Dixfield-based school board bans gender book from Dirigo library

A large crowd attends Tuesday night’s meeting of the board of directors of Regional School Unit 56 at Dirigo High School in Dixfield to discuss whether a controversial book on gender identity and sexuality should be kept in the high school library. The board voted 7-2 to remove it. Marianne Hutchinson/Rumford Falls Times

DIXFIELD — The directors of Unit 56 Regional School voted 7-2 on Tuesday to remove a controversial book on gender identity and sexuality from the Dirigo High School library.

The 2019 publication, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe, chronicles Kobabe’s journey from adolescence to adulthood and the author’s quest for gender identity and sexuality, according to multiple online resources.

A committee set up by RSU 56 officials to review the book in June said it was valuable to students at the time. Directors decided to keep it in the library.

That decision sparked written appeals from Bonnie McKenna, a Peruvian mother of an elementary school daughter and a high school senior; Sarah Cole, a Peruvian mother of three who attends Dirigo Elementary School; and Elizabeth Kelly of Dixfield, who became a director on July 1.

Their appeals were heard by the board on June 28.

Tuesday’s special board meeting on the matter was attended by about 50 people, 10 of whom spoke and most agreed that the comic-style graphics were pornographic.

Tina Fortway from Peru said: “…I’m surprised, this book is definitely not suitable for young people under the age of 18. It shouldn’t be in the library; has nothing to do with LGBT rights in my opinion.” She described the book as pornographic and “perversely vulgar.”

A Carthage resident said it was “unbelievable” that kids would get this book in the school library if movies with the same kind of graphics were only rated for people over 17. “If the author were to hand out this book to children on the street, it would be illegal. But she can put it in public school and everything is fine?’

State Sen. Lisa Keim of Dixfield noted that the book has been at the center of a national controversy.

“The evidence is overwhelming that America’s classrooms from the very beginning are not being used to educate our children, but to indoctrinate our children with radical ideologies, racial divisive theories and distorted views of human sexuality,” she said. “The book ‘Gender Queer’ is a perfect example of that.”

Several in the crowd responded, “Amen,” and clapped and whooped.

Dixfield’s Kelly Skillin, one of the few people to speak online, said she was in favor of the book’s diverse message.

“It’s incredibly disheartening to hear community members discredit a group regarding this book, as if this book is producing such people,” she said. “If a book had such power, there would be no horror stories, no fiction… since when can’t a book be for fun or pleasure?

Skillin also said that school libraries “have such diverse messages that can only be experienced through reading. A school library is a world, it is a world of cultures where a student who is not at home may not have access to diverse cultures. … ( the book isn’t) not a plague. It’s a beauty,” Skillin said to the laughter of the crowd.

Another online speaker, who identified himself as Spencer, said he graduated from Dirigo High School two years ago and is in college.

“But when I see what’s being brought up about this book, it’s really damaging,” he said. “I mean, as a queer student who went through Dirigo (high school), it’s hard to see the communities protesting this book so hard.

“I see words like obscene (used) to be promiscuous and how (words like) pornography and disgusting, horrible are all synonymous with the word queer and what it means to be queer.

“I think it’s important to teach them that now,” he said. “I wish I read books in high school that would tell me more about my sexuality. But I didn’t have exposure to those books, and that can be harmful.”

After hearing about 90 minutes from the 10 speakers, each of the nine board members present expressed their opinion about the book and whether it should remain on library shelves.

“I think it’s important for us to have access to these kinds of books,” said Peru’s director Angela Cushman. “I want some of those to think about this tonight is that banning a book from school directly deprives children of the opportunity to see themselves reflected on paper. Think about it. Really think about that.”

Don Whittemore of Carthage, who voted to have the book removed, said he had read the book in its entirety and was “appalled”. He said neighborhood residents called him and stopped him while shopping to say what they thought of the book.

“And I’m going to say that probably 75 to 80% of people want it banned,” Whittemore said. “As far as I’m concerned, if we can’t do what these people want us to do, they have the right (to vote us out of our positions).”

Votes to remove the book were chairman Barbara Chow, Elizabeth Kelly and Bruce Ross, all from Dixfield; Deanna Dolloff from Peru; Whittemore and Marianne Young, both from Carthage; and Carl Lueders of Canton.

Larry Whittington of Dixfield and Cushman voted against its removal.

Directors Konstantin Aslandi from Peru, Natalie Sneller from Carthage and Tim Kelly from Dixfield were not present at the meeting.

Chow said the board’s written decision will be released at the next high school board meeting on Aug. 23.

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