Gender Queer Incident Draws Sharp Comments At Western Massachusetts School Committee Meeting

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2024/01/16/gender-queer-incident-draws-sharp-comments-at-western-massachusetts-school-committee-meeting/

Members of a western Massachusetts school committee got an earful this past week about a police search at a middle school for a graphic novel called Gender Queer.

On December 8, 2023, an anonymous complaint was made to Great Barrington police that a sexually explicit book had been shown to minors at W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School, a public school in the town. A plainclothes officer went to the school and was not able to find the book, which was later identified as Gender Queer.

The book, which is a memoir of the author’s struggles with gender identity, is a graphic novel that has verbal and cartoon depictions of urination, masturbation, and oral sex, among other things. NewBostonPost published a description of Gender Queer earlier this month.

Superintendent Peter Dillon, who allowed the police officer to come onto the premises at W.E.B. Du Bois Middle School and has apologized for doing so, reiterated his apology Thursday, January 11 at the beginning of a hybrid meeting of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee, which oversees public schools in the towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge, and West Stockbridge.

Dillon apologized for “letting the police into the school for a warrantless investigation” and said he “recognized this was likely a targeted, racist, homophobic attack on a colleague and teacher at the GSA and the LGBTQIA+ community and the actual book.”

“GSA” stands for “Gay-Straight Alliance,” in reference to a student organization that sponsors organizations at middle and high schools and universities.

“I hope that we can work together to ensure that this doesn’t happen again,” Dillon said.

Some people who spoke during public comment disagreed with Dillon’s assessment of his actions. Lisa Baumgart, who lives in Cheshire and has a son attending Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington, praised Dillon for his initial actions.

“You did the right thing by allowing the police to attempt to confiscate material in the school that is harmful to minors,” Baumgart said.

She said the book is inappropriate for children.

“It is obvious the pictures in the book Gender Queer describe and show nudity and sexual conduct such as oral sex on page 168 and masturbation on page 62,” Baumgart said.

Baumgart quoted a character in the book saying “I can’t wait to get your co– in my mouth. I’m going to give you the blow job of your life.” The words are said by the person the main character, who is a woman, is dating at the time. This statement leads the main character to break up due to a misunderstanding.

Baumgart cited a definition in state law (Massachusetts General Laws, Section 31) of the term “Harmful to minors,” which states:  “matter is harmful to minors if it is obscene or, if taken as a whole, it (1) describes or represents nudity, sexual conduct or sexual excitement, so as to appeal predominantly to the prurient interest of minors; (2) is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for such minors; and (3) lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.”

“Peter, your role is simple,” Baumgart said later. “Follow the rule of law. Do not be influenced by political ideology.”

“Keeping this book and others like it is a clear violation of the law,” Baumgart told the committee. “If we don’t take a stand against inappropriate material allowed in the school, we are abdicating our responsibility as administrators, teachers, parents, and community members. We are either protecting the innocence of children’s lives or we are complicit in their abuse.”

Otis resident Elizabeth Torsay-Wilson also criticized the book.

“The bottom line is a book with content like that, with sexual content like that, has no place in the middle school,” Torsay-Wilson stated, saying that people can be supportive of people who identify as homosexual or transgender without giving a “free pass” to a book like Gender Queer.

But most speakers denounced the police search.

Joe Roland, who has a son in middle school, said during public comment that he found Gender Queer helpful for students with gender identity questions and for himself.

“I read the book, and I found it compelling and informative, and now I understand why pronouns matter so much,” Roland said.

“If the presence of that book on the shelf in the classroom in this middle school eases the journey of one LGBTQIA+ student, it belongs on that shelf,” he said.

“Banning books is unacceptable on any level,” said Jim Goldstein from Stockbridge, who highlighted the central issue as “civil liberties.”

Goldstein pointed to other books that have been banned.

“Once we start going down this line, what’s pornographic, we’re going to start banning everything,” Goldstein continued.

“Anne Frank has been banned throughout this country” for depicting Frank’s “sexual urges,” he said. 

“We need to be very careful here that we are protecting the rights of the students to read books in the school,” Goldstein said.

Nyx Tucci, a current junior at Monument, praised the teacher at the center of the complaint for providing “helpful literature” that “made me realize that I was welcome and that I wasn’t a freak, and I wasn’t a horrible person for being who I am.”

“The existence of these books in classrooms is a net positive for children like me,” Tucci said. “To think that I went to a school that harbored someone who would complain about this to the police in a directed bigoted attack is horrifying.”

Many of those in attendance applauded when Tucci finished speaking.

A fifth-grade boy who is a student at the middle school and said he identifies as homosexual told the school committee he was on a school bus last week when one of the kids said something demeaning about homosexuals.

“One of them said, ‘I don’t go on TikTok, I’m not gay or something,’ ” the fifth-grader said.

He said he supports Gender Queer.

“I strongly feel that this book should not be banned,” the fifth-grader said.

A woman who described herself as “a queer parent of a queer kid” said the book deserves serious consideration.

“I’m kind of tired of statement making without actual real conversation,” said Deborah Minkov.

But the police investigation doesn’t, she said.

“I am deeply troubled and deeply pained to hear how this grossly mishandled incident provided an invitation to express even more hate,” she said. “In this sense, this was a very successful campaign against our kids and against our schools.”

One person who spoke argued against the claim that the book is pornographic, providing a definition of the word as material for the purpose of “sexual stimulation.”

“The presence of nudity of sexual acts does not necessarily make that media pornographic if the purpose of that media is for something other than sexual stimulation,” Bob Van Holtz of Stockbridge said. “Those of us who have read the book, did you sense anything in terms of pornography in that book?”

Many people in the audience answered “no,” including Dillon. Many attendees applauded.

Katie O’Neil, a public library director who lives in Richmond and has a ninth-grade son in the district, said that the central issue is about “intellectual freedom” and “protecting our students and communicating our values to our students and teaching them how to stand up for those values.”

O’Neil praised school committee members for their follow-up actions on the issue and offered her support.

The Policy Subcommittee of the School Committee has a meeting scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday, January 24, to discuss potential changes in policies in light of the December 8 police investigation, including the role of police in schools and the process of selecting books.

 

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