Monday, October 6, 2008

Reading the Fine Print in a Battle Over Books

In September of 2000, I opened the phone book for Washington, D.C. and looked up the phone number for the District of Columbia Public Schools. Under the numerous listings in the directory, I found a department called "Peaceable Schools."

I called the number and set up an appointment to meet with the department's director. And that first meeting led to a strong partnership which includes, among other things, 2 full days of training every year for teachers by the Metro DC PFLAG chapter.

That first meeting, though, also resulted in a different project: I asked for and was given permission to donate books about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people that were positive, as well as informative, to every DC public high school in the district. Three short months later, 10 books (both fiction and non fiction) had been donated, delivered and placed in 17 high schools' libraries. It seemed so easy. And as a result, fellow PFLAG members set about donating books to nearby Arlington and Fairfax County (in Virginia), too.

On Friday, it wasn't the phone book I opened up to find out what was happening in D.C. schools 8 years later . . . it was The Washington Post, which published an article (Banned Books, Chapter 2) about Fairfax County students who are protesting their inability to donate books to their school libraries. But the true root of their protest is, in fact, far removed from the ideas and ideals behind that early PFLAG book drive.

The students in Friday's Post had tried to place books in school libraries that contain unapologetic religious content and inaccurate information about the nature of sexuality.

In fact, there is a concerted effort by national anti-LGBT groups - such as Focus on the Family and Parents and Friends of ExGays and Gays (PFOX) - to donate books challenging the rights and dignity of LGBT people. In the case of Fairfax, the libraries rightfully declined to accept the books because they did not meet the qualifications necessary, including two positive reviews from professionally recognized journals. (I remember that policy because we needed to meet that standard too.) It is a fair policy and, though different school districts have different guidelines, the standards applied in Fairfax are common-sense ones that other district should take into account, too.

As far-right advocates attempt to push materials that do not meet those standards, however, this issue will undoubtedly come up again and again. That's why it's so important that concerned parents and community members - and especially PFLAGers - help school systems adopt and enforce policies that will benefit all of their students.

Despite what our opponents want us to believe, this isn't about freedom of speech. And I certainly do not believe in banning books. This is about what's in the fine print of last week's protest: Pushing a harmful, anti-gay message in schools that harms our children.

We must insist that books placed in school libraries meet standards, and at a minimum those standards should include denying literature that demeans and degrades some members of the school community who happen to be LGB or T.

According to Susan Thornily, coordinator for library information services for Fairfax schools, one reason the school system rejected the books offered by anti-gay activists was because administrators felt they would make gay students “feel inferior."

As PFLAGers, we know that none of our children are "less than," and we will not allow those with such damaging agendas to send a message through hallways, classrooms and libraries that some students are more deserving of respect than others. In many ways, you "wrote the book" on how to stand up for LGBT kids . . . and that's one lesson that must never be banned.

- Suzanne Greenfield

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