Wisconsin Residents, Advocates React to Removal of Books from Schools

Most of the banned books covered LGBTQ topics.

This is a photo of the pride and trans flags.

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Wisconsin’s Kenosha Unified School District removed four books from school libraries this year, joining a nationwide debate about removing books from schools. The books, which focused on LGBTQ topics and characters, were purged for having “pornographic material,” one school board member explained on social media. While their removal satisfied some residents, others worry about the effects on vulnerable kids.

On Sept. 8, Kenosha Unified School District School Board member Eric Meadows posted on Facebook about the book removals.

“A few weeks ago, several parents in the community looked into reportedly explicit books in our libraries,” Meadows said in the post. “See my previous post about this. Since then, a national spotlight has shined on this same topic. A number of graphic books were identified as being in some of our schools through numerous open records requests from several people. The following books have been removed from our libraries, not because of the LGBT nature of them, but because of overtly explicit and obscene pictures and descriptions.”

The post identifies the books as This Book is Gay, Gender Queer, Let’s Talk About It, and All Boys Aren’t Blue. “I am opposed to exposing children to any pornographic material in school, whether LGBT or heterosexual. Neither belong in public schools,” Meadows wrote in his post. “I will work towards clarifying our policy to ensure this doesn’t happen again. I will receive a lot of anger from some in the community just for writing this. I don’t care. My first priority will be to protect the innocence of our children.”

Meadows accused the Wisconsin Examiner of bias when reached for comment. He added that the district “removed a few books because they were sexually explicit. Those books are widely available to purchase and at the public library. … I stand by my Facebook post.”

The Kenosha Unified School District didn’t respond to requests for comment.

When she heard about the removals, Kenosha resident Amanda Becker said she was “left disappointed on a few different levels. I was disappointed that it was specifically LGBTQ+ content that was being targeted. And I was disappointed that this was happening at all.”

“It’s a form of censorship and I don’t agree with it,” Becker added.

Barb Farrar, director of the Southeast Wisconsin LGBT Center, said the fallout for students from removing books shouldn’t be downplayed. “As an LGBT person, any time people are talking about taking away your freedom to read literature for young people, it’s really hurtful,” Farrar told Wisconsin Examiner. To help educate community members and defeat stigma, the Center runs its own LGBTQ book club. “It’s always by learning that you truly understand what some else’s experience is,” she continued. Taking the books away from students “is depriving them of access to being able to broaden their understanding and appreciation of others, as well as potentially their own identities.”

Becker’s daughter, Ruby, who recently graduated from high school in Kenosha, remembers what it was like to come out to her classmates “Harry Styles, the pop artist, actually helped me come out at one of his concerts,” she says. “Pretty public coming-out my senior year, but even before that people kind of knew.” Prior to attending the KUSD during her high school years, Becker went to a Catholic school. “The change in my surroundings definitely helped me to come to terms with that part of myself.” She says, “If I didn’t change schools, I don’t know who I’d be today.” Becker added, “It was just nice finding people like me, or people who are also queer but are either non-binary, trans, just other queer experiences.”

Despite finding people like her, Becker also encountered students who bullied LGBTQ students. Becker fears that things could change for students still attending Kenosha schools. She recalled conversations about banning flags and banners at school including Black Lives Matter flags, LGBTQ flags, and other banners. Becker recalled that, “teachers were always kind of told to stay away from ‘controversial topics which, I don’t know, my identity is not controversial, but whatever.”

Farrar recalled attending annual school board meetings, where she noticed a strong anti-LGBTQ contingent among the attendees. There, Farrar told Wisconsin Examiner, “some people were referencing banning books… trying to interject that into the meeting.”

“Everything started to get a lot more aggressive,” Becker says of school board meetings since the pandemic, “where people weren’t necessarily talking to each other, but more so talking at each other and kind of screaming, to where the winner was whose voice was heard the loudest.” At  county budget hearings, a vocal group organized to cut education funding. “So I think that the book thing is just the next item on the list,” says Becker.

Becker read Gender Queer and This Book Is Gay. “I thought it was good,” she says. “It was a coming-of-age story about a child discovering their gender identity. And I picked it up because my older daughter has some friends that fall into the various areas of the LGBTQ+ spectrum.” It took time for Becker herself to understand LGBTQ issues, and reading the book was part of that journey. “I wanted to be able to understand it better, and I wanted to support my child and her friends.” Farrar also read some of the books during the Center’s book club, and found them to be “phenomenal.” She said, “all of those books” are useful for students trying to figure themselves out.

Farrar says she has heard children repeating things they heard at home, bullying LGBTQ classmates. “We’ve had examples of young children saying really hurtful things like LGBTQ students shouldn’t exist, or they shouldn’t be allowed to live,” said Farrar. “I mean just really, really hateful things.”

“It’s very targeted, and it feels organized, and very political at this time,” says Farrar.

Policies banning and restricting books in schools have grown across Wisconsin since 2020. This week Wisconsin Public Radio reports, the school district of Menomonee Falls removed more than 33 books from the high school library including titles on the Advanced Placement English Literature reading list, including The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut and The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, because they were deemed “too sexually explicit” for students.

Last year, the Examiner reported on a list of books furnished to Republican lawmakers by concerned parents. The books largely covered LGBTQ topics, but some also touched on racial inequality and discrimination. In an email to now Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona), one parent described having seen books which she felt taught “our kids to hate cops and their white skin” in elementary school classrooms.

James used the list to approach libraries within his legislative district to see whether the books were available. A nearly identical list was also used in the Elmbrook School District in Waukesha County. There, as books on the list were removed from shelves, a new policy of reporting a student’s library checkouts to parents took effect. The shift slashed the district’s student privacy policy for book checkouts, allowing only parents to opt out. Meanwhile, James and other Republican lawmakers explored ways of exposing librarians and teachers who provide certain books in class to felony charges. In May, those efforts were materialized as proposed legislation. This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson, one of the books removed from the KUSD, also appeared on both of those lists.

Farrar is deeply concerned by policies like Elmbrook’s, which could “out” children to their parents. “Just because they’re interested in a book doesn’t mean anything about their identity, and that’s a complete lack of children’s privacy,” said Farrar. “So we over-emphasize parents’ rights, we really need to start thinking about the rights of young people to explore, and to have privacy to do that.”

While Amanda Becker is prepared to support her children, she’s aware that not all of KUSD’s students have a parent in their corner. “There’s kids out there that don’t, and that’s why I feel that I need to say something,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “That and, you know, you give in on books and freedom to read and what’s the next thing that’s going to happen? It has the potential to have a domino effect.”

Ruby Becker tells current students to “find community with your peers. Try and find a teacher who you can trust, and be 100% yourself around.”

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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