Chalina Morgan-Lopez, a senior at  Sanderson High School in Raleigh. (Courtesy of Chalina Morgan-Lopez) Chalina Morgan-Lopez
Chalina Morgan-Lopez, a senior at Sanderson High School in Raleigh. (Courtesy of Chalina Morgan-Lopez)

Raleigh’s Chalina Morgan-Lopez sees herself and her family in the literature that right-wing book banners are targeting. She’s not going to take it.

Chalina Morgan-Lopez spent much of her final semester of high school watching adults yell that her favorite books, the books in whose pages she felt most seen, should be banned from public schools. 

Morgan-Lopez, a senior at Sanderson High School in Raleigh who identifies as queer, virtually monitored school board meetings where these adults, over and over again, angrily decried books that dealt with LGTBQ subject matters or even just acknowledged that gay students exist. She watched them scream that books by Black authors about slavery or civil rights were unpatriotic propaganda. And she watched them shout that students had no business learning about children with same-sex parents or how difficult it can be to come out to your peers. These books, these adults shouted, were no more than pornography. 

But that’s not at all what the books are, the students who’ve actually read them say, and to ban them suggests to “LGBTQ students and Black students that they shouldn’t be seen and that they shouldn’t be represented,” Morgan-Lopez told Cardinal & Pine.

“School is a place where you’re meant to feel safe and where you’re meant to feel like you can express yourself,” Morgan-Lopez, the president of her school’s Equity Team and a youth representative of Wake County Equity Affairs, said.

To stand up for herself and her peers, she soon began speaking out against efforts to rid schools of the books, and last month she got some first-hand experience with those yelling adults.

In April, she was asked to speak during an event highlighting the importance of “culturally-affirming books” outside a school board meeting at the Wake County Public Schools headquarters in Cary. 

She’d given speeches before and decided she would tell the audience about her love of literature, and how reading can help students learn about themselves and the world beyond. She would tell them why the books the adults wanted to ban were so necessary, and she would tell them about her twin brother, who is autistic.

“A children’s book called ‘My Brother Charlie,’ follows the interactions between two Black twins, Callie and Charlie, through navigating Charlie’s experiences as an autistic boy,” she wrote in her speech.

“We saw ourselves in this story. And that’s a feeling that all students should have the right to experience.”

To be seen, heard, accepted: that is what the books are about, she said, and this is why students who for so long were ignored must have access to them.

“All students,” she said in her speech, “deserve to be celebrated.”

But as she spoke, she was so focused that she didn’t notice the adults, all white and holding signs, pushing through the bushes to her left.

They heckled her, tried to speak over her, moved close to the podium and held up their signs. But they didn’t break her concentration. 

She finished her speech.

It was only afterward that she began to process what happened. 

She doesn’t remember exactly what they said, or what was written on their signs, but she doesn’t need to. She’s seen it all before.  

The Book Banners

Florida passed a bill this year barring elementary schools from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity, and requiring that school officials notify the parents of any students who confidentially come out to them. 

Last week the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly discussed a similar bill they’re calling a “parents’ bill of rights,” even if it has no hope of surviving a near-certain veto from Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Still, it all creates a dangerous environment for LGTBQ students, mental health experts say.

The rate of attempted suicide is rising among LGTBQ youth. The books many conservative groups want to ban, however, can help students grappling with these issues find themselves. Being able to access them at school creates a welcoming atmosphere that can save lives, experts say.  

And to build that acceptance, you have to start early.

“We should be starting conversations about queerness from kindergarten through third grade,” Morgan-Lopez said.

“Once we start normalizing that, ‘Hey, some of your friends may have two dads or two moms,’ then you’ll grow up understanding that people are going to be different.”

That’s why “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel about a character’s struggle to find acceptance as non-binary, was so important to Morgan-Lopez, she said. It’s also one of the books most frequently attacked.

“What [Gender Queer] essentially tells a student who reads it is that it’s okay to experiment with your identity,” she said. “You’re ever changing and as you navigate life, it’s all right to figure out that you’re different from other students and that there’s nothing wrong with you.”

That process, and the process of coming out to a teacher once you are comfortable doing so, requires doses of courage that cisgender people simply never have to face, she said. It’s a vulnerability, she added, that makes it all the more important to have access to books that represent who you really are. 

“Safe spaces and representation go hand in hand,” she said.

“I think it’s a scary time,” she said in a separate interview on Friday, “for a lot of young, queer kids in schools who may fear being outed to their parents.” 

So the fight over is about far more than who can read what, and where. It’s an extension of the tangled problems of racism, sexism and homophobia. 

“A lot of people aren’t comfortable with having these uncomfortable discussions. But I think there’s no progress to be made if we aren’t going to teach the correct history of our nation and of North Carolina,” she said. 

Lessons From Ketanji Brown Jackson

That point hit home, she said, as she watched Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s nominee for the Supreme Court and the first Black woman to be confirmed, appear before a confirmation panel of mostly white, male, conservative senators.

“A woman who is an expert in her field who is stepping up into a leadership position is still being talked to like she’s a child,” Morgan-Lopez said.

She thought about Brown Jackson’s experience as she considered the adults trying to disrupt her own speech. Even if she had noticed them then, she said, she knew she could not have been able to respond with anger.

“The second I snap or the second that I show that I’m angry, it just perpetuates the whole angry Black woman stereotype,” she said.  

Letting other people judge your experiences and define your worth is as unhealthy in Congress as it is in high school, she said.

For now, Morgan-Lopez is enjoying her final days as a senior. She was named Sanderson’s prom queen a few weeks ago, and for her last high school dance, she wore a traditional Panamanian dress top and a skirt popular in Puerto Rico called a bomba. Both garments bore the colors of the countries’ flags: red, white and blue.

She will graduate in June and will attend NC State in the fall as a Parks Scholar, where she expects to major in political science.

She just wants to continue making a difference and, she said, “maybe do something cool one day.”

Though her experience at the school board meeting made her wary of speaking in public, she has no plans to drop her advocacy for books or any other issue she believes in.

“I feel like it’s an obligation,” she said, “like it’s what I’m meant to do.”