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Dearborn parents assail LGBTQ books with sexual themes at school hearing

Emotions were raw at a Dearborn Public Schools Board of Education hearing Thursday evening as residents debated whether six books with LGBTQ, sexual or sex abuse themes should be available to students in school libraries. (Bridge photo by Ron French)
  • More than 600 Dearborn residents argued Thursday over whether LGBTQ books with sexual themes should be available to students 
  • Many argued that the books were sexually explicit and have no place in schools 
  • Others countered it’s critical that LGBTQ students see themselves in stories, and for others to learn about those different from them  

DEARBORN—More than 600 people gathered in a Dearborn middle school auditorium Thursday night, cheering, booing and, for the most part, talking past each other in the latest battle of the book ban wars that have spread across Michigan.

Both sides said they were concerned about the safety of children. That’s about all they agreed on.

Many in the largely-Muslim crowd who took three-minute turns at a microphone in front of the Dearborn Public Schools board spoke passionately about protecting their children from what they portrayed as “filth,” “pornography” and affronts to their religious faith in books that were, until recently, available to high school students. 

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Others, many of whom were teachers, parents or who identified as part of the local LGBTQ community, spoke just as passionately about creating an inclusive, safe environment for LGBTQ students and offering books that open the minds of students to stories and people different from themselves.

Thursday’s meeting was a redux of a regularly scheduled board meeting that was to take place Monday — a hearing with an agenda involving the usual fare of local school boards, including approving contracts for classroom projectors and asbestos removal. 

But that meeting crumbled into chaos after hundreds of protesters showed up to demonstrate against books they considered inappropriate for students – primarily books with LGBTQ themes. The Dearborn fire marshal eventually shut down the meeting because of the crowd size.

Thursday’s event was moved to the Stout Middle School auditorium, where the 600 seats were filled to capacity and an overflow crowd watched on a large-screen TV in a cafeteria. There were dozens of police officers and private security to help keep the peace, to mixed results. At several points, the hours-long meeting seemed on the verge of chaos amid the outbursts but, unlike Monday, the meeting continued.

The protests are the latest in a series of battles this year over the inclusion of books with LGBTQ, sexual or race-related themes at Michigan school libraries as well as community public libraries.

In Ottawa County, a public library in Jamestown Township was defunded by voters in August in a spat over several LGBTQ-themed books. A fundraising campaign has raised $270,000 to keep the doors open for now, and an operating millage for the library will be back on the ballot in November.

Here in Dearborn, where Arab Americans make up about 42 percent of the population, the controversy erupted over six books — two that were available in digital form, and four hard-copy books in the districts’ high schools. Following parent complaints, the books were temporarily removed from circulation while the board reconsiders its review process. 

The district has 550,000 books in the 20,000-student district, with about 55,000 in its high schools.

None of the books were used in classrooms, but were available for students to check out from district media centers, said district spokesperson David Mustonen.

The books in question are largely teen and young adult stories involving romance or sexual abuse, often with LGBTQ themes. Several were critically acclaimed. They include: 

  • Push” by Sapphire, a novel about a 16-year-old Black girl who is abused by her parents and later finds her voice with the help of a sympathetic teacher. It was later turned into the movie, “Precious.”  
  • The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold, a novel about a teenage girl who, after being raped and murdered, watches from Heaven as her loved ones cope with how to move on from her death. 
  • Eleanor & Park” by Rainbow Rowell, about a romance involving two 10th-graders. The girl lives with domestic violence at home and both teens struggle with traditional gender roles. The novel contains profanity.  
  • Red, White & Royal Blue” by Casey McQuiston; a novel about a romance between the U.S. President’s bisexual son and a gay British royal, both in their early 20s. The book has some sex scenes and coarse language.  
  • All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson; a memoir of growing up Black and queer, with stories that include sex, bullying and assault. 
  • This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, an irreverent, nonfiction handbook on growing up LGBTQ, addressing issues like coming out, sex apps and sexually transmitted disease. 

Some parents Thursday expressed concern over the overt sexual imagery in the books. 

“I never thought I’d stand to boycott books, yet here I am,” said Dearborn resident and parent Cliff Alawy. He said he was uncomfortable describing to the crowd some scenes in one of the books he read. “I’m a 43-year-old man and I’m embarrassed to say this stuff, yet you say it is OK to be in our schools,” Alawy said to the board. “Shame on you.”

Several residents who spoke against removing the books from the district said they were gay, which led to some audience members to boo.

Mustonen, the district spokesperson, told Bridge Michigan the district was reviewing the books, and was beefing up an existing policy that allows parents to opt their children out of reading or checking out library books the parents object to.   

District librarians also are taking an inventory of the system’s book collection for further review.

Those efforts haven’t quelled protests.

“You looked at us like we were crazy people,” resident Nagi Almudhegi told the board. “We are a compassionate people, a tolerant people. (But) does anyone need a PhD. to know this book is not appropriate for kids? This is common sense. How did we get to this point?”

Several speakers protesting the books objected to being criticized as anti-LGBTQ or unwitting pawns of a Trump-inspired, right-wing push to divide people and banish gay people from public life. It wasn’t the sexual orientation of the book characters they objected to, they argued, but the graphic nature of the material being made available to teenagers. 

“We are not here to attack the LGBTQ community,” said Amro Hizam. But “the blatantly inappropriate content has no place in our public schools. It is normalizing sexual content.”

But other residents challenged that framing and argued that, whatever the motive behind the protests, students of different sexual orientations were being made to feel marginalized and unsafe from such protests. 

"You hate gay people and it’s obvious because look at how you behave when one gay person speaks," said speaker Brian Stone, who was admonished by the board for directing his comments at the crowd.

Dearborn resident Brandy Ahmed told the audience “a lot of our LGBTQ students are watching. People are saying, ‘We’re not trying to cancel them,’ but there have been gay people standing up (at the meeting) and you hear boos, and it’s heartbreaking.”

When Ahmed finished her remarks, she walked back to her seat to a chorus of boos.

Many speakers spoke about being raised in Dearborn, and acknowledged the controversy and the chaotic meetings have put the community in a bad light.

Speakers on both sides said the issue was about protecting children and accused forces on the other side of playing politics. That included one of the later speakers Thursday, Republican candidate for Michigan attorney general, Matthew DePerno. He was joined in the front row by GOP secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo. 

The school board took no action on the books at the meeting Thursday. The review process is ongoing. 

“We agree with both sides,” said Mustonen, the district spokesperson. 

“We don’t want inappropriate materials in our schools. And we want a wide breadth of materials for our students.”

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