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Fight over gender identity and schools hits small Maine towns

Adam Blake of Greene listens to a MSAD 52 school board meeting Thursday night after speaking in favor of removing the book "Gender Queer" from the Leavitt Area High School library. The school board later voted to keep the book in the stacks. (Troy R. Bennett / BDN)
Adam Blake of Greene listens to a MSAD 52 school board meeting Thursday night after speaking in favor of removing the book "Gender Queer" from the Leavitt Area High School library. The school board later voted to keep the book in the stacks. (Troy R. Bennett / BDN)
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TURNER, Maine (BDN) -- Adam Blake was worried about his country and his five kids. That’s why he showed up to a school board meeting on Thursday.

“It’s just a slow degradation of society, and it’s just the direction we’re going in,” he said.

Everyone was there to talk about one book in the Leavitt Area High School library — “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” Published by a non-binary author to early acclaim, the graphic novel has been at the center of a national debate about gender identity in schools since 2021.

For those on Blake’s side, the book was pushing depravity on impressionable children. But its supporters said the lives of transgender students were on the line. After the board decided to keep the book on the shelf, critics threatened to pull their kids from schools.

Other Maine towns have seen more dramatic fights. In Paris, a school board member was recalled after backing a gender identity policy. After a mother came forward in Damariscotta to allege that an educator overstepped boundaries by providing her 13-year-old with a device used by transgender men to make their chest look less feminine, the school district received bomb threats.

These debates have pitted parents against each other and even led to some accusing school officials without evidence of “grooming” children, corroding a fraught relationship between parents and schools lingering from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the crossfire are a small number of transgender and gender non-conforming students.

“The rural Maine I grew up with was so much about autonomy and self-determination,” said Syd Sanders, a 20-year old transgender man who was the valedictorian at Belfast High School and now attends Harvard University. “I don’t understand it.”

The Damariscotta story took off in December after the news arm of the conservative Maine Policy Institute reported on it, prompting articles in national outlets like Breitbart, The Daily Wire and The Blaze. The attention spurred two bomb threats against Great Salt Bay Community School on Dec. 21 and Jan. 13, school board members said in a letter this month.

While they said confidentiality laws barred them from going into detail, school board members said those allegations were “grossly inaccurate” and pushed by those bothered by non-discrimination policies. Many details about the situation remain unclear. The woman and her lawyer declined to comment, and Superintendent Lynsey Johnston said the district was not presently involved in litigation.

Parental rights also were a flashpoint in an attempt by the Paris-based school board to create a policy affirming assistance to transgender students. The rules would have directed staff to refer to students by their chosen pronouns while keeping that from parents if a student requested it. That outraged some parents, who successfully recalled school board member Sarah Otterson and drove another, Julia Lester, to resign.

Lester, a transgender woman herself, was one of numerous participants in the Paris debate who declined to be interviewed. Reached by phone, she repeatedly said it was a “school board issue” and that she did not want to comment. Otterson did not respond to calls.

“In this polarized country, I think Paris has followed the trends of the nation,” said Alex Myers, a well-known transgender author and advocate who grew up in the Oxford County town but now lives in Vermont. “There’s a lot less passive tolerance, which is what I experienced as a kid.”

For Sanders, acceptance from teachers can be a life-or-death issue. Only about 1,200 Mainers between ages 13 and 17 identify as transgender, according to June 2022 estimates from the Williams Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. Four in 10 transgender people attempt suicide, according to a 2015 survey of roughly 28,000 trans Americans. It is around nine times the national rate.

In Turner, Christine Duplissis shook her head when district teacher Marlene Aguilar and others referenced those types of statistics while arguing that the best option was supporting transgender students through representation and respect for their identity.

Duplissis insists her fight against the book isn’t about transgender rights, noting a close gay family member. Her issue is the explicit content in “Gender Queer,” which includes depictions of masturbation and simulated fellatio. The book is not the only book gaining attention. In Hermon, parents have identified 80 books containing what they see as questionable sexual content in school libraries.

“Once you reach the age of consent, you can read whatever you want,” said Hermon Councilor Richard Cyr, who supports a policy that would screen books for sexual content. “But that’s totally inappropriate.”

While experts recommend against exposure to graphic sexual content at too early an age, they also say that gender identity can be determined by age 3. Sexuality often develops after the onset of puberty, with studies increasingly pointing to predominant biological influences along with hormonal and environmental ones.

On Thursday, school board members in support of keeping the book said opponents have accused education officials of trying to turn students transgender or gay or called them pedophiles. Staffers are facing immense pressure, Leavitt Area High School Principal Judith Lashman said, adding she had never seen a push for restrictions like this in decades on the job.

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“Our job is to meet children exactly where they are,” said school board member Tammy Fereshetian, who sided with the majority in a vote to retain the book. “As an adult reading this book, it helps me to do this.”

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