The sole copy of author Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” hasn’t been displayed on Canutillo High School library’s shelves for more than a month. For now, it’s stored in an administrator’s office while it goes through a book challenge and isn’t available for students to check out.

First published in 2019, “Gender Queer” recently caught the attention of conservative parents and politicians who deem it a work of “pornography.” Parents in Texas, Virginia, Florida, Missouri, Washington and other states have implored their elected school board representatives to ban the award-winning graphic novel from public school libraries and classrooms.

“I am dead serious in saying that if this book remains on the shelves of our schools, everyone involved will be reported to the appropriate authorities for child abuse under Texas state law,” parent Breanne Barnes told Canutillo Independent School District trustees at an Oct. 26 board meeting.

Barnes passed out copies of what she called “pornographic pictures” — a select few sexually explicit illustrations from the 240-page book. She also submitted a formal objection, or challenge, to the book, seeking its permanent removal from the library.

“Gender Queer” chronicles author Kobabe’s struggle to fit into the male-female gender binary and journey to identifying as nonbinary and asexual. Simon and Schuster, the book’s publisher, recommends it for readers in 10th grade and above.

The book is part of a larger Republican-led national debate playing out in Texas and the country over how students learn about gender identity, sexuality and racism and what control parents should have over the books students can access.

Calls for its removal in Canutillo were amplified during a Nov. 15 board meeting, with Barnes and nine others urging trustees to take action.

Canutillo ISD Superintendent Pedro Galaviz said in an interview he wants the community and school board to be patient and fair as the book challenge process plays out, a sentiment shared by Associate Superintendent Marnie Rocha.

“I don’t want anything judged until something has been read in its entirety. I want it to go through due process,” Rocha said. “Just like we want every kid to get a fair shake, I want this book to have a fair shake.”

The book reconsideration process

If a parent has a concern about a particular book, the district first tries to address it on an individual level, Rocha said. That could entail placing a hold on a student’s account that bars them from checking out a title their parent doesn’t want them to access.

If that doesn’t resolve the issue, the parent can file a formal objection, which triggers the formation of a reconsideration committee who reads the book in its entirety and determines whether to remove it from the school library.

An 11-member committee is in the process of reading “Gender Queer” and is expected to vote next week on whether it should be removed. The committee includes an instructional staff member, four teachers, three librarians and three parents.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe is a graphic novel that chronicles the author’s journey to identifying as nonbinary and asexual. (Photo illustration by Angela Saavedra/El Paso Matters)

The committee will consider whether the book meets “high standards for artistic quality and/or literary style;” is appropriate for high school readers; and allows students to “gain awareness of our pluralistic society;” among other factors laid out in a rubric members will use to guide their vote.

A parent can appeal the committee’s decision through a multi-step grievance process that could ultimately go to the school board for a final decision.

Barnes did not make herself available for an interview, but in a statement via Facebook messenger said: “I am hoping it is removed because if they determine to keep it, we will go further.”

“This has nothing to do with LGBTQ vs. heterosexual content. If I found a book with this material in it with a heterosexual couple, I would be fighting to get it removed as well,” she said.

It’s unclear whether Barnes’ children still attend the district’s elementary schools.

Barnes worked as a teacher at Gonzalo & Sofia Garcia Elementary School in Canutillo, but resigned in August, according to the district.

“You lost a teacher whose goal was to help produce life-long learners that would be productive, respectful members of society,” Barnes said during public comment at the Sept. 28 board meeting, in which she alleged the district “discriminated against” unvaccinated employees by requiring them to use sick days if they become infected with COVID-19.

School library collections

Librarians rely on professional journal book reviews to build their school’s collection, said Canutillo High School Librarian Anna Weaver-Guerra, who has worked at the school for six years.

A School Library Journal review described “Gender Queer” as “a great resource for those who identify as nonbinary or asexual as well as for those who know someone who identifies that way and wish to better understand.”

“When you come into the library, we have all genres, we have all topics. And you should be able to come into the library and read what you feel you want to read,” Weaver-Guerra said. “My professional opinion stays very professional; my personal opinion stays completely out of it” when building the library collection.

Having library books that represent diverse perspectives and experiences is in line with the district vision statement trustees approved in September, Rocha and Galaviz said. Crafted by students and parents, that statement reads, in part, that Canutillo’s “school community thrives in a safe, engaging, inclusive learning environment.”

Kobabe wrote in an October Washington Post opinion piece that it took years to come out as nonbinary to family because of “the lack of visibility of trans and nonbinary identities when I was young. … The only place I had access to information and stories about transgender people was in media — mainly, in books.”

The author continued: “Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health.”

The Texas Association of School Boards cautions school boards against removing library books because doing so could infringe upon students’ First Amendment rights and subject districts to lawsuits. The school library is a place of “voluntary inquiry,” TASB legal guidance notes, so “local discretion may not be exercised in a way that violates students’ free speech rights by removing books for partisan or political reasons.”

Though boards can remove library books they determine contain “vulgar, lewd, and plainly offensive” content, “these determinations are complex and case specific,” TASB guidance states, noting “the popularity of graphic novels and other highly visual media add an additional complicating factor to this analysis.”

Kobabe, in a Texas Tribune interview, suggested “Gender Queer” generated controversy because the illustrated memoir is told in graphic novel format rather than text.

Canutillo High School’s library has a designated section for graphic novels, which Librarian Anna Weaver-Guerra said are popular with students. (Molly Smith/El Paso Matters)

Texas politicians take notice

The American Library Association saw a 60% increase in book challenges in September compared to the same time frame last year.

Mary Woodward, president-elect of the Texas Library Association, worries this increase could have a chilling effect on school librarians, who she said could become reluctant to select LGBTQ-themed materials for their collections.

“We have to remember that parents have a right to say what their own children read, but they don’t have a right to say what other people’s children read,” Woodward said. “And we have families of all different types that we need to reflect in the library.”

“Gender Queer” caught the attention of Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who singled out it and another LGBTQ memoir as examples of “pornographic” material in public schools in a Nov. 8 letter to state education officials. When asked if the governor has read Kobabe’s book, his spokesperson would only say that Abbott was “alerted by his team of the pornographic images in the book.”

Woodward said pornography is not in Texas school libraries. “I don’t know any librarian, certified or not, that would select pornography to go in a school library. That is just not happening,” she said.

Weaver-Guerra said pornography, per the legal definition, is not in Canutillo’s libraries.

“Gender Queer” is also one of more than 800 books included in state Rep. Matt Krause’s inquiry of select districts’ classroom and library collections.

The Fort Worth Republican, who was running for Texas attorney general when he launched the probe in October, told the Dallas Morning News he didn’t believe he had read any of the books. Krause has since dropped out of the race to run for Tarrant County district attorney.

About 60% of the books on Krause’s list deal with LGBTQ issues, a Book Riot analysis found. Less than 10% touch on race and racism — issues Texas lawmakers also took on this spring, with bills restricting how teachers discuss these topics.

Krause was one of many Texas Republicans who authored or co-authored a slew of anti-trans bills during the recent legislative session. He filed a bill during the first special session — which was never voted on — that would prohibit doctors from performing surgical and nonsurgical gender reassignment procedures on children. He co-authored a bill that takes effect Jan. 18 that bans transgender students from playing on a school sports team that aligns with their gender identity.

A ‘safe’ space for students

During the Nov. 15 board meeting’s public comment portion, Associate Superintendent Rocha was the last person to approach the podium — a rare sight for a district administrator. She said she was speaking “for the voiceless students who are too afraid to come here tonight because they fear they will be mocked or retaliated against.”

Rocha noted the hypocrisy inherent in current efforts to have books pulled from shelves without a review process.

“These individuals demand to have the choice to wear a mask or not, the choice to get vaccinated or not, the choice to quarantine or not, but they want to tell other parents what their children can and cannot read,” Rocha told trustees.

“School is the one safe place they (students) have because as teachers we promise to love all of our students no matter if they are Black or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, male, female or transgender,” Rocha said. “We trust our librarians to use their expertise and professional judgement.”

Marnie Rocha, associate superintendent at Canutillo Independent School District, says schools should be safe spaces for children from a diverse range of backgrounds. (Photo courtesy of Canutillo ISD)

Weaver-Guerra entered the profession because she wanted to work in the environment that she said was her “safe space” when she moved from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso as an elementary school student.

Since she purchased “Gender Queer” for the library’s collection in 2019, not a single student has checked it out.

Nonetheless, in recent weeks, she’s received two calls from parents about the book.

“It was an attack on my character, an attack on my professionalism,” Weaver-Guerra said. “I had a parent accuse me of pushing porn on students and being a pedophile. I took it very personally. I have children of my own.”

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014.