If you listen to the students, they will tell you they are fed up with adults.
More specifically, with parents or other community members making spectacles and sparking controversies at school board meetings.
While mask mandates remain contentious, the focus has shifted toward books in high school libraries such as Waukee’s Northwest High School. People have also complained in Urbandale and Ankeny, as part of broader right-wing effort across the country to limit what books are in schools.
What Students Say
For Adrieanah Hamand, a senior at Northwest High School in Waukee, this uproar is just one more thing that high school students have to deal with.
“It’s just exhausting that now we’re having to go through a fight about books, which has been a fight that we’ve already won by getting them in our libraries in the first place,” Hamand, who uses she/they pronouns, said.
In Waukee, a community member read explicit, out-of-context excerpts from three books that include or reference sex between LGBTQ characters. Her complaint led to the books being removed from school library shelves until a review process is done. Amanda McClanahan, who made the complaints, reportedly does not have any children enrolled in the Waukee School District.
“If parents didn’t care before, why are they caring now that one single parent is coming forward?” Hamand asked. “We just have to be careful who we’re allowing to make these decisions for us.”
If Hamand could talk to these parents, she’d ask why they don’t have a problem with books that include straight characters having sex or thinking about sex.
“Why is it appropriate to be taught about straight relations and not appropriate to be taught about LGBT relations?” they said.
The people flagging these books call them pornographic and inappropriate for high schoolers. However, the challenged scenes are all small parts of the books and generally take up a few pages out of the hundreds.
Brett Jenecke, also a senior at Northwest High School in Waukee, said he understands the need to review the books but still thinks it’s wrong to take them out of students’ hands.
“To see something like a book, in a district that claims to be safe for LGBTQ students, be taken off these shelves is disheartening and tiring and exhausting,” he said.
The students said their sex education in school was lacking and didn’t touch on important subjects such as potential diseases and how to be safe or communicate with partners.
“You know, 14-year-olds could be doing a lot worse than reading a book and educating themselves. They shouldn’t have to rely on the internet so much to get their information,” Jenecke said. “At least in a book, it’s very unlikely to get that misinformation.”
Jenecke and Hamand said seeing LGBTQ characters in sixth grade was the first time they felt not like outcasts, but like they could have happy futures as LGBTQ people.
“We grew up in our lives only seeing straight people’s views and their relationships portrayed in books and shows and movies and media,” Jenecke said. “That’s what we thought was normal.”
“That’s what we thought was love,” Hamand added.
Why Representation Matters
Easy access to books with LGBTQ characters can be beneficial, not just for LGBTQ students but for their straight peers as well.
“When we are able to offer students curriculum that we would consider inclusive and representative of different student populations across the board, we see GPAs and attendance rates increase and we see bullying decrease,” said Jordan Mix, the director of educational programming at Iowa Safe Schools. “And so really, when we’re able to use curriculum to improve climate and culture, it really does benefit all students.”
Because reading is a way to learn what life is like for others, it’s also a way to, on some level, connect to those experiences.
For a long time, LGBTQ people haven’t had the opportunity to share their stories through mainstream channels such as major book publishers and bookstores. Because of that, a lot of media presentations have relied on stereotypes and misunderstandings.
“It’s not only important that these be about LGBTQ characters. I think it’s also important that they have LGBTQ authors and LGBTQ authors who are people of color or who are living with disabilities, or who are maybe some part of some other marginalized group in society,” said Keenan Crow, director of policy and advocacy at One Iowa. “Those stories coming directly from those voices serve as one of the only pieces of pushback that we get in the mainstream narrative.”
They said this is the best way for people to learn and understand more about their peers, and maybe themselves. Positive depictions also improve mental health and decrease negative feelings among LGBTQ people.
Rates of attempted and successful suicide and suicidal thinking are high among LGBTQ youth. According to the Trevor Project’s annual survey, 42% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide last year, with the majority being trans and nonbinary youth. And 75% of LGBTQ youth reported facing discrimination based on their identity over their lifetime.
The Trevor Project is an American suicide and crisis prevention nonprofit that offers educational material and a toll-free call line answered by trained counselors.
“Being able to access things that increase representation are always important,” Mix said. “I think if things aren’t accessible then it sends the message to students that it’s not mainstream, that their identities, their experiences are peripheral.”
Mix said continued challenges on LGBTQ material, especially if some are successful at removing it, will likely result in higher rates of anxiety and depression among students.
“I also think that, as we’re seeing in a lot of places across the country, students are going to start standing up for the things that they want to see in their classrooms and the things that are important to them,” they said.
How Libraries Handle Books
Des Moines Public Library Director Susan Woody said libraries exist to connect people to information, not to make decisions about what’s good or bad.
“We don’t make a judgment on what is appropriate or inappropriate or controversial or not,” she said. “Kids need all the information that they can get and the library wants to be there to help provide them with the information that is specific to their needs.”
When books are challenged, there’s a review process, but librarians obtain books based on the interests of the community. Collection development librarians have resources such as literary journals and publisher recommendations to find books for the library’s shelves, and the training to make decisions about community needs.
“The library is for everyone and we will challenge censorship claims because free access to ideas and information is what a library is all about,” Woody said.
School libraries, she said, often have fewer resources, but they could be the only library a student knows, and the easiest place for them to access books about topics they’re interested in.
Identity is one of those topics teenagers are most interested in. Who are you? How do you relate to your peers? How do they perceive you?
Resources for Students
Mix said it’s important to offer resources that help teens understand those questions, to know they’re not alone in asking them, and to give them a safe place to explore.
“Even though sometimes certain books might be a little bit heavier for some students, might be even a little bit more difficult to read than other books, I don’t think that makes it inherently inappropriate or bad,” they said.
Mix and Crow agreed that taking away these resources would do more harm to students, LGBTQ or straight.
“Folks do benefit from learning about communities that aren’t their own and not just in terms of, you know, being sensitive to those communities, but in terms of their own worldviews,” Crow said.
And the students aren’t even surprised by this movement to remove these books.
“There’s always going to be people who don’t support queer people, and that’s just the nature of it,” said Colson Thayer, a senior at Northwest High School.
Reading about LGBTQ characters helped Thayer understand what it’s like for other people who’ve been in his shoes.
“I don’t think that these parents are ever going to take away representation from queer people,” he said. “Maybe in the library. I mean, that just might be the fate of it. But kids will always have the internet. Kids will always be able to talk to other people. They’re always going to be able to go to a bookstore and find that book.”
by Nikoel Hytrek