The controversy over challenged books being played out at weekly RSU 14 board meetings has fueled harassment of transgender students at the Windham High School, according to two LGBTQ+ students there.

“The levels of hatred and harassment and bullying and people being cruel for no reason have gone up by a lot,” said sophomore NJ Boatman, a trans student. “It was a lot before, but me and my friends would just try and ignore it because reporting all of it kind of felt pointless, but it’s at the point where it’s too much to go unnoticed.”

An RSU 14 review committee recommended that “Gender Queer” remain on school library shelves, but that recommendation has been appealed to the school board.

Intense and contentious debates have been ongoing at the Windham-Raymond district’s school board meetings for two months. Eight books in the middle school and high school libraries have been challenged for containing sexually graphic material, with those focusing on LGBTQ+ relationships garnering the most heated attention. Some of the books depict scenes of sexual assault, rape and incest, scenes that parents have read aloud at board meetings to support their arguments that such content is inappropriate for schools. Parents in support of keeping the books at the schools have also turned out in force at the meetings, but the opponents have been by far more vocal.

A review committee appointed by the superintendent has so far read and reviewed one of the books, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. The committee recommended last month that it remain in the library. An appeal was filed, and the RSU 14 board will now decide on it. The other seven book challenges are pending.

Before the books became a hot topic in Windham, disparaging comments directed at gay and trans students usually took place in hallways or other places in school where adults were less likely to notice, said Boatman, who uses both he/him and they/them pronouns.

“Kids would yell things, kids would bark, yell slurs, whatever, and we kind of dealt with it, but now in the middle of class kids are interrupting to be rude,” he said.


In one recent instance, Boatman said, a student called him a homophobic slur and barked like a dog at him during a class, and “the teacher didn’t really do anything or respond.”

“It’s kind of the environment that’s been allowed to be created,” he said. “In classes where they know the teachers will say something, they don’t do it, but when it’s classes like that where they know they can get away with it, they just don’t care.” 

Some teachers report the bullying to the administration, but Boatman said he’s not aware of any official disciplinary actions that have been taken other than the offending students being spoken to by the principal. 

RSU 14 Superintendent Chris Howell said the bullying Boatman referenced is “not something that has made it to my level, but it doesn’t mean that it hasn’t happened,” and it was “probably dealt with by high school administrators.”

Windham High School Principal Ryan Caron did not return a request for comment.

One parent tore up pages of challenged book “Nick and Charlie” at a school board meeting and threw the pages at board members.

Howell said when an incident like this comes up, the assistant principal or principal will “meet with the student who’s being bullied and work toward the best solution” with the “goal of making sure it doesn’t happen anymore.” 


Boatman says he wishes “they would be more strict with kids using hurtful and hateful language against other kids.” 

“We’re all just tired of it,” he said. “It’s just gotten to the point where we can’t handle it anymore.” 

Another student at the high school who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community said the book controversy has made “the school environment feel more unsafe for LGBTQ+ students.” 

“It has reminded us how many people in our community couldn’t care less about whether or not we’re alive,” said the student, who asked that her name not be used because she is concerned about repercussions.

“My biggest concern should be AP tests and what I’m wearing to prom – not if my school will be a place where my friends and I feel valued,” she said. 

Reasoning disputed 


Many arguing for the removal of the books from Windham-Raymond school libraries say they object to the explicit scenes of sex, sexual assault, violence and rape, and are not targeting LGBTQ+ content, but Boatman and the female student think otherwise. 

“The two books that started all of this are in the national spotlight because they’re queer books. Most Windham residents wouldn’t even know about these books if there weren’t national news stories about it,” the female student said. “I know the school board can’t officially treat it this way, but when they make this choice, they are choosing between LGBTQ+ student safety and loud, angry adults.” 

“Gender Queer,” a memoir in graphic novel form about the author’s experiences with gender and sexuality, has become the most challenged and banned book in the United States, topping the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books for the last two years and receiving 151 challenges in 2022. Since last academic year, it has been banned from 56 school districts across the country. A new report from PEN America found that 41% of books banned in U.S. classrooms and libraries during the 2021-22 school year featured LGBTQ+ content. During the first half of the 2022-23 school year, the number of banned books was up 28% from the previous six months.

Besides “Gender Queer,” another title drawing heated comments at RSU 14 board meetings is the graphic novel “Nick and Charlie” by Alice Oseman, which is also the basis for the Netflix series “Heartstopper,” about a relationship between two male high school students. At one meeting, a parent ripped up a copy of “Nick and Charlie” and threw the pages at school board members.

Boatman said books like “Gender Queer” and “Nick and Charlie” helped him realize that his experience with gender is “not just me being weird or something wrong with me – it’s that this is something that can’t be changed. It’s just who I am and that’s OK. Taking those resources away would be detrimental to the kids who need them and … it would continue perpetuating the idea that we don’t belong.

“I’m lucky enough that I have the support that I need now … but there was a time in my life when basically the only thing keeping me alive was the books I could relate to,” he said. 


Emma Alden, a former Windham Middle School student, said she is concerned her former classmates may be being harassed because of the book controversy, but that she was uncomfortable having sexually explicit books that she considers to be pornographic in her school. That same school, she said, requires parental permission for students to watch R-rated films in class. 

“The point is the material and the graphics shown in the book,” said Alden, who transferred to a private school for her freshman year this year for academic reasons. 

Alden said she hadn’t experienced any “hatred” directed at her gay and transgender friends at Windham schools. “That’s awful if that’s true, but that’s not what we’re talking about per se,” she said. “We’re simply talking about the pornographic material in this book. That shouldn’t be how they feel support.”

The school libraries have plenty of other books that are supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, she said. “I don’t understand how (“Gender Queer”) is so important to supporting this community when it contains graphic material.”

Alden’s mother, Robbin Frost, said LGBTQ+ students unjustly feel they are being attacked in Windham.

“These kids are feeling like anything that’s said, they’re being attacked. They feel like without anything being done, they’re being attacked,” Frost said. “This community loves their children, and I think each of these children that we’ve been around all their lives really love each other … I don’t see a lot of hatred there, but it could have changed.”


Windham students not alone

Rae Egbert, a Portland psychologist who specializes in LGBTQ+ youth, understands why Boatman and others in his community feel threatened.

“I have many young teenage clients right now who feel very scared with everything that’s going on with book bans and anti-trans legislation and feeling increasingly like maybe schools aren’t a safe space anymore,” Egbert said. 

Based on the latest available data from the CDC, 43% of transgender youth have been bullied on school property, compared to 18% of cisgender youth, along with 29% of gay or lesbian youth and 31% of bisexual youth, compared to 17% of straight youth.

“We know for a fact that young queer folks are the ones at highest risk of mental health issues because of things like lack of representation or these recent anti-LGBT bills,” Egbert said. “Statistics have told us that when young LGBT folks are supported by their schools and communities, it significantly reduces the rates of suicidality and depression.” 

Katie Lutts, a former health educator and now a program director for OUT Maine, an organization which provides support to LGBTQ+ youth and works with schools to create more inclusive environments, says the books being challenged provide important representation and practical education for kids who may otherwise feel unseen, unsupported and alone.

“When a district or group of adults makes a decision about a group of books that does in this case target a specific group of students, I think it sends a message to those students that they are not welcome and they are not safe,” Lutts said. “I feel concerned for our youth who are watching their social media feeds be filled with hate and violence toward them.”

The school board is slated to hold a book challenge hearing for “Gender Queer” at its next board meeting, Wednesday, April 26, at 6:30 p.m. in the Windham High School auditorium.

The LGBT National Hotline can be reached at 888-843-4564. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-4673.

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