America’s latest LGBTQ2S+ book hysteria hits too close to home

OPINION: Police were called into a Massachusetts middle school library after someone complained about a queer book. The incident brought back memories of my time growing up in the district

Just before Christmas, a story went viral about a police officer being called into a Massachusetts middle school library to examine the book Gender Queer, a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe, which has been the target of several book bans. Law enforcement searched W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School for the book late last year after someone had complained that they thought it was “pornographic” and inappropriate for kids.

The story quickly caught fire on social media, with many liberal onlookers using it as an example of how queer and trans people might not be safe even in the blue bastion of Massachusetts. But for me, the story was personal. The little town in Massachusetts that got so much attention for this is Great Barrington, my hometown.

Great Barrington is, in part, a paradox. It has a reputation as one of the most picturesque towns in the Berkshires, and is best known for containing the second homes of many rich New Yorkers. The town, like much of the Birkenstock Belt (the blue-voting rural areas of Vermont, western Massachusetts and the southern Catskills of New York) is a proud liberal bastion. But like many other towns in the county, there’s a blue-collar undercurrent that runs through the town’s year-round population, full of the shopkeepers and service personnel who keep the area running. While the area has always been among the more socially progressive in the U.S., the political leanings of those in Great Barrington have never been uniform.

The area has progressed socially since I was a student, but this story is a reminder of my reality as a young person. I grew up as a closeted trans person in the town, and though that was a long time ago, it was not at all easy.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was a student at Monument Mountain Regional High School, which is just down the road from the W.E.B Du Bois Regional Middle School. At the time, being gay wasn’t really a “thing” for young folks—much less being trans. I remember “gay” was a common synonym for “bad” and a frequent insult.

There was one goth boy at my school who wore dresses or gowns every day—and he was mocked and bullied relentlessly by my classmates. Accusations of being gay or queer in any way would stick to your reputation like glue. The message, for me, was clear: I decided early on not to tell anyone about the gender dysphoria I struggled with privately.

My parents moved away from the area after I graduated high school and I haven’t visited often since then, but I’d quietly hoped things had changed in the time since. 

To their credit, many in the town have reacted with justified outrage at the attempted queer censorship, expressing concern over the involvement of police and the anonymity of the original complainant. Critics have pointed out that there is already a more formal, school-based process for challenging school library books—bringing police into the school was completely unnecessary.

 

Students at my old high school also staged a walkout in protest, expressing support for the trans and non-binary students in the district. Nonetheless, last week, the school district announced that the teacher would be taking a temporary paid leave, though it’s not clear if the break was voluntary or school-imposed.

“Today, professional transphobes would have looked at my graduating class having two trans women and called it a ‘social contagion.’”

Growing up trans, especially when closeted, can be a very frightening and isolating ordeal, even in deep-blue areas like the Berkshires. I spent the entirety of my school career thinking that I was the only one around me struggling with gender dysphoria, but it turns out I wasn’t even the sole closeted trans woman in my graduating class of around 150 people. When I came out as trans in 2016, many of the classmates whom I was still in contact with on Facebook let me know that another person from our grade had transitioned some years earlier.

If we’d been in high school today, and would have felt more empowered to come out earlier, professional transphobes would have looked at my graduating class having two trans women and called it a “social contagion.” They likely would have blamed books like Gender Queer for turning us trans.

I hope it was not a former classmate of mine who made the book complaint, though there’s no way to know—because the complainant went through the police department, their name is concealed. If they’d pursued the matter through the school system’s formal complaint process, their name would have been public.

A lot has changed since my time in Great Barrington: marriage equality first came to being in the state in 2002, and then nationally in 2015, and trans visibility is much more common now than it was back then. But the incident at W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School shows that we have a long way to go to reach true trans acceptance.

I don’t want other trans kids in my hometown to grow up feeling like they need to hide themselves like I did. It’s up to all of us to firmly oppose those who want our queer kids to feel shame and to face further ostracization.

Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and columnist for Xtra and MSNBC. She was the first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in U.S. history.

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