WESTERLY — The number of times "Gender Queer," a memoir by author Maia Kobabe, has been checked out of the Westerly High School library belies the amount of attention it received during and following a recent meeting of the School Committee.
The book, which describes Kobabe's experience in adolescence coming to terms with being a non-binary person, was called "pornography" and "trash" by Robert Chiaradio during the committee's Dec. 8 meeting.
Chiaradio, who has mounted a monthslong attack on the school district for alleging teaching concepts he says are inherent in critical race theory, read from the book during the meeting while some of his supporters held reproductions of images from the book, which uses a graphic novel style with illustrations that are similar to those found in comic books.
A part of the Westerly High School library collection for about one year, the book has been checked out once. The sole borrower of the book was Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau, who said he inquired as to whether the book was part of the library's collection, prior to Chiaradio's appearance, when the book started to receive attention at school board meetings in other parts of the country.
"It definitely isn't for young children. It's geared toward young adults — that's why it's in the high school library," Garceau said during a recent interview.
Chiaradio's supporters held up poster-sized reproductions of images, including one that depicted oral sex being performed on a young male. While some of the images in the book would likely be "jarring" to some, Garceau encouraged consideration of the complete book as a way to provide context. Generally, Garceau said, individuals start to understand their sexual identities between the ages of 12 and 20.
"I don't think anyone would seek to access this book unless they were part of the LBQT community or were interested in learning more about it. I think to people who fall into either of those two groups it could prove to be a very valuable resource," Garceau said.
In the week or so since Chiaradio's appearance before the School Committee to discuss the book, Garceau said, he heard from teachers and parents who had looked into the book as a result of the meeting. "They said they've learned about the people in this situation and what they are going through," Garceau said.
No parents have asked that their children not be allowed to borrow or look at the book and no one has made a formal request to have the book reconsidered, Garceau said.
Sexual identity and the spectrum of labels and pronouns that individuals use to describe themselves seem to have entered the public dialogue during the past two decades, Garceau said.
"Gender fluid and asexual — 15 years ago we never would have heard those words. If I had a son or daughter or a student who were working through these issues of gender identity I wouldn't want someone saying to them that, 'This book is a resource you can't access,'" Garceau said.
If parents do not want their children to have access to specific books in the high school's library, they can contact Principal Michael Hobin and inform him, Garceau said. "We will do everything we can to accommodate those requests," Garceau said.
Similarly, Garceau noted, a School Committee policy sets out a process for requesting that books in a school library be reconsidered. The process can eventually lead to the appointment of a special committee tasked with studying the book and making a recommendation, which can be appealed to the superintendent.
Chiaradio said "Gender Queer" is one of several books in both the Westerly High School and Westerly Middle School libraries that he and his supporters find "troubling."
"What possible educational value can be derived by a young person reading a book like this? It's pornography, it's trash and it's child abuse. It does not belong in a school library," Chiaradio said.
As Chiaradio read from the book — and his supporters, many dressed in black, held up the posters while standing in a hallway outside of Council Chambers in Town Hall — several teachers, dressed in red, stood up and tried to block the view of the posters through the glass. The supporters then held the posters higher. The local public access cable television outlet, which usually broadcasts recordings of School Committee meetings, pulled the video because it violated its rules, according to an email from Mark Tate, the town's information technology director, to the School Committee.
Christine Cooke, a member of the School Committee, called "Gender Queer" "a bridge too far."
"No wonder people are pulling their kids. I don't think it's the job of public education to make that book accessible," Cooke said.
School Committee Chairwoman Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, who is Robert Chiaradio's sister, told her brother that he had "sunk to a new low" as he read passages from the book.