Librarians fighting back against right-wing efforts to censor LGBTQ books

‘A parent has the right to determine what is best for their child, not what is best for every child’
Photo: U.S. Department of State

First published by the American Independent Foundation

As conservatives continue to demand the removal of books on LGBTQ subjects and racism from libraries, librarians and library groups are making it clear that they’re willing to push back against attempts at censorship.

Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott made news on Wednesday when he announced a criminal probe into books in school libraries that he considers “pornographic.” He wrote to the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath, to direct the agency “to investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography.” In a Nov. 8 letter to the Texas Education Agency, Abbott mentioned a book commonly targeted by conservatives in recent months, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” along with the book “In The Dream House: A Memoir. Both focus on LGBTQ people and their experiences. Abbott directed the agency to develop standards “to prevent the presence of pornography and other obscene content in Texas public schools.”

Abbott also contacted the Texas Association of School Boards on Nov. 1, telling it to identify “pornography or other inappropriate content” in school libraries and remove it. The group has since said it was “confused” by his letter because it doesn’t have regulatory authority over schools or set standards for what students should read and clarifies that this was the responsibility of school district staff.

Besides Abbott, Matt Krause, a Texas state representative who is running for attorney general, told the Texas Education Agency on Oct. 25 that he is investigating books on racism and LGBTQ subjects in several school districts.

The Texas Library Association, which has 5,000 members, released a statement the day after Krause wrote his letter saying that it opposes recent efforts to restrict access to books and that the “freedom to read is a human right” protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

“Professional librarians receive extensive education and ongoing training to qualify them to develop collections which meet the broad and varied interests and needs of their communities. Collection decisions are not made based on personal likes, dislikes, or beliefs,” the group said.

It added, “A parent has the right to determine what is best for their child, not what is best for every child.”

According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, the office is “receiving ongoing constant requests for assistance” from librarians and “perhaps more in the wake of the governor’s statements.”

Caldwell-Stone told the American Independent Foundation, in a separate interview in October, that her office was very busy dealing with related challenges and efforts to assist librarians with them. The office has helped librarians identify reviews and resource material to demonstrate books’ educational value or show that it encourages recreational reading as well as writing letters of support for these books to board members. She said librarians are working hard to fight attacks but also encouraged people who support the books being targeted to get involved at the community level.

“We find that when individuals show up at board meetings and speak out against censorship and let the board members know that they don’t support the removing books from the library because somebody doesn’t like the ideas in the books, or that clashes with their beliefs, that censorship doesn’t succeed in those communities,” Caldwell-Stone said.

In the past two weeks, at least two school districts are responding to parent efforts to take LGBTQ books out of school libraries. In Missouri, the Lindbergh School District is reviewing whether books that parents have objected to, including the LGBTQ books “This Book is Gay,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” and “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” should be removed from the high school library, and the North Kansas City School District has pulled “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, which includes LGBTQ themes, while the books are reviewed.

North Kansas City High School students have gathered hundreds of signatures to oppose permanently taking these books out of the library.

The Missouri Association of School Librarians released a statement on Wednesday that echoed the Library Association’s statement in October when it said, “MASL affirms that while each parent has a right and responsibility to determine what their own child reads, parents do not have the authority to infringe on the rights of other parents to determine what their child can read.” The group added that libraries and the “freedom to read” are central to democracy. It also cited the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights that says libraries should challenge censorship.

In addition to public school libraries, community public libraries have also been targeted by people who want to remove LGBTQ-affirming material. In Wyoming, community members have been pushing for months to remove LGBTQ books from the children and young adult section of the Campbell County Library. Its board members voted against an appeal to remove the book “This Book is Gay” in October.

Caldwell-Stone said, “It’s primarily school libraries but the challenges are spreading to public libraries as well.”

Some librarians have been particularly defiant in the face of these campaigns to remove books that represent LGBTQ people’s experiences. Kelsey Bogan, a high school librarian in Pennsylvania, tweeted, “My current favorite thing is all the librarians having to fight to keep the lgbtq+ books being challenged r [sic] also searching for more lgbtq+ books to add to the library. Like, wether [sic] u make us remove X or not u better believe we’re adding ten other LGBTQ+ graphic novels.”

Demand for LGBTQ-affirming books has held steady for the Rainbow Library Initiative, a program from GLSEN, a group focused on improving school environments for LGBTQ kids, according to the program’s manager, Michael Rady. The initiative sends schools LGBTQ-affirming books and other resources for free to schools in select counties in 19 states. Rady has received over 950 requests since the start of September. Since the program started in 2019, Rady said it’s the biggest increase in requests over a two-month period he’s ever seen. Rady said he’s unsure if the attention on these books is making a difference or if it’s the program’s expansion into more states that is responsible. But he said that despite the recent outcry, school communities want to expand LGBTQ resources in schools.

“There’s never been this much demand for queer-affirming content in schools, both from students and from teachers and from parents,” he said.