The principal of a Georgia elementary school apologized to parents last week after a guest author who was discussing his research into a co-creator of Batman told a group of fifth graders that the co-creator’s son was gay.
The author, Marc Tyler Nobleman, said the principals of two other elementary schools in the district where he was speaking had asked him to stick to “appropriate” material and omit that detail of his research. When he refused, his remaining presentations were canceled.
Mr. Nobleman is the author of “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman,” a biography that champions the role the comic book writer Bill Finger played in the creation of the superhero, for which the cartoonist Bob Kane long received sole credit.
Mr. Nobleman was invited to the Forsyth County school district north of Atlanta last week to tell students how his research had helped reveal and win acknowledgment for Mr. Finger’s contributions to the development of Batman, which included the character’s instantly recognizable pointy-eared cowl and names like “Bruce Wayne” and “Gotham City.”
Mr. Nobleman said he notes in his presentations to students that Mr. Finger’s only child, Fred, was gay because the fact played a key role in Mr. Finger’s legacy. After he died, nearly penniless, in 1974, many fans believed that securing an official credit for his work on Batman for Mr. Finger would be impossible without a living heir, Mr. Nobleman said. Some had assumed, he added, that no heir existed, because Fred was gay, and died in 1992.
But in the course of Mr. Nobleman’s research, he discovered that Fred Finger did, in fact, have a daughter, Athena Finger. She helped secure an official credit for her grandfather as a creator of Batman from DC Entertainment, in 2015.
Mr. Nobleman said that after he had mentioned that Fred was gay during his first talk to fifth-grade students at Sharon Elementary School on Aug. 21, the school’s principal passed him a note during his second presentation, asking him to “only share the appropriate parts of the story.”
Later that day, the principal, Brian Nelson, emailed the families of the fifth-grade students to apologize for what their children had heard. “This is not subject matter that we were aware that he was including nor content that we have approved for our students,” he wrote, adding that “action was taken to ensure that this was not included in Mr. Nobleman’s subsequent speeches.”
The next day, Mr. Nobleman said, he had acquiesced to a request not to use the word “gay” from the principal of a second elementary school in the district, saying he had felt “trapped.”
The decision went against his conscience, in part, he said, because “the point” of hosting a visiting author is “to give kids something that maybe they’re not getting in their community.”
He did not omit the word “gay” during a presentation at a third school on Wednesday.
“In the best interest of these kids, I can’t do that anymore,” he said he had told the school’s principal and the district’s chief spokeswoman, Jennifer Caracciolo.
The remaining presentations at the school were canceled, Ms. Caracciolo said, because “what Mr. Nobleman shared was a topic that was not appropriate to meet our state standards” and would have been more appropriate for older students.
“It would be almost like if someone was doing a speech to kindergartners and they talked about the Holocaust and the horrors of the Holocaust,” she said, adding that the district had used the episode to remind its principals that all instructional resources, including guest speakers, must be “thoroughly vetted.”
Georgia Republicans have introduced bills to prohibit classroom instruction and discussion about sexual orientation and gender identity, similar to a Florida law that was recently expanded to ban discussions on those subjects to all grade levels. Efforts to pass such a sweeping law, which critics have nicknamed “Don’t say gay,” have so far been unsuccessful in Georgia.
Ms. Caracciolo said the district had heard from parents who were supportive of the apology. But other families were shocked, including members of the Forsyth Coalition for Education, a nonpartisan group of parents and educators seeking to push back against conservative efforts to restrict what can be taught in the district.
“Imagine opening an email and reading the message that your sexual orientation, your family, your child, your very existence as a gay person warrants apology and an assurance that no discussion of your existence will be allowed,” the coalition wrote in an email to district officials.
The controversy erupted months after the U.S. Department of Education concluded that the school district, which leans Republican, may have violated students’ civil rights by removing certain books from its libraries, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” George M. Johnson’s memoir about growing up Black and queer in America.
Dawn Anderson said her son, a fifth grade student at Sharon Elementary, had come home thrilled by Mr. Nobleman’s talk. She said she was not surprised that the school had felt the need to inform parents that the word “gay” was said, given the county’s political leanings.
But Mr. Nobleman’s mention of the fact that Mr. Finger’s son was gay was “pertinent to the story,” and not a form of sex education, Ms. Anderson said. In her response to the school principal’s email, she wrote, “‘Gay’ isn’t a four-letter word.”