Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City. The book has become central to ads run by opponents of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat who has been generally supportive of LGBTQ rights during her tenure at the Blaine House. Credit: Rick Bowmer / AP

A national conservative group that’s vowing to spend millions of dollars targeting LGBTQ issues in state races across the country has launched its opening salvo in the Maine governor’s race. The American Principles Project is highlighting graphic excerpts from the book, “Gender Queer,” an award-winning memoir about gender identity and sexuality. The book has been swept up in conservative efforts to assail public education curricula.

A text message sent to an unknown number of Maine voters tells recipients that Democratic Gov. Janet Mills “put this disgusting content in Maine schools” and directs them to an ad on YouTube.

The ad highlights what it considers explicit scenes in “Gender Queer,” an autobiographical graphic novel by Maia Kobabe that won the American Library Association’s Alex Award for young adults in 2020, but that’s now at the center of a significant spike in book banning efforts across the country.

“This is the kind of literature Janet Mills wants your kids exposed to,” the ad said.

The ad is from a group calling itself Maine Families First, which last week applied to become a political action committee with the state ethics commission.

But the ad is also part of a national campaign targeting Democrats by the American Principles Project, or APP, a nonprofit with officers associated with another   group opposing same-sex marriage and that can also shield the identity of its donors.

A similar ad is circulating in Michigan and making the same claims about Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, highlighting the same passages from the same book.

Both ads are part of what the APP recently described on Twitter as a multimillion dollar effort to “hold Democrats accountable for grooming our kids.”

“Grooming” is a serious sexualization charge that’s been used by the far right to oppose LGBTQ education in public schools.

Scott Ogden, a spokesperson for Mills’ reelection campaign, contested the ad’s central claim, noting that parents and school boards, not governors, decide what books will be made available in Maine libraries and classrooms .

“And that’s consistent with Maine’s longstanding tradition of local control,” Ogden said. “Look, Maine parents don’t want a governor interfering in that process, to dictate what books should or shouldn’t be in their kids’ classroom.”

Ogden added that voters know that Mills is committed to funding public education and supporting educators.

“And so they’ll see through this false and pernicious attack from what is an out-of-state organization that’s attempting to scare and marginalize people,” he said.

APP, which earlier this year mimicked the name of a Maine news organization to   test anti-LGBTQ messages for the governor’s race, has frequently wielded the “grooming” charge in what its president Terry Schilling has described as an electoral game-changer for Republicans.

“If Republicans try to avoid the issue and instead try to talk about adult conversations with balancing the budget and lowering taxes for business owners, we’re going to get killed and we’re not even going to win that many seats,” Schilling said. “But if we go on offense and make the election about what Democrats want to do to the unborn, to our daughters in sports, to our daughters and their privacy and safety, all of that. If we go on offense and expose the Democrats for how extreme they are, we are going to win every election from here to kingdom come.”

That was Schilling recently talking about the issue on a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon, an arch conservative activist and one-time advisor to former President Donald Trump.

Schilling is listed as the principle officer for Maine Families First, while the PAC registration form lists its lead decision maker as Joe Proenza, the former campaign manager for Georgia Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Asked to back-up the ad’s claim that Gov. Mills is putting books like “Gender Queer” in Maine schools, Schilling responded in an email and pointed to a page on the Maine Department of Education website listing resources for LGBTQ instruction.

The page includes a link to LGBTQ books   recommended by the American Library Association, including “Gender Queer,” which Schilling says isn’t even the most offensive on the list.

But Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression at PEN America, says “Gender Queer” is on the library association list for a good reason.

“There are a lot of people who have found this book to be quite moving, to speak to them and their identities,” Friedman said.

But Friedman said the illustrated novel has become the focal point of backlash to LGBTQ rights and an explosion in campaigns to remove certain books in school libraries and public libraries.

Maine school districts have experienced this debate, too.

Last week, the School Administrative District 6 Board of Directors in Buxton voted to keep LGTBQ books like “Gender Queer” in school libraries despite opposition from some parents.

In August, RSU 56 school board in Dixfield went the other direction, voting to ban “Gender Queer” from the Dirigo High School library after a meeting in which Republican state Sen. Lisa Keim   framed the book as indoctrinating students with “distorted views on human sexuality.”

“The book ‘Gender Queer’ inflicts harm. It is vile and pornographic in its content,” Keim said.

PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman said focusing on the explicit scenes in ‘Gender Queer’ has led opponents to basely assign nefarious motives such as grooming to its presence in American libraries.

“To the say the publication or the writing of this book is somehow only and certainly being directed toward those aims is a stretch,” he said.

And Friedman worries simplistic political and campaign rhetoric can lead to censorship or the suppression of literature by, and for, marginalized people.

PEN America describes these efforts as educational gag orders on race and LGBTQ issues.

It documented 137 bills in 36 different state legislatures this year, a 250% increase from last year.

“And that’s why we have to protect the freedom of expression and the freedom of people to artistically create and to consume and read other people’s art,” he said. “That is what is going on here.”

That likely won’t be the message Maine voters receive during the gubernatorial campaign.

Schilling’s group already spent $100,000 on its text messaging campaign, and while he wouldn’t say how much more has been budgeted for Maine, the American Principles Project has said that it plans to spend roughly $10 million in several states.

This story appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.