,” Mercury said. “It was empowering to me as a survivor of sexual assault myself to find some of my own experiences reflected back in that book, and it gave me the strength I needed to share my story with a few trusted adults and to put myself on the path to healing.”
Mercury testified to the importance of literature in helping young people understand mature situations and the long-term impacts they can have — because whether we like it or not, these real-life situations still occur to those around us and age is not a determining factor of who is and who is not victimized, she said.
Speaking about the importance of LGBTQ represenation in media and literature for young people, Mercury said: “Queer people don’t become queer when they turn 18. Most of us are born this way. When you are young and you have only ever seen cis-straight people everywhere you look, you probably won’t even realize that queer and trans people exist, let alone that you might be one of them. I know this from experience.”
Mercury made the point that “Speak” was required reading, yet “Jack of Hearts (and other parts)” was not. Mercury believes that it does not make sense for a book that includes semi-graphic depictions of non-consensual sex between a male and a female to be part of the essential curriculum, while a book that “briefly” features consensual sex between two males is removed from the school library “where it could well sit for years without being touched by a student.”
“It is not an accident that all the books that are being challenged are about queer people. We deserve to see ourselves represented just as much as straight people do, and we need that,” Mercury said.
Cedar Heights Middle School Librarian Gavin Downing, who personally vetted and curated these books under his authority as the school’s librarian, said these books are among the most carefully vetted in the library’s collection and that he stands by his decision to include them.
Downing emphasized the importance of including literature that includes LGBTQ characters and themes because he believes literary representation matters, especially to those in marginalized communities and groups.
He also acknowledged that some of the literature does include frank and realistic depictions of sex, but he believes it is ultimately up to students to make decisions about which books are appropriate for them.
As for parents and school administrators and their concerns regarding the appropriateness of “Jack of Hearts (and other parts)” by Lev A.C. Rosen for all middle school students, ages 12-14, Downing said his responsibility is not to provide books that are the right fit for every single one of the students on campus.
“‘Some of the student body,’ that is the metric,” he said.
Currently, the books in question remain available to students, according to a statement from the school district. However, they will be under review by the district’s Instructional Materials Committee to determine whether they are appropriate for the school library.