Robert Chiaradio is rallying a broad coalition to support his fight for decency in his hometown school district of Westerly, Rhode Island –and beyond.
Westerly, Rhode Island, father Robert Chiaradio was convinced that if only people could see it with their own eyes, they would join his battle to remove Maia Kobabe’s book, Gender Queer: A Memoir, from the high school library.
So when he took the podium at the Westerly School Committee meeting last December, Chiaradio came prepared with more than just his talking points. Filing in behind him were his supporters, each one holding up a poster-sized illustration from the book [graphic material at link]. Together they revealed a revolting display of images for the whole room to see.
It didn’t last long, though. Soon, a group of seven teachers crowded around him and positioned themselves in front of each poster, blocking its view from the audience. Though everyone had already seen the sickening pictures, the teachers refused to budge, their arms folded in defiance, as if to say, “You’re not seeing that.”
Chiaradio wanted to know why it was fine for a 14-year-old at Westerly High School to see the book, but not the adults at the meeting. When he asked the Westerly Teachers Association head, Colleen Saila, that question, he says she replied that the teachers in the room were “offended” because they didn’t have a choice about seeing the poster-sized pictures from the book.
There was another choice they didn’t have that night. Like it or not, the second those posters were raised in the air, the school lost control of the narrative. The secret of Gender Queer was out.
And covering it up after the fact didn’t change the fact that the school was offering pornography to its students.
The Man Who Won’t Quit
Last December was not the first time Chiaradio was blindsided at a school committee meeting.
He has been in his adversaries’ crosshairs for over two years, ever since he started asking his pesky questions about critical race theory (CRT) in Westerly’s public schools. By now, he’s gotten used to being sabotaged, gaslit, lied to, and called the worst sorts of names. Few would be up for the abuse and aggravation that have come with his two-steps-forward, one-step-back battles.
But while Chiaradio is relentless, so are his opponents.
At a school committee meeting this past September, a teacher urged that his “dangerous rhetoric” be “shut down” “at its first breath”
He’s been demonized on Facebook, too. In a post there this past October, Westerly School Committee member darkly claimed that he had been recruited by unnamed forces “as part of a national movement” “motivated by hate” and “completely brainwashed”:
And nothing brings out the vitriol like simply letting the Left speak for itself. That’s what happened when Chiaradio captured his opponents’ conversation on the Facebook page for his own organization, Westerly Residents Against Indoctrination. There he posted excerpts from an interview with members of the Westerly Anti-Racism Coalition (ARC), a group dedicated to “embracing multiculturalism to address racism through education and empowerment.” You won’t find the term “critical race theory” in their mission statement; they made sure of that. But in the interview, one of their members identifies CRT as a goal in the group’s efforts to reform education, “which is about critical race theory” — and to make sure it is taught in Westerly’s schools:
Still think the Westerly School Committee believes there’s no place for the teaching of CRT in our schools? Think again. Here’s ARC’s co-founder. This group is in bed with some of our elected officials. @ramonabessinger @waitforpolly @laurieinri @esanzi pic.twitter.com/usMXydcKim
— Robert Chiaradio (@bchiaradio14) November 4, 2022
Chiaradio later paid the price when the group shot back with predictable accusations of racism and “harm”:
When we see and hear the personal attacks of hate and intimidation from individuals … we no longer can doubt their racist motives, the harm they want to inflict to these individuals, and the harm and division they want to inflict on our community.
More trouble lay ahead. To advance their cause, his opponents at ARC were running for local office. When the results came in on November 8th, Westerly voters had elected one member of ARC to the school committee and another to the town council. “Our job of saving Westerly’s kids and our town,” he later acknowledged in an opinion piece, “just got a whole lot more difficult.”
If the past two years prove anything, however, that just means Chiaradio is going to punch back ten times harder.
Exposing the CRT That is “Not There”
Chiaradio’s non-stop battle with the Westerly school system began when he started “just asking questions, finding out what these kids are going to be taught.” But, in a pattern that would repeat itself — and that we’ve seen before and covered here — he never got a straight answer to his questions about CRT from the school district’s leaders.
In May of last year, Westerly Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau told both Chiaradio and The Westerly Sun that “the school district and its teachers are not incorporating the tenets of critical race theory in their lessons.”
Chiaradio wasn’t buying it. At a school committee meeting in July 2021, he forced the question by presenting a resolution to ban the teaching of CRT in the schools. According to The Westerly Sun, One of the school committee members, Robert Cillino, insisted the school was not trying to hide critical race theory. “It’s just not there,” he said.
Oddly enough, though, the room at that July meeting was jam-packed with opponents to his proposed resolution to keep out the CRT that was “not there.” The Sun reported that “speakers both in favor of the resolution and opposed received applause, but if the volume of the clapping can be used as a measure, opponents easily outnumbered proponents in the 80-person, standing-room-only audience in and outside of Council Chambers at Town Hall.”
In fact, it was an ambush. As Mike Stenhouse wrote here, Chiaradio’s enemies in the school administration sabotaged his presentation through a “pre-orchestrated public-meeting hit job by the local teachers union in conjunction with brainwashed students and other race theorists, all sanctioned by the superintendent and school committee chair.”
They didn’t miss a trick. Chiaradio had never seen a speaker sign-up sheet at a school committee meeting. “Everyone knew about it but me and my supporters,” he said. “The room was packed at 5:00 pm, and that was never the case. How did our opponents know to arrive early, yet we didn’t?”
It hardly came as a surprise when the committee rejected Chiaradio’s resolution after five hours of debate, as if to say, “We don’t teach Critical Race Theory! But how dare you try to stop us from teaching what we don’t teach!”
Undaunted, Chiaradio kept digging, and enlisted the aid of Judicial Watch. By October of 2021, they found the smoking gun: a 53-page CRT training guide for Westerly teachers titled “Culturally Responsive & Sustaining Pedagogy.” We covered the story here:
The manual teaches the teachers how to foment conflict between the races. Its “overarching goals” include “clarifying” their “roles in disrupting inequity” in their classrooms.
It’s hard to see how these “driving questions”—such as, “How am I and my identity connected to issues of social justice with the collective”—drive anything but division based on class, race, and resentment. And it’s even harder to see what they have to do with learning Tenth-Grade English.
Why He Fights
Meanwhile, Chiaradio’s ongoing battle with the school system intensified last year, when he discovered that Gender Queer and similar books had made their way into Westerly.
His detractors seize on the fact that he no longer has children in the Westerly school system, raising questions about his motives. Although Chiaradio’s children, like their father, grew up and went to school in Westerly, they are now adults and have moved away.
So why does he keep fighting? I asked him.
I have no trouble understanding my fellow Rhode Islander’s answer: He loves his hometown and he hates what is happening to it. His ties to Westerly run deep, and he can’t sit idly by while district leaders destroy the schools his family was raised to respect:
My family has been in Westerly since the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. We have strong ties to our town. For myself, I believe that a town is only as good as its schools.
I owe Westerly a lot. I had a great education, as well as great teachers and coaches, which helped propel me to Brown University, both academically and athletically. I have coached many Westerly kids in various sports here. We all grew up knowing each other and looking out for one another. This town, and the people in it, are very special to me.
Chiaradio says he will always “have a large stake in the success of Westerly,” even though his children are grown.
His opponents, though, seem to have as much at stake in taking him down as a “book banner” as he has in stopping them from destroying his hometown.
Not a Right-Wing Book Banner
Chiaradio’s battle to remove Gender Queer from the high school isn’t some prudish crusade against youth-corrupting smut like the ones waged by the reformers of the nineteenth century. And though it’s hard to say whether Kobabe’s modern-day “memoir” is any more shocking to today’s readers than the notorious Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill) was to its Victorian-era audience, Gender Queer is not your grandfather’s obscenity.
The book is a graphic novel based on Kobabe’s own experience coming out as “nonbinary.” In it, she tells the story of a girl who is confused about whether she is male or female, taking the reader along on her journey of “self-identity”—and through pages of graphic depictions of pedophilia.
Kobabe “imagined the memoir would appeal mainly to young adults who had also wrestled with gender identity, and to friends and family of nonbinary people,” according to The New York Times. However, “it soon found a younger audience.” In 2020, the far-left American Library Association (ALA) gave it the Alex Award, a prize granted to books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”
In other words, the book targets adolescents at a critical stage in their development with the message that sexual deviance is the new normal.
And it spreads that message by achieving broad distribution not only in Rhode Island, but nationwide. Gender Queer, and books like it, are the literary conduits for gender ideology and grooming in the public schools.
Amidst growing concern about schools pushing radical gender theory on children as young as five, it was “the most frequently challenged book in the country last year,” according to data released by the ALA, The New York Times reports.
But when Chiaradio challenged it, he found himself the subject of a hit piece in The Boston Globe that targeted him as a “right-wing activist,” part of a worrying nationwide movement to ban books.
In fact, the accusations of “book banning” against Chiaradio are at odds with the Westerly school’s own policy, which sets out a laborious process for members of the public to object to library books. No one seems to question that there is a legitimate need for schools to have a procedure for objecting to books available to students in their libraries.
What gets Chiaradio’s critics hot under the collar is that he had the temerity to use that procedure, carefully following the school’s directions for submitting an objection to Gender Queer to the school’s review committee.
Chiaradio sees the entire process as nothing more than a bureaucratic cover for a foregone outcome. How, exactly, the committee will arrive at its decision, the criteria it will apply, and the identities of its members all remain a mystery. He filed an APRA request to find out, but the school declined his demand for minutes of the review committee’s meetings and the members’ names. The school’s question-dodging makes it hard for Chiaradio to view its actions as anything other than “a deliberate attempt to hide information from the public.” It’s pretty clear that the purpose of the book-challenge process is to exist, not to be used — at least not by a “right-wing book-banner.”
If Gender Queer Is Not “Pornography,” What Is?
Frustrated with the bureaucratic delays and double-talk, Chiaradio filed a criminal complaint against school officials for violation of federal and state obscenity laws. Most people seeing the cartoon drawings explicitly depicting pedophilia in Gender Queer would call them obscene, the kind that ought to be against the law. But the law on obscenity is tougher.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Neronha has made clear he will not prosecute. As reported in The Globe, his office concluded that neither the state criminal laws against child pornography nor its obscenity laws apply to Gender Queer.
That might not be what worried parents want to hear, but according to Eugene Volokh, constitutional scholar and Professor of Law at UCLA, the Attorney General’s conclusion is correct.
Volokh explains that child pornography and obscenity are two exceptions to the general protection afforded speech under the First Amendment. Notwithstanding its offensiveness, Gender Queer triggers neither one.
With child pornography, the concern is that children who are the subjects of the material, as opposed to children who are viewers of it, not be victimized. That is why the law distinguishes between photographs and drawings such as those in Gender Queer. “Photos of real children having sex would be child pornography, whether or not they are obscene,” says Volokh, “but illustrations of fictional children aren’t child pornography.”
So if it’s not child pornography, is Gender Queer obscene? Under the case law, it almost certainly is not. Volokh explains that one of the defining criteria of obscenity under constitutional law is whether “the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” He says “it seems quite unlikely that the book would be seen as obscene even as to minors, because it would likely be seen as having serious literary value at least for older minors.”
However, Volokh says that librarians and school committees are not bound to the constitutional definitions of these crimes when deciding whether to remove books like Gender Queer:
It doesn’t mean that the school library couldn’t remove the book, only that prosecutors couldn’t prosecute people for distributing it to minors, including in private bookstores.
The First Amendment allows school boards to remove books that are seen as age-inappropriate; removing books because they contain sexually themed images, entirely apart from their viewpoint about sexual orientation or gender identity, would thus likely be constitutional – all or nearly all the Justices in Board of Ed. v. Pico (1982) seemed to acknowledge as much.
In other words, school authorities could remove Gender Queer because its depictions of sexual activity—regardless of the genders or sexual orientation involved—are age inappropriate.
A Coalition With the Clergy — And Beyond
That is good news for Chiaradio and his growing coalition of supporters. Over the past several months, he gathered 15 Westerly area pastors who signed a letter in September urging the school to remove the offending books.
The pastors’ letter presents a constitutionally sound justification for removing the book:
We are not opposed to these materials because they are supported by groups whose beliefs run contrary to ours. We are opposed to any and all explicitly sexual, pornographic materials where children have access to them in public school libraries.
The letter simply restates the law: As Volokh explained, the First Amendment would permit school authorities to remove all books that contain graphic sexual depictions —regardless of the points of view they represent—because they are age inappropriate.
Chiaradio says the initial public response to the letter was “overwhelmingly positive.” His Facebook group has grown to almost 1,200 members today from 27 states, and a few even in other countries, he says. They rallied in support:
In fact, Chiaradio’s coalition building is part of a nationwide trend: The fight for a say in what children read and learn in school is no longer just a movement of angry moms; parents and concerned citizens across the political spectrum are joining in. This past summer, religious leaders in Illinois and Montana mobilized against libraries as well as a zoo that held “drag” events for kids. An African-American pastor’s anti-woke speech at a North Carolina school board meeting recently went viral. And in Dearborn, Michigan, Muslim men led the pushback against schools that were making obscene books available to children in their libraries.
Cutting across lines of race, gender, and religion, these alliances to rid schools and libraries of radical race and gender ideology present a united front.
Protecting the next generation from pornographic pedophilia in school shouldn’t be a partisan issue. As Father Giacomo Capoverdi, one of the signatories to the pastors’ letter, recently testified at a Westerly School Committee meeting, it should be “a no-brainer issue” for everyone. “It’s not necessarily a religious issue or a Catholic issue,” he said. “It’s an issue of the safety of the children and the development of the children. … Pornography is very harmful to the young mind, to any mind.”So far, however, that harm is still on the shelves of Westerly High School.
One thing is certain, though, says Chiaradio: He’s not going away until he achieves victory.DONATE
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