Committee Votes Unanimously: Retain 3 Challenged Books

Tara McLaughlin read 3 books from the Staples High School library, and did not like them.

Ten other people read the same books, and came to very different conclusions.

The group — the Westport Superintendent’s Review Committee — spent 2 hours yesterday discussing McLaughlin’s request to remove 3 LGBTQ-themed books from the library.

The meeting — attended by about 50 residents, at Town Hall — was part of a 9-step process involving challenges to materials in the Westport public schools. It followed last month’s session, at which McLaughlin spent an hour outlining her objections to “Flamer,” “Gender Queer” and “This Book is Gay.”

Two were in a library display of the most challenged books of 2022. The display is part of a national “Banned Books” week, recognized by the American Library Association, National Council of Teachers of English, National Education Association and PEN America.

The committee includes assistant superintendent Dr. Anthony Buono; representatives of the teachers’ and administrators’ unions; 3 Staples faculty members; a library media specialist, and 3 community members. It is led by former Board of Education chair Elaine Whitney.

Committee members (from left): Jaime Bairaktaris, Kelly Zatorsky, Sivan Hong, David Willick, Elaine Whitney, Carol Kaye, Kelly Shamas, Christine Cincotta, Anthony Buono, Ann Neary. (Photo/Brian McGunigle)

The books McLaughlin objected to “are in every school library in Fairfield County, without exception,” Buono said.

The committee discussed each book separately. The first was “Flamer,” a graphic (as in “illustrated”) novel based on author/artist Mike Curato’s own experiences.

Committee member Sivan Hong checked reviews. At least 100 said, “This book saved my life.”

Other members noted, “It’s a universal theme for everyone, about hope.” “It’s intensely realistic.” “The masturbation scene (which McLaughlin cited) is an insignificant part of the book.” “If we ban a book because of bad language, we’d get rid of half of the Advanced Placement list.”

Staples social studies teacher Carol Kaye said of “Flamer”‘s message: “there’s light at the end of the tunnel. This is a memoir. If a book is labeled ‘vile, vulgar, smutty,’ then that’s how the author is labeled. The story is important to tell. If a tiny percentage of a book makes people feel uncomfortable, that’s no reason to ban it.”

After 40 minutes, the committee voted 10-0 to retain the book in the school library.

Each committee member had copies of all 3 books being discussed — and read them all. (Photo/Dan Woog)

Next was “Gender Queer,” Maia Kobabe’s illustrated autobiography about growing up non-binary and asexual. “The images are even more powerful than the words,” said Sivan Hong. a community member on the committee.

Others added, “There is nothing ‘vile’ or ‘vulgar’ about figuring out one’s identity.” “This tackles ignorance in a way that enables empathy and perspective.”

Several members said that McLaughlin’s complaints took small sections of the book out of context.

Assistant superintendent Buono said “Gender Queer” taught him “a lot about the challenges a person like this goes through. Sixteen years ago, as a principal, I had my first trans student. I wish I had read this before then. I would have had a better reaction than I did.”

After 30 minutes of discussion, the vote was 10-0 to retain the book.

There was no public comment at yesterday’s meeting. However, several attendees brought signs. (Photo/Dan Woog)

“This Book is Gay” has been in the Staples library since 2015. A non-fiction exploration of sexuality and growing up LGBTQ, it includes real stories from people across the gender and sexual spectrum.

McLaughlin objected to the book’s descriptions of apps used to find sexual partners, and sexual activity by minors.

However, Shamas said, “It has plenty of warnings about apps, and encourages safe sex. It aligns with the information we teach in health class.”

Community member Jaime Bairaktaris noted, “These kids know about those apps. If we don’t talk about them, they won’t know the downsides.”

Kaye said the book tells readers, “Don’t read a guidebook about life; go out and experience it.” That advice “might be scary to some people.”

Before voting on “This Book is So Gay,” the discussion returned to all 3 books.

Removing them, Kaye suggested, would “stigmatize the LGBTQ population. It would say, ‘You’re not welcome in this library.’

“It’s hard enough being a teenager today. To have adults around you saying you’re not welcome could be devastating.”

Buono concluded, “There is a district-wide effort — and in my own career too — to make all kids feel like they’re valued, important and belong here.”

The committee then voted 10-0 to keep “This Book is So Gay” in the library.

The committee now forwards its report to superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice. He will then make a recommendation about the books to the Board of Education.

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48 responses to “Committee Votes Unanimously: Retain 3 Challenged Books

  1. Alina Rodescu-Pitchon

    Thank goodness reason, compassion and intelligence prevailed.

    • Stephanie Frankel

      I wish more people had attended. It was enlightening, intellligent, and poignant for what is taking place across our nation. I will be reporting about it to other people in various districts across the nation who are experiencing book challenges/ bans such as this. What an inspiration these teachers and administrators are!

  2. Richard Fogel

    I’m fortunate to live in such a great town.

  3. Supporting the LGBTQ community is imperative in any way we can. Lip service is cheap – taking action speaks volumes and that’s exactly what happened yesterday. Bravo! Too many lives are being lost because they feel unseen and judged. This was a step to proclaim… we not only see you – we value you and you have worth.

  4. John Horrigan

    Good decision ..sad that people (most who never even read the books) are doing the best they can to stop kids who need these books from finding and reading them.

  5. Ralph Connolly

    So long as it is connected to LGBTQ activism, there is no form of pornography that is too hardcore for the children of Westport. Good to know! So wonderful to live in such a sophisticated town. May I make a suggestion? For this year’s family friendly drag show at MOCA, can we dispense with the tutus? It’s transphobic that we are hiding the genitalia of the drag queens from our children. What are they supposed to be ashamed of? Or do we not want our kids to think some women have penises? I’m going to start a petition to this effect and if you don’t sign it I’m going to get on Woog and mock you publicly. Because I’m a wonderful enlightened person and anyone who is interested in protecting children from vile sexual imagery is a demented moron.

    • Stephanie Frankel

      Did you read the books or attend the meetings? They discussed ignorance!

      • Ralph Connolly

        Stephanie, you are correct! In addition to the petition, I think we need to stop this offensive practice of only dedicating one month to rainbow related activities. The entire school year from September to June should be focused on homosexuality and gender transitioning, from morning bell to dismissal. After all, this is why we all moved to Westport, to make sure our kids wouldn’t be ignorant. I also want to thank you personally Stephanie for the courage you have displayed for many months now. The way you get on social media and blast people who don’t share your opinions! It’s admirable and your intelligence shines through in every communication. To be honest, I didn’t even realize Florida was a state until you came onto the scene! Good bye ignorance! Hello enlightenment!

      • He’s not protesting the books, he thinks certain classes of people shouldn’t exist. The idea that being exposed to the existence of different sexualities is “vile,” or more importantly to people like him, that such exposure can change one’s sexuality is enough to protest all of it. But ideas can’t change who you are, they can only help you be comfortable with yourself and empower you to assert your identity – which is exactly what they are fighting.

        • Ralph Connolly

          No, Alex. A drawing of one child sucking another child’s strap-on is vile and shouldn’t be in a school. Anyone who doesn’t realize this shouldn’t be near kids at all. Don’t you dare attribute motives or bigotry to me other than not wanting to expose kids to graphic sex IN SCHOOL.

          • Mr. Connolly – I double-dog-dare you (and anyone else who feels similarly) to read these 3 books. I will personally take you out to dinner to discuss them if you do. The greatest threat to ignorance is knowledge. And before you say you don’t need to because you already know what’s in them, that’s the greatest sign of ignorance at all. If you’re so sure of your opinions, reading these books can’t change them, right? So what’s the harm?

          • Russell Gontar

            Here we go again with the strap on fetish. Why is that those who feel that only they should should decide what others can read, say, listen to, look at, think about or do with their own bodies are constantly frothing on about dildos and strap ons.

  6. I do not want this comment section to turn into a constant back-and-forth. Each commenter will be limited to a total of 4 comments and replies. Thank you.

  7. Dan – thank you, as ever, for being devoted to this town and reporting on such a broad range of issues and interests. I just returned from a trip to a country where women must cover themselves from head to toe and where being gay is punishable by death. As a lesbian, I felt grateful to have on a wedding ring and to pass as heterosexual, but in several situations I had to lie about the gender of my spouse, for my own safety and that of the person who invited me to visit.

    Our own country is at a crossroads with regard to freedom: to be who we are, to read and learn what we wish. If there had been books about coming out or same-sex relationships when I was a teenager, I wouldn’t have grown up feeling so shamed and different. Maybe I wouldn’t have battled depression, anxiety and isolation to the extent that I did.

    I read Catcher in the Rye and Huckleberry Finn and Anna Karenina. They did not make me heterosexual, any more than these books can make someone gay. What books can do is help us be more compassionate, maybe not quite so fearful of difference. I would urge everyone reading this blog to read as many “banned” books as you can, and talk about them. Because nothing contained in a book is as dangerous as the people who wish to ban them.

  8. I am pleased to hear that the vote to retain the books was unanimous. Westport’s continued support of both civil liberties and the LGBTQ+ community reaffirms my belief that this is a unique and special community.

  9. Jeanne V Reed

    I am proud of Elaine Whitney Garber and her committee! Elaine grew up with my kids and graduated from Yale with my son Jay.

  10. The committee did a very thorough job in analyzing the books in question, they discussed the need to protect children and make them feel included. I left feeling so proud of our school system and the Westport community for coming to accept differences that once were reviled. The committee members were compassionate to the difficulties children face as they struggle to understand who they are. Good job Elaine and all the members of the committee.

  11. Elizabeth Thibault

    The continued excellence of our school system and the education our children receive is dependent on the ability to give them the ability to think critically and make decisions based on analysis of the evidence they have. An excellent education also includes the ability to connect with others, the development of emotional IQ and other interpersonal “soft” skills. The thoughtful manner that this process has undertaken is demonstrating that our educators and staff understand how to apply these same skills and techniques in practice. Absolutely applaud these efforts, especially in light of the manner of the that this challenge was attempted.

  12. dorothy giannone

    Thank goodness.

  13. Carl Addison Swanson, Wrecker, '66.

    Anthony Bruno rocks,.

  14. Dan, can you please repost the images that are at the heart of the controversy? Your readers seem to be of the mistaken impression that the challenge was based on some kind of animus towards LGBTQ people. If you display the images, this could help clarify the situation. If I recall you yourself banned the images because they were so offensive to your readership (who apparently need to be protected as opposed to Westport school children). Thanks in advance.

    • I am not reposting the images. As the committee noted, they were a very small portion of the bigger context of the books. Some people focused on them, and not on all the rest of the books. Displaying the images would not clarify the situation at all.

  15. Then you and your readers are missing the entire point of the challenge. It doesn’t matter how good the books are or if they have certain redeeming qualities. What matters is that they have elements that are totally unsuitable for children, and this is a school library. These cannot be overlooked. The schools have an obligation to keep inappropriate material out of the school library. If you cannot defend those images being appropriate for children, you cannot win the argument. Child pornography is not okay to show to kids just because the rest of the book is, according to some, really good. The issue is not, are these good books? The issue is, are these books acceptable for a school library? And they are not, because they contain content that a reasonable person could consider child pornography (hence your reluctance to post the images again) or at the very least extremely vulgar.

    • They have been deemed appropriate by every high school in Fairfield County. They have been endorsed, and given awards, by the American Library Association, and many other professional organizations. You are asking for a small minority to rule over the large majority, and remove materials that have been deemed “life-saving” for vulnerable students. If you don’t want to see the materials, you don’t have to. But you don’t have the right to prevent others from doing so.

      • We actually have every right to go through proper channels such as this book challenge to make sure our schools are upholding their obligation to provide suitable educational content to our children in the library and curriculum.

        What planet do you live on where a parent doesn’t have the right to object to what he or she perceives as child pornography being aggressively pushed in a book display to children?

        If a book describing how to do harm to homosexuals was celebrated in a school library display, would you brush it off by saying no one has to read the books?

        • Of course you have every right to go through proper channels! You (well, Tara McLaughlin) did. And the proper channels delivered a 10-0 vote against her, 3 times.

          As to your last question, I don’t understand the difference between a book describing how to harm “homosexuals” (the preferred term is “LGBTQ+ people”), and the three books. The books in question do not describe how to harm anyone. They are about the many different ways people express themselves sexually, and in relationships.

        • Carl Addison Swanson, Wrecker, '66.

          Indeed, you have every right to protest whatever your child’s school is doing or not doing. They, in turn, have the right to say no and hopefully, you accept their opinion. Or you can take it to the courts. Your last paragraph strikes too close to privacy of Professor Woog, who apparently you have chosen as your news source. Watch your manners.

        • Based on that we should ban almost every book in the schools’ libraries including the Bible. After all the bible include an explicit rape scenes including a brother raping his sister despite her plead (and still many of those calling to ban books find this book holy and full of wisdom and wish their kids study its content – how ironic/hypocrite)

          I am sure that >90% of the books include a section/words that someone in this community oppose and feel her/his kids should not be exposed to.

          Peter Scheer said it best “If a public school were to remove every book because it contains one word deemed objectionable to some parent, then there would be no books at all in our public libraries.”

          lastly, the author Judy Blume was spot on this situation “I believe that censorship grows out of fear, and because fear is contagious, some parents are easily swayed. Book banning satisfies their need to feel in control of their children’s lives. This fear is often disguised as moral outrage. They want to believe that if their children don’t read about it, their children won’t know about it. And if they don’t know about it, it won’t happen” (

      • Jonathan Hochhauser

        Thank you Dan. This response says it all. Tyranny of the minority…no thank you. There are sex scenes, many quite vivid, throughout literature. Are we banning Updike, Roth, and the thousands of other great writers who have incorporated acts that are as basic to human existence as eating and breathing because some scenes in certain books might offend people, or might be too mature for young children? To single out these books and then claim it has nothing to do with the particular characters and particular “types” of sexuality and sexual activity is totally disingenuous.

        • This is my fourth and therefore last comment. It’s fascinating that LGBTQ advocates are bashing what they consider minorities here on the grounds that they are a minority… I would pose this question: are there any other books in the Staples Library that have graphical depictions of children having sex? I guarantee you there are not, and that is why these books constitute a horrible transgression and why we are fortunate at least someone is willing to stand up to the majority (which is really just a small mob) and say this is wrong. You are all legitimizing child pornography IN SCHOOLS under the banner of LGBTQ advocacy.

          • What are you afraid of Ellen? You don’t think our and your kids have access to such books outside of school?

            • If I may (4a), that is a silly point Jo Ann. Our kids also have access outside or even inside school to white nationalist propaganda, drugs, alcohol. Yet our schools don’t provide these things. The question is, what standards as a community do we uphold? What lines do we draw as adults separating the acceptable from the unacceptable? To answer your question, I’m afraid of living in a community where child pornography becomes normalized within our schools. More generally, I’m afraid of living in a country where a small but motivated group of people who have an agenda of sexualizing our children have unchecked power because those who object to anything they do are run over as bigots (which is exactly what the Woog mob is doing here).

              • Stephanie Frankel

                An agenda of sexualizing our children?
                I just do not know how to respond to that!
                Did you listen to that panel yesterday or not?
                I think in Westport, we are a majority that is against marginalizing LGBTQ students and their experiences. I doubt we are a minority.

              • My final point, and then we are both done. (I get the final word; it’s my blog).

                I think the “small but motivated group of people” is actually your side. Look at the 10-0 committee vote (3 times). Look at the bulk of the comments here. Look around at this community. You are in the small minority.

                And to use your own words: I’m afraid of living in a country where a small but motivated group of people who are fearful of anyone who is different from themselves, fearful of schools that teach students how to think rather than what to think, and fearful that their children will be exposed to things they already see, hear and experience everywhere all around them.

              • Russell Gontar

                I sure hope Dan has a few “Woog’s Mob” t-shirts, sweatshirts and ball caps made up. Put me down for one of each. Woog’s Mob. That is hilarious.

              • Not really silly, Ellen if kids are going to have access to such materials out of school. Sorry to say, I think the ship has sailed on your wishes for the future of this country. All about money, Ellen.

  16. I sat through both meetings (yesterday as well as the one prior) and I just want to sincerely compliment the entire review committee. Each and every member of the group was well prepared, incredibly thoughtful and 100% in pursuit of the correct thing to do for our children. They thoroughly considered the merits of each book and honestly tried to address the questions and concerns raised by the complainant. The honesty and integrity they each brought to this process was plainly evident. As a parent, I am grateful for the time and effort they dedicated to this process.

    • Page Englehart

      I did too Sue Hermann. And I agree with your every word. Thank you for taking the time to express gratitude to our representatives. They did a very fine job.

  17. Stephanie Frankel

    Does anyone know how much this ridiculous book challenge has cost the district, town or taxpayers?

  18. 10 copies of the 3 books (one for each committee member). Other than that, perhaps only legal advice (though attorneys might be on retainer).I’m not sure there would be any other costs.

  19. Diane Johnson

    I am so relieved to hear of the review board’s decision to keep these books on the Staples high school library shelves. I am grateful for the process, but even more grateful for the outcome. As mentioned by Sivan Hong, one need only read a few of the five-star reviews on Amazon to be reminded how critical these books are for LGBTQ youth; indeed some go so far as to say these books have been “life saving”. In a well-written comment on the Westport Journal, Tom Prince states “We are forced to listen to them (those who would ban these books), but then we should shut them down, shut them up, and save the lives of children who need to know they’re normal, cherished, and reflected in the books of our culture.” Click here to read Tom Prince’s full comment:
    Well done, all those who served on this review board.

  20. Thanks for reporting on this excellent news, Dan.

    Only one party bans books. Keep information free and accessible to all.

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