Jolie McShane read the first 30 pages of the graphic novel “Gender Queer” last year and decided she couldn’t continue.
To the mother and local conservative activist, the memoir of the author’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality seemed meant to confuse children. And, she concluded, it did not belong in the school libraries or classrooms from which her three now-adult children matriculated.
The president of the Republican Women of Baltimore County, McShane has since rallied her network of activists and civic groups to lobby to remove the book from shelves in Baltimore County schools, which serve roughly 111,000 students. She has sent grievance forms and two letters concerning books she does not find fit for schools, following the school system’s internal review process for challenging titles.
Even as system leaders have dismissed the complaints, the relatively small group of activists has expanded the scope of its objections to an additional book, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, and plan to investigate 10 more unnamed titles. They believe distribution of the books is criminal — akin to distributing obscene materials to a minor — even as county prosecutors disagree.
Both books are among the most challenged by conservative activists in the nation. Their effort in Baltimore County stands little chance of succeeding but still has attracted the support of new school board member Maggie Litz Domanowski. She signed a petition in November calling for the book’s removal but insists she won’t bring a book-banning agenda to the school board.
“There’s a place for this kind of book,” Domanowski said. “I don’t think that place is in a Baltimore County public school.”
School librarians and administrators say parents always have a right to weigh in on what their own children are reading, but they’re limited in controlling what other students can read.
For decades, the nation’s public schools, universities and libraries have served as arenas for censorship debates and faced frequent attempts to restrict certain book titles. After a record 1,597 book challenges were documented in 2021, attempts to ban books are on the rise nationwide, according to the American Library Association. The association counted 1,651 unique titles facing scrutiny between January and August of 2022.
The Maryland Association of School Librarians says its collections are developed according to principles of intellectual freedom and include titles that meet the needs of diverse communities. The nonprofit organization condemns efforts to censor and remove books from school library shelves, saying they threaten the rights of students to read, explore and engage with literature.
Many Maryland school systems have reconsideration policies in place that allow parents, employees and students, among others, to request a review. Most reconsideration policies ask the concerned party whether they’ve read the book in question, said Tatanisha Love, president of the state school librarians association.
School librarians are typically opposed to restricting access for all children based on a complaint by one parent, Love said.
“We want parents to realize they can guide what children in their home read but not others outside of their home,” she said.
Book-banning debates have flared recently across Maryland, where school systems for Baltimore City, Howard County and several Eastern Shore jurisdictions have been asked to remove titles from shelves.
In 2021, Howard County parents filed a police report over the presence of “Gender Queer” in school libraries. The Howard County state’s attorney found the book did not violate the law. School officials reviewed the book according to its policy and decided to retain the title in high school library media centers.
Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester county school boards have all heard complaints last year about titles featuring stories of LGBTQ youth and/or Black or Indigenous people of color, the Salisbury Daily Times reported in March.
And Baltimore City faced pressure last year from Republican gubernatorial nominee Dan Cox to remove Democratic opponent Wes Moore’s book from the Baltimore City public school curriculum. The governor’s book, titled “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” remains listed as an optional text on Baltimore City’s ninth grade language arts curriculum.
The movement in Baltimore County has stretched into a yearlong endeavor. McShane first registered her objections to “Gender Queer” in a letter to the school system in January 2022. She and about 100 other activists formally requested an internal review but didn’t hear back within the 30-day window in which the school system had promised a reply.
In November, the activists, together with the county’s chapter of the Patriot Club of America, a conservative grassroots group, again sent a letter concerning their issues with “Gender Queer” and another book, “Lawn Boy,” which follows author Evison’s semi-autobiographical experiences as a young adult Mexican American undergoing hardships and self-discovery.
They claim “Lawn Boy” contains 18 passages with sexual content or obscene language, violating a Maryland law barring the distribution of obscene descriptions or depictions of illicit sex to minors.
Mary McComas, Baltimore County Schools’ chief academic officer, replied to the activists later in the month, saying that “Gender Queer,” located in two high school libraries, would remain following a committee’s recommendation. She wrote that parents could request that their own children not have access to it.
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said his office reviewed “Gender Queer” in the spring.
Shellenberger’s office considered whether its content and distribution to minors could be considered criminal, he told The Baltimore Sun in a November interview. County prosecutors reviewed Maryland criminal law sections that concern child pornography production, possession and distribution. The Democratic state’s attorney said he was not familiar with “Lawn Boy” and that his office had not reviewed that title.
The state laws he did review refer to an “actual” or “identifiable” child, meaning images of a fictional child would not constitute a crime, Shellenberger said. Maryland law specifically states the definition of an identifiable child does not include drawings, cartoons, sculptures or paintings.
“That’s not to say it’s right to be in the library,” Shellenberger said. “I only decide whether it’s criminal.”
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Shellenberger declined to say whether he believes the book should be available to public school students.
“Someone else decides that,” he said.
McShane and other activists say they’re frustrated that the school system hasn’t taken their concerns seriously or followed its own protocols for responding.
“Why would I take the time and effort to encourage people who attend our meetings to fill out forms that Baltimore County does not pay any attention to themselves?” McShane said. “That’s a waste of my time.”
For now, the books remain on Baltimore County school library shelves, but newly elected and appointed school board members like Domanowski took their seats in December. Their leadership could usher in a new era for the school system, but it’s unclear whether they’ll find consensus on book bans for the county.
Domanowski insists she signed the letter in her capacity as a parent — not an elected official. She read “Lawn Boy” and said she understands the book delivers a “great” message, but the expletives and depiction of minors engaging in sexual activity makeit inappropriate for the school setting.
“Baltimore County Public Schools is endorsing this book,” Domanowski said. ”I think that there’s better books that can teach that same message without that vulgarity in it.”