Salem high schools will keep “Gender Queer” on shelves following grandparent challenge

The graphic novel memoir “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobebe will remain in three Salem-Keizer high school libraries following a challenge by grandparents.

Three Salem high schools will keep copies of the graphic novel “Gender Queer” in their libraries after a district committee voted unanimously against a parent’s request to remove the book.

A seven-person group, including high school educators, the district’s safety coordinator whose job is to prevent child abuse, a city librarian and a district resident, made the decision in June following a review of the book, said Suzanne West, the director of strategic initiatives for the Salem-Keizer School District.

The autobiographical graphic novel, which chronicles author Maia Kobabe’s journey toward coming out as nonbinary and asexual, has been one of the most challenged and banned books in American schools this year, the New York Times reported. The book is embroiled in a growing trend of conservative groups and politicians objecting to material in schools depicting LGBTQ sexuality and identities.

In Salem, the district bought the book for high school libraries as part of a broader effort to include books representing a diverse range of people and viewpoints, including transgender people, West said.

The book includes depictions of same-sex oral sex, genitalia and conversations about sexual experiences, which was the focus of the complaint filed in May by Mike and Ellie Mallek, who have grandchildren at West Salem High School.

The Malleks told Salem Reporter they learned about the book when other parents sent them screenshots. Their grandchildren had not read the book.

They took their concerns to West’s principal, Carlos Ruiz, who explained they could file a request to have the book reconsidered. Their request said the book’s purpose was to “promote various agendas related to the LGBTQ+ community. An attempt to make it more acceptable in the mainstream.”

“It implies to the student that this type of behavior is completely acceptable and normal. It could lead to a life of pornography addiction and deviant behavior. It could damage the student’s future self image and destroy ambitions,” their request read.

Gender Queer is available at West, South and Sprague high schools, West said. Those three copies of the book had been checked out four times in total by the time the Malleks’ request to remove the book was filed, according to material the committee reviewed and which West provided to Salem Reporter.

West said several other parents raised concerns about the book with school leaders as well, but only the Malleks filed a formal request the book be removed from libraries.

District policy allows any parent or guardian to prohibit their child from checking out specific books. If someone submits a request that a book be removed from libraries or classrooms, district administrators convene a committee to review the book. West oversees the process and said the goal is to assemble a group with expertise in the grade levels the material is intended for.

The Gender Queer committee’s review was not open to the public. The Malleks were able to present their request to the committee, but not to observe or participate in deliberations. West said those meetings are kept private so committee members can have an honest discussion about the material without fear of retribution or harassment.

A summary of the committee’s decision provided to Salem Reporter notes that the depictions of sex are not representative of the book as a whole. “This book provides an insightful and respectful viewpoint of some of our marginalized communities. It lifts voices and looks at issues with an appropriate lens,” one of the comments on the review report read.

West said the book is not part of school curriculum or available in classrooms. The committee’s discussion covered whether high school students are exposed to similar material in class, she said. High school health education standards include both images of genitals and discussions about oral sex, she said.

Mike Mallek said he objects to schools presenting information to students about gender fluidity and sexual orientation, saying he has no issues with people being gay, but he doesn’t believe children should learn about LGBTQ issues in school.

“Innocent younger children, they’re not of consenting age to make those decisions. It’s almost like grooming them to accept that type of behavior,” he said.

Ellie Mallek called the book’s depiction of sex “inappropriate and unacceptable” for a school environment.

The couple said they were frustrated by the district process and intend to pursue their complaint further. District policy allows complainants to appeal the book review process by filing a complaint which can ultimately be reviewed by the superintendent, then the school board.

The district decision to retain the book, made in June, garnered renewed interest this week after it was widely publicized by Libs of TikTok, a popular conservative Twitter account and newsletter that frequently targets curriculum, policies and educators discussing sexuality and LGBTQ issues in schools. Several local parents called for the book to be removed from schools during public comments at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Since then, West said she and other district employees have received angry and vulgar messages from people locally and from across the country objecting to the decision. Some have genuine questions, she said, while others have been more threatening.

She sent Salem Reporter a voicemail she received which begins “this message is for that filthy, (expletive), disgusting piece of (expletive) Suzanne West.”

The challenge is the second attempt to remove a book from district libraries this year. In April, a district committee voted 8-1 to retain the book “Stamped (For Kids)” in elementary school libraries following a parent challenge.

The book is a children’s adaptation of author Ibrahim X. Kendi’s book “Stamped” for adults and chronicles race in the U.S. through the beginnings of the transatlantic slave trade through the present day, explaining how historical American figures contributed to segregationist, assimilationist or anti-racist ideas and movements.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.