From book bans to armed Proud Boys militia, US libraries bear the brunt of LGBT+ ‘culture war’

Pride Month displays and events were held in libraries across the US (Getty Images)
Pride Month displays and events were held in libraries across the US (Getty Images)

When a group of children and their parents recently sat down for a “Drag Queen Storytime” event not far from Reno, Nevada, there was some comfort in the presence of local police.

In the San Francisco Bay Area only two weeks earlier, men dressed in Proud Boys uniforms walked into a library to disrupt a similar LGBT+ reading event by hurling homophobic and transphobic slurs.

Similar episodes have recently occurred in South Bend, Indiana, and Woodland, California.

So when organisers of the Drag Queen Storytime event in Sparks, Nevada, an incorporated city on Reno’s eastside, began last Sunday – police were on the lookout for any sign of trouble.

Alarm bells rang out when a man dressed in the yellow and black of the Proud Boys militia group arrived on scene with a gun – causing children and their parents to run for cover.

What should have been a celebration of all things LGBT+ turned out to be yet another example of how America’s libraries are on the frontline of the so-called US “culture war” and anti-LGBT+ antagonism.

In an email to The Independent, children’s author Joanna McClintick said the people behind recent library protests wanted to erase LGBT+ people from all public spaces and were using “groomer” insults as a choice of weapon.

In Sparks, one of the many placards held by protesters read: “Drag Queens go home. Leave our kids alone”.

“The politicians and activists behind recent attacks are trying to erase LGBTQ+ people and families from public spaces,” McClintick said. “And they’re doing it by saying anyone who disagrees with them is a threat to kids.”

Protesters outside the Sparks Library in Nevada clash with LGBT+ supporters (WRAL)
Protesters outside the Sparks Library in Nevada clash with LGBT+ supporters (WRAL)

Claims that gay men were “groomers” – a slur that was even hurled at Disney World following the company’s support of LGBT+ rights in Florida earlier this year – have been aired on social media by the far right.

McClintick, whose book ‘Twas the Night Before Pride has been championed by LGBT+ families, said that on the contrary, queer children seeing affirming literature was vital for their personal development.

“As a queer parent and author, and as someone whose career is dedicated to working with and for LGBTQ+ people, I’ve seen firsthand how positive, realistic representations of LGBTQ+ identities can prevent feelings of isolation in young queer and trans people,” she said.

McClintick added that reading and seeing LGBT+ literature can also increase acceptance among non-LGBT+ people.

“It is within our constitutional right to exist, to assemble, to express ourselves freely whether in speech or regalia, to congregate as a community, and celebrate who we are,” Sam Kiley-LaRoche of the LGBT Community Center in New York told The Independent.

“Folks who have problems with queer and trans people do not have to attend, do not have to walk into public libraries; they are welcome to stay home and not participate. Your attendance at Pride is not mandatory.”

For McClintick, the fact that the Drag Queen storytime events were targeted during Pride Month showed that for LGBT+ people, visibility is not enough to ensure acceptance or safety.

“Clearly, this disturbing trend is showing us that visibility does not equal safety and acceptance,” she said. “And while those who would ban books, physically threaten others for existing in public spaces, or support censorship are in the minority, they certainly are loud.”

A sign advertising the Drag Queen story time in Sparks, Nevada (WRAL)
A sign advertising the Drag Queen story time in Sparks, Nevada (WRAL)

Not far from the LGBT Community Center where both McClintick and Kiley-LaRoche held an Instagram live event this week on the importance of queer literature for children, a New York library was recently forced into a sharp U-turn on an LGBT+ ban.

New York governor Kathy Hotchul ordered an investigation into a library in Smithtown, on Long Island, after a board of trustees voted to remove Pride displays and books. The New York Library Association (NYLA) also condemned the removal of LGBT+ books and displays by Smithtown library’s board of trustees.

“This ban of any displays related to Pride sets a dangerous precedent for libraries across the state because it normalises the victimisation of LGBTQ+ youth in their schools and in their communities, which has dire consequences,” said the NYLA in a statement last month.

The association cited mental health concerns among LGBT+ youth and that, according to The Trevor Project, as many as 40 per cent of the group had considered suicide in 2020. About half of LGBT+ students in New York schools had meanwhile seen discrimination in some form, the NYLA said.

“For many LGBTQ+ youth, libraries are the only safe, affirmative, and welcoming space during these formative years of their personal development. Libraries, for our LGBTQ+ youth,” the association continued. “(Libraries) are the first place where they see themselves for exactly who they are without retribution.”

AnnaLeeDragon, the executive director of the NYLA, said in an email to The Independent that the incident in Smithtown “sparked a larger conversation about the rising threat to dismantle intellectual freedom and the freedom to read”.

“Therefore, we will continue to hold library boards accountable to uphold these fundamental and core values in libraries across the state, and to defer to the expertise and professionalism of their librarians and library workers,” she said.

In other states, such as Texas, young people are less fortunate when it comes to the censorship of LGBT+ titles and reports of school boards stripping library shelves of anything queer are not uncommon.

Asked what more could be done following the spate of book bans and protests at Drag Queen story time events, McClintick said LGBT+ people and their supports needed to be louder than those on the right – and importantly, need to be active in their resistance against homophobia, transphobia and other discrimination.

“So we need to be vocal, too! Go to your library and request books about LGBTQ+ identity. Talk about it in school. Read to your kids,” she said. “If you’re concerned, there’s actually a lot that you can do right now.”

Kiley-LaRoche agreed, saying it was worth putting the recent threats and aggression into context.

“They aren’t new. They’re part of a long history of far-right discrimination and misinformation that targets LGBTQ+ people by falsely claiming our identities are a threat to children,” they said. “The fact that we’re seeing its resurgence today is cause for serious concern and action.”