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A Rethink on Book Banning: how S.F. 496 could affect LGBTQ+ Students

Banned books in some schools Photo Courtesy of Emma Ketelsen

The Iowa Senate is poised to pass a bill that would drastically change how public schools in the state approach LGBTQ+ students and topics. Senate File 496 would ban the teaching of gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-6 and remove books from schools that describe or depict a sex act. The bill is part of Governor Kim Reynolds’ push for what she has labeled “parental rights’’ in schools. 

The bill has activists concerned that S.F. 496 will be misused to remove any books relating to LGBTQ+ topics from classrooms and school libraries. 

Some school districts have already challenged certain books. There have been approximately 26 books that have been challenged or banned in Iowa school districts, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, a nonprofit organization that advocates for and protects American citizens’ basic freedoms and liberties.

Locally, the Ankeny Community School District banned “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and has had requests to remove “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” as well as “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” for containing sexual themes or descriptions of sex acts. Many of the challenged books describe the author’s discovery of their sexuality and gender expression.

Of the 1,648 nationally banned books tracked by PEN America, an organization founded in 1922 to protect free speech, 41% of banned books either directly address LGBTQ+ themes or have main or secondary characters that identify as LGBTQ+.

Mike Beranek, president of the Iowa State Education Association, a public school teacher’s union and branch of the National Education Association, described the importance of books representing all minorities being included in school libraries. 

“Our children need to see themselves in the books they read, hear themselves in the curriculum and the conversations that take place and to recognize that there are people who are different than they are and that they need to understand how to work cooperatively in their life,” Beranek said. 

According to the ACLU, approximately 452 anti-LGBTQ+ bills are moving through statehouses across the U.S. Like many of these bills, S.F. 496 doesn’t merely focus on books. It also dictates that transgender students must use school lockers and bathrooms that align with their assigned sex at birth and includes a provision that teachers must notify a child’s parental guardian if they suspect a student goes by a different gender or pronouns than they were assigned at birth.

Iowa House Democratic Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst voiced her support for the LGBTQ+ community and is against the bill. Republican Senate and House Education Committee lawmakers have not yet returned a TD request for comment. 

“Every kid in Iowa deserves to learn and thrive in a safe environment at school,” Konfrst said.“Censoring public schools from providing information or talking about LGBTQ+ families puts the lives of more Iowa kids at risk.”

In addition to the parental rights bill, Gov. Reynolds recently signed a bill banning access to gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth.

The ACLU of Iowa has been lobbying against S.F. 496 and the new trans healthcare law. In two press releases, ACLU of Iowa Executive Director Mark Stringer voiced support for LGBTQ+ youth and condemned Reynolds’ ban on gender-affirming care. 

“These blatantly anti-LGBTQ bills fly in the face of long-standing and repeated recommendations of educators, doctors and mental health professionals,” Stringer said. “Instead, politicians are deciding that they know what is best for individual kids and individual families.”

Stringer also denounced these bills as a way for politicians to “score political points” and expressed worry over S.F. 496 possibly banning books and references that acknowledge or that include gay, transgender and nonbinary people.

Iowa Safe Schools, a nonprofit that works to support LGBTQ+ youth and teachers at school, is concerned about students’ freedom of speech and access to knowledge being violated. Iowa Safe Schools is currently lobbying against the bill. 

“It’s not cherry-picking here and there. The end goal is to really drastically rein in the materials that our libraries have offered and destroy libraries from being a safe and inclusive space for everyone to learn and read,” said Damian Thompson, ISS Director of Public Policy and Communication.  

Thompson raised concerns that groups lobbying for banning books in school are trying to keep students from thinking critically and engaging in academic discussions about specific topics or learning to decide what material is appropriate for them. He cited the recent removal of a graphic novel adaptation of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” that was removed from a Florida high school. 

“Our students are much smarter than I think some of these folks are giving them credit for, and maybe that’s why they’re concerned,” Thompson said. “They don’t want them to think critically about so many of these issues, which are obviously front of mind.” 

Thompson explained that ISS’s “flagship program” is their Affirming Resource Library, which curates age-appropriate, completely free literature for students, parents and educators discussing LGBTQ+ topics. The ISS is working to continue expanding the program. 

In an email, Ryan Wise, the Dean of the School of Education at Drake University, echoed that inclusive books are crucial to students. 

“Books depicting the struggles and achievements of historically marginalized communities give students from diverse backgrounds a voice and share a perspective that is too often silenced,” Wise said. “In addition, book bans and other restrictions have an adverse effect on students considering the teaching profession.”

Since 1990, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network has surveyed queer youth every two years for The National School Climate Survey. According to their 2021 report, only 16.5% of LGBTQ+ students reported LGBTQ-related topics being included in textbooks or other assigned readings–down 3% since 2019. Only 48% of the 22,298 students surveyed could find books or information on LGBTQ-related topics in their school library. 

That lack of representation has an impact. About 45% of LGBT youth seriously considered suicide in the past year, with nearly one in five transgender students attempting suicide, according to a national survey by the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group and suicide prevention network. LGBTQ+ students that felt supported and affirmed at school reported lower rates of attempting suicide. 

“If it’s not been evident already, by all the politicians speaking out, having these resources, having these books and everything saves lives,” said Andi Turnbull, a transgender student at Drake University. “I know some people personally who probably wouldn’t be around if we did not have these resources because they [were so] religious. They grew up so closeted, and they didn’t have any outlet to express themselves without fear of being judged.”

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