“Gender Queer,”  a graphic memoir, was the focus of a Cedar Grove library board meeting. (Photo: Natalie Tsur)

Cedar Grove Library was packed ahead of Thursday night’s Library Board meeting with many speakers prepared to give statements opposing a threatened book ban, according to an email sent by a town employee whistleblower to Out Montclair.

But Mayor Kerry Peterson, who ran the library meeting, said “there has never been discussion” of banning the graphic memoir “Gender Queer.” Instead, she said, library director Catherine Wolverton has determined that the young adult book will be moved to the adult section of the library.

A “separate profile” will be set up for young adult cardholders where they can only check out young adult and youth collections, which “parents have the option to opt into,” Wolverton said.

“We have received communication from residents concerned about where the book was displayed. So that is what we had to address and that we are addressing, and we have addressed,” Peterson said at the start of the meeting. No formal vote on the decision was made in the beginning or end of the session, and four of the seven Library Board of Trustees members were present. When Montclair Local asked Peterson how complaints were made, she said they were “mostly over the phone.”

Though a ban is not in place, the move to restrict access to Gender Queer reflects a broader issue of shame that is “damaging” and “isolating” – and, in this instance, is also “a form of censorship,” Peter Yacobellis, executive director of Out Montclair said.

Librarians and retired library staff from seven different towns’ libraries came to Thursday’s meeting at Cedar Grove Library in support of the freedom to read. (Photo: Natalie Tsur)

The decision to restrict the book was announced before two hours of public comment, where residents and non-residents spoke on the importance of accessibility. Many speakers shared personal accounts – including staff and volunteers of Out Montclair – and most challenged the Board’s decision, citing Cedar Grove Library policies listed online.

“The book in question is an award-winning book. A recent court case in Virginia determined that it is not obscene according to the Miller test, and to remove it from our shelves, or I contend to move it to an only-adult section, is a form of censorship,” said Christine Corso, a Cedar Grove resident.

Information on Cedar Grove Library can only be found through the township’s website. There is currently no language available that details the process of filing a book challenge, though the library does endorse the American Library Association’s Freedom to Read Statement and Library Bill of Rights, according to its policy section.

Earlier this year, Glen Ridge Public Library received letters challenging books with LGBTQ+ characters or themes, all of which were maintained on the shelves. The process to challenge a book in Glen Ridge requires residents to file a form, and a materials selection policy is made public.

“Anyone acting as a private citizen who wants to see the status of a book challenged, has to go through a certain policy, I would imagine,” Corso said. “I have friends at other libraries, who told me there’s a written form you have to fill out if you feel a book is not categorized appropriately or should be removed from the shelves.”

While people representing either side of the issue spoke during public comment, the majority opposed the Board’s decision. Librarians and retired library staff from seven different towns’ libraries showed at Thursday’s meeting in support of the freedom to read and for policies that help secure that right: Bogota, Glen Ridge, Highland Park, Livingston, Montclair, Verona and West Caldwell. The New Jersey Association of School Librarians also sent a letter to Cedar Grove Library, urging them to retain “Gender Queer.”

And the ACLU-NJ has since responded to Cedar Grove Library’s decision in a letter obtained by Montclair Local: “[Restricting access to books] limits opportunities for young people to be introduced to new ideas, to learn more about themselves and about people who are different from themselves, and to become active and informed citizens in their communities.”

Those in favor of the censorship cited pages in the book out of its intended context, making false claims of “child pornography.” The characters in “Gender Queer” are adults, and the depictions are drawings – which 17-year-old Billy Rivero said is quintessential sex education that a traditional classroom education lacks.

“I’m a teenager. I did not get an education about gay sex, or gender, or any of that. I figured that all out by myself and luckily had great parents, but I have friends that didn’t figure it out from safe places, or from their parents or from books,” Rivero said. “I have friends that were groomed, or that were preyed upon or that are traumatized because they didn’t get to read these books.”

Speakers on Thursday stressed that “Gender Queer” reflects the author’s lived experience, affirming the experiences of many. Reubena Spence of Out Montclair hailed the memoir as a “lifeline” for LGBTQ+ youth. Others echoed that sentiment.

“It’s not about the lust. It’s not about the sex. It’s about the fact that some things as a queer person are not what you originally expected, and the way people told you life would be like,” Sawyer Conlin said. “And I think that is something that saves lives. I think a book like this saves lives.”

Melania, a librarian who spoke during the meeting, stressed that “kids really find their safety in a library.” It is a space that welcomes questions and offers information, especially for “[teens] who don’t know who else to talk to,” they said.

Parents supporting the censorship raised concerns over their children seeing some of the drawings in “Gender Queer” and said they are “not ready to have that conversation” with them.

“You don’t have to talk to your kids about fellatio if you don’t want to. But you can say ‘we’ll talk about it when you’re older,’” Cynthia Garcia said in response. “But for you to remove it or want to remove it and make it hard for others to find out information – that’s censorship.”

Not just book bans

“It’s not just book bans,” Yacobellis said prior to the start of the meeting. “It’s also people who are targeting gay straight alliances, or queer student youth groups, looking at curriculum and trying to not honor the spirit of the law in terms of protecting trans youth in schools.”

Cedar Grove has seen pushback similar to Thursday’s before, when the high school banned, then reinstated, the student-chosen production of “The Prom” over claims of “inappropriate content.” Out Montclair hosted the cast as the kickoff performance on the main stage of Montclair Pride this past June.

Jackie Leibowitz, a Cedar Grove resident who works within the high school’s theater program, said it’s the “second time this year we’ve had to deal with the censorship issue in this town,” and that “setting that precedent could lead to other dangerous precedents.”

Instances of book bans are most prevalent in Texas, Florida, Missouri, Utah and South Carolina, according to PEN America. The same report indicates that books written by or about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals are being targeted. Those same states, along with at least 20 others, are seeing a paired increase in anti-trans legislation, including bans on gender-affirming healthcare.

“There is definitely a kid out there that could see it on the shelf, and say, ‘My parent doesn’t know anything about this, I can’t tell them to opt in on my card,’” Leibowitz said of the book. “And they still are the ones that desperately need to read it.”

Attendees urge Board to “better handle” future meetings

Speakers said the correction of the meeting content and the decision regarding Gender Queer’s place in the library should have been disclosed sooner.

“As a member of the queer community, for the board to be able to sit here and say that [banning the book] was never on the table, I’m just disappointed in how it was addressed to the community, because it means that people in my community had to be on the sidelines of hearing this chatter,” said Tasha Miley, a Cedar Grove resident.

Those concerned with how Thursday’s meeting was executed cited examples where the Board could have closed public information gaps.

The topic of Thursday’s meeting was written on the agenda under “New Business” as “Gender Queer.” The agenda was not made available online prior to the meeting.

“I just think this could be handled better the next time, if you have a better policy in place, and something that’s on the web that everybody can see, because that is public information. And meetings are public information. So we should be able to find that pretty easily,” said Sara Cassaro, librarian at Bogata Library and former Cedar Grove resident.

“LGBTQIA+ residents in Cedar Grove bravely spoke out about wanting to be included in conversations and decisions about them,” Yacobellis said. “We urge the town and Board to be far more clear and inclusive as they consider decisions about their most vulnerable constituents, so their voices and viewpoints are considered too.”

Wolverton did not immediately respond to comment on how Thursday’s meeting will affect future library book challenges and censorship attempts.

The Library Board of Trustees will hold its next meeting on Thursday, September 14 at 6 p.m. at Cedar Grove Library.