Taking a stand: LGBTQ+ student challenges book ban in Rockingham County

Courtesy Photo: Patrick (left) and Rex Fritz (right)

By Amie Knowles

January 29, 2024

Not one, not two, but 57 books were “temporarily” removed from the shelves of Rockingham County Public Schools, after four out of five school board members cast votes in favor of taking the titles out of school libraries during the first school board meeting of the year.

Dogwood recently spoke with Rex Fritz, an 18-year-old senior who attends Broadway High School in Rockingham County and identifies as a gay male, using he/they pronouns.

Why is that last part so important? Because a 2022 PEN America study revealed that 41% of the books banned by American school districts between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022 addressed LGBTQ+ themes or had “protagonists or prominent secondary characters” who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Several of the books on the Rockingham County list featured LGBTQ+ themes and characters, including but not limited to More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson, and This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson. However, seven of the titles had never even been on RCPS shelves, local newspaper The Citizen reported, and other books could be considered high school reading list classics—like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

When Rex saw the list of nearly five dozen books temporarily removed from his school division, he thought some of the choices seemed out of place.

“I’ve read several books on that list of the books that they banned,” Rex said. “I can safely say, at the very least, the ones that I read had little to no violence. They had no sexual content whatsoever. Whether it’s implied or explicit, it’s just never touched on at all.”

The student’s personal review of several of the titles didn’t find themes related to those targeted by conservatives across the country.

“In one case, one of the books barely had any semblance of queer themes at all,” Rex said.

Rex grappled with the news of the book removal because of the message he felt it sent.

“With the banning of the books, it kind of shows that they’re not really that interested in protecting us or the kids in general,” he said. “They’re not really interested in protecting students from anything other than ‘the real world.’”

Across the commonwealth

Some of the books on the Rockingham County list have also been included in other Virginia school division decisions, including John Green’s Looking for Alaska, Sold by Patricia McCormick, and Beloved by Toni Morrison—all of which were among 14 titles initially banned in Spotsylvania County Public Schools last May. Following a thorough review by ad hoc committees of parents and community members, the 14 books were deemed appropriate to remain in the division’s libraries in November (though 23 more titles were removed in October).

Book bans aren’t a new topic in Virginia. In 2022, the General Assembly voted to add language to the Code of Virginia requiring school boards across the commonwealth to set forth policies to notify parents of anything that might be deemed “sexually explicit” instructional material.

From January to the end of September 2023, a total of 356 unique book titles were challenged in the commonwealth’s schools and public libraries. That data came out in time for October’s Banned Books Week, which took place one month prior to Hanover County Public Schools’ decision to “deselect” 75 books.

A personal review

But back to Rockingham County and the new list of 57.

Rex’s father, Patrick Fritz, said that the division’s book ban “ignited enough people on both sides of the aisle here.” He expressed hope that the passion surrounding the situation would result in a proactive movement benefiting local members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Patrick has spoken at school board meetings about LGBTQ+ issues in the past, and continues to fly a Pride flag in front of his house to show support. Now, Rex is also taking a public stand.

The 18-year-old plans to attend upcoming school board meetings, where he hopes to speak on the issues that matter to him.

“It may seem like it’s not doing much now, just going to a school board meeting, making your voice heard…but who knows who that could be positively [impacting]?” he said. “Even if it just changes the mind of one person—even if it doesn’t change the mind of the school board [itself]—just one person in the audience who got their mind changed because you told your story about how this affects you and your friends. That is so important.”

At the board’s next meeting, he plans to talk about one book in particular: Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, which he called a “simple two-boys-meet-and-fall-in-love” story that eventually delves into mental health.

Rex explained that rather than portray a perfect, idealistic romance story, the graphic novel delves “into the real things that happen to real people, whether they’re queer or not, because queer people aren’t the only people who get eating disorders and self-harm and stuff like that.”

The senior expressed concern over blocking those “real” types of messages from students.

“What are you protecting them from? The idea that the world isn’t, like, sunshine and rainbows?” he said.

Getting involved

Now that Rex plans to engage with the school board during upcoming meetings, he’s hoping others will join him.

“Don’t be afraid to make your voice heard and known,” Rex said. “Make them listen. Quite honestly, you’re going to have to make people listen. They’re not going to just sit down quietly and let you finish. You are going to have to shout it from the rooftops. Talk over them if you feel like you need to.”

The teen also stressed that if an individual doesn’t feel safe speaking publicly, there are a number of different opportunities to show support.

“There’s other ways you can help, and don’t feel bad about not literally speaking up,” Rex said. “There are other ways you can help without having to stand in front of the school board and demand for basic respect.”

In July 2023, the Trevor Project published an article on how to signal to others that you’re an ally ready to provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ inclusion in school. While there’s a more comprehensive list on the nonprofit’s website, some of our favorite advice includes not tolerating harassment or bullying, talking positively about LGBTQ+ people, and telling a trusted adult about persistent problems.

“If you change one person’s mind, then that means that they could maybe change other people. That person who realized they might be in the wrong waking up and realizing, ‘Hey, this is bad,’ and going around and telling other people who used to have the same mindset, they could change their minds,” Rex said. “The ripple effect is spread around where it gets to the point where, hey, it turns out the majority of the people actually don’t like the idea of unnecessarily harassing trans students and banning books for no reason.”

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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