Anita Rao (she/her)
A local library in Jamestown defunded by its patrons. A graphic novel pulled from the shelves in Spring Lake. A school board meeting in Dearborn reduced to a shouting match. Communities across the state have joined the growing list of book-banning battlegrounds. Challenges to books in local and school libraries have skyrocketed this year, and in advance of the midterm elections, the battle reached Michigan.
Over 600 people packed the Stout Middle School auditorium for a Dearborn Public School Board meeting on October 13th. On the chopping block were several titles, including “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell and “Red, White, and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston (both of which have since been banned or restricted). The Thursday night assembly was not the first of its kind – on Monday the school board convened for its planned meeting, but escalating tensions from the large crowd and subsequent fire code concerns led to its abrupt shutdown. By the rescheduled date, attendees were fired up about books and also felt silenced by the Monday meeting fiasco. Dylan Wegela was present for both days.
Wegela was photographed holding a pride flag labeled with the words “Everyone Is Welcome,” an action that earned him boos from the crowd. It was not the high school teacher’s first experience with contentious school board meetings; before returning to his home state of Michigan, Wegela was a leader in the Arizona teacher’s strikes. Now, he found himself once again in the news, this time representing the teacher’s voice in the book-banning debate. Wegela recounted his experiences to “The Michigan Gayly” over the phone. Initially, Wegela wasn’t sure he would speak at the meetings. “I strongly believed that the conflict was not a representation of Dearborn as a whole, the community I was serving as an educator and love.” But when it came down to it, his students inspired his decision. “I wanted my students to know that I have their back. One hundred percent, the students were the number one reason why I spoke,” he shared. Despite the negative crowd response, Wegela was proud to showcase a pride flag at the meeting. “With the flag, I wanted to make the point that it’s not about the books. It’s really not about the books at all, and people know that.”
The board meeting was a highly public boiling point, but it was not the beginning of hostility for the school district. When Wegela voiced concern about Gay-Straight Alliance posters being torn down around the school, a crowd member shouted, “Good.” Over the phone, he offered further insight into this comment. The GSA bulletin board in their school had been continually vandalized. Teachers had been discouraged from hanging pride flags in their classrooms. Surveys asking students’ gender identity or orientation had been challenged by parents. “What’s happening in Dearborn is this group of right-wing extremists has gotten everybody riled up, and soon anything that had to do with the LGBTQ+ community was being questioned and being hyper-looked at,” he said. Wegela also doubled down on his motivations. “For me, it’s always about the students. The minimum I can do as an educator is make my students feel safe.” With this context, the school board meeting does not appear to be an anomaly, but a part of a pattern.
In an email to “The Michigan Gayly,” Roxanne McDonald, President of the Dearborn Board of Education, shared where their district fits into the broader picture. “Dearborn, like many school districts across the state and across the nation, is being used as a stage for a much bigger national discussion on what books are appropriate for school media centers,” she wrote. McDonald shared the board’s media review guidelines and expressed a commitment to evaluating books in a legal and unbiased manner. “As a district, we remain committed to working with all of our parents and students to help them find a balance that is right for their family without imposing on the freedom of others.” This fundamental tension – empowering parental authority without imposing on student rights – is not a battle unique to Dearborn. Across the country, people in positions like McDonald’s are being forced to grapple with the contentious definition of freedom. Whose rights are paramount in the classroom?
A study by the nonprofit group PEN America found that 41% of titles banned over the previous school year were targeted due to LGBTQ+ content. Books with LGBTQ+ themes, protagonists, or secondary characters were the single largest percentage of banned content, followed closely by stories containing prominent characters of color. Although the report covers thousands of authors banned in over 5,000 schools, one book can’t seem to escape the hit list: “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. Now the most frequently banned book in America, the graphic memoir has sparked heated debates surrounding sexually explicit imagery and nontraditional explorations of identity. “Gender Queer” tackles many challenges queer adolescents will find familiar. Kobabe’s shares experiences ranging from grappling with gynecology appointments to navigating safe sexual encounters. The most intimate moments are strikingly honest and dealt with sensitively for the education of its young readers. In addition to scenes contending with sex and puberty, Kobabe’s story touches on coming out to parents, experiencing a first crush, and bonding with queer classmates through the shared love of fan fiction. Many have praised Kobabe’s work for its vulnerability, of particular value to its historically underrepresented young target audience. But critique of “Gender Queer” has also been pervasive, not only for its handling of teenage sexuality but for the inclusion of LGBTQ+ content at all. Just a couple hours west of Ann Arbor, a Spring Lake parent called for the graphic novel to be struck from Spring Lake Public Schools.
When “The Michigan Gayly” reached out to members of the Spring Lake Board for comment, only two weeks had passed since “Gender Queer” had been pulled from the shelves. Vice President Kathy Breen, one of the three board members who voted against the removal, was now gearing up for reelection. The Spring Lake Community, much like Dearborn, was evidently shaken up by this national conflict reaching their home. “This is a difficult time for our school district,'' Breen shared. “Spring Lake is a small community and our school district has an excellent reputation and high student achievement. What’s occurring with the school board election, and the result of the book banning, have created high emotions in the community.” Still, Breen stood steadfast in her stance. “I am sad ‘Gender Queer’ was removed by the majority vote of our Board. As a Board member, I am respectful of the will of the majority. But I am proud through my no vote, to have stood up against ‘banning’.” Kathy Breen was one of three incumbents the Spring Lake Teachers Association endorsed ahead of the midterms, an atypical move indicative of a uniquely contentious election. Much like the teachers of Dearborn, for this board member, it was all about maintaining power to create a stable environment for the students. “Many of us are hopeful that the incumbents will be re-elected and that it will restore the stability we typically feel as a community and school district.”
Breen was not the only Spring Lake community member to express strong feelings. The October 17th Board of Education meeting saw parents, students, and other board members vocalizing opinions on the book ‘Gender Queer.’ During public comment, one community member called the book “pornographic” and the Board “sick individuals.” A Spring Lake High School student stated they were “thrilled to have books in the library to represent people like themselves.” Trustee Katherine Pigott, who would later join Breen in the dissenting vote against banning, shared her statement with “The Michigan Gayly.”
Pigott, too, was proud to stand by her remarks, writing, “I read this statement in front of over two hundred people with news reporters present, and I stand by my comments.” Pigott addressed the controversy head-on, taking care to correctly gender the main character of “Gender Queer,” who uses e/em/eir pronouns. “Let’s cut right to the most controversial page of all, illustrating a sex act. A young adult person is confronted with a sexual situation which makes em uncomfortable. E communicate eir discomfort to eir partner and empower emself to exit an uncomfortable sexual situation. This is a story of value. It’s a story whose imagery reflects the discomfort so many adolescents feel when faced with new and difficult situations. The discomfort – and confronting that discomfort – is the point.” Pigott expressed frustration with the present dialogue around “Gender Queer”– one that took individual frames out of context and obscured the whole story.
Pigott ended her statement with a reaffirmation of how consequential the board’s decisions would be. “The truth is, our LGBTQ+ students may be fighting and struggling for much of their lives. They need these books like they need oxygen, especially given the notable scarcity of OUT role models in this community. But more than that, they need our affirmation. Especially right now. It certainly is not on them to tone down the temperature. It is on the adults of this community to calm this down, regardless of the outcome. Our kids are watching us.” Maintaining the theme of taking statements out of context, a single line from Pigott’s statement now graces the pages of “The Sexualization of Michigan Children in Public Schools,” far-right group Ottawa Impact’s inflammatory book-banning manifesto. Regardless, with their votes and their testimonies, board members Pigott and Breen stood strong with the young people of Spring Lake. For Breen, this allyship cost her reelection.
On November 8th, Michigan voters turned up in record numbers to cast their ballot in the 2022 midterm elections. The passage of Proposal 3 and control of the governorship, the state house, and the state senate were the most celebrated victories by Michigan Democrats. Yet in congruence with a liberal wave on the state-wide scale, some local elections saw different trends. Kathy Breen, Curt Theune, and Jennifer Nicles were the three incumbents on the Spring Lake School Board ballot. Among them, Breen was the only one to vote against the ban on “Gender Queer.” That night, Spring Lake voters chose to reelect only Theune and Nicles. If that message was not clear enough alone, voters in the same county took it a step further. Jamestown Township constituents voted against a Library Millage ballot measure, electing to defund the only public library in their community.
In Ottawa County, the Patmos Public Library had been embroiled in book-banning conflict for months. Residents opposed the library’s LGBTQ+ materials and voted to strip most of its funding in August. Accusations of grooming children and promoting sexual content in their small community were behind the voter’s decisions. In truth, the root of the debate was a handful of titles out of the library’s wide selection. Among the challenged were three volumes of the popular series “Heartstopper”, which a concerned citizen accused of “putting doubt into children’s minds about their sexuality” and called for a religious book to take its place. After its initial failure, the same funding measure was placed on the ballot this past election, a final hope for the small library’s survival. As the votes came in, the result was clear: The Patmos Library would become a casualty of the national battle against queer literature. 55.8% of voters rejected a 10-year millage proposal and increase for the library, a move that library board members had expressed would essentially shut them down in a matter of months. They confirmed that the Patmos Public Library could not run for the next decade without stable taxpayer support. For Jamestown Township voters, punishing the library for its LGBTQ+ titles was apparently a higher priority than having a local library at all. This move is thought to be the first time a Michigan public library has lost taxpayer support as a result of LGBTQ+ controversy.
The midterms came and went, and the Patmos Public Library is now left trying to keep its doors open as long as sustainably possible. The Spring Lake School Board carries out the rest of its term, with irresolution surrounding the future of the coming school year. Tensions linger in Dearborn, where the parental pressure has begun to translate into book removals. But for Dylan Wegela, some slightly better news.
While working as a high school teacher and advocating at the Dearborn board meeting, Wegela was also busy running a campaign for the Michigan State House. On November 8th, he won the race for House District 26. When asked what’s next for him, Wegela joked, “I guess it’s time to figure out the whole being a representative thing.” Although District 26 does not include Dearborn, his priorities remain informed by his experiences as a teacher there. Wegela confirmed that LGBTQ+ issues were high on his priority list, citing plans to tackle conversion therapy and fight for the explicit inclusion of LGBTQ+ rights under the Elliot-Larson Civil Rights Act. His campaign website reflects this dedication, among commitments to common-sense gun legislation and minimum wage increases. “My fear is the discussion is going to be, ‘How do we keep majority?’ rather than, ‘How do we make these changes?’” To him, a state house majority does not signify the time to sit back and relax. “We have a lot of work to do.”
And across the state, that much is clear. There is work left to do in every school district and in every public library. Challenged books remain yet to be banned, their fate hanging in the balance of an ongoing debate. Democratic election wins sparked jubilation for some voters, but in reality, Michigan remains among the top states for book challenges, some striking as close to campus as Rochester and Novi. The future of LGBTQ+ books and the students that they represent is uncertain. Book banning may have taken the tight-knit, small towns of Michigan by surprise. But community leaders share the belief that they are strong enough to weather this storm. From Spring Lake, and for all the young people across Michigan, Katie Pigott shared a note of optimism. “I have great faith in teens and their ability to process what the world throws at them, especially with the guidance of a well-thought-out book. As for anyone who may be interested in further undermining our LGBTQ+ students, I am prepared to continue to protect every student's right to flourish in our school system.”
Thank you to Dylan Wegela, Roxanne McDonald, and Katie Pigott for your invaluable contributions to this story. And special thanks to Kathy Breen for six years of service to the Spring Lake School Board.