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.
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.
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.
“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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