SPRING LAKE — The Spring Lake Public Schools Board voted Monday, Oct. 17, to remove a book dealing with gender and sexuality from the high school library, reversing a decision by the district’s Material Review Committee.
“Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe, is about the author’s struggles related to gender identity and sexuality.
During a packed meeting, the board voted 4-3 to remove the book from the district’s high school library. The book will still be available through a school counselor, social worker or school psychologist with parental consent.
Board member Chris Beck had proposed removing the book with that exception. Beck said he feared the ban would lead to a “slippery slope” of book banning, but he remained concerned about the “visual graphics” in the book.
Curt Theune, another board member who voted to remove the book from the library, agreed with Beck about the “visually graphic” images in the memoir.
“The explicit and graphic nature of the photos … are images that I do not want my children to visually see,” Theune said.
The school board president, Jennifer Nicles, also voted to get rid of the book.
“The pictures were uncomfortable,” Nicles said. “I didn’t like them. I do understand people’s concern as to what those pictures are. I also understand the importance of the book itself. I’m tower. I see good, and I see reservations.”
Nicles recounted how, when she was going through emails showing the graphic content in the book, her 12-year-old son was near her office.
“I’m sitting by my office with my screen and the pictures are there,” Nicles said. “My son is home with me. And he’s 12. And I asked him, ‘Buddy, just give me a minute in the office, I really don’t want you to walk in right now.'”
Although she ultimately voted to remove the book, Nicles wanted the requirement of parental consent taken off the table.
“My concern is if you have a student who can’t talk to their parents and is not ready to come out and have this discussion,” she said.
The three school board members who voted to keep the book cited concerns about the slippery slope, and said the memoir is important representation for LGBTQ students.
“The truth is our LGBTQ+ students may be fighting and struggling for much of their lives,” said board member Katie Pigott. “They need these books like they need oxygen. Especially given the notable scarcity of ‘out’ role models in this community. Look around. But more than that, they need our affirmation, especially right now.”
Kathy Breen, another school board member, also voted to keep the book in the library.
“We felt the story and the message is relevant information for some of our students,” she said.
According to Superintendent Dennis Furton, an official complaint was lodged in May. The district’s Material Review Committee looked at the book in question and decided to keep the book on the library’s shelves.
The committee found that “maintaining the book served a greater interest (combating isolation, affirming a child’s reality) than restricting access or removing the book altogether,” according to a letter sent to families by the superintendent on Friday.
The parent who filed the initial complaint appealed the committee’s decision to the school board, leading to Monday’s meeting. That parent, who did not provide his name, spoke before the packed crowd.
“My objection to some of the content in this book has nothing to do with the LGBTQ+ theme,” the parent insisted. “And I’m standing tonight in love towards anyone in that community, including my own sibling and their partner.
“My request to remove the book is due to the mature sexual content of the graphic novel and its images of nude individuals engaged in sexual acts.”
After the parent spoke, the board allowed residents in favor of keeping the book to speak.
“The freedom to read stories about people of diverse sexual and gender identities validates and empowers all youth, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+,” one parent said.
“For the kids in this community who need that book, who need that representation, who need themselves to be represented in print, this book needs to stay in the library,” another parent said.
A senior at the high school, who is a part of the LGBTQ community, spoke up as well. The student had read the book last year.
“I loved it,” the student said. “Not because of the parts previously mentioned, but because of the deeper story within it. It helped me understand myself more and helped me understand others around me. Finally, there was a story about somebody like me with issues that I had gone through and experiences I didn’t know I could have.”
After the pro-book speakers finished, the school board moved to debate the topic, leaving the rest of public comment for afterwards and upsetting some parents against the book in the crowd, who felt their point of view was not represented.
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In response, Furton said none of those parents had filed a complaint like the other man did.
After the board voted to remove the book from the library, public comment resumed. However, the first speakers refused to acknowledge a three-minute time limit. School board members then walked out of the meeting, and when they returned, the board president ended the meeting.
Library books that cover LGBTQ issues have been a hotly debated subject this election cycle, including the failure of a library-saving millage in Jamestown Township during the primaries in August. That millage, which voters claimed failed because of a small percentage of LGBTQ-centered offerings, returns to the ballot in November.
— WOOD TV-8’s Madalyn Buursma contributed to this report.