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Salina, Kansas, parents want LGBTQ memoir removed from school libraries

 "All Boys Aren't Blue," a memoir by LGBTQ author George M. Johnson, has been the target of book challenges nationwide.
Suzanne Perez
"All Boys Aren't Blue," a memoir by LGBTQ author George M. Johnson, has been the target of book challenges nationwide.

District officials say the book is being reviewed by a school-level committee that includes a principal, librarian, teachers and parents. The Salina school board is expected to hear from people on both sides during its meeting Tuesday.

WICHITA, Kansas Some parents in the Salina school district want a book removed from high school libraries, citing sexually explicit passages that they say are not appropriate for young readers.

The book “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by nonbinary author and activist George M. Johnson, bills itself as a “memoir-manifesto” intended for adolescent readers. It came under fire in the Shawnee Mission school district last fall and has been removed from school libraries or classrooms in several states.

Chad Farber, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Salina, submitted one of two requests to review the book on Jan. 25.

In his request to district officials, Farber says the book contains “pornographic, lude (sic), and obscene content described in great detail” and that “this material could be used by some to experiment w/anal sex on other students (and) groom some to be molested by predators.”

Another parent, Jessica A. Henton, filed a request the same day to review “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”

“While, to my understanding, there is great educational content in the rest of the book, the obscene (and) descriptive text about ‘sex’ has no place on school library shelves,” Henton wrote.

District officials say the book is being reviewed by a school-level committee that includes a principal, librarian, teachers and parents. The Salina school board is expected to hear from people on both sides of the debate during its meeting Tuesday.

The case reflects a national trend that has school districts trying to balance parental outrage with students’ access to certain books. In recent months, dozens of books have been challenged by parents and community members who contend that they’re sexually explicit or promote critical race theory.

James Tager, research director for the free expression group PEN America, has tracked book challenges since 2016 and says the number and intensity of challenges is increasing dramatically. But the targets are largely the same.

“Most of the books have to do with the presentation of diverse viewpoints, which is to say that they feature characters or they're written by people of color,” Tager said.

Challenges focused on obscenity tend to target books by LGBTQ authors, he said.

“Whenever these arguments are raised, I hardly ever see an effort to evaluate this against the literary and educational merit of the book,” he said. “There’s a focus on a few passages or a few parts rather than on the book in and of itself.”

In an author’s note at the start of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” Johnson acknowledges that his book features provocative and potentially controversial material.

“As heavy as these subjects may be, it is necessary that they are not only told, but also read by teens who may have to navigate many of these same experiences in their own lives,” Johnson writes.

“This book will touch on sexual assault (including molestation), loss of virginity, homophobia, racism, and anti-Blackness. These discussions at times may be a bit graphic, but nonetheless they are experiences that many reading this book will encounter or have already encountered. And I want those readers to be seen and heard in these pages.”

Both people who filed complaints in Salina said they had not read “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” but saw portions of the book shared on social media.

Parent groups have raised issues about a four-page passage near the end of the book. In a chapter titled “Losing My Virginity Twice,” Johnson relates a consensual homosexual encounter in detail, including oral sex, masturbation and intercourse.

Rodney Penn, a Salina father and founder of Kansas Parents Involved in Education, said books containing explicit material should be removed from school libraries or labeled as explicit, like movies and music, and kept in a section that requires parental consent before students can check them out.

“We have statutes in the state of Kansas that talk about how a school district must monitor and protect kids from internet-based obscenities. But what about print obscenities?” Penn said.

Kansas law prohibits the promotion of obscenity to minors. But the law exempts “institutions having scientific, educational or governmental justification,” such as schools, universities and public libraries.

A school district in North Kansas City, Mo., pulled “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and another LGBTQ-themed title, “Fun Home,” from high school shelves last October but returned them after students petitioned to keep the books.

“All Boys Aren’t Blue” was on a list of books briefly pulled from circulation at school libraries in Goddard in November. The district reversed its decision after receiving national pushback from authors and free-speech advocates.

Chris Field, a former Salina teacher who ran unsuccessfully for school board in November, said he’s disturbed by challenges that target materials dealing with race, gender and sexuality. He said libraries need diverse materials to help students navigate real-life experiences.

“To be able to find books that they can identify with and know that other people in the world are struggling with these issues also. … That’s got to be comforting to these children,” he said.

“Ninety-nine percent of the books that are on these lists and being attacked are not harming children. They’re actually helping them get through life.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

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Copyright 2022 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit KMUW | NPR for Wichita.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Before coming to KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Eagle, where she covered schools and a variety of other topics.
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