When students in Loudoun County started school this fall, they found their classroom shelves stocked with new collections of books.
The "diverse classroom libraries" installed in elementary and high schools across the Northern Virginia school district were intended to expose students to stories about young people of different cultures, races and religions. Some of the books were about LGBTQ characters - stories such as "Heather Has Two Mommies" for elementary students and "Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out" for high school students.
To LGBTQ advocates, the books meant gay, queer and transgender students could see their own lives reflected in the stories they read.
But to some parents, the books amounted to "sexual propaganda."
"I really have a problem with people teaching children that it's possible to be born in the wrong body," said one parent, Natassia Grover. "It is 100 percent a political agenda."
Even though the books involving LGBTQ issues represent less than 5 percent of the books in the new collection,they've captured the most attention and prompted a heated debate in the district. Angry parents have spoken out at school board meetings and circled petitions, demanding that the "sexually explicit" books be removed from classrooms. Others have mobilized to protect the program, gathering support from the American Civil Liberties Union and decrying the criticism as an attempt at censorship.
Schools across the country have become increasingly accepting of LGBTQ identities. Some states, including Maryland, have begun developing curriculum that includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. The Loudoun County School Board voted this year to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of classes protected by the system's anti-discrimination policy. But attempts to make schools more LGBTQ-friendly have prompted a wave of backlash in districts such as Loudoun County.
Books about LGBTQ issues are increasingly becoming the targets of challenges and bans across the country. More than half of the top 11 most frequently challenged and banned books of 2018 included LGBTQ content, an increase from the previous year, according to a report from the American Library Association. Some of these challenges have come from conservative religious groups. Drag Queen Story Hour events have drawn protesters to libraries. In Iowa, a religious activist was convicted of criminal mischief in August after he checked out four LGBTQ children's books from a library and burned them.
Loudoun County, one of the wealthiest in the nation, has become increasingly diverse and liberal. In Tuesday night's elections, the county board flipped from a Republican to a Democratic majority. And in recent months, after a report found troubling examples of racism in Loudoun County schools, the district has taken a number of steps to combat hate and inequities.
Over the summer, principals across the district were told they would be receiving new collections of books as part of the diverse classroom libraries initiative. The grade-level titles had been approved by Loudoun County schools staff in partnership with professional collection specialists.
"Clearly we should have communicated earlier and with more specifics with principals, parents and the school board," Ashley F. Ellis, assistant superintendent for instruction, said in a school board meeting last month.
The collection of books were not mandatory reading, she clarified, and were not a part of the formal curriculum. They were simply made available to students in their own classrooms in elementary and high schools.
The vast majority of the books fall under the category of diverse race, culture, language and religion. A small fraction deal with issues around disabilities and sexual orientation and gender identity
Following the complaints from parents, school officials in Loudoun County are now reviewing 10 of the books in the collection to determine whether to keep or remove them; at least four of the books focus on LGBTQ characters.
The diverse classroom libraries came as a surprise even to Charlotte McConnell, a member of the group Equality Loudoun and a vocal LGBTQ advocate in the district. The mother, who identifies as queer, had already been working on her own efforts to expand the availability of LGBTQ books to students. She launched a campaign called the #BigGayBookDrive, which has donated about 300 books to school libraries in the district.
When she heard about the diverse classroom libraries, McConnell said she was thrilled. But then the complaints started pouring in from parents, especially from a group called Parent and Child Loudoun, whose website includes links to articles about "why gender ideology harms kids." The group has adamantly called for removal of the books.
Concerned about the backlash, McConnell reached out to the Virginia chapter of the ACLU, which wrote a letter to district officials last month encouraging them to reject calls to remove books.
"Purging certain books from school libraries because some parents do not like them is government action favoring the opinion of some parents over others," the letter stated. "Passing judgments, applying labels, and red-flagging educational materials that might prompt uncomfortable but insightful discussions are activities that do not belong in our public schools."
Late last month, parents on both sides of the debate showed up for a nearly six-hour-long school board meeting. Critics of the diverse classroom libraries wore green, holding signs with phrases such as "Your diversity is perversity." Supporters donned purple, and held posters with the words "Books save lives."
In the public comment portion of the meeting, parents opposed to the book collection read excerpts that included profanity and descriptions of sexual activity. One of the scenes parents read was from the book "Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit," a story about a teenage romance between two girls.
"I cannot stomach reading written porn, but my child can?" one parent said.
Grover, a 36-year-old mother of three, argued that some of the content in the collection "normalizes peer-on-peer child sexual abuse" and "romanticizes statutory rape."
She called out administrators for putting the books into classrooms without first getting parental permission, "as if administrators have a moral monopoly on what is right and true about sexual behavior," she said.
Byron Cross, who identified himself as a physical education teacher in the district, called for the removal of any books that "could potentially confuse a child of who they are biologically."
"Children should never be confused about who God made them to be," Cross said into the microphone. "There are now hundreds of adults who are devastated because they cannot return to their biological gender due to someone stealing their true identity as a child."
Another father quoted U.S. Attorney General William Barr, saying, "the problem is not that religion is being forced on others. Secular values are being forced on people of faith. ... Ground Zero for these attacks on religion are the schools."
"Secularists," he added, using his own words, "are attacking morality itself in the name of diversity."
Other parents, teachers and students spoke in favor of the books. One teenage girl, who identified herself as a member of the LGBTQ community, spoke about one book on the diverse classroom libraries list, "Drama," by Raina Telgemeier.
"I own this book and treasure it deeply," she said. One of those characters is a boy who is gay and finds love performing in the leading role in a play. The moments depicted in the book, the girl said, are "things all couples do, regardless of who or what is in that relationship."
Parents on both sides of the issue plan to comment again at next week's school board meeting.
One mother in the district, Bari Barton Cooper, chose not to speak at the last discussion but has been advocating for the diverse classroom libraries in Facebook groups with other parents.
She expressed frustration with parents who are picking out specific paragraphs of books, out of context, to argue that they are sexually explicit. She spoke of the importance of these books for young people like her son, who came out as gay while in high school in Loudoun County. He is now a junior in college.
Her son had a supportive family and group of friends at the time, she said, and "he still almost had a mental breakdown before he came out." He was the first of his male friends to come out, and he struggled to find other examples of people his age going through similar experiences.
"If he had been able to read a story, or 10, of how other people had come out and their lives didn't end ... it would have normalized his identity, his sexuality, in a way that would have made this not so stressful," Barton Cooper said.
She thought about all the students in families that aren't as supportive. She recalled the reports showing the high rates of suicide and depression for LGBTQ youth.
"I'd rather have a kid read a book that happens to mention masturbation or kissing instead of risking losing my child forever," she said.