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When Stacy Langton showed up at a September meeting of the Fairfax County, Virginia, school board to complain about two books in her children’s high school library, she came prepared. The Catholic mother of six had never spoken at a school board meeting before, but she’d seen other parents on conservative media who’d done it. Not only had she drafted written remarks, but Langton had also brought props—posters with enlarged images from Gender Queer: A Memoir, a graphic nonfiction book by Maia Kobabe. They were “detailed illustrations of a man having sex with a boy. The illustrations include fellatio, sex toys, masturbation, and violent nudity,” she told the board, holding up the posters.

The text was perhaps even more provocative than the images: “’I cannot wait to have your cock in my mouth,’” said Langton, reading from the memoir. “’I’m going to give you the blow job of your life.’” She continued her dramatic reading with a passage from Lawn Boy, an award-winning semi-autobiographical adult novel by Jonathan Evison, whose narrator is reflecting on sexual experiences he had as a child with another child—a scene Langton decried as “pedophilia.”

“’What if I told you I touched another guy’s dick?’” Langton read, her voice trembling as she tried to contain her embarrassment over the language. “’What if I told you I sucked it? I was ten years old, but it’s true. I sucked Doug Goble’s dick, the real-estate guy, and he sucked mine, too.’” At that point, a board member, perhaps missing the irony, interrupted to warn that there were “children in the room.”

“Do not interrupt my time!” Langton shouted. She tried to quote the Virginia law that makes providing obscene materials to children a criminal offense, but the board members cut her mic, prompting the audience members to respond with outrage, chanting, “Shame!” and “Go to jail!” The board declared a break and most of the members fled the dais.

Here was a moment geared for virality: Yet another angry parent wreaking havoc at a school board meeting—an increasingly commonplace event during the pandemic, during which everything from mask mandates to transgender bathroom fights to the teaching of critical race theory galvanized furious parents on both sides. The meeting’s livestream, however, didn’t show the offending images from Gender Queer, and the board muted Langton’s X-rated reading on the official archived video, limiting its Twitter clip potential. It easily might have gotten lost in the YouTube clutter of angry school board meetings across the country that have dominated the news over the past few months.

Instead, a close watcher of the Fairfax school board was taping the uncensored livestream as Langton’s 90-second testimony unfolded. That version soon arrived on Twitter. From there, it flew across conservative media and became a flashpoint in the tight gubernatorial race between Republican Glenn Youngkin and Democrat Terry McAuliffe. It laid the groundwork for a McAuliffe gaffe that’ll be cited on cable news for decades to come and boosted the Republican hopeful in a state that went for Biden over Trump by 10 points in 2020.

The school board meeting was the election’s perfect storm. It also became a classic example of the way conservative media amplifies organic content to gin up outrage under the radar of traditional Democratic campaigns. And that strategy is now being replicated all across the country by Republicans looking to bash Democrats on education, one of their traditional strengths, ahead of the 2022 congressional midterm elections.

The first uncensored video of Langton’s testimony made its way to Twitter before the school board meeting was even over, courtesy of a group called Do Better FCPS. The Fairfax parent who founded the group, Sue Zoldak, also happens to be a professional political consultant. She’s spent her career working for public affairs firms that specialize in “Astroturfing”—stealth political campaigns disguised to look like grassroots movements. Zoldak got her start in political PR by seeking out an internship with the maker of the original Harry and Louise ads that helped tank health care reform during Bill Clinton’s administration. She’s been a digital media consultant for the Republican National Committee and an adjunct faculty member of the Charles Koch Institute, a libertarian public policy center named for and funded by the oil and gas magnate.

Do Better FCPS started in April 2020 during the pandemic-related school closings to promote the vague goal of “transparency and accountability” in the Fairfax school system and its $3.4 billion budget. A Taiwanese-born immigrant, Zoldak quickly became a fixture in the burgeoning education debates and their coverage in conservative media. In March 2021, she appeared on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News “town hall” about schools’ efforts to decry “woke bullies” attacking parents who “are standing up to the status quo.” In June this year, the Daily Caller covered her appearance before the Fairfax school board where she complained that the district was secretly training staff and teachers in critical race theory, a 40-year-old academic theory that suggests racism is structurally systemic and not solely the product of individual prejudice.

In an email, Zoldak told me that an anonymous tipster sent the uncensored video of Langton’s school board appearance to her group “within minutes of it airing live.” Do Better FCPS has a small Twitter following, but it includes a number of much bigger influencers, including Luke Rosiak from The Daily Wire, part of Ben Shapiro’s media empire, who has spent the past several months writing about little more than school board fights over LGBTQ issues in nearby Loudon County, Virginia. Less than two hours after Zoldak’s group tweeted the video, Rosiak posted it on The Daily Wire with the headline, “WATCH: School Board Squirms As Mom Reads Them The Gay Porn In Books Available To Students.”

Even then, Langton’s school board appearance might not have broken out of the hours of angry school board meeting footage online if it weren’t for the help of a former Wall Street Journal reporter named Asra Nomani. An Indian-born Muslim raised in West Virginia, Nomani spent several years running the Pearl Project at Georgetown University, an acclaimed reporting project that investigated the kidnapping and beheading of her WSJ friend and colleague in Pakistan, Daniel Pearl. But in 2015, she co-founded a Muslim reform organization that has been accused of promoting Islamaphobia, and in 2016, she wrote a piece for the Washington Post confessing, “I’m a Muslim, a woman, and an immigrant. I voted for Trump.” She went on to defend Trump’s Muslim travel ban after he took office, cementing her place in a conservative firmament that loves nothing more than a liberal journalist who seems to have switched sides.

Last year, Nomani was involved in the battle over admissions policies at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the prestigious public magnet school in Fairfax County that her son attended. She helped organize the Coalition for TJ, a group of parents who were opposed to changes in the admissions process that were designed to diversify a student body that in 2020 was 1 percent Black but nearly 75 percent Asian. This, in a county where Black residents made up 10 percent and Asians 20 percent of the population. Youngkin’s campaign recognized a potentially reachable voting block among these parents, especially after changes in the TJ admissions policy resulted in acceptance offers to Black students jumping to 7 percent while dropping 19 percent for Asian students, and the percentage of seats offered to low-income kids jumped from less than 1 percent in 2020 to 25 percent. Youngkin held his first campaign event in May this year with TJ parents, including Nomani.

In September 2020, Nomani and Zoldak appeared together in an online discussion hosted by the Fairfax County GOP to discuss the “woke Left’s war” on TJ and the “war on merit.” Nomani’s son graduated from the school in the spring, but she stayed in the fight. In March, she helped launch an organization called Parents Defending Education, where she is now the vice president for strategy and investigations. Well-funded and litigious, PDE immediately got involved in a lawsuit in New York City to block an effort to diversify selective public high schools and gifted and talented programs. Its president once ran the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, a nonprofit group tied to the Koch family that got its start defending Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations during his confirmation hearing. Critics have described PDE as an Astroturf group, an allegation Nomani denies.

“I cannot speak to issues of funding, except to say that it’s a typical bogeyman used to launch character assassinations on sincere, legitimate parents, such as myself,” Nomani said in an email. “As a liberal Democrat, I wish that Democrats would see the wisdom in recognizing our humanity. Instead of recognizing that parents such as myself have legitimate voices, many naysayers want to discredit us as ‘dark money,’ ‘white supremacist’ ‘aristocrats’ raging for ‘white power.’ If Democrats truly want to be the party of parents, they have to stop maligning parents, and see that—whether liberal or conservative—parents are a sacred part of the fabric of not only our society but our democracy.”

By the time Langton showed up with her Gender Queer posters in September, Nomani had been attending Fairfax school board meetings regularly for about a year. She was waiting to speak at the September 23 meeting when the board pulled the plug on Langton’s testimony. The former journalist recognized the news value immediately. In an interview, Langton told me that Nomani had cornered her after she left the podium, “sticking her cell phone in my face asking ‘Who are you? Can I talk to you? What’s your name?’ She asked if she could film the images in the book. I had no idea who she was.”

After giving her own testimony decrying the board’s treatment of Langton, Nomani went to a nearby McDonald’s and, from the parking lot, edited the video she’d taken. Unlike the Daily Wire video, however, Nomani’s included photos of the explicit images she’d taken from Langton’s copy of Gender Queer. She also wrote a piece on her Substack describing the night’s events slugged “School Board Puts the X-rated in #Fairfaxxx.”

The video went viral, and by the afternoon the school district had pulled the books from the libraries. Two days later, Langton was on “Fox & Friends,” kicking off a nonstop stream of conservative media appearances with everyone from Sebastian Gorka on Newsmax to Church Militant, a Catholic extremist outlet.

All of this was going on against the backdrop of a closely watched gubernatorial race in a purple state that was considered a bellwether for next year’s mid-term congressional election and a referendum on Joe Biden’s presidency. Youngkin and McAuliffe, who’d been the state’s governor from 2014 to 2018, held their last debate just five days after the Fairfax school board meeting—an event that had dire consequences for McAuliffe’s campaign. In response to a moderator’s question about local control of schools, Youngkin invoked Langton’s testimony.

“What we’ve seen over the course of the last 20 months is our school systems refusing to engage with parents,” he said. “In Fairfax County this past week, we watched parents so upset because there was such sexually explicit material in the library they had never seen. It was shocking.” He accused McAuliffe of vetoing a bill that would have informed parents that those books were there. “I believe parents should be in charge of their kids’ education.”

Youngkin’s description of the bill McAuliffe vetoed was inaccurate. The 2016 legislation would have required schools to notify parents if a teacher assigned books containing sexually explicit content, and then it allowed parents to review the materials and demand a different assignment for their own children. It would not have applied to books in the school library. McAuliffe stumbled through an attempt to correct Youngkin’s characterization of the bill, and that’s when McAuliffe made the biggest gaffe of his campaign. “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach,” he declared. It’s a cringe-worthy moment that will endure in debate history as one that turned an election. “That quip goes into the Hall of Fame of Political Blunders—and alone might be enough to take McAuliffe down and put Youngkin in charge of the Old Dominion,” columnist Hugh Hewitt predicted accurately in the Washington Post in early October.

In retrospect, it’s clear that at that pivotal moment in the debate, Youngkin was referring to blow job comics in school library books, and McAuliffe was responding like someone who has never watched Fox News. The impact was almost immediate. By midnight, Youngkin had put the debate clip into an ad with footage of Langton from the school board meeting. McAuliffe did not respond to the ad for a full 20 days—a lifetime so late in a campaign—and it hurt him. According to a recent study by the Virginia political firm Creative Direct, McAuliffe’s debate gaffe drove Youngkin’s surge in the polls in the last month of the campaign and was a critical factor for more than 80 percent of voters who made their decision in the last week of the campaign. Those concerned with McAuliffe’s debate comment broke overwhelmingly for Youngkin. 

Instead of addressing the issue of whether parents should have more control over the availability of sexually explicit books in school libraries, McAuliffe spent his final weeks on the campaign trail fighting the last war. Heading into the election, Youngkin had cut an ad featuring Laura Murphy, a Virginia mother who had sparked the 2016 legislation McAuliffe vetoed when she tried to have Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, Beloved, banned from her son’s English curriculum. The ad never even aired on TV, but it prompted McAuliffe to hand out copies of the book at campaign events, claiming Youngkin wanted to ban it. But the actual controversy over Beloved had erupted in Fairfax years before, in 2013. The book Fairfax parents were furious about in 2021 was Gender Queer. “Their damage control was all about Beloved,” says Nomani. 

“The angst there was that Terry and Democrats did not want them to know what was going on in their kids’ school. That’s the fight that we saw on the ground,” Kristin Davison, one of the Youngkin campaign’s top strategists, explained to Politico this month. “That’s why immediately—I think within three hours of the debate where Terry said ‘I don’t think parents should be involved in what the school should be teaching’—we had a video out hitting this because it tapped into just parents not knowing. And that was the fight.” No one from the McAuliffe campaign responded to requests for comment.

Of course, Gender Queer was tailor-made to light the fire, with graphic images whose context was utterly lost in the maw of social media. The political arm of the Independent Women’s Forum had even tried to put an ad on local TV using the racy images. It was rejected as too graphic. Fox News and other conservative pundits had no such qualms. Consider Kelsey Bolar, a senior policy analyst with the IWF and senior writer at the Daily Signal, a publication of the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank. 

Bolar started tweeting out the images in October to “debunk” former President Barack Obama’s claim that right-wing media had promoted “phony trumped-up culture wars and fake outrage” in the Virginia governor’s race.

A few days later, she appeared on Fox News with Jesse Watters to talk about the rejected TV ads. While she spoke, the network showed close-ups of images from Gender Queer, with the naughty bits covered with the digital equivalent of a fig leaf.

“Those TV stations deemed this ad too explicit for adults to watch,” Bolar explained. “And yet we have these images available freely and accessibly to public school students, teenagers, and even children.” Two days later, Bolar tweeted a clip from her appearance, complete with the graphic images, noting, “Never thought I’d go on national TV with my face covered in pornographic images for half the hit but alas, this is where we are.”

Nomani, too, had made the rounds of Fox News and other outlets, where she prominently displayed a copy of the book. “It’s not just some diabolical conspiracy to get a Republican elected to office,” she told me. “This is really about raw frustration that is expressing itself in political races.”

On Election Day, Nomani was on TV almost nonstop toting around a pile of books she thought should be banned in schools. She kicked off the day with an appearance on a panel of Virginia parents supporting Youngkin, hosted by Fox & Friends’ host Ainsley Earhardt. That night, she attended the Youngkin victory party and announced on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show that she’d voted for the Republican. She tweeted a video of him at the party, greeting her as “mama bear.”

“I was watching you on TV all evening,” Youngkin exclaimed. “You were great!”

He ended up winning the election by a hair, with big help from suburban Washington women in places like Fairfax County. Women voters broke 57 to 43 percent for Youngkin, according to an NBC exit poll, a 13 point swing over 2020 when white women voted for Biden over Trump.

In an age when real porn is available to any kid with a smartphone, and teenagers are Snapchatting each other dick pics—Fairfax County had its own teen sexting scandal a couple of years ago—it’s hard to believe that a graphic novel could still shock, but it did. Of course, few of the critics seem to have actually read Gender Queer, which has been badly misrepresented. Far from pornographic, it’s a sensitive coming-of-age story about a nonbinary kid wrestling with gender issues that won an Alex Award from the American Library Association in 2020. 

Yet the day after the Virginia election, Nomani went on Megyn Kelly’s show, where she held up her sticky-noted copy of Gender Queer and decried the public schools’ “assault on our little baby cubs.” Sitting in front of “Parents for Youngkin” and “Democrats for Glenn” campaign signs, Nomani mocked the idea that the book could have won an award for young people’s literature. “It may be award-winning,” Kelly responded, “but it won Glenn Youngkin the governorship of Virginia.” 

Nomani described one frame from the book as depicting “a man” with a blade through his genital area. In fact, that image is one of the author, illustrating the suffering Kobabe experienced during a first pelvic exam with an ob/gyn—an experience plenty of people can relate to. The claims that the book promotes pedophilia stem from an image of two naked young men on an ancient Greek vase depicting Plato’s Symposium—the source of one of the narrator’s elaborate fantasies.

However sensitive, this undeniably explicit book is not Judy Blume, either. There is an illustration, for instance, of the author imagining having a penis and receiving oral sex from a young woman. And there’s another frame of the same woman engaging in oral sex with a strap-on dildo. The relevant frames are a tiny part of the 240-page book—but it’s graphic enough that it might give even the most liberal parents pause.

“You know how many messages I get from liberal parents on Twitter who agree with me?” Langton told me. “Porn is not political. Nobody wants your minor children exposed to porn.”

Indeed, Langton’s school board testimony was so effective in the Youngkin campaign that conservative activists in other states have since seized on it. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has launched an investigation into “pornographic” books in public schools across the state, and school boards across the country have banned Gender Queer and other LGBTQ books from school libraries.

As a result, Langton says she’s since been accused of being part of a dark money operation. For instance, journalist Judd Legum floated the idea on his Substack and again on MSNBC in October, noting the links between Parents Defending Education, TJ parents, and the Youngkin campaign. He called issues like porn in schools “contrived” and suggested that it was being ginned up by paid political operatives.

Langton denies being part of any coordinated campaign. “Believe me, the election never crossed my mind,” she says, explaining that she had little experience with public schools until this year. Her six children had been in Catholic schools until the older ones reached high school age and she sent them to Fairfax High. “I wasn’t looking to take a flamethrower to the LGBT book collection,” Langton says. “Those books are a good thing. But it doesn’t have to be pornographic. We’re Catholic, that’s why we have six kids. I take my faith seriously. When you see this type of material, if you are a person of faith, it would be very difficult to do nothing or say nothing about it, and that’s why I went to the school board meeting.”

When she appeared at the Fairfax meeting, Langton was there with her friend Adrienne Henzel, who also testified before her about the two books, though without the visual aids or the dramatic reading, and without incident. (Henzel and her husband, Christopher Henzel, who served as ambassador to Yemen during the Trump administration, have been active protesting drag queen story hour at a county library.) Langton didn’t even know for sure if she’d even get to speak that night, as speakers are chosen through a lottery and she’d landed on the waitlist.

If she seemed to have a room full of supporters on the video, that’s because a group called Pray for Our Schools also happened to be in the audience that night. Led by Mary Beth Style, a longtime conservative activist in the county, the group has been praying the rosary outside school board meetings since 2019—something they also do at drag story hour. But that night, Style told me she was in the room because she had signed up to testify against the district’s transgender policies. (Style instead decided to direct her comments to the “one being that will listen to me,” and recited the St. Michael prayer, commonly used in exorcisms.) Style says she’s never met Langton, and that if there was any coincidence in her presence that night, it was thanks to the Holy Spirit.

Langton’s involvement seems to have stemmed from genuine concern with sexual content in the schools. Like Style, she believes that the real force at work that night at the school board meeting was “the Big Man upstairs.” Still, she can’t fully explain why she specifically sought out Gender Queer at the library in the first place. In her school board testimony, she described seeing a video from a September 9 board meeting of the Leander Independent School District in Texas where a parent named Brandi Burkman brought posters to illustrate her complaints about pornography in school library books, which she also read from. But Burkman never mentioned Gender Queer in her public comments, which focused only on Lawn Boy. Langton says the video inspired her to check her own kids’ school library for the books, which she discovered and checked out. (She sent me photos of the library stamps.)

Conservative activists across the country have been waging a war on public school libraries this year, and lists of allegedly offensive books dealing with race and gender have been circulating for months in Facebook groups and elsewhere to encourage parents to raise a stink about them. But as far as I can tell, Gender Queer, which came out in 2019, had never been the source of controversy at a school board meeting or anywhere else until Langton brought it to the Fairfax meeting in September. “I’m really sorry you think there’s a conspiracy to my concerns about porn in the schools,” she told me, offended, when I asked her about the discrepancy in her testimony. “But there just isn’t one.” 

Langton says if anyone is responsible for the national outrage over the books, it’s the Fairfax County school board. “The school board has handled this as badly as they could. It’s because of how they reacted that it became this crazy thing and made people so angry,” she says. “They shot themselves in the foot the same way Terry McAuliffe did. Now they have to answer to the American public.”

Images from left: Carlos Bernate/Bloomberg, Getty; Amazon; Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg/Getty

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and billionaire owners wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

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