The Kerr County Commissioner's Court suggested they have the moral high ground on what it defines as child pornography during an impassioned debate over content at Kerrville's Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library on Monday.
While the commissioner's court has no authority over the library, owned by the city of Kerrville, they had plenty to say about a display of books involving LGBTQ+ themes. Precinct 1 Commissioner Harley Belew called the books on display, as part of a banned books week, groomed children for a gay or homosexual lifestyle.
Belew received support and vigorous opposition.
At the heart of the conversation is a comic or illustrated book called "Gender Queer," a memoir by Maia Kobabe, whose sexuality is nonbinary — meaning they don't identify with a particular sex.
The controversy around the book is not new, and the book faces challenges across the country. It's currently the most-banned or challenged book in America. And there is some reason for it — a graphic scene of oral sex. Belew and others described the book as child pornography.
"We have a crisis of child sex abuse in our country right now," Belew opined. "This kind of stuff doesn't help. This is desensitizing. Today, they call it grooming. Teaching children that this sort of stuff is good and accepted. It's recruitment. It is preparing kids for seduction.
"The library has put Kerr County in a position of subsidizing child pornography,'' Belew said.
However, "Gender Queer" is only available in the adult section, and the two-page spread depicting the sex act is buried deep in the 250-page book. There's also an illustrated depiction of the main character undergoing a pap smear.
Commissioner Belew and Precinct 4 Commissioner Don Harris placed this on Monday's meeting agenda. Harris previously said he wasn't thrilled with the interlocal agreement between the city and the county, which trade library and animal control services.
However, they gained an ally from Precinct 3 Commissioner Jonathan Letz, who said the city crossed a line with its banned book promotion.
Kerr County Judge Rob Kelly said the county has a 90-day exit clause from its contract with the city.
Belew attempted to soften some of his rhetoric by saying they weren't condoning banning books, and there was a difference between the printed word and graphic images.
"That was the part that grabbed my attention," Belew said.
The controversy erupted into a full-blown protest on Friday afternoon in front of Kerrville's Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library, where there was a demonstration and counter-demonstration.
And, of course, the issue's back-and-forth manifested inside the courtroom on Monday with numerous speakers. The first one was Jerry Wolff, a member of a patriot group, who reminded the commissioners that 75% of Kerr County voted for President Trump in 2020, seeming to infer that Trump's hardline conservative values aligned with county voters.
Harris speculated that more than 80% of Kerr County residents would support getting rid of books that failed to meet community standards, but that's harder to define. Texas penal code defines obscenity like this, "Harmful material" means material whose dominant theme taken as a whole:
- Appeals to the prurient interest of a minor, in sex, nudity, or excretion;
- Is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community as a whole with respect to what is suitable for minors; and;
- It is utterly without redeeming social value for minors.
Of course, the penal code ordinance before "harmful material" regulates the number of sex toys anyone can own. But that didn't stop the critics — none of whom faced questions by the commissioners.
Belew repeatedly claimed that Gender Queer is child pornography. The sex act is between two teens, but their ages are unclear. Belew also accused library staff of exaggerating the issue of banned books.
"I don't think we should support the library if this is how the librarian is going to behave," Belew said. "There's no such thing as a banned book in America anyways. It's just a way to get people to read books somebody wants you to read."
However, many of the books are on a list of 850 titles that the Texas Education Agency is reviewing at the request of state Rep. Matt Krause for objectionable content. Almost all of those books are about sexuality, gender and race.
Even those who object to the books offered some conciliatory ideas about managing the content.
"I've always said it's the parent's responsibility to see what their kids are pulling from the shelf," said Brandon Aery, who has led an effort to raise awareness about what he defines as "vulgar" books in the Kerrville Independent School District. "If a parent feels like their child is ready to receive this information and be exposed to it then they have the right to select a book from that shelf and introduce a child to that type of material."
And when speakers supporting the library spoke, they were almost all challenged by Belew, Harris or Letz. After laughing at a speaker, Letz bristled at the suggestion the court was censoring books.
"Sir, I object to you telling me what I'm going to do," Letz scolded a speaker. "Don't tell me what I think. I don't care about banning books but I don't think it's my right as a government official, or commissioner, to expose young children to things that are inappropriate. The library did the same thing. They exposed young children to material that is not their right to do. It is my right as a parent, and your right to educate them at a proper age. It's not up to government to do that."
When one parent asked what kind of content was being discussed, Letz said he had it on his phone and then showed it to the speaker.
But it was Mary Ellen Summerlin, a former Kerrville City Councilwoman, who jumped to one of the issues at the heart of the matter — all of the books in question are for an LGBTQ+ audience.
"Statistics show that teenage suicide is a big problem," Summerlin said. "A way bigger proportion of kids who think they are gay commit suicide. Sometimes just the acknowledgment of your community, that you have a right to exist, even if you're gay, can make a big difference. What I'm telling you is that a book can literally save a life."
A study released earlier this year suggested nearly half of all LGBTQ+ teenagers and children consider suicide — primarily over treatment.
"LGBTQ youth who live in a community that is accepting of LGBTQ people reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide than those who do not," according to the 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, which the Trevor Project conducted.
Conservative groups use words like "grooming" to describe the books as part of an agenda to influence children into a gay lifestyle. However, that theory forces someone to accept that LGBTQ+ is a choice — something that's not easily defined.
The display of banned books was near the children's book area. In total, the library featured 28 titles that were among the most challenged or banned books. Of those books, 10 are about LGBTQ issues, two were in the library's young adult section, and one was in the juvenile area. There were four picture books with LGBTQ themes in the easy or picture book area.
The book in the juvenile section is "George," a book about a fourth grader who is transgender. The book has been in the collection since 2017 and checked out 17 times.
The two young adult titles were "This One Summer" and "Two Boys Kissing." In the easy section, the titles featured were: "Marlon Bundo," "I am Jazz," "Prince and Knight," and "This day in June."
The American Library Association, which sponsored Banned Book Week, presents an annual list of books that face objection or removal. All the books the library displayed faced bans at some point, including the double whammy of the Harry Potter series. Author J.K. Rowling's tale of a young wizard drew complaints because it deals with the occult, but more recently, the author drew protests because she wasn't sympathetic to transgender people.
One of the books on the list features the horrific 1937 natural gas explosion at a school in New London, Texas. The explosion left more than 300 students and teachers dead. The young adult novel "Out of the Darkness," is set against this backdrop but drew negative attention when a Lake Travis parent objected to a passage in the book where a Mexican-American girl faces vile harassment by white boys with threats of anal rape.
The books the Kerrville Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library displayed during "Banned Book Week."
- Gender Queer, by Maiz Kobabe
- Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison
- All Boys Aren't Blue, by George M. Johnson
- Out of the Darkness, by Ashley Hope Perez
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
- The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
- George, by Alex Gino
- Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds
- All American Boys, by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
- Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
- Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story About Racial Injustice, by Marianne Celano, Marrietta Collins and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
- To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
- Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
- A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, by Jill Twiss, illustrated EG Keller
- Sex is a Funny Word, by Cory Silverberg, illustrated by Fiona Smyth
- Prince & Knight, by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis
- I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, illustrated by Shelagh McNicholas.
- The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
- Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
- Captain Underpants series, by Dav Pilkey
- Thirteen Reason Why, by Jay Asher
- This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki
- Skippyjon Jones series, by Judy Schachner
- This Day in June, by Gayle Pitman, illustrated by Kristyna Litten
- Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan
- The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
- Make Something Up: Stories You Can't Unread, by Chuck Palahniuk
- The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon