By RACHEL MIPRO
TOPEKA — Alex Gino wanted to write a book that reflected transgender youths’ experiences, the sort of book they wished they’d 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 withheld 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 does not change who you are, but it makes the road much more painful. And it makes the road a lot more dangerous.”
The book in question, “Melissa,” is about a transgender girl in middle school who fights to be accepted as a girl among her peers, family, and fellow students. 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, was added to the Pottawatomie Wabaunsee Regional Library in St. Marys after it made the William Allen White Award 2017-2018 Master List for grades 3-5.
“Melissa” had only been checked out four times from the library when it became the center of uproar this summer. Parent Dave Perry demanded the book be removed from the library, saying the contents were unsuitable for children and encouraged “chemical castration.”
Following Perry’s demands for removal, St. Marys city commissioners asked the library to accept a lease clause that would remove all books that dealt with sexuality, race, or LGBTQ themes.
The lease stipulated that the library not “supply, distribute, loan, encourage, or coerce acceptance of or approval of explicit sexual or racially or socially divisive material, or events (such as ‘drag queen story hours’) that support the LGBTQ+ or critical theory ideology or practice.”
The library refused to accept the “morals clause,” and commissioners remain undetermined on whether or not they’ll allow the library to stay in the St. Marys location. At the latest commission meeting, officials discussed allowing the library to have a short-term lease while they decided if the library met the “moral standards” of the commissioners. The commissioners will vote on the lease in early December. The library’s lease ends Dec. 31.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas issued a statement in support of the library Wednesday, urging that the library continue to be funded and that the commission abandon the ban of these materials. The ACLU condemned the actions of the commission and said it will monitor the situation.
“The residents of the various cities served by the library have a First Amendment right to the targeted content,” said Sharon Brett, legal director of the ACLU of Kansas. “And the St. Mary’s commission’s insistence on banning items containing content they don’t like could have constitutional implications when it comes to library patrons’ rights to free expression and the right to receive information.”
Gino said the commissioners’ actions would damage transgender and LGBTQ youths in St. Marys, a town which is already heavily conservative and contains a large religious population associated with the Society of Saint Pius X.
St. Marys Vice-Mayor Francis Awerkamp, a Republican who also serves in the Kansas House, said he wouldn’t support the public library in any form because of the LGBTQ material it housed.
Gino said they are used to extreme reactions to “Melissa” but that this case was fairly extreme.
“When trans people are harmed because the 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 in the library: Perry, the parent who objected to Gino’s book, said he had paid to have the book removed from the library.
Gino referenced Perry’s speech in support of the library during a Nov. 15 debate on whether or not to renew the library’s lease. Perry had said he wanted the library to stay, and that the whole thing had gone too far.
“The parent who brought up the book does not want the library closed. And it’s this case of, ‘No, no, I wanted censorship my way, but now you’re going too far.’ But you opened the door to censorship. That’s why we don’t do that,” Gino said.
“The scary thing is that the alternative is to remove the library, so I don’t even know how to feel,” Gino added. “But in general, the idea of taking my book off the shelves because one individual or small group of individuals are trying to outweigh the librarian and the library, it’s selfish. I think it’s a fragile action. And I think it’s not American. It is not in favor of free speech, and it’s not the world I want to be in.”
Gino said the sort of censorship seen in St. Marys and in the U.S. at large has worsened over the past few years, though they’ve been battling harsh responses to the book since it was published.
Gino said “Melissa” was the No.1 most banned and challenged book on the American Library Association’s banned books list for three years in a row. The book has been challenged in Kansas before, with Wichita Public Schools refusing to buy the book in 2017, bucking the custom of purchasing books from the William Allen White Children’s Book Awards Committee.
“The issue of banned and challenged books is much, much worse in the last two or so years,” Gino said. “It’s becoming a real epidemic. It’s gotten to the point where people are going in with an entire list of books that they want removed.”
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 said “Melissa” would cause the town youths to want to chemically castrate themselves. Another said that 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, to the queer kids out there, to the families out there,” Gino said. “The majority does support you, and you are loved, and you are welcome in your space.”