Back-to-school season means school board meetings are heating up again. In my Kentucky district, parents have rekindled the argument about books permitted in the school library. Parents want Maia Kobabe’s book, Gender Queer: A Memoir, removed from the shelves, describing the contents of the book as “pornographic.”
Simon & Schuster describes the book as an “intensely cathartic autobiography.”
So, what is pornographic? It is defined as the depiction of erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement. The intention is the key in the definition. And anyone who has ever been a pubescent human (so every grown-up, ever) knows that intended or not, sexual arousal is part of being human.
Our children are growing up and sexual development is a part of that — whether we like it or not. It’s weird and scary and exciting all at the same time, and kids need unflinching support from the adults in their lives as they develop into whole human beings.
This means having open and sometimes uncomfortable conversations.
The good news is that books like Gender Queer, which guide readers through coming-of-age experiences, are a great way to help adolescents figure things out for themselves, even if the experience they read does not match their own. Our job as parents is to support our children as they figure out who they are.
Memoir is a wonderful genre. We get to read the details of incredible life stories. We get to learn how others wrestle with and overcome horrid indignities as well as navigate the normal.
Memoir is brave. It is the offering of an incredibly personal story, one with which we can relate and empathize. Keeping kids away from books isn’t the way.
Was it brave for Frank McCourt to write about masturbation and losing his virginity in Angela’s Ashes? And what about The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls? Was it necessary that she discuss the sexual abuse she and her brother, Brian, endured? Both of these memoirs have also met school board meeting objections from parents when they landed in the classroom.
Not only are these memoirs brave and necessary, but they also offer a foundation of normalcy and a clear understanding of what is not. If we can recognize it in others, we have a chance of understanding it within ourselves.
In an ideal situation, parents talk openly with their kids about sexual health. They maybe even read the same book and use it as an opportunity to prompt discussions. But so much of our conversations around sexuality are rife with shame and expectation.
We encourage the boy but silence the girl. Stereotypes like these set society up for predatory culture, where boys say yes but “good girls” say no. My daughter once asked me, “Mom, how come no one ever teaches girls how to say yes?”
Adults joke about having the proverbial “talk,” but communication about sexual health should not be a one-time talk; it should be an ongoing dialogue in which questions are allowed, and honest answers are encouraged. Where no one is shamed about how they feel, and adolescents feel supported in their journey of healthy self-discovery in their sexual development.
Sexuality is a normal part of our humanity and sexual feelings should be normalized. A new book isn’t the problem. It’s following the same trail of the numerous banned books before it.
Gender Queer will be read. It will be cherished by many who find it when they need it most. Keep it on the school library shelf. For so many, it will be right on time.
— Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a wife, mother of three kids, and the opinion editor of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Louisville Courier-Journal. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, followed through her YouTube channel and on Twitter: @WriterBonnie, or click here to learn more about her. Click here for previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.