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Pinellas County removed an LGBTQ memoir from two school libraries. Some students want it returned

Heather Robinson
Lakewood High School's Gay-Straight Alliance faculty sponsors presented administration with a petition saying "Gender Queer: A Memoir" should be reinstated — saying that the move was an attempt to censor materials.

Pinellas County Schools removed "Gender Queer: A Memoir" from general circulation at two of its schools, saying the graphic novel was not age appropriate for all high school students.

Across the country and statewide, parent groups and public schools are embroiled in fights over curriculum and books that some want removed from libraries.

Last November, Pinellas County Schools removed Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer: A Memoir from general circulation at two of its schools — Lakewood and Dunedin High Schools — saying the award-winning graphic novel about the nonbinary author’s coming of age was not "age appropriate for all high school students."

“The district heard concerns regarding the book, which led to an internal administrative review,” Isabel Mascareñas, Pinellas County Schools public information officer, wrote in an email.

“Due to the graphic illustrated sexual nature of some of the content, the book was deemed to not be age appropriate for all high school students.”

Now, some students at Lakewood H.S. in St. Petersburg are fighting back against the district's decision.

Recently, the high school's Gay-Straight Alliance faculty sponsors presented administration with a petition, on behalf of themselves and the students, asking for the the book to be reinstated — saying that the move was an attempt to censor materials.

The book is still available for use by teachers, school counselors, social workers and other district staff, Mascareñas said.

The district reviews both instructional and library materials through committees. She added that students with concerns about any of their school’s materials should reach out to their principal.

Maya Rish is the editor in chief of the Spartan News Network, the Lakewood H.S. student newspaper that first broke the story.

"I think a lot of the students, LGBT students here were really disappointed when the book was banned because it took the forward momentum the (Alliance) had brought and pushed it back, from their point of view."

Rish said some students hope the petition will create “some forward momentum on allowing our school’s review board to review the book and follow the process that was originally intended."

But, she said, others are disappointed by the school board’s response — or more precisely, their lack of one.

"I think a lot of people here are really upset that the school board hasn't taken more action,” Rish said. “St. Pete is a pretty liberal city and I think the students here expected there to be a little more sound on this issue and it to get a little more attention from school board members."

District officials said that because the move was an administrative decision, as the book does not have to go through the typical challenge process, said Heather Robinson, library media specialist at Lakewood, and one of the advisors that compiled the petition.

Robinson said she first found out the book was being removed when her supervisor called to tell her to take it off the shelf.

“I was shocked,” she remembered. “I was perturbed. I was very surprised I was being asked to take a book out off the shelves without the book challenge protocol being followed.”

“This is the first experience I've ever had with a book being removed. This is my 22nd year in education, my sixth year as a library media specialist, and I've never had a book challenged. Nor have I ever had a book just taken out of the media center like that."

Books are constantly reviewed to keep materials current and accurate, Robinson said. But Gender Queer was purchased recently.

“Certainly I would not weed (out) a book that I just purchased last year, in which the topic is extremely relevant,” she added.

Robinson is a sponsor of Lakewood's Gender-Straight Alliance. She said it's crucial that students see themselves in the books, movies and TV shows they consume. Gender Queer does that for some LGBTQ students.

"I’ve had several people tell me that if they had this book when they were growing up, it would have made a huge difference in their lives,” she said. “This particular journey is one of gender identity. And it’s one that’s extremely relevant and topical as many of our students are going on that same journey.”

Students were confused by the book’s removal, Robinson said.

“Not just our GSA students, but many students who I've spoken with about this are bewildered as to why and how this could have happened,” Robinson said. “Our students are not happy about this decision. They would like to keep pressing on.”

Bailey LeFever is a reporter focusing on education and health in the greater Tampa Bay region.
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