Jennifer Petersen, a Virginia resident, is at the forefront of a small but vocal group of individuals pushing for the removal of LGBTQ+ books and other inclusive novels from schools across the United States. She remains resolute in her mission, vowing to eliminate what she deems “sexually explicit books” from educational institutions.
In recent years, the United States has witnessed a surge in book bans, primarily driven by conservative activists, parental groups, and right-wing pundits who take issue with inclusive literature. These bans tend to focus on books featuring LGBTQ+ characters or characters of color, as well as those addressing topics such as racism, sexuality, and gender identity.
A recent analysis by The Washington Post revealed that during the 2021-2022 school year, just 11 adults were responsible for a staggering 60 percent of all book ban requests nationwide. Jennifer Petersen is among this select group, having filed challenges against a staggering 71 books within Virginia’s Spotsylvania County Public Schools district.
Petersen’s objections are particularly directed at books she believes contain explicit sexual content. She expresses concern that reading such material could encourage children to engage in sexual activities and has made it her personal mission to ensure that such books are not available within school premises.
To identify her targets, Petersen consulted lists of most-challenged titles compiled by organizations like the American Library Association (ALA) and PEN America. She cited certain passages in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” a work vividly depicting the horrors of slavery, as “sexually explicit” and unnecessary to the story.
Notably, Petersen’s objections extend beyond sexually explicit content. Almost one-third of the books she challenged featured LGBTQ+ characters or characters of color. This pattern highlights her determination to remove LGBTQ+ and inclusive literature from school libraries, including works like Casey McQuiston’s “Red, White & Royal Blue” and a collection of poems by the openly gay writer Allen Ginsberg.
The Spotsylvania County Public Schools district has been a hotspot for book bans. In 2021, two school board members advocated for banning and burning LGBTQ-themed school library books, gaining international attention. Earlier this year, Superintendent Mark Taylor ordered the removal of 14 books from school libraries, citing “sexually explicit material.”
Despite facing online harassment and criticism, including being labeled a “witch” and a “boil,” Jennifer Petersen remains steadfast in her commitment to continue filing book challenges. She is determined to persist “as long as it takes” to rid schools of what she deems “sexually explicit books” and ensure they never return.
Kimberly Allen, a high school librarian for the district, expressed disagreement with Petersen’s assessment of the challenged books, emphasizing that a book’s merit cannot be determined solely by isolated parts. Petersen’s actions have not made her popular among school librarians, with her challenges requiring significant time and effort to address.
In a time when the battle over the content of school libraries rages on, Jennifer Petersen stands as a symbol of the ongoing debate surrounding LGBTQ+ and inclusive literature in educational settings.