When Cheyenne Edgerly learned about the books reflective of LGBTQ experiences in the children’s section of her local public library, she sprang into action.
Edgerly, a mother of six in Central Oregon’s Crook County, led a failed crusade last year. She wanted to have books discussing gender identity and sexual orientation set aside and labeled in their own section. But the rural public library’s managers stood firm — a handful of queer books in the collection would not be segregated.
“There was a battle taken up, and that battle was lost,” Edgerly said this month.
But the activist and her supporters did make advances in a different battleground: the public school district.
Emails obtained through a public records request show how Crook County Schools Superintendent Sara Johnson spent months talking with Edgerly last year. Their back-and-forth raises questions about how religious and political ideologies can influence decision-makers in a largely conservative, rural school district.
In the midst of the queer books controversy, Johnson abruptly ended an elementary school’s field trips to the public library, a decision that Edgerly praised.
Edgerly’s other complaints range from not wanting nonbinary people mentioned in math problems to criticizing librarians who wanted to bring in books “to make the library more diverse.”
At one point, the activist questioned the school curriculum for including information on LGBTQ rights and race. Johnson appears receptive to Edgerly’s statements in emails the pair exchanged.
This advocacy led the way for a committee to once again review school curriculum, after it had already been the subject of public meetings and adopted by the school board. The process influenced the selection of specific reading materials, according to a school board member.
“We just picked one book instead of a different one from the same curriculum,” longtime board member Scott Cooper said. “The goal is not indoctrination. The goal is learning how to read, learning how to write, learning how to think. So why pick [the books] that cause controversy?”
A receptive administrator
School districts across the country have faced pressure from conservative activists and groups in recent years over books and learning materials that discuss race and gender identity.
In a July 18 email, Edgerly shared a link to an article on a conservative website mentioning the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” and speculated it may be part of the school curriculum. Johnson offered her blunt opinion on the commonly targeted LGBTQ title.
“It is a disgusting book that has no place in schools and I would not want it anywhere in our schools,” Johnson wrote.
“Gender Queer” was written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe, whose pronouns are e/em/eir, about Kobabe’s journey with nonbinary gender identity and sexual orientation. The book includes a handful of illustrations showing sexual situations, such as the author experimenting with sex toys.
The book is not and was never part of Crook County’s school curriculum, Cooper said. It is, however, a national lightning rod for conservative activists and politicians.
Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story. She was hired in 2018 to lead Crook County Schools, a district with about 3,000 students. This year, the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators named her the statewide Superintendent of the Year.
When pressed specifically about how she described “Gender Queer,” a district spokesperson emailed a statement.
“Crook County School District believes that all books offered in our school libraries should be age-appropriate and not contain sexually-explicit or sexually-graphic material. After reviewing the graphic novel, Gender Queer, Dr. Johnson learned it contained illustrations depicting oral sex. Any book with such graphic material — regardless of the author, title or content — will not be allowed in our school libraries.”
Edgerly’s attempts to influence Johnson’s decisions did not stop at the public library field trips.
Last May, Edgerly complained to Johnson that a widely-adopted math teaching app for sixth and seventh graders includes references to nonbinary students. Of more than 100,000 questions in the app, seven mention nonbinary students as characters in word problems, according to Edgerly’s screenshots of an exchange with the app’s customer service.
For example: “A class has 30 students. There are 5 nonbinary students. What is the ratio of non-binary students to other genders?”
In this case, Edgerly didn’t pressure Johnson to do anything specific about the material.
“There is no need to reply. I would just like to share the information with you,” Edgerly wrote.
Still, Johnson replied within an hour.
“I’m checking to see if we have it. I see what you mean!”
The next month, Edgerly asked to see the superintendent privately. Johnson said she’d be happy to meet.
In an interview, Edgerly said she doesn’t feel like she’s had an impact on the school leader.
“I don’t think Sara Johnson was sympathetic to me, or likes me. I think she played both sides,” she said.
The activist’s fears often center around a belief that teachers unions are “pushing a leftist ideology that is focused on atheism,” as she put it to Johnson in an August email.
A self-described Catholic, Edgerly said by phone her goal in lobbying the school district is “for the protection of children,” and for “parental rights.” She denied being anti-LGBTQ. She said she doesn’t want any sexuality mentioned in schools, and she did not distinguish between gender identity and sexual orientation.
Though she denied being a member of any formalized group, many of Edgerly’s talking points line up with Moms For Liberty, a conservative organization that grew out of opposition to pandemic restrictions in schools. As those restrictions have subsided, local chapters of the group have campaigned against school curricula mentioning LGBTQ rights, racial injustice, and gender or sexuality issues.
In August, Edgerly sent Johnson a video of a Moms For Liberty meeting in Tennessee. The meeting takes aim at “Wit and Wisdom,” a K-8 language arts curriculum adopted by Crook County and at least half a dozen other Oregon school districts last year.
Johnson wrote back to say she watched the more than hourlong video, and: “I sure wish the curriculum review committee had surfaced this. Very concerning.”
Cost of neutrality
Cooper, the school board member, flatly denied conservative activists are having an outsized influence in the district.
“We have stood up to extremist opinions. We’ve given some on both sides, trying to keep everybody happy, because we are ultimately trying to serve a divided public,” he said.
He praised Johnson’s performance overall, and said he thought she was likely just trying to be diplomatic with Edgerly in their email exchanges.
A few vocal people can take up a lot of time and energy, he said, distracting school leaders from their primary goal of caring for students and their performance. It’s a dilemma for school leaders across the country, he added.
“There’s a small group of activist people who want to divide the country and politicize everything for reasons that have nothing to do with the good of kids, but everything to do with the control of culture, society and politics,” Cooper said.
When Natalie Conway began her career as an education administrator in Crook County last fall, she was unprepared for the fallout of local anti-LGBTQ activism.
Conway, a former special education teacher, was about to begin her new position as assistant principal at Crooked River Elementary in Prineville when the controversy over queer books in the public library unfolded.
Conway spoke up against segregating the books at a library board meeting in May. Afterward, she remembers getting a call from the school district.
“The district made it clear that they want all of their administrators to be seen as neutral parties,” Conway said in a recent phone interview.
Conway described the superintendent telling her that people in town were calling for her firing. She said she felt like a scapegoat. In November, Conway decided to resign.
“We wanted to be out of a hostile community,” she said. The choice has left her with lingering feelings of disappointment.
“I felt like the LGBTQ community had done so much work on their own in Crook County, and that at some point you need to stand up and speak for what is fair and right, and good and kind. Even if it comes with uncomfortable consequences.”
As for Edgerly, she’s still focused on educational materials despite the lost battle over public library books in May. Shortly after the public library decided not to segregate LGBTQ children’s books, Edgerly joined the library’s advisory board and remains a member.