TOPEKA — Alex Gino wanted to write a book that reflects the experiences of transgender youth, the kind of book they wish they had when they were young.
It took them 12 years to write the book, which went on to receive several literary awards, including a Children’s Choice Award and the Lambda Literary Award.
“It hurts my heart,” Gino said. “The implication is that my existence is so monstrous that it should be hidden from children. And what happens is you end up with adults like me, who didn’t have good role models or good reflections of people like them growing up, and the road doesn’t change who you are, but it makes the road much more painful. And that makes the road much more dangerous.
The book in question, “Melissa,” is about a transgender girl in middle school who struggles to be accepted as a girl among her peers, family, and classmates. Melissa learns to advocate for herself and her friends by playing the role of Charlotte in her school’s production of “Charlotte’s Web.”
The book, which was published in 2015, has been added to the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library in St. Marys after making the main list for the 2017-2018 William Allen White Prize for students in grades 3-5.
“Melissa” had only been checked out of the library four times when she became the center of uproar this summer. Parent Dave Perry demanded the book be removed from the library, saying the content was unsuitable for children and encouraged “chemical castration”.
Following Perry’s removal requests, St. Marys City Commissioners asked the library to agree to a lease clause that would remove all books dealing with sexuality, race, or LGBTQ themes.
The lease stated that the library would not “provide, distribute, lend, encourage, or coerce the acceptance or approval of sexually or racially or socially explicit material, or events (such as ‘drag story hours’ queen”) that support LGBTQ+ or critical theoretical or practical ideology.
The library has refused to accept the “moral clause” and the commissioners are still unsure whether or not they will allow the library to remain at the St. Marys location. At the last board meeting, officials discussed allowing the library to have a short-term lease while they decide whether the library meets the “moral standards” of commissioners. The commissioners will vote on the lease at the beginning of December. The library lease ends on December 31.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas issued a statement Wednesday in support of the library, urging that the library continue to be funded and that the commission drop the ban on such materials. The ACLU condemned the commission’s actions and said it would monitor the situation.
“Residents of the various cities served by the library have a First Amendment right to targeted content,” said Sharon Brett, chief legal officer of the ACLU of Kansas. “And the St. Mary’s Commission’s insistence on banning articles containing content they dislike could have constitutional implications for library patrons’ rights to free speech and the right to receive information.”
Gino said the commissioners’ actions would harm transgender and LGBTQ youth in St. Marys, a city already heavily conservative and containing a large religious population associated with the Society of St. Pius X.
St. Marys Vice Mayor Francis Awerkamp, a Republican who also serves in the Kansas House, said he would not support the public library in any form because of the LGBTQ material it houses.
Gino said they’re used to extreme reactions to “Melissa” but this case was pretty extreme.
“When trans people get hurt because people in his community don’t know who we are, that blood is on his hands,” Gino said.
Gino’s book is no longer kept at the library: Perry, the parent who objected to Gino’s book, said he paid to have the book removed from the library.
Gino referenced Perry’s speech in favor of the library during a Nov. 15 debate over whether or not to renew the library’s lease. Perry had said he wanted the library to stay, and it had all gone too far.
“The parent who brought the book does not want the library to be closed. And it’s this case of, ‘No, no, I wanted censorship my way, but now you’re taking it too far.’ But you opened the door to censorship. That’s why we don’t,” Gino said.
“The scary thing is that the alternative is to delete the library, so I don’t even know how to feel,” Gino added. “But in general, the idea of pulling my book off the shelves because one individual or a small group of individuals is trying to outweigh the librarian and the library, that’s selfish. I think it’s a fragile action. And I think it’s not American. It’s not in favor of free speech, and it’s not the world I want to be in.
Gino said the type of censorship seen at St. Marys and the United States in general has worsened in recent years, although they have fought harsh responses to the book since its publication.
Gino said “Melissa” was the most banned and disputed No. 1 book on the American Library Association’s banned books list for three consecutive years. The book has previously been challenged in Kansas, with Wichita Public Schools refusing to purchase the book in 2017, contrary to the custom of purchasing books from the William Allen White Children’s Book Awards Committee.
“The problem of banned and disputed books is much, much worse over the past two years,” Gino said. “It is becoming a real epidemic. It’s gotten to the point where people are coming up with a whole list of books they want to delete.
At the November commission meeting, many St. Marys residents spoke in favor of keeping the library, but few supported the book itself. One speaker said the book would encourage children to become “Frankensteins”. More than one person has said that “Melissa” would make the young people of the city want to chemically castrate themselves. Another said LGBTQ books were the work of a “silver-tongued devil”.
Gino’s message remains firm.
“I really just want to send my support to the trans kids, the queer kids out there, the families out there,” Gino said. “The majority supports you, and you are loved, and you are welcome in your space.”