North Hunterdon-Voorhees LGBTQ book ban battle continues to fester

North Hunterdon-Voorhees Board of Education meeting on January 30, 202
North Hunterdon-Voorhees Board of Education meeting on January 30, 2024. Photo by Lana Leonard.

Underage students are quoted anonymously for safety. See full BOE meeting here. 

North Hunterdon-Voorhees School Board of Education is no stranger to the debate about censorship in books. The books under fire include a plethora of educational books written by, but not explicitly limited to, the LGBTQ community. 

More specifically, North Hunterdon-Vorhees Board of Education and “parents’ rights” activists have set their book ban focus on This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, All Boys aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. 

Last year, the school board voted to reject a resolution to ban the five books, but the issue continues to fester. These attempts at censorship don’t seem to scare students. Many North Hunterdon-Voorhees High School (North) students have cited numerous reasons for speaking out against censorship. Some include the library regulations put in place by the adults in charge to protect them, thus having access to vetted information.

Students also stood in defense of their school Librarian Martha Hickson. “My name is Grace and I’m a senior at North,” Grace’s peer read. “I’m confused as to why [Ms. Hickson] is continuing to receive disparaging messages about her management of the library,” a senior who lives in Union Township said on behalf of his friend at a Jan.30, 2024 Board of Edmeeting.

Hickson, also the resident librarian at the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice in Princeton, allegedly experienced harassment by adults close to the Board of Education due to her diverse book collection for students. In particular, anti-LGBTQ insults came her way due to the library’s inclusion of the book: Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human

The authors Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan describe the book as an age-appropriate, “comprehensive, thoughtful, well-researched graphic novel guide to everything you need to know” that helps students learn about puberty, relationships, friendship, gender identity, sexual identity, and other facets of self students may be discovering.

“Ms. Hickson has been and continues to be a wonderful light in our school community,” one student said.

“You must understand that not just the students need to be able to perform, but that your nationally accredited librarian who has given speeches from here to Sweden is able to properly perform her duties without fear for her life,” said a 16-year-old who goes to North. 

“Ms. Hickson has been and continues to be a wonderful light in our school community and is always willing to help a student find necessary information or have an educated conversation with them as if they are her peers,” said the student speaking on behalf of his friend. “Her job is to provide students with accurate information and allow them to explore their interests in a safe manner. That part — ‘in a safe manner’ — is incredibly important.” The student also continues to read their friend’s notes on the differences between what is “pornographic” and what is “explicit.” 

“‘Pornographic’ and ‘obscene’ are not educational, ‘explicit’ is,” said the Union Township resident.

While the North-Hunterdon-Voorhees BOE didn’t come to a decision on banning the books, there were dozens of parents, their kids, and local students in support of the age-appropriate, librarian-approved material.

Many students spoke. They said it was important they have reliable, inclusive, factual information in their libraries to decipher accurate information from inaccurate information.

“I think it’s also important to take into account that we’re high schoolers in the digital age,” said another student of North Hunterdon-Voorhees Schools. “And I think it’s really important to put into perspective that if people —kids my age, your kids, my friends — aren’t going to the library, [and] aren’t going to pick up resources to talk about things in a healthy manner, where are we going to get it? The internet,” the North student said.

New Jersey has protective and inclusive laws and school rewgulations in place for LGBTQ people. Nevertheless, censorship has been at the forefront of many Board of Eduction policies affecting LGBTQ, Black, and Indigenous students in recent years.

In the first nine months of 2023, there were at least 10 attempts to restrict access to 23 book titles in New Jersey schools and public libraries, according to the American Library Association. And nationwide, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022.  “This is the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago,” reads the ALA website.

Say Gay NJ, a new LGBTQ activist group, have been at the forefront of the protest against the many New Jersey school boards that have attempted book censorship. “From book bans and harassing librarians to attempting to remove existing protections for trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming students, now is the time for allies to speak up,” read a statement from Say Gay NJ

In 2022, the group began attending and speaking up at board meetings across the Garden State. They have a focus of “disseminating alerts and calls to action from allies around the state that need support in their school districts.”

“We must do better for these students,” Say Gay NJ said in a statement. “Most people are feeling the weight of the world during this dark time. Now is the time to build community and work together to strengthen our networks. Find out what your local school board is up to.” 

Lana Leonard
Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.