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Hillsborough School Board votes to ban 'This Book is Gay' from all county middle schools

Members of school board sitting behind dais at meeting with public audience watching.
Hillsborough County Public Schools
The Hillsborough County School Board held a special meeting March 28, 2023, to discuss the banning of a single book from a single school. The resulting vote banned "This Book is Gay" from all middle schools in the county.

Hillsborough School Board members voted 4-3 Tuesday at a special meeting to ban "This Book is Gay" by Juno Dawson from all middle schools in the county.

A special school board meeting was called Tuesday in Hillsborough County to discuss “This Book Is Gay” by Juno Dawson.

It was the last step in an appeal process to remove the book about gender and sexuality from Pierce Middle School, the only middle school in the county with copies — one that was checked out and never returned, and another that cannot be located. Only one high school in the county has the book available.

Two earlier committees decided "This Book Is Gay" could stay on the shelves at Pierce after reviewing complaints brought by two parents, neither of whom have children attending Pierce.

On Tuesday, over 50 people, including elementary and high school students, spoke during an especially contentious public comment session.

Dawson also addressed the ban in an Instagram post.

About half in attendance opposed the book. Some — including many who were not parents of Pierce students — read graphic excerpts, claiming it was pornographic and exacerbated the human trafficking issue in the state.

Those who wanted to see the book stay on library shelves explained that the information it presents helps LGBTQ+ students.

Katherine Morris said the book-banning discussion was a "political stunt."

“We can't be afraid to allow free thoughts to allow the conversations that some children may need to have other children may not need to have. But it is not our duty to decide what are those conversations that need to be had,” Morris said.

A speaker opposed to the book, who identified himself as Antonio, said it's because it does not comply with Florida law.

“This is not political, homophobic or book banning. This is purely about removing an obscene illegal pornographic book from a middle school library.”

Superintendent Addison Davis recommended the book be taken off library shelves at all Hillsborough County middle schools.

“My effort as superintendent is to protect students and to make sure that students are exposed to appropriate material every single day," said Davis.

And while board member Jessica Vaughn wanted to take it out of Pierce Middle, she also recommended that all Hillsborough parents should be able to opt their children out of reading certain books if it goes against their family values.

“If you'd read the entire book, you would see where they talk about abstinence, the whole thing is presented as an enhancement to a sex education guide for our LGBTQ plus community to make them safe, to keep them safe — everything in the book," she said.

Vaughn added she did not find the book harmful, but agreed it was more age-appropriate for high school students.

"When we have continual rhetoric that comes out that tells a certain demographic, that they're not valuable, that they're sinners, that they're monsters, that they're going to hell, that they're an abomination, that their rights aren't valid, that we can't discuss their lifestyles and schools," Vaughn said before the vote. "People respond to that when you tell someone they're a monster, they end up doing awful things because that stigma is around them.

"So we have materials in our library that destigmatizes them, and helps them to navigate a lifestyle that is under attack safely. I don't think it's a harmful book to have in our schools."

Despite some confusion among board members whether they were voting to remove "This Book is Gay" from all Hillsborough County middle schools or just Pierce, the board ultimately voted 4-3 to take it out of all middle schools.

Chair Nadia Combs said the decision had "nothing to do with politics."

READ MORE: The battle over books in Tampa Bay’s public schools

Similar debates over the appropriateness of a number of books and other instructional materials have raged across Florida and nationwide, especially over the last few years.

The issue has become particularly prominent in Florida, where a 2022 law "preserves the rights of parents to make decisions about what materials their children are exposed to in school."

Gov. DeSantis maintains that the idea that Florida is pushing any kind of "book ban" is "a hoax." But librarians and school media specialists who could face criminal penalties if materials are judged to be harmful to minors continue to remove potentially controversial items.

Earlier this month, officials at North Shore Elementary in Pinellas County decided it would no longer show students the Disney movie, "Ruby Bridges," after one parent said the film about a 6-year-old girl who integrated New Orleans schools in 1960 was inappropriate for second graders and might make students learn about racial hatred.

In addition, Pinellas students were among those who spoke up in March when Toni Morrison's 1970 novel, "The Bluest Eye," was removed from high schools following a parent's complaint.

The Sarasota County School Board voted last month to require parental permission for middle schoolers to check out "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You." The mother of a Venice Middle School student objected to the book, written by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, saying it taught critical race theory.

And in May of last year, a pair of Polk County review committees evaluated 16 books — including "The Bluest Eye" — after they were flagged as inappropriate by a conservative group.

Hillsborough County's School Board is scheduled to meet again April 4. At the moment, the agenda does not list any further discussion about books or book bans.

Information from WUSF News and reporters Kerry Sheridan, Bailey LeFever, Craig Kopp, and Mark Schreiner was used in this report.

Nothing about my life has been typical. Before I fell in love with radio journalism, I enjoyed a long career in the arts in musical theatre.