‘This Book is Gay’ and Iowa’s looming school library book ban

“This Book is Gay” is certain to fall under than book ban and be removed from school libraries and classrooms across the state.
Published: May. 19, 2023 at 12:04 AM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - “This Book is Gay” is one of the most banned books of 2022, according to the American Library Association. But an Iowa City School District committee concluded the book should remain at its junior high. That’s in contrast to a looming book ban from Governor Kim Reynolds that librarians worry will send kids into dangerous online settings seeking information.

In the coming weeks Gov. Reynolds is expected to sign SF 496, a bill she proposed as a parental bill of rights, after it passed the Iowa legislature with no Democrat support. It includes a conservative wish list of school reforms including a ban on teaching gender and sexual identity - known by critics as ‘don’t say gay’ - in K-6th grades, requiring schools to alert parents if their child wants to use a pronoun different than their birth sex, and requires schools remove any literature that includes “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act”.

“This Book is Gay” is certain to fall under than book ban and be removed from school libraries and classrooms across the state.

The Sioux City Community School District opted to remove the book in March after a conservative Twitter page called “Libs of TikTok” highlighted it saying the content compromised student safety.

The Iowa City Community School District received two bomb threats after the same Twitter group highlighted that the district had the book in its junior high, too. That prompted the Iowa City School District to initiate its review process, a rarely used procedure that all Iowa school districts have in some form to respond to complaints about classroom or library material.

Iowa City’s review process requires a Reconsideration Committee that includes teachers, students, and community members. Susan Craig, a retired Iowa City librarian, served as the chair of that committee and said the members were unanimous in wanting to keep the book available in schools.

“For any students who just want to know what it means to be gay and what it means to be trans, they can read this book for basic information that is scientifically accurate,” Craig said.

The controversy

The author, Juno Dawson, who identifies as a transgender woman, writes at the beginning of the book that she intends it to be a sort of “instruction manual” for LGBTQ teenagers. Much of the book addresses basic questions of sexual and gender identity: defining gender and sexuality, explaining the biology and history of both, discussing how to handle hatred, and coming out to parents.

Chapters 8 and 9 are the focus of much of the controversy, often with pages and snippets posted online.

Chapter 8 - “Where to meet people like you” - includes a guide to sex apps and gay bars to meet intimate partners. In doing so, the author also warns of the dangers of online dating and hook-up apps.

Chapter 9 - “The ins and outs of gay sex” - even comes with a graphic warning from the author. It includes graphic details of pleasure zones and descriptions of sex acts and how to perform them.

However, Craig emphasized even the graphic sexual content is presented in a fact-based format. She described it like a textbook, comparing it to the content already taught in sex ed in middle school.

“There isn’t anything in here that you wouldn’t already know about heterosexual sex,” Craig said. “You get information about heterosexual sex in sex ed and you don’t get any about other forms of sexual intimacy.”

A review of Iowa City’s sex education curriculum from a letter sent to parents shows it does include discussions of dating and relationships, including online dating apps. It also discusses what sex is, including pleasure zones, and discussions of specific types of sexual acts.

Sid High is a Cedar Rapids teenager who identifies as a transgender man. He read “This Book is Gay” in middle school and called it a great resource for LGBTQ teens to find answers to common questions.

“For me, it was a good resource to be able to understand what being queer really was and say ‘I understand this, this is me’ but I was also really nervous,” said High.

He also compares the book to the content found in sex ed classes but with a decidedly homosexual or transgender viewpoint.

“It’s similar to straight people, they will learn in a class how sex works for straight people and they don’t teach that in a class for gay people, so how will they learn?” High asked rhetorically.

Iowa City decision

Craig said the committee was unanimous in feeling the book should remain available to Iowa City students but the question was at what age is it appropriate. Different expert assessments came to varying conclusions about which age is too young for the book’s graphic sexual content.

For Craig, the two students on the committee played a crucial role in deciding the answer to the question. Craig said the high school students detailed that by middle school, some of their classmates had engaged in sexual activity and that sex was a common topic of discussion. That’s backed up by a 2017 CDC study showing more than half of high school students have engaged in sexual intercourse, and 1 in 4 had engaged in sex by age 16.

For Craig, that makes ‘This Book is Gay’ age appropriate in junior high.

“I think it’s age appropriate if a child is interested in it and can ask the hard questions,” Craig said.

The Iowa City Reconsideration Committee ultimately recommended “This Book is Gay” stay in libraries in junior high, which includes 7th and 8th grades.

Craig said she doesn’t understand why Gov. Reynolds Parental Bill of Rights would ban students from taking part in a material review committee after seeing the role students played in Iowa City’s committee.

State ban implications

The undertone to Iowa City’s decision is that it will likely be moot in mere months. Gov. Reynolds’ parental bill of rights includes a ban on any book with descriptions or depictions of sex that takes effect on January 1, 2024.

“This Book is Gay” would surely be included in that ban, removing it from libraries in Iowa City schools and across the state. Some lawmakers worry the ban would also remove many literary classics like “The Catcher in the Rye”, “Romeo and Juliet” or “The Great Gatsby”.

For Craig and High, removing “This Book is Gay” amounts to taking away parental choice, something Gov. Reynolds has championed in her push to pass this ban in the first place.

“Banning a book takes it away from everybody,” Craig said. “If a parent doesn’t want a child to have access to a book, you don’t ban it for everybody.”

“If it makes you uncomfortable, that’s your decision, you don’t have to have your kids read that book if you don’t want to,” said High.

In a statement, Governor Reynolds’ Office did not directly respond to questions about the decision to ban students from serving on material review committees, like in Iowa City, or why the decision to remove a book should be made at the state level instead of by an individual school district.

“Parents can choose to provide their children with any book they believe is appropriate for them,” said the Governor’s spokesperson Kollin Kropton. “But not all books are appropriate for school libraries.”

Craig acknowledged schools could place some restrictions on content like “This Book is Gay”, like including it as curriculum or making it only available under a counselor’s supervision. High agreed supervision is not a bad idea but added that having it openly available in a library can be valuable for some teenagers.

“If you’re a parent, regardless of if it’s straight or gay, you don’t want your kids to be reading anything sexual at all,” High said. “But also if you’re in the closet and you don’t know how this works and you don’t want to ask your parents because you don’t know how they feel, you’re not going to have that resource.”