By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Not all books with sexual content are inappropriate for minors, says a top LGBTQ ally in Wyoming.
Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality, a nonprofit group that advocates for LGBTQ rights, told Cowboy State Daily she has been disappointed in the publication’s coverage of two contested books in the Kelly Walsh High School library.
The books, “Gender Queer” and “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” are sexually graphic. They also are transgender-, gender-expansive- and non-binary-affirming.
Burlingame, who’s also a Democratic candidate for House District 44 in next month’s general election, was especially disappointed by a Cowboy State Daily story featuring Thomas Hampson, a longtime child sex crimes investigator in Illinois who said sexually graphic books make children more vulnerable to sex acts against them.
“There’s just hard evidence that shows that when we give adolescents access to information, that it not only helps them delay becoming sexually active – that’s the effect it has – it does not sexualize them,” said Burlingame. “Because they can articulate bodily autonomy and understand it, it helps them realize they don’t need to become sexually active to be accepted and get approval from the opposite sex, or same sex.”
Burlingame referenced the work of Dr. Caitlin Ryan, director of San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project who has studied LGBTQ youth development and social issues for decades.
Ryan declined to comment to Cowboy State Daily.
Burlingame also referenced the work of Stephanie Brill, author and founder of Gender Spectrum, an organization advocating for gender non-conforming youth.
Brill did not respond Friday morning to a request for comment.
In her books “The Transgender Teen” and “The Transgender Child,” Brill encourages parents to expose children to books that affirm and explore gender expansion, but she doesn’t advocate specifically for books featuring sex acts, in those two volumes.
In The Details
Burlingame said it shouldn’t be society’s mission to ban or remove books based on one or two criteria – such as the depiction of sex acts – but to take a nuanced look at the entire book and discuss its merits and flaws, as a society.
She referenced a book in Wyoming libraries that is “ostensibly” for LGBTQ people, “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson.
“I think it has really problematic messages in it,” said Burlingame. “But my answer isn’t to ban the book – it’s to encourage critical thinking. It’s to let anyone … know, ‘Hey, I think they’re wrong about some things.’”
“This Book is Gay” discusses many gay sexual practices and how to perform them. The book incited debate among Campbell County residents last year because of its brief discussion of “scat,” or eating poop, and “rimming,” or anal/oral sex.
It is available in many public libraries in Wyoming, including the young-adult or teen sections of the Fremont County Library of Lander; the Laramie County Library (Cheyenne), the Natrona County Public Library (Casper), the Park County Library (Powell), the Sublette County Library (Pinedale) and in the Teton County Library (Jackson).
It also is in the general sections of the Gillette College Library and the Western Wyoming Community College Hay Library. A newer version is available in the Campbell County Public Library (Gillette) and the Albany County Bookmobile young-adult sections, according to Wyoming’s public library card catalog.
“Just because I’m an (LGBTQ) advocate … doesn’t mean I can’t be critical of all messages,” said Burlingame.
She said she doesn’t see that same critical thinking in the detractors of sexual books in public and school libraries.
Sex Scenes Or Alternate Lifestyles?
There is a chasm between the arguments for and against the books in the Kelly Walsh High School library.
The majority of the books’ detractors have opposed “pornography” in the pages, saying it’s the sexually-graphic images and words that are inappropriate for children and public expense, not the LGBTQ affirmations within the books.
Darcie Gudger, a Casper woman with a master’s degree in education, asked the Natrona County School Board on Monday why “explicit content” is necessary in school books “if it’s truly about representation?”
“Why don’t we have stories of members of the LGBTQ community or other minority groups acting in a heroic way (instead)?” she asked.
Defenders of the books, rather, have fought for keeping the books on the basis of their affirming messaging, rather than their depictions of sex acts.
Burlingame said she believes detractors are merely pretending that pornography is the main issue.
“I see lip-service paid to, ‘Hey, this isn’t really against LGBTQ youth,’” she said. “But when you hear the conversations they’re having off-camera, it absolutely is animosity toward LGBTQ youth.”
“These same people are calling us pedophiles, they’re calling us groomers,” she said. “I find this hysteria around LGBTQ books – I find it really disappointing.”
A Casper City Council candidate at the Monday school board meeting called a substitute teacher “pedophile” and “groomer” because the teacher said “Gender Queer” is not pornographic and children should have access to the book while “discovering” themselves.
Burlingame has said on multiple occasions that society’s resistance to affirming LGBTQ children is prompting suicidal behavior among them. She said that is the “actual crisis” afflicting Wyoming youth.
“People have been really silent on that. They’re letting transgender kids become the whipping boys of Wyoming,” she said. “And where are the adults standing up for them? Where are the leaders in the Legislature and the town councils saying, ‘Hey, these are vulnerable children, stop picking on them?’ I don’t see it. And I think it’s a shame.”
Nathan Winters, executive director for the Family Policy Alliance of Wyoming, disagrees with Burlingame’s assessment of the book debate.
He said people should look at all factors associated with transgender lifestyles and gender dysphoria to assess contributors to higher suicidality rates. But, Winters said, he would not accept an argument that keeping sexually graphic books in schools helps children or helps prevent suicide.
“It’s one thing to teach young people that others should not touch them in certain ways,” said Winters. “But that cannot mean that children are better off when exposed to pornography.”
Winters said schools generally don’t promote “pornographic materials” to help heterosexual youth develop their relationships, and they shouldn’t do so for gender non-conforming children either.
“When we talk about helping people to be aware of themselves enough to know how to protect themselves, and what’s inappropriate for someone to do to them – and conflate that with the idea that they have to be exposed to pornography … that’s a false argument,” said Winters.
The National Library of Medicine reported in 2020 that 82% of transgender people have considered killing themselves and 40% have attempted suicide, with suicidality highest among transgender youth. Suicide attempts in gender-nonconforming adults are about nine times higher than the U.S. population’s average.
Exacerbating factors, the study notes, include a lack of family, school, physician and societal support.
The same journal in 2011 ran a study, conducted in Sweden, finding an increased risk for suicide attempts and psychiatric inpatient care for people who had undergone sex-reassignment surgeries. Researchers concluded that surgery “alleviates” gender dysphoria but does not reduce suicidality and depression associated with it.
Ryan T. Anderson, author of “When Harry Became Sally,” wrote that because the 2011 study was conducted in Sweden, a culture “most accepting of people who identify as transgender,” it demonstrates that suicidality can’t be blamed altogether on “a hostile or bigoted society.”
“It breaks all of our hearts when someone commits suicide because of that dysphoric feeling they have,” said Winters, who said schools and families should consider counseling options for children to embrace their biological sex.