WALDOBORO — Following two hours of hearing public testimony, another hour in conversation with an attorney behind closed doors, and one more hour of delivering their own opinions, the Regional School Unit 40 School Board members voted at 11 p.m., Oct. 20, to keep the book Gender Queer on school library shelves.
The decision concluded a year of increased school community debate over the appropriateness of the book having a spot in the Medomak Valley High School library, and a new petition delivered Oct. 20 to the School Board to ban the book.
A roll call vote on a motion to keep the book in the school was taken at 11 p.m. with the yays outweighing the nays.
RSU 40 comprises Friendship, Union, Waldoboro, Warren, and Washington, and at the Thursday evening meeting of its school board, parents and community members from the various towns spoke either in favor of keeping the book, or deleting it.
Before entering executive session at 9:40 p.m., the board had listened to more than two hours of public testimony.
“This book speaks truth and honesty,’ said Rachel Genthner, of Waldoboro. “Please keep this book on your shelves because it can save lives. It is very well written.”
Steve Karp, of Waldoboro, on the other hand, delivered a petition to the board Oct. 20, again requesting the book’s removal, saying, “Gender Queer is pornographic.”
His comment echos what has been articulated in other parts of the country, where schools had been pulling the book. In May 2022, the New York Times published an article citing Gender Queer as the most banned book in the U.S. in 2021.
“Then, last year, the book’s frank grappling with gender identity and sexuality began generating headlines around the country,” the NYT reported. “Dozens of schools pulled it from library shelves. Republican officials in North and South Carolina, Texas and Virginia called for the book’s removal, sometimes labeling it ‘pornographic.’”
Over the past year, RSU 40 received requests to remove the book Gender Queer from the shelves at the Medomak Valley High School in Waldoboro. The first challenge was submitted in October 21. The district established a committee to review the book, and its members subsequently determined that the book should remain on the shelves. According to RSU 40 Superintendent Steve Nolan, the book had been but checked out once by a reader.
An appeal of the committee’s decision was submitted to the district in June 2022, which resulted in the school board members agreeing last month to read the book themselves and prepare for an Oct. 20 decision.
Public awareness of the board’s review grew over the past month when Medomak Valley High School Senior Sage Cunningham circulated an online petition on Change.org that the book remain in the library and accessible to readers.
On Oct. 20, the public gathered both in person and virtually to attend the board meeting. For just over two hours, and under a three-minute time limit each, citizens – adults and teens — filed to the podium in the Medomak Middle School gymnasium to lend their opinions about whether the two existing copies of the book Gender Queer should remain on the high school library shelves.
Some quoted the Bible, others cited the specter of evil, and a broken education and school governance system. Still others debated the definition of pornography, and emphasized the book’s role as a lifeline for teens as they navigate the years when they attempt to understand their own identities.
Some spoke emotionally about their own children facing gender identity challenges, and the usefulness of a book like Gender Queer, whose author’s own search for identity and belonging is relevant to high schooler.
And there were those who expounded that the book illustrated, literally, sexual deviation, perversion and vulgarity.
“This is not literature, this is a trashy porn book,” said one woman. “I beg you, protect our children.”
Yet another woman said: “The impact this book can have on one person should not be overlooked...This is a book to help our young people.”
All stood before the public with strong convictions, speaking about gender identity and sexuality — and asexuality — in a forum that drew more than 100 in person and at least 74 more participants remotely via Google meet.
RSU 40 Chair Danny Jackson asked the board at 9:18 p.m. whether members wanted to extend the meeting beyond the normal cut-off time of 9:30 p.m., and the board agreed to continue, until they, “were done.”