Freedom to Read? Part Two: Walters Calls for Removal of LGBTQ+ Books
By Brendan Hoover
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series about State Superintendent Ryan Walters and the erosion of intellectual freedom in Oklahoma’s public-school libraries. Since taking office, Walters has called on lawmakers to remove books from school libraries, instituted book-banning rules, shunned the American Library Association, and recommended deregulating over 200 districts from state library staffing standards.
January 17, 2024
In April 2023, just three months into his administration, State Superintendent Ryan Walters sent Oklahoma legislators a letter about two books he called “pornographic” found in Oklahoma public schools.
The first title was Flamer by Mike Curato, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel set in 1995 in a Boy Scouts summer camp. In an NPR review of Flamer, Juanita Giles writes that the graphic novel centers on fourteen-year-old Aiden, a “Filipino American boy with body issues, who’s also a Boy Scout, Catholic, and coming to terms with the fact that he is gay.” The book does not minimize the struggle and angst that teenage boys—gay, straight, or otherwise—endure during their formative years, Giles writes. “Mike Curato does right by every kid or adult who has ever had those moments.”
The second title was “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, a graphic memoir about the author’s sexual coming of age as nonbinary. The New York Times asked Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, a New York City-based nonprofit that champions intellectual freedom, about the controversy surrounding the book. “Gender Queer ends up at the center of this because it is a graphic novel, and because it is dealing with sexuality at the time when that’s become taboo,” said Friedman. “There’s definitely an element of anti LGBTQ+ backlash.”
In a 2021 interview with NBC News, Kobabe acknowledged that while some of Gender Queer’s images may not be appropriate for elementary school readers, the book’s candid situations are “integral” to showing readers what it’s like to grow up as someone who is not cisgender nor heterosexual. “It’s very hard to hear people say, ‘This book is not appropriate to young people’ when it’s like, I was a young person for whom this book would have been not only appropriate, but so, so necessary,” Kobabe said.
Walters said Flamer was found in Tulsa, Owasso, and Bixby district libraries, and he claimed Gender Queer was found on Tulsa Public Schools library shelves. The nonprofit media outlet The Frontier fact checked Walters’ claims and found them to be true, reporting that Owasso, Oklahoma City, and Tulsa districts had removed the titles from their libraries. In Walters’ letter to legislators, he listed four other books “in the marketplace to monitor.” According to The Frontier, none of those books contained explicit sexual imagery or descriptions but have gay, transgender, or nonbinary protagonists.
Kirkpatrick Policy Group submitted an open records request to OSDE on December 7, seeking the total number of parental complaints filed in Oklahoma public-school districts concerning the “prohibition on pornographic materials or sexualized content.” The request also asked what schools any alleged violations occurred in, which specific book titles were complained about, and any action taken by OSDE regarding these complaints. At the time of this article’s publication, the request was unfulfilled.
Back in April, Walters also provided lawmakers with a list of over 190 books with gay themes that he said should not be allowed in Oklahoma public schools. The Rainbow Book List, complied annually by the American Library Association, represents an effort to “identify appealing and high-quality queer books” that support LGBTQ+ young people and their families. The 2023 list, comprised of books published between July 1, 2021, and December 31, 2022, is categorized by age group. The list includes “Top Ten Titles for Young Readers,” for children from birth to middle school, and “Top Ten Titles for Teen Readers,” for a young adult audience, according to the list’s introduction. In a blogpost on its website, the ALA said, “the suppression of these books is a detriment to all youth, and we cannot ignore the damage these challenges are having on the young people in our society.”
The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention nonprofit for LGBTQ+ youth, conducts an annual national survey on the mental health of LGBTQ+ young people. Its 2023 survey received feedback from more than 28,000 queer youth ages thirteen to twenty-four. According to its report, 41 percent of respondents said they “seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year,” and young people who are transgender, nonbinary, and queer youth of color reported even higher rates. Among respondents, 14 percent of LGBTQ+ young people attempted suicide in the past year. Attempted suicide rates were lower among LGBTQ+ young people who had access to affirming homes, schools, community events, and online spaces, according to the report.
How can Oklahoma public schools better support LGBTQ+ students? It’s a question that Walters doesn’t seem to want to answer. If fact, he appears to be pushing state public-school libraries in the opposite direction, as Part Three of this series will show.
Kirkpatrick Policy Group is a non-partisan, independent, 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization established in 2017 to identify, support, and advocate for positions on issues affecting all Oklahomans, including concern for the arts and arts education, animals, women’s reproductive health, and protecting the state’s initiative and referendum process. Improving the quality of life for Oklahomans is KPG’s primary vision, seeking to accomplish this through its values of collaboration, respect, education, and stewardship.