‘We are under spiritual attack’: How Iowa’s anti-mask parents became a GOP force — and why they’re leveraging their power to ban books

Blair Gauntt/Little Village

This month, central Iowa parents seeking to have books they deem “pornographic” removed from school libraries prepared to kick things up a notch.

A few of the parents crafted a letter to send to Polk County Attorney John Sarcone, asking for a criminal investigation of the West Des Moines Community School District.

“On a continuous basis, the District is disseminating pornography to children,” reads a draft of the letter shared among parents on social media. “When challenged, the district directs us to a board policy that contains a reconsideration process for material that is ‘potentially controversial’.” This review process just delays the removal of books that should have never been there in the first place, they assert.

“Since the District perceives that it is not accountable to the Parents and families it is meant to serve; our expectation is that your office will hold the School District accountable for complying with the laws of our State.” [sic]

Included in the letter are excerpts and descriptions of scenes from two books high on the parents’ hit list: Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, both memoirs about growing up LGBTQ+, written for a young adult audience. “Egregious material” in the graphic-novel-style memoir Gender Queer includes “experimenting with a vibrator,” “talking about a strap-on harness and blowjobs” and an illustration of two male companions on an Ancient Greek vase, which the letter writers see as an endorsement of pedophilia. Obscene content in Johnson’s book, they say, includes the author recounting how a male cousin groomed and sexually assaulted him, as well as a scene in which he has consensual sex with a male partner.

“It is not your role to sexualize our kids,” said Dennis Murphy, a parent in the Urbandale school district, where five books were up for review (and eventually allowed to stay). “It’s not your role to convince them that porn helps them with their self identity. It’s your role to teach.”

It’s not a coincidence that the books most targeted for removal focus on LGBTQ characters, though many of the parents argue otherwise. A spreadsheet compiling 47 books conservative parents have deemed “questionable” flags 25 titles for “subjecting audtience [sic] to the LGBTQ agenda.”

Some Iowa parents bristled at the name of that category in comments within a private Facebook group, but still found the books objectionable for other reasons listed in the spreadsheet: “explicit descriptions of sexual excitement/conduct harmful to minors,” “nudity or sexual content,” “sexual excitement,” “age inappropriate” and “bias/indoctrination,” to name a few. Books written for various age levels are lumped together, with children’s picture books like A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, Two Dads and Worm Loves Worm listed among YA lit only found in middle schools or high schools and written for a teenage audience, including Gender Queer, All Boys Aren’t Blue, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Hate U Give (labeled “anti-police”) and The Kite Runner.

An admin of Polk County’s Moms for Liberty Facebook group criticizes depictions of “homosexuality and transgenderism” in Cathy G. Johnson’s ‘The Breakaways.’ The scene in question shows one character coming out to their friend and crush as a transgender boy. The friend offers some gender-affirming words, and the two share a kiss.

Ankeny mom Emily Peterson, co-founder of the anti-mask, anti-vax parent org Iowa Mama Bears, was one of three parents who spoke out against All Boys and Gender Queer during a November meeting of the Ankeny school board. Though Peterson said the content of the books could trigger survivors of sexual assault, she read aloud passages that she said make her “sick to her stomach” to the captive audience attending the meeting. One passage described a consensual sexual encounter, the other a sexual fantasy of the teen narrator.

“What I just read to you is grooming material. It’s sexualizing our kids. It’s normalizing pedophilia, and it needs to stop,” Peterson said.

Sen. Jake Chapman, a Republican from Adel and president of the Iowa Senate, has been the most outspoken ally of parents seeking to control the books students have access to. Like the West Des Moines letter writers, he suggests criminal action is warranted against schools that stock books some parents find objectionable. At a packed meeting of the Johnston school board last month, Chapman said he’s drafting legislation that would make it a felony for school staff to give “obscene” material to students — already a serious misdemeanor in Iowa.

“I don’t know why the school thinks that they’re above the law,” Chapman said. “But I intend to do something about it.”

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“I can tell you the Senate and the House stand willing and ready to do something about this, so I’m just asking you to really consider what you’re doing with giving books with obscene material to children,” he added.

Iowa code defines “obscene material” — speech that is not protected by the First Amendment — as “depicting or describing the genitals, sex acts, masturbation, excretory functions or sadomasochistic abuse which the average person, taking the material as a whole and applying contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable material for minors, would find appeals to the prurient interest and is patently offensive; and the material, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, scientific, political or artistic value.”

These targeted books tell stories with clear “literary, scientific, political or artistic value” — stories of young people grappling with their sexuality, their gender or racial identity, issues of consent and trauma, and the systems of power in their communities. Protagonists in many of the 47 books use contemporary labels — LGBTQ, BIPOC, etc. — but their stories have comparable content and themes to classics like The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Color Purple and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings — books ubiquitous in Iowa classrooms, and not currently being targeted. And a book need not be in the American canon to be educationally valuable, protected speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico (1982) ruled that public schools can bar books that are “pervasively vulgar” or unfit for the curriculum, but they cannot remove books from school libraries “simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

Justice William J. Brennan restated the underlying constitutional principle seven years later in another landmark free speech case, Texas v. Johnson : “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”

Like other culture war campaigns that have come to dominate the agenda of Iowa Republican lawmakers, from banning abortion to defending meat to limiting COVID-19 mitigation, the push to stop “woke” content from brainwashing America’s youth began with irrational fear stoked by Fox News and conservative social media circles, and appears to be immune to accusations of hypocrisy (“Why are the people complaining about ‘cancel culture’ trying to ban books?”). It also clearly runs against legal precedent.

A bill seeking to crack down on free speech in schools, even with the pretext of shielding kids from “porn,” is bound to face expensive and likely fatal lawsuits. But if the bill is killed, Republicans can always blame Democrats, fund-raise off the issue and pass a nearly identical version of the same bill in the next legislative session.

Whether GOP lawmakers like Chapman are cynically exploiting or genuinely share parents’ fears about pornography in schools, this rightwing parents-rights movement is gaining steam in Iowa, and is likely to dominate Republican discourse in 2022. Just as COVID disinformation has led to a massive anti-mask and anti-vax constituency, this impassioned focus on library books, and all the conspiracy theories that focus has bred, stand to distract officials from taking real, less flashy steps to improving education, such as keeping public dollars in public ed; recruiting new teachers as COVID burnout continues; creating comprehensive sex education and U.S. history/sociology curricula; and combating inequities systemwide, from boundary lines to student discipline to mental health support.

For the parents themselves, it goes beyond scoring political points. The issue has been framed as a threat to a parent’s God-given right to protect and control their child — they refute the notion that children should have access to an education system steered by teachers and elected board members, not the parents themselves. Many say they’re willing to take their children’s education into their own hands if school boards fail to conform to their worldview.

A Dec. 13 poll on the Moms for Liberty Facebook page asked members of the group what they intend to do with their children moving forward. Thirty-six parents said they plan to homeschool, 23 said transfer to private schools and 22 said stay in public schools. Several expressed interest in switching to a “more conservative” district.

“Financially we would have preferred to stay in public school,” commented one father, who said his wife is now homeschooling their kids. “As my wife was working and bringing in another $20k-30k per year [sic]. That really helped us pay off extra on the house and set us up for better christmas [sic] gifts, vacations, etc.”

“It’s simple…even though it’s a difficult task: pull the kids out of schools & cripple the districts,” suggested a woman in a different parent-choice Facebook group. “The socialists have controlled indoctrination of our kids for 60 years or more. Now they want sexual idolatry & islamic style [sic] face coverings to be the norm.”

Posts in the Iowa Mama Bears Facebook group discussing the prospect of pulling children or teachers out of schools that enforce mask mandates. One parent unhappy with Ames’ school board considers moving. Another mentions the false risk of vaccine “shedding.”

A national movement

If the Virginia governor’s race proved there’s political power to be juiced from the GOP’s current culture wars, red states like Iowa are ripe for the picking.

Conservative movements driven largely by misinformation and belief in a near-future political revolution, often lumped under the umbrellas of MAGA or QAnon, fractured in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection. But rather than dissipate, these movements evolved, refocusing around new, shadowy threats who’s existence — like the satanic pedophile cabal and Trump’s “storm” of indictments against liberal elites — is dubious at best. Nefarious election fraudsters, COVID mandates designed to control Americans’ bodies, “woke” academics using critical race theory and social justice to try and brainwash kids into believing that all white people are evil, the U.S. is racist and sexual perversion should be tolerated — these are the kind of apocalyptic threats to conservatives that inspire believers to post online, attend rallies and get out the vote in 2021.

Q was very much alive at the Oct. 9, 2021 Trump rally in Des Moines. — ‘The Daily Show with Trevor Noah’ still

And while many who dabble in these culture-war conspiracy theories claim they transcend party politics, anyone who questions the legitimacy of their concerns — public health experts, racial justice and LGBTQ rights advocates, elected officials guided by the best available science — is cast as a natural enemy.

Moms and dads (and a number of childless concerned citizens) convinced masks and vaccines are greater threats to kids than a deadly virus raised a stir in school board meetings across the country this fall, and in some cases were effective in getting likeminded candidates elected to school boards on Nov. 2. Now, states from Florida to Iowa are expediting legislation to restrict education framed as “woke,” a conservative euphemism for comprehensive lessons on race, gender and systems of oppression in the United States.

‘What the hell is happening in Ankeny?’

An anti-mask meme shared in the Iowa Mama Bears – Freedom Over Fear Facebook group

Ankeny mothers Kimberly Reicks and Emily Peterson call themselves the Iowa Mama Bears, and have been the central faces and organizers of the anti-mask movement — first in their own community, and within months, all of Iowa.

“What the hell is happening in Ankeny?” asked father of three Tim Paluch in a Sept. 10 opinion piece for the Des Moines Register. A failure of district officials to send clear messages on COVID-19 mitigation left a PR power vacuum the Mama Bears’ fiery rhetoric filled.

“Ankeny is now a city and school district embroiled in a culture war over masks, that has allowed a small but loud group of anti-mask radicals to set the discourse around keeping our children as safe as possible,” Paluch said. “… It is no coincidence that school board members and others are now getting digital death threats and anonymous mail sent to their homes.”

Largely absent from local TV news coverage of the many anti-mask demonstrations led by the Mama Bears are the beliefs driving their activism, beyond an opposition to school mask mandates. The women strategically stick to this issue when talking to local TV news reporters, but in strictly conservative spaces, share their ideology freely.

“There is no pandemic,” the women explained to podcaster and “deep state” conspiracy theorist Ian Trottier. COVID is a mass panic engineered by Bill Gates and other elites, they said. COVID-19 vaccines are a fraud as well, and have been systematically “killing people off.” Masking children is tantamount to “child abuse”; placing students with mask waivers behind a plexiglass barrier or relocating them to a desk at a CDC-recommended distance from their masked peers is “segregation.” The main reason local school districts, such as those in Des Moines and Iowa City, have bought into the masking and vaxxing hoax is because our school boards are overrun with “BLM activists” funded by George Soros, the Mama Bears claim. And the deep state has nefarious plans for our state’s youth that go beyond COVID, plans involving Critical Race Theory and LGBTQ propaganda.

A chart shared in Polk County’s Moms for Liberty group, which shares many members with the Mama Bears’ group.

The Mama Bears also subscribe to the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen, and traveled to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021 to show solidarity with Donald Trump. (TikTok videos show them at the Stop the Steal rally, but it does not appear they participated in the storming of the Capitol Building. They were, according to Reicks, questioned by the FBI in the days following Jan. 6.)

This spring they attracted the attention of Michael Flynn, one of QAnon’s central advocates and influencers. Flynn was National Security Advisor for the first 22 days of the Trump administration, and was pardoned by Trump a year ago on charges stemming from Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel investigation into Russian election interference; he currently advocates for an overturning of the 2020 presidential election results, and is a subject of investigation by the Jan. 6 commission.

The women were invited to the April Health and Freedom Conference in Oklahoma, where they were pulled onstage to discuss the ways wearing masks in schools has allegedly injured and traumatized their children. The event was headlined by Flynn and an absolute mess of COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and election fraud proponents, including former Trump lawyers Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, MyPillow maven Mike Lindell, former CEO Patrick Byrne, QAnon-supporting radio host Jeffrey Prather and red-pilled actor Jim Caviezel. Oklahoma eye doctor Jim Meehan, who gave a presentation called “Why Mandating Masks Makes Healthy People Sick,” befriended the Mama Bears, who invited him to speak at an Ankeny school board meeting.

A meme shared by Kimberly Reicks in the Iowa Mama Bears Facebook page she moderates received hundreds of reactions from Iowa parents.

On Sept. 1, Reicks and Peterson appeared on Patriot Streetfighter, the YouTube channel of QAnon influencer Scott McKay, and called on viewers to harass Ankeny school board members, specifically Lori Lovstad, and Democratic activist Amber Gustafson. The pair started their own podcast later that month, introducing themselves to listeners as “two moms with mask abused children who have launched a nationwide movement to unmask children and take back our power as parents from the agenda driven school systems.”

The Mama Bears use images of their children, and in some cases the children themselves, to make their points. Reicks has shared videos of her young daughter taking the podium at Ankeny school board meetings and breaking down in tears as she and her mother are asked to leave the room for refusing to comply with the meeting’s mask requirements. In a TikTok video on Sept. 15, the child stands on stage at the conservative We The People Reunion rally in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.

“Fight like a Flynn,” Reicks’ daughter recites into the microphone, prompting cheers from the crowd. Other speakers at the event included Flynn, Lindell and Tennessee pastor Greg Locke, who was permanently banned from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 disinformation.

In short, the ideology behind the Iowa Mama Bears and their nonprofit, Freedom Over Fear is a sticky, paranoid blend of QAnon and the kind of take-back-our-schools conspiracy mongering elevated by Steve Bannon, Tucker Carlson, Flynn and Flynn’s frenemies.

Children participate in a mask burning in a photo share among Iowa Mama Bears group members.

Friends in high places

On its face, the rise of the Mama Bears from a pair of concerned moms to conservative political darlings is a triumph of grassroots organizing. But it’s unlikely Reicks and Peterson would be traveling the country to appear at high-profile conservative conferences if they didn’t have powerful friends who seek to benefit, financially and politically, more from their message than the women themselves.

On the national conservative stage, Flynn appears to be the Mama Bears’ biggest backer. Flynn has publicly denounced QAnon (to which he swore a pledge in a July 4, 2020 livestream) since the Jan. 6 insurrection, but continues to espouse rightwing conspiracy theories in the QAnon vein, particularly those involving COVID-19. Flynn is a member of the Iowa Mama Bears Facebook group, where Peterson and Reicks regularly post selfies with the retired general. According to a post from Peterson, Flynn covered airline expenses and provided hotel accommodations when the pair traveled to speak at a Halloween event hosted by Flynn in Florida. He has encouraged the women to instruct other parents on how to organize to change their local and state governments.

A thank you to Michael Flynn shared in the private Iowa Mama Bears Facebook group.

“Thanks General for reaching us how to #FightLikeAFlynn! We’ve only just begun to fight!!!” Reicks wrote in a celebratory Facebook post after the results of the Nov. 2 Ankeny school board election showed all six of the anti-masking candidates endorsed by the Mama Bears won seats.

But the Mama Bears have plenty of support from Iowa’s GOP establishment, as well. Gov. Kim Reynolds proved an effective ally in Ankeny’s high-profile election, endorsing Sarah Barthole, perhaps the most ardently anti-mask candidate in the race (and a magnet for donations), in addition to featuring her at press conferences.

Iowa is one of only a handful of states in which the governor publicly provies a misinformation-driven group like the Mama Bears a platform and influence. Reynolds has done little to combat mask- and COVID-related conspiracy theories as she collaborates with the Mama Bears on legislation and anti-mandate messaging. Reynolds has even been willing to repeat a conspiracy theory or two herself, including the absurd notion that masks alone pose a danger to children’s health. (The ACLU and disability rights organizations were able to get a preliminary injunction against Iowa’s ban on school mask mandates by arguing, essentially, the opposite.)

More recently, Reynolds became the first governor in the nation to sign the Education Freedom Pledge, which reads:

I pledge to support policies that promote parental rights in education and educational freedom. This includes the right of parents to voice their opinions at school board meetings and to take their children’s taxpayer-funded education dollars to the education providers of their choosing – whether it be a public, private, charter, or home school.

The pledge is sponsored by the Betsy Devos-funded American Federation for Children, which pursues policies that redirect public education funds towards private schools and parent-guided education. This “school choice” movement gained steam during the Trump administration, and has only grown since the pandemic as parents like Reicks and Peterson call for more control over school policies and curricula.

“We have not just COVID-19, but we have totalitarian fever, and that is what we have to eradicate,” Rep. Sandy Salmon said during Informed Choice Iowa’s rally against vaccine mandates at the State Capitol on Oct. 5, 2021. — video still via Informed Choice Iowa on Facebook

Other Iowa Republicans have cozied up to the “parent-choice” movement represented by the Mama Bears: Iowa Rep. Sandy Salmon (who attended Mike Lindell’s election fraud “symposium” in August), spoke during an anti-vaccine mandate rally at the State Capitol Building in June, organized by the anti-vax Informed Choice Iowa (not to be confused with the anti-abortion Christian medical clinic Informed Choices in Iowa City). Rep. Jeff Shipley spoke at the same event — the crowd chanted “We want Jeff!” — saying vaccine mandates cross “the sacred line of medical freedom.” In 2020, Shipley claimed “every single health authority” is “bought by Bill Gates,” and COVID-19 vaccines are an “experiment on our population.”

Rep. Steven Holt, like Reynolds, credited the women with getting Iowa’s embattled mask mandate ban passed in May. The Mama Bears have actively endorsed far-right 2022 Senate candidate Jim Carlin, who has featured them at campaign events and appeared on their podcast. And, of course, Senate President Jake Chapman has set his sights on “obscene” library books conservative parents want to see banned.

The movement lives on Facebook

Social media, particularly Facebook, Instagram and Telegram, seem to be the origin of much of the toxicity and misinformation that has spilled into school board meetings — starting in central Iowa, and more recently, as far east as Cedar Rapids. Parents desperate to see schools reopen this fall and confused over ever-shifting CDC guidance on kids and COVID may join a state or local Facebook group on the topic, where posts discussing the latest ordinances devolve into ever more radical, politically charged and factually dubious condemnations of individuals and institutions — even government and science itself.

Accepted into various private Facebook groups under her own account, this reporter spent months following the conversations between Iowa’s conservative parental rights activists.

A meme shared in the Iowa Mama Bears – FOF Facebook group

“We are a group of central Iowans of all backgrounds committed to ensuring the freedom and liberties given to us by God, not government,” reads the about page for the private “Iowa mama Bears- FOF” Facebook group, which was created in March and currently has 6,420 members. “Our children deserve to breathe freely and we will fight to preserve that right.”

Christianity is frequently invoked by Iowans in the loosely defined anti-mask, parents-rights movement. In October, 1,408 students in the Ankeny school district (11 percent of the student body) were granted exemptions to the district’s mask requirement — 63 for medical reasons, and 1,345 because a parent claimed masking “conflict[s] with a genuine and sincere religious belief.”

Religious messages in the Mama Bears group are sometimes mixed with pseudo-scientific wellness advice.

“We regularly repent with our kids every night, Jesus is coming back soon, we all need to be ready for that! Amen!!!” posted a Mama Bears group member on Dec. 10, advocating for “A VERY LARGE MASS ENERGY MOVEMENT.” “I was told by a local Christian naturopath yesterday to place a hedge of protection around my home and angels at every entrance. … Praying for the strength of this sovereign nation God has blessed us with to stand strong against the powers of darkness.”

She finished, “We need to stand together and all say WE DO NOT CONSENT to any form of evil that goes against God’s will to be taught to our children, in Jesus Holy name I pray!!!”

Looking at decidedly scientific issues through a religious lens can easily obfuscate truth, even common sense. When masks, vaccines, books, ideas or school curricula are accused of being not just questionable but downright satanic, it creates crusaders out of small-town parents, and demons out of small-town school board members, public health workers and teachers. Such framing can strip nuance from the issues, incentivize the sharing of false or distorted information, and dehumanize people who approach issues of governance, healthcare and social justice from a secular perspective. Nowhere is this more clear than the posts within the Mama Bears’ Facebook and Telegram groups and their broader-focused counterpart, Moms for Liberty – Polk County, IA.

Religion and belief in God are often invoked in the Iowa Mama Bears and Moms for Liberty – Polk County, IA pages

Moms for Liberty is a national organization founded in Florida on Jan. 1 amid the conservative backlash against racial justice and the teaching of American history from the perspective of enslaved and/or colonized peoples, including Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project. By their own description, Moms for Liberty seeks to “organize, educate and empower parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” As a registered 501(c)(4) social-welfare nonprofit, Moms for Liberty doesn’t have to disclose its donors, though the publication TCPalm tied the group to prominent Florida Republicans, some of whom served as sponsors for an event in which conservative media personality Megyn Kelly spoke.

According to the TCPalm, the group has “grown rapidly in less than a year, and now claims 70,000 members across 165 chapters in 33 states.” This includes two chapters in Iowa: Polk County and their neighbor to the south, Warren County. There is significant cross-promotion and -posting between Iowa’s Moms for Liberty Facebook page (768 members, created July 14) and the Mama Bears group, as well as more recent likeminded groups such as Iowans United for Students (559 members, created Aug. 27).

Specific targets for criticism in these social circles include Iowa school board members who do not actively oppose masks or vaccines, or who enforce a review process for books deemed pro-CRT, pro-LGBTQ and/or “pornographic” before removing them from school libraries; journalists and publications that cover the anti-mask, anti-CRT and/or school choice movement in anything but glowing terms (the favorite source of news among group members is decidedly the Iowa Standard, and posts encouraging donations to the far-right blog are regular); and politicians of all parties that fail to sign the 1776 Pledge or Iowa’s Education Freedom Pledge, or who vote in favor of legislation endorsed by the Biden administration (including the federal infrastructure bills, which include social programs aimed to help parents and bolster education).

These opponents are widely labeled as tyrants and brainwashed government sheep, even pro-pedophilia. Group members sometimes comment with bewilderment that anyone could not be spurred to action by videos titled “Mama Bear Absolutely SHREDS Liberal School Board” or a grossly misleading Breitbart article about a Florida school “Secretly ‘Transitioning’ Teen Daughter.”

“Disgusting beyond words,” one member comments under the latter. “I don’t recognize my homeland anymore. The crazies are on the lose [sic] at the expense of the most innocent. God will set it right.” Another replied, “He is revealing evil.”

While anger infamously drives engagement on Facebook, members of these anti-mask, anti-CRT groups often offer comfort to one another. People who quit their job because of vaccine requirements or refusal to comply with a liberal workplace agenda are celebrated as heroes, especially teachers. When a parent wants advice on where to acquire Ivermectin, IV treatments or other unproven means of combatting COVID, others (who acknowledge the existence of the virus) share leads. When Kimberly Reicks posted that her dog had died, dozens offered condolences, and when Ankeny’s school board flipped in their favor — and, as expected, revoked the district’s mask mandate — members in other cities expressed jealousy and intentions to move.

Most notably, when admins announce an upcoming demonstration at the State Capitol Building or outside a school district’s offices, people show up with “Freedom Over Fear” and “We Need A JESUS Pandemic” T-shirts. This attracts news coverage, and demonstrates to Republican lawmakers like Reynolds, Carlin, Chapman, Salmon and others that these Iowans, however misguided, are passionate voters looking for likeminded leaders to throw their support behind.

Cutting a lifeline

Some Moms for Liberty group members take umbrage at the idea they are seeking to “ban” certain books. They’ll insist they only want inappropriate books off of required reading lists, while others (most others, by all evidence) want the books removed from school libraries and classrooms altogether, saying they represent no educational value and are potentially dangerous to the unsuspecting students who could stumble upon them.

These “pornographic,” pro-CRT and/or pro-LGBTQ agenda books, as they see them, can cause everything from mental trauma to doubting American exceptionalism to sudden confusion over one’s gender or sexuality. While educational value is a subjective quality, fear of critical race theory rests in an inherent misunderstanding of both CRT itself and the concept of race-conscious education. Gender identity and sexual orientation are conflated in most every discussion about banning a book with LGBTQ themes, and people in the groups seem to find depictions of same-sex couples or relationships between trans or nonbinary characters to be especially pornographic. They also fail to acknowledge it is natural for teens and children to explore and experiment with their gender expression and sexuality; this exploration only becomes dangerous when kids receive messages that there’s something fundamentally wrong with them if they don’t fit a particular gender or sexual category, or are otherwise discriminated against for traits they can’t control.

It’s instructive to examine the passages Moms for Liberty parents found objectionable in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, perhaps the single most criticized work by the parental-rights crowd.

The 2007 novel is a first-person, diary-and-doodlings-style narrative following 14-year-old Arnold Spirit, Jr., whose impoverished family lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington. “Junior” suffers from birth defects, leading to bullying. He is also forced to listen to racist ramblings from his white girlfriend’s father, and from spectators while playing on the basketball court. He faces a number of tragedies, including his grandmother being fatally struck by a drunk driver, a family friend killed in a shooting and his sister and brother-in-law dying in a fire. All the while, Junior must learn to reconcile his traditional Indian roots with his highly Americanized high school lifestyle.

The book, based in part on Alexie’s own adolescence, was widely praised by critics and received a number of awards, including the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. But because it contains serious story notes involving alcoholism and death, examples of racism, critiques of the way American Christians can belittle and discriminate against Indigenous communities, and discussions of the teen characters’ sexual development (including the puberty greatest-hits of masturbation and ill-timed erections), it has often made the annual list of banned books. In short, the book contains examples of nearly every category listed in the 47 objectionable books spreadsheet.

In January 2021, a parent in the Johnston Community School District submitted a form with an accompanying collection of excerpts challenging the existence of Part-Time Indian in the Johnston High School library, and as optional reading in some classes. In response to a question asking what instructional value the book has, the parent answered:

Teacher instructed us this text was selected to study rhetorical appeals, ethos, credibility and perspectives and how they interact. Students are supposed to draw own conclusions about bias and multiple perspectives and discuss in a literature circle with peers. My opinion is there is no instructional value to the book, due to obscene content and racism distributed throughout. This book is being used as a way to represent marginalized communities as part of diversity, inclusion strategic plan but does the exact opposite by offending multiple groups of people based off race, sex and religion. There are other ways to address diversity by using content from authors of upstanding character, not just by their race.

With this mindset, the mere existence of storylines that tackle issues of racism by demonstrating the types of slurs, othering and violence that define racism have no value beyond exposing children to obscenity. And a book that centers LGBTQ or non-Christian characters is framed as a potential threat to the religious liberty of students.

If someone were to explain the educational value of even controversial books — as a teacher apparently attempted to the complainant above — and the importance of, say, representation in media, that information is in turn dismissed as leftist propaganda, creating a vicious cycle of ignorance.

Alexie wrote about the Christian movement to ban his book back in 2011. He expressed anger towards the many “cultural conservatives” and “would-be saviors” who look down on reservation life yet failed to protect children from abusive clergy.

“I have yet to receive a letter from a child somehow debilitated by the domestic violence, drug abuse, racism, poverty, sexuality, and murder contained in my book,” Alexie wrote in response to critics. “To the contrary, kids as young as ten have sent me autobiographical letters written in crayon, complete with drawings inspired by my book, that are just as dark, terrifying, and redemptive as anything I’ve ever read.”

At least four challenged books were pulled from library shelves in Ankeny in November while the district reviewed their content. All were returned by the 26th except Gender Queer, which a review committee decided to pull from the district.

“While in no way pornographic,” reads the report, “the explicit visual and graphic nature of the graphic novel overshadowed the message to the reader, thus reducing the literary value as a whole.”

This result disappointed many in the district, including Ankeny school board member Lori Lovstad. Lovstad was named as an enemy of the Iowa Mama Bears, and ultimately lost her bid for reelection in November to anti-mask candidates endorsed by Reicks, Peterson and Gov. Reynolds. In a meeting last month, Lovstad said students are preparing an offensive against book banners.

“Fear is what tries to erase our LGBTQ students by banning books,” Lovstad said. “Fear tries to erase the experience of our students of color by banning divisive concepts. Fear screams and threatens public officials to try and stop them from what they know is right. Fear tries to re-create the past, but true freedom is being unafraid of the future.”

Gender Queer author Maia Kobabe discussed the viral calls to ban their graphic-novel-style memoir in an opinion piece for the Washington Post on Oct. 29.

Kobabe said it’s all too common for work with “themes of queer sexuality” to be dubbed pornographic. The writer recalls ravenously seeking out library books with relatable queer characters to keep them “company through my years of questioning and confusion.”

“Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies and health.”

Kobabe provided recent evidence of this lifeline in action. Three weeks after their memoir was pulled from Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia after parents claimed the book was part of a “campaign to normalize homoerotic material with minors,” Kobabe received a message from a reader.

“You probably won’t ever see this but I am a queer FCPS student! My mom and I read your book. I loved it! I related to almost everything you said. I felt so understood and not alone. I think my mom understands me better and I’m more confident in confiding in her since she read your book. Thank you so much for creating your memoir!”

Educators in Fairfax County eventually returned Gender Queer to school libraries. It remains banned in Ankeny.