“Gender Queer” is a controversial book written by Maia Kobabe and published in 2019. The book was recently removed from Wake County Public Libraries upon a formal review by staff. The review was prompted by a complaint about the book due to its explicit illustrations of sexual acts. Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson had strongly criticized the book earlier this year as being too sexually explicit.
It seems the book’s removal didn’t spark many protests from North Carolinians—that is, most North Carolinians found WCPL’s decision to remove the book from its catalog uncontroversial. Local media outlets like The News & Observer and CBS17 had somewhat charitable reporting on the matter. Even our friends at NC Policy Watch had nothing to say about the book’s removal. But, of course, come to find out that I just had to wait a few days for the cultural pieces to be published.
Now, this article, insofar as I am concerned, has nothing to do with the actual memoir. I have not read the book, and I have no intention of doing so. This article is about the responses to WCPL removing the book.
NBC News covered WCPL’s decision to remove the book under the guise of a “ban.” This is an interesting spin, to say the least. To say it is a “ban” rather than a removal gives the situation an unwarranted sense of gravitas. I don’t think ‘ban’ is the right word here. The word ‘remove’ appropriately conveys that the decision was the result of a procedural examination into the content of the book. Additionally, the NBC article conflates sentiments that led to the removal of the book in places like WCPL, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, and Brevard Public Schools in Florida as if they are all nefarious schemes. Again, it seems clear that the decision to remove the book is the product of a procedural outcome.
Now, can this situation be expanded to express concerns about the process to remove books from public schools and libraries? Sure. I don’t think anyone is against this holistic kind of discussion about what books should be made available to the public by government institutions. However, we must be clear as to the parameters in which we determine what books are appropriate or not. The current attitude of those raving about the removal of the book could easily be redirected to justify allowing “The Anarchist Cookbook,” for example, to be made available in public schools and libraries.
Unfortunately, like the opinions of NBC, other opinions seem to be indifferent to how this reactionary attitude can have rippling effects. For instance, the News & Observer published an opinion over the weekend suggesting—like NBC—the removal of the book is really a “ban.” As mentioned previously, this comes across as rhetoric rather than fact.
Interestingly, the N&O article went a little further with its sophist analysis by suggesting that the removal is unconstitutional. This is an extraordinary claim given the argument provided to support the claim.
Consequently, the unconstitutionality charge is predicated on a false equivalency. The article would have the reader believe that “Fifty Shades of Grey” (a text-based book) is equivalent to Gender Queer (an illustration-based book). While there are overlapping themes, a text-based book requires the reader to have some mental conception of certain scenes to translate the text into pictures whereas an illustration-based book requires no such translation. What the author is trying to convey in “Gender Queer” is on full display with an illustration such that no antecedent knowledge is required.
Certainly, one can understand the concern of parents regarding the public circulation of such a book, irrespective of one’s subcultural attitude towards its content. Again, I would point to the “Anarchist Cookbook” as an example for why that is the case. There is a difference in writing a scene in a book about someone building a bomb and detailing the steps, materials needed, and where to acquire said material to make a bomb in the real world. Now, I am not comparing the content of the “Anarchist Cookbook” to the content of “Gender Queer,” obviously. What I am saying is that we cannot make the type of comparisons that the N&O article is making because there is a difference in storytelling content and instructional content.
Be it intentional or not, illustration-based books tend to be instructional by nature. As a child reading the “Hobbit,” I had a mental image about what a hobbit, a dwarf, and a dragon looked like. However, Peter Jackson provided an illustration of what those characters looked like in his movie adaptation of the Hobbit. It would be extremely difficult to go back and read the Hobbit now and not think of Martin Freeman as Bilbo. This is because Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of the book provided an instructional image of the character Bilbo—and what is a movie if not a live action illustration.
I think the more dramatic responses to “Gender Queer” being removed from WCPL have been taken out of proportion. The book was certainly not banned from readers who wish to have access to its content. One can still go on Amazon and purchase the book if they wish to read it. We can certainly talk about the process to remove books to make sure the guidelines are being met to take a book out of circulation from a publicly funded institution, but I don’t think we are in a situation whereby the removal of “Gender Queer” falls outside of those guidelines. Consequently, I don’t think this is a constitutional matter, and opinions to the contrary seem to be rooted in reactionary sentiments and not a good understanding of the law.
Joshua Peters is a philosopher and social critic from Raleigh, NC. His academic background is in western philosophy, STEM, and financial analysis. Joshua studied at North Carolina State University (BS) and UNC Charlotte (MS). He is a graduate of the E.A. Morris Fellowship for Emerging Leaders.