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LGBTQ community, allies speak in support of decision to keep library books

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School board meeting

A crowd fills the room on Sept. 26 to watch the Natrona County school board. Many in attendance spoke out against people who want to ban certain books from school libraries.

People filled the room. Students, parents, librarians, teachers, professors, counselors, psychologists. They sat in every one of the roughly 40 seats. Some stood against the back wall. Others watched the meeting from adjacent overflow rooms. Many of the people who came wore buttons from the Wyoming Library Association illustrated with a rainbow and the phrase “Freedom to read’em.”

A line of attendees stood to the side of the room, waiting to tell the Natrona County School Board why they thought the school district should keep two books that some wanted banned from their school libraries.

The two books under question are “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel memoir by Maia Kobabe that explores the author’s gender identity and sexuality, and “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” a textbook-like resource guide for transgender individuals by Laura Erickson-Schroth. The books are in the Kelly Walsh High School library.

Following a formal request filed to the school district by community members wanting to see the books banned from the libraries, the committee tasked with reviewing the books decided Sept. 1 that they should stay at the school. That prompted a group of parents and other community members to speak against the decision at the last school board meeting on Sept. 12. On Friday, Casper PRIDE posted a Facebook message encouraging community members to show up and speak in support of the committee’s decision at Monday’s school board meeting.

The committee has 30 days to formally release a written report to Associate Superintendent Walt Wilcox on the decision to keep the books. After that, the school board could potentially take further action around the matter if an appeal to the committee’s decision is received, according to the school district’s spokesperson Tanya Southerland. If there is no appeal, then the decision of the committee stands.

“Acknowledging the humanity of LGBTQ students by having them represented in libraries affirms their dignity as human beings,” Tanis Lovercheck-Saunders, a Casper College history professor and parent of an LGBTQ person, told trustees.

Alexis Worthen, a Natrona County High School senior and member of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club, told trustees she had to stay home for two days following death threats targeting her LGBTQ identity.

“I am not alone in this,” she said. “There are so many children out there who don’t see themselves represented in the media.”

Video courtesy Natrona County School District

Psychologists and counselors echoed the message that representation of the LGBTQ community matters. “The two most powerful words in the dictionary are, ‘Me too,’” Christy Jindrick-Tholl, a private-practice counselor, said. Archie Pettry, another counselor, told trustees that he’s “lost count the number of children who felt ostracized, victimized and negated because they didn’t know about what it was to be trans or any of these questions.”

“I really doubt that either of these books are going to negatively harm any children, but they could positively help hundreds,” he said.

Charlie Powell, a former school board member, Casper mayor and a psychologist who works with trans adults, said he’s seen his clients struggle with employment and rejection, with isolation and discouragement. He said “every one of them” told him they thought they were the only ones living through their experience.

“And they just said, ‘I wish someone could have told me that I wasn’t the only one.’”

Parents first brought up their concerns about certain LGBTQ books to the school board in December. Following the meeting, they filed a formal request to challenge the books. A seven-person committee was then appointed to review the request based on the district’s guidelines.

Natrona County School District isn’t the only place in Wyoming that has run into contention over certain LGBTQ+ books. Parents in Laramie County School District No. 1 targeted several LGBTQ-related books. (District officials said they didn’t plan to remove them.) In Campbell County, community members filed complaints with the public library about more than 30 books concerning LGBTQ topics. A group associated with the Wyoming chapter of the conservative anti-LGBTQ group MassResistance started protesting at board meetings and outside the library over the books.

Natrona County parents join national outcry over books

These incidents reflect increasing nationwide movements to rid schools of certain books. A report by PEN America found that there were 2,532 instances of individuals books being banned from July 2021 to June 2022. Those bans occurred in 138 school districts across 32 states. The report found that 41% of the banned books had LGBTQ themes.

Politics have also imbued conversations around LGBTQ school books. The PEN American report found that at least 40% of the bans are connected with “proposed or enacted legislation” or “political pressures.”

Wyoming hasn’t escaped that politicization; Trump-endorsed State Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder and state superintendent candidate Thomas Kelly railed against “gender ideology” in schools during their primary campaigns for the post. (Kelly dropped out to support Schroeder, and Schroeder ultimately lost the Republican nomination to Megan Degenfelder.)

Three of this year’s school board candidates who are running together — Renea Redding, Mary Schmidt and Jenifer Hopkins — have been endorsed by Jeanette Ward, the far-right Republican nominee for House District 57. (Ward defeated Thomas Myler, a current school board member, in the August primaries). The three have regularly spoken at school board meetings in favor of getting rid of certain LGBTQ books in the district’s schools and are members of a local chapter of Moms for Liberty, a group focused on “empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”

Rep. Pat Sweeney, R-Casper, spoke to trustees at the meeting, urging them accept the recommendations of the committee that reviewed the books.

“As we’re seeing across the country, this isn’t the end,” Sweeney said.

“You can have your own beliefs, but can’t we just come to a point where we can get along and see differing views for what they are and live together in a peaceful civil way?”

No charges for Wyoming librarians over sex ed, LGBTQ books

Redding, one of the school board candidates who has regularly spoken against the books at board meetings, read to trustees a passage from one of the books that includes sexual language and imagery, saying that the books “appalled” her.

“I’m not asking, and neither are the other people that are looking at these books, for you guys to ban books,” she said. “We’re asking for books that don’t have what is called ‘erotica’ in it.”

(Hopkins and Schmidt spoke on the topic at the Sept. 12 meeting.)

Video courtesy Natrona County School District

Another school board candidate, Bernie Studer, told trustees that he’s “not afraid of the books,” but that he would recommend “to the kids that want to transition” to wait until they’re 21 to do so.

One parent of homeschooled kids told trustees on Monday that she has a home library with books that go against her beliefs, but didn’t want her tax money spent on “pornography.”

“I want my kids to see the full picture,” she said. “I have the ‘Communist Manifesto,’ I have books by John Dewey and I have ‘The Origin of Species.’ My children have access to different beliefs so they can formulate their own opinions and they can make informed decisions on their own. But what my children do not have access to, in my library in my home, is pornography.”

Two young people in the audience shook their heads as she spoke.

“What’s wrong with you people?!” the parent said angrily to the school board, and abruptly stood and left the table.

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