WALDOBORO — A controversial LGBTQ memoir is once again safe on the shelves of Medomak Valley High School’s library.

The Regional School Unit 40 Board of Directors voted to keep “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe in the school library Thursday, Oct. 20. The board reached this decision at 11 p.m. following a lengthy and crowded meeting with about 200 people in attendance, 77 watching virtually and 45 speakers on both sides of the issue.

This is the second time the book has been formally challenged in RSU 40. This challenge was an appeal of the district’s 2021 decision that the book would remain in the library.

Concerned community members lined up from the gym door, down the hallway and to the front entrance of Medomak Middle School in Waldoboro before the meeting, waiting to sign in and find a seat. They filled the bleachers along the wall and the rows of chairs set up on the gym floor.

During the nearly three hours of public comment, 29 speakers advocated to keep the book in the library and 16 requested the board remove it.

Those against the book said it was vulgar, graphic and pornographic, with images depicting child pornography.

Steve Karp of Waldoboro, who filed the appeal which led to this meeting, said he had read the book “cover to cover” two times, and still felt it promoted pedophilia and abuse of women.

Karp presented the board with a petition to “remove pornography from RSU 40 schools.” He said the petition was signed by almost 1,000 community members from around the district.

Speakers against the book also said they were not trying to ban it, but were asking it to be removed because it was not appropriate material for a school. They were not against LGBTQ students, they said, they were against the graphic images in this book.

“You misunderstand why we are here,” Amy Holmes of Friendship said. “We don’t want porn in the schools.”

Pam Miller of Nobleboro said her objection to the book was not about sexuality, but about not harming children.

Melody Welch of Rockland said she had family members experiencing gender dysphoria, but she was still against the book being in any district school.

Those in favor of keeping the book in the library said removing the book from the district would, in fact, be banning it. They argued “Gender Queer” did not meet the definition of pornography, and worse materials were available in the library and on the internet.

“It is inappropriate to use ‘pornography’ to describe this book,” said Owen Webber of Union, a recent RSU 40 graduate. Webber also pointed out every student who spoke was against banning the book.

Many speakers argued that access to this book could help students experiencing gender dysphoria understand their experiences and feel represented, often for the first time. It could even save some from committing suicide.

Rachel Genthner of Waldoboro said she knew from age 5 she was a girl despite being assigned male at birth. Her gender dysphoria led to suicide attempts.

“Confirmation surgery saved my life,” she said, and this book would save lives too.

Sue Campbell of Rockland, the Executive Director of OUT Maine, said Maine teens were increasingly identifying as LGBTQ, and reading this book would make them feel represented.

Some speakers wondered about the message it would send if the board did remove the book.

“You’re not banning a book,” George Seaver of Waldoboro said. “You’re banning people.”

Several members of the LGBTQ community spoke about how much reading the book meant to them.

Antyna Gould of Washington, head librarian at Medomak Middle School, said they felt lost and confused until they read “Gender Queer.”

Gould said upon finishing the book, they burst into tears. “Finally I was represented,” they said.

“This was the first time I have ever read a book that supports me,” said Sage Cunningham, a Medomak Valley High School student.

Cunningham also started an online petition in support of keeping the book. Another student informed the board the petition currently had almost 800 signatures.

The Rev. Marty Pelham of Rockland said it took them decades to understand their gender, and they wished this book had been available to them.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine sent a letter to the board prior to the meeting as well. In the letter, Policy Director Meagan Sway said the ACLU of Maine urged the board not to ban “Gender Queer” or any other book.

“The ACLU of Maine opposes censorship of any kind,” the letter said. “Censorship is a subjective political or aesthetic judgement, and it is often used to suppress ideas, discussions and representations of race, gender, and sexuality.”

The letter also said removing any book from schools could constitute a violation of the First Amendment. “Censoring ideas from public discourse is anti-democratic,” it concluded.

After the public comment section ended, the board entered a private executive session to speak with legal counsel. When they returned, the board members debated the book amongst themselves.

Sandy O’Farrell, a board representative from Waldoboro, made a motion to reiterate the original committee finding for the challenge of “Gender Queer” and leave the book in the library.

Naomi Aho of Warren said this issue was a distraction from educational issues, and should be removed so the students could get back to learning.

Randy Kassa of Warren said everyone supporting the book had missed the point of the challenge. Kassa said “Gender Queer” depicted graphic sex and violence, and it was inappropriate to depict this as an LGBTQ issue.

Kassa further said the content in the book would be harmful for minors, and violated multiple district policies.

Jeanette Wheeler of Waldoboro said she was concerned about students reading this book, as their brains are not fully developed and they are impressionable.

There is a rampant epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, Wheeler said, and reading “Gender Queer” could encourage students to engage in risky behavior. They were not trying to harm LGBTQ kids by removing the book, but trying to protect them, she added.

Board Chair Danny Jackson said speakers against the book said this was not a ban, but according to the dictionary definition of the word, prohibiting the book from the district was banning it.

A board member then moved the question, forcing the end of debate and a vote.

Eleven members of the board voted in favor of the motion to leave the book in the library. Four voted against it.

The four no votes were cast by Jeanette Wheeler of Waldoboro, Melvin Williams of Waldoboro, Randy Kassa of Warren and Naomi Aho of Warren.

Those in attendance who supported the decision let out cheers and applause following the vote.

“Gender Queer: A memoir” by Maia Kobabe.

“Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe was first challenged in October 2021 by Dwayne Miller of Nobleboro. Following a review according to RSU 40 district policy, it was determined in May 2021 the book would remain in the high school library.

Karp then filed an appeal of that decision in June. The board received copies of the book to read Sept. 15.

This is part of a national trend targeting “Gender Queer,” a 2019 autobiographical book told in graphic novel format about a young adult struggling with sexuality and gender identity. The American Library Association named “Gender Queer” the most challenged book of 2021.

The book has been challenged at schools around the state as well. In August the RSU 56 Board of Directors voted to remove it from the library at Dirigo High School in Dixfield.

“Gender Queer” was also challenged in MSAD 6 in Buxton, but that district voted at the start of October to keep the book in their schools.

Local public libraries with copies of “Gender Queer” include Rockland, Camden, Damariscotta, Islesboro, Rockport, Thomaston and Waldoboro.

While other Midcoast libraries do not have a copy on their shelves, it is available for inter-library loans.

“Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe won the 2020 ALA Alex Award and the 2020 Stonewall — Israel Fishman Non-fiction Award.

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