Last edited: February 14, 2005

Central High Council Votes To Keep Explicit Novels

Students may read books of gay author if parents permit it

The Louisville Courier-Journal

by Veda Morgan

Sexually explicit novels by a prominent gay author will stay on the shelves in a Central High School classroom--despite pleas from dozens of Christian conservatives that they be removed.

After a three-hour debate that at times turned into a shouting match between the protesters and students defending the books, the Louisville school's site- based council voted 4 to 2 to let students read the novels by E. Lynn Harris, but only if they get written permission from their parents.

The two parent representatives on the council--Shelby Lanier and Virgil Fitzpatrick--voted against the recommendation. "I have not received one parent phone tell me that they wanted these books to remain in this school," said Lanier, former president of the Louisville chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Many students objected to the presence of the protesters and often interrupted them.

"Who are you, and why are you here?" asked Jessie Green, 16. "You're here today because you want to wreak havoc and you want to cause confusion. You're here to tell me and my parents my rights....Do you even know me?"

About 300 people came to Central's auditorium for the meeting. Many people carried signs with messages ranging from "Remove the Books" and "Porn No. Prayer Yes" to "Keep the Books" and "It's Our Choice, Not Yours."

Most of the more than 70 people who spoke at the meeting opposed the novels. They described the books as pornography that shouldn't be allowed in public schools. But students and other supporters argued that they had a constitutional right to read them.

The novels--"Invisible Life," "Just As I Am" and "This Too Shal Pass"--include graphic scenes depicting sexual relationships, references to sexual organs, crude comments and expletives. Two of the books are part of a 200-book collection in English teacher Dee Hawkins' classroom.

Dr. Frank Simon, who heads the Freedom Heritage Forum and has campaigned to have the books removed, said the novels describe homosexual sex in a way that encourages students "to participate in this kind of act."

Prayer was banned from public schools and "instead they are putting this filth in its place," Simon said.

Harris' books were removed from Hawkins' classroom after two parents complained that they contained sexually explicit material. But a school district review committee recommended in November that they be restored.

After that, Central began receiving hundreds of protest calls, some from people who threatened to tar and feather her and have her fired, Hawkins said.

"That really scares," she said.

Hawkins said she also became the subject of "lies told from the pulpit" in which people said taxpayers bought Harris' novels and that Hawkins assigned the books as required reading.

"That is so far from the truth," Hawkins said after the meeting. When Hawkins addressed the council, she argued that many people who are opposed to the novels have read only 15-page excerpts.

"If I had read 15 pages and not the remaining 869 pages, I would be concerned, too," Hawkins said. "Taken out of context, these pages make me squirm, too, but I also know that taken out of context, even incidents from the Holy Bible may be misunderstood."

Many speakers opposed to the books urged the students to live according to the Bible.

Opponent Cynthia E. Epley tried to tell the students that "we love you young people," and that everything they needed was in the Bible. But when she said she didn't want the books in schools and that the teacher who allowed students to read the books should be removed, some students shouted her down.

Many complaints about the novels were drowned out by students' shouts. "You are out of order," Rene Hardin, who opposed the books, told the students. "You need to learn that if you are going to accomplish anything in this world, you need to respect others, even if you don't agree."

Some students and adults continued shouting as the school council struggled with the issue. When one council representative suggested postponing a vote, some people yelled, "Don't be afraid. Stand up. You can't keep running away from the issue."

In the end, three teacher representatives and principal Harold Fenderson voted to keep the books in the classroom.

Simon, noting that the two parents on the council voted against the books, said the issue will be decided by the voters.

The students cheered their victory, while a small opposition group gathered at the edge of the auditorium and prayed.

Photo: Young African-American student, Chip Green, on left holding sign that says "Frank Simon Is A Liar!," talking with Dr. Frank Simon. Caption: Central High junior Chip Green, who supported keeping the books, talked with the subject of his sign, Dr. Frank Simon, who opposed the books.

Background information

From David Williams, Editor of  The Letter - Kentucky's GLBT newspaper:

There are also three hidden issues here.

1. Racism. Central High School until the 1970's was predominantly African- American and remains the pride of Louisville's African-American community. For years Central High School tried to get an asphalt track installed, only to be rebuffed; but when busing was instituted in 1975 and white students started being bused into the school, Central got its track. There is still much resentment over this issue in the African-American community. Much of that resentment is aimed at evangelical Christians, who opposed busing fervently.

2. Religion. Most of the opponents of the Harris books apparently came from Louisville's suburbs, particularly the south and southeast areas. Some speakers complained about them being "bussed in." They were overwhelmingly white and evangelical Christians: descendents of the same Christians who opposed busing in the 1970s and integration in the 50s.

3. Economic. There is also an economic factor. Most of the opponents were perceived to come from the "East End" (the wealthiest section of the community), whereas Central High School sits across the street from a housing project and many of its students come from the West End of Louisville, which is economically depressed. Actually, while many opponents probably did come from the East End, my feeling is that most came from the South End, which is a rockbed of social conservatives.

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