Harper Vanden Bosch, Guest Writer
Photo//ginnerobot via Flickr
“I experienced homophobia in school before I even realized I was gay,” says Elaine Bazzi, a 22-year-old woman who grew up attending public schools in Dearborn, Michigan. “Derogatory assumptions were made because of how close I was with friends, what I wore, and how I acted. People would call me a ‘lesbian’ and try to get my friend and I to kiss.”
Bazzi, of course, is not the only student who has experienced prejudice in school. In fact, statistics show just how common this is.
In 2021, 64% of Michigan students experienced at least one form of anti-LGBTQ discrimination at school, whether online, verbal or physical, according to a study done by Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Students were harassed due to their sexual orientation, gender and gender expression. That same study shows that students were also subject to hearing slurs at school, with 98% of students reporting having heard the word “gay” used in a negative way.
“When there are comments directed toward you about a topic that is being fetishized by middle and high school boys, it’s not something you want to think about,” Bazzi continues. “These experiences made me hesitant to discover who I was. I repressed myself. And now we are witnessing LGBT[Q+] students whose school systems are banning books that could help them discover who they are and feel more comfortable with themselves. Why are schools repressing their students’ identities?”
In Fall 2022, parents, students, faculty, and Dearborn residents gathered at a Dearborn Board of Education meeting to express their concerns or support toward certain books being provided at school libraries. Books that were questioned and ended up being removed from school shelves were Push by Sapphire, a novel that includes themes of incestual rape and assault, and Red, White & Royal Blue by Case McQuiston, which depicts a love story between two men in their early 20s. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and Flamer by Mike Curato were questioned but ultimately deemed appropriate for high school students. All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson and This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson are currently not available for students, as no decision has been made on whether these titles should remain in schools.
A board meeting that took place on Oct. 10 was suspended mid-session due to rowdiness and threats regarding the safety of board members and opponents of the ban. The meeting was rescheduled and resumed Oct. 13 with a calmer, yet still heated crowd.
The Dearborn Board of Education was under fire from parents and residents who claimed the board was perverting children by making sexually explicit content accessible and promoting poisoned ideologies. Some speakers spoke directly to the board, saying, “Shame on you,” “We should fire your ass” and “Our beef is with you.”
Many of those who were in support of removing books believed that the issue wasn’t about books at all. Their frustration was solely pointed at the board for allowing Dearborn children to be susceptible to progressive beliefs at school, and for thinking these teachings were acceptable and age appropriate.
During a recent interview, Hassan Chami, a well known, passionate Dearborn resident said, “I, personally, don’t think this is, at its root, a book issue. The books have been on the shelves for a long time. This is an issue of the teachings of progressive, secular ideologies in public schools. The same way people don’t want religion taught in schools, I don’t want these ways of thinking taught in schools.”
According to Chami and his followers, liberal takes on gender, pronouns, and LGBTQ+ are all matters that fall under the umbrella of progressive topics that shouldn’t be taught or promoted in the classroom.
“It’s not a school’s responsibility to teach this stuff to our children,” said Chami. “Public schools are literally teaching topics that are anti-religion and anti-God. I would go broke before I put my kids in the public schools in America.”
Anti-book banners spoke up at the board meeting, too, showing their support for the LGBTQ+ community, teachers and the Board of Education. They also called out those who supported the removal of books.
Mary Kay Kubicek, an English teacher of Dearborn Public Schools, said at the board meeting, “The district has pulled the books in question to review. And they are reviewing every single book in every single school library. And they are allowing parents to opt out of any books. And they’ve created a repeal process. So, let’s stop pretending this is about protecting children from books. We all know this is about erasing our LGBTQ students and staff. It was literally written on signs people brought to the meeting on Monday.”
Kubicek, during a recent interview, commented on the role of the books in school libraries. “I think one of the big points that we, who are opposed to the ban, were trying to make is that these books are available to students. At no point were any of these books required reading for all students. They were not given as a school assignment. They were there for students who wanted to read those stories.”
Amy Brainer, a professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn who specializes in women and gender studies and LGBTQ+ studies, explained why she thinks books with LGBTQ+ content are important during a recent speech at Bucknell University. “I teach many courses in LGBTQ studies, and students of all sexualities take those classes. Straight and cis students often come in with no knowledge of LGBTQ+ history. But what really gets me, is that so many LGBTQ students come in with no knowledge of their own history.”
She continued, “It seems to me that one shift we need to make is from ‘issues’ to ‘people’ - we are not LGBTQ+ ‘issues,’ we are LGBTQ+ people. We are not asking for LGBTQ+ ‘issues’ to be addressed in the curriculum; we are asking for LGBTQ+ people to be present, in the same ways that non-LGBTQ+ people and families already are.”
In addition to this controversy involving politics and education, religion has been thrown into the mix.
Dearborn is the largest Muslim-populated city in the United States, which means the city is full of devoted Islamists. This brought forward another conversation that dealt with making educational decisions based on faith.
Handmade signs were displayed at the board meetings and rallies that spewed Islamic beliefs and homophobic content. Some of those signs read: “Homosexuality Big Sin,” “All divine religions are AGAINST this kind of relationship” and “God created us as we are. Let’s keep it that way.”
“I firmly believe that moral compasses have formed from religion,” Chami stated strongly. “Back in the day, you would follow the word of God, but when God is stripped from the equation, there’s no more absolute truth. It’s all relative and subjective. Good versus evil becomes blurry.”
There has been heavy pushback from book ban opponents about religion swaying public school curriculum, resources and decisions.
“Religions do not get to dictate what happens in public education,” said Kubicek. “We don’t follow tenets of a certain faith in public education. It’s public education for all students. Not public education just for conservatively religious parents.”
Amid the passion and politics are citizens caught at an intersection of being Muslim and an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. These are the people whose voices tend to not be heard.
“Being Arab-American and from an Islamic family, I worry that Islam becoming an excuse as to why school libraries shouldn’t contain books with LGBTQ+ themes makes the religion look bad,” said Bazzi. “Minorities in America already have it hard enough. I hope people can take away from this that not all Muslims are homophobic.”
Although this ban transpired in the fall, students and faculty are still being affected by it.
According to Kubicek, Dearborn Public Schools is in the middle of an ongoing investigation regarding the process of removing ebooks and audiobooks from its schools’ online databases. Due to systemic discrepancies, schools are currently not able to remove a single book from its database. Therefore, the whole database is down and will continue to be down until this issue is resolved.
“As a teacher of special ed students with a special ed co-teacher, we use audiobooks all the time,” said Kubicek. “Because for a kid with a reading disability, listening to it while they’re reading [is] fantastic. We don’t have that back. I cannot use audiobooks with my students that have a reading disability because that is now part of the ‘We have to investigate and figure out if there’s a way to block certain books’.”
Dearborn is not the only city that is questioning which books belong on its schools’ shelves. According to PEN America, 138 districts in 32 states banned books in 2021. All together, these districts represent 5,049 schools with a combined enrollment of nearly 4 million students. Many of the books that were taken off of shelves had been sitting there for years. There is a big question as to why these books are now being questioned.
“Certain political groups have realized that they can throw words around like ‘pornography’ and it’s going to make people believe them and they can get control in districts,” said Kubicek. “There have certainly been cases of school boards shutting down all sorts of things because they were able to gain an elected office and take power in that district.”
As a result of the board meeting, the Dearborn school district released guidelines on how it will go about selecting and reviewing media materials. The guidelines say that if a student, staff member or parent disapproves of any content, they have the right to opt out by filling out a form, and a link to the form is in the guidelines. If a parent, staff member or student chooses to pursue getting a book completely removed from Dearborn Public School libraries, the steps are listed here as well. These guidelines are available in English and Arabic so all Dearborn residents can be informed on how the district chooses materials for its curriculum.
In order to go about these conversations in a more equitable and respectful manner, Brainer suggests that we think about how efforts to restrict teaching about sexuality and gender affect everyone, including people with no known connection to the LGBTQ+ community.
“For years, our society has encouraged visceral, emotional reactions like disgust and violence towards LGBTQ people, and nowadays especially toward trans people. Describing us as predators who are dangerous to children is an example of a message that can generate those types of reactions. Think of the people who are shooting up Bud Light cans on TikTok, right? That’s a visceral reaction – an anger and sense of betrayal felt in the body. Unchecked, these reactions can begin to show up in the ways that we treat others in school, in the workplace, in peer groups, and elsewhere.”
She continues, “What I want to offer here, for us to consider, is that withholding education about a group makes us more vulnerable to misinformation and to the manipulation of our thoughts and emotions.”
Questions about the longevity of book bans are circulating in Dearborn and across the country.
Regarding the lifespan of book bans, Brainer says, “I think we will continue to see them in waves. Prior waves targeted LGB people; the current wave targets trans people. Other sexual and gender minorities may be targeted in the future. Each wave will require a nuanced understanding and response from the larger LGBTQ+ community, one that prioritizes our most vulnerable members.”