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Right-Wingers are taking over library boards to remove books on racism

Most of these opposition groups purport to be homegrown & grassroots, all have access to numerous national right-wing organizations.

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Right-wing groups are trying to stop public and school libraries from promoting racial justice and queer acceptance. LAUREN WALKER / TRUTHOUT; ADAPTED: MONICA BERTOLAZZI, SOUBRETTE / GETTY IMAGES

By Eleanor J. Bader | NILES, IL – When Joe Makula decided to run for the board of the Niles-Maine Public Library in Niles, Illinois, this spring, a community member asked him how he thought the library could better serve the area’s increasingly diverse community.

Many were stunned by his response: “Instead of stocking up on books in seven different languages, if we got people to assimilate and learn English better, I think we would do more good in that area than increasing our inventory of foreign language books.”

At the time of his candidacy, Makula was a known person in Niles, having previously led efforts to impose term limits on elected officials and stop the town mayor from filling vacant trustee positions, but his interest in the library was new. Elizabeth Lynch, an organizer with #SaveNilesLibrary, a campaign of the Niles Coalition, says that she does not know what provoked Makula’s involvement, but it quickly became apparent that his goal was “to object to the library being a community center.” He also opposed spending to repair the building’s aging roof and upgrade the facility to better bridge the digital divide separating low-income residents from their more affluent neighbors.

But despite, or perhaps because of, his political outlook, Makula — who did not respond to Truthout’s request for an interview — won the April election and now holds a seat on the library board; two other fiscal conservatives were also elected.

“Fewer than 2,000 people out of more than 57,000 who were eligible to vote, voted to fill four open slots,” Lynch told Truthout. “It was the lowest turnout ever. In addition to Makula and the other two, there was another conservative already on the board, so this gave them a four to three majority.”

Since their swearing in on May 19, the new board has wasted no time in imposing its agenda. “Their focus is to change the very nature of the library,” Lynch says. “They’ve already slashed the budget from $7.4 to $5.9 million, fired staff or reduced their hours, gone from being open 70 hours a week to being open 54, and eliminated outreach to schools and nursing homes.” In addition, she says, longtime library director Susan Dove Lempke felt she had to resign from her position after clashing with Makula and the other conservatives over the cutbacks.

At least 165 local and national groups are working to “disrupt or block lessons on race and gender,” in both traditional classrooms and public spaces.

But Lynch is hoping that the right-wing ascension will be temporary.

“On June 14, staff voted to unionize with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and hundreds of concerned community members have formed #SaveNilesLibrary,” she says. “We’re trying to assure the long-term survival of the library and make sure that Makula and the others do not get re-elected when their terms expire. We’re also trying to be there for staff, show our solidarity, and spread awareness about what Makula and his people are doing.”

A Broad Pushback

The Niles-Maine Public Library is not the only program facing draconian cutbacks or a right-wing takeover. In fact, in places ranging from Kootenai County, Idaho, to Ann Arundel County, Maryland, to Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, to the town of Frisco, Texas, local efforts are underway to limit what libraries offer — especially when it comes to promoting racial equity and gender inclusivity.

Some locales are making opposition to critical race theory — either through books or community lectures and discussions — their core focus, but other locations are adding virulent opposition to comprehensive sex education and LGBTQIA+ acceptance in a trio of concerns. What’s more, while most of these opposition groups purport to be homegrown and grassroots, all have access to the support and resources (including model legislation) of numerous national right-wing organizations. These include the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Family Research Council, Family Watch International, the Heritage Foundation and Project Blitz, as well as right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart, Fox News, the Daily Wire, Newsmax and the Washington Free Beacon. All told, NPR reports that as of late June, at least 165 local and national groups are working to “disrupt or block lessons on race and gender,” in both traditional classrooms and public spaces.

In Kootenai County, Idaho, conservatives Rachelle Ottosen and Vanessa Robinson ousted two incumbents on the Community Library Network board in May. Ottosen told the local GOP that she and her husband and children had recently moved to Idaho from western Washington State “to get away from the socialist political atmosphere.”

Like Joe Makula, Ottosen did not respond to Truthout’s request for an interview, but her website stated that she was running for the library board to promote traditional values: “I don’t think public libraries need to be an extension of scriptural knowledge only, but they sure shouldn’t be forcing taxpayer funding of Satanic agendas that lead to the destruction of our nation,” she said.

“What does it say to a kid who is trans or gay if their identity needs to be shielded from the public and placed behind a desk?”

As extreme as this sounds, this is not the first time that U.S. public libraries have found themselves in the right-wing’s crosshairs. In fact, during the Cold War, libraries across the country were condemned for stocking “communist propaganda,” and librarians were attacked for giving The Nation, The New Republic, The New World Review and the Negro Digest space on their shelves. Some places were even more vitriolic in their denunciation of the “Red Menace.” In San Antonio, Texas, for example, journalist James Rorty, writing in Commentary Magazine, reported that local lawmakers had compiled a list of 600 books allegedly penned by “communist sympathizers.” All were stamped on their inside covers with a message denouncing the “traitorous” author. Among the books labeled: Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

In today’s world, of course, the Red Menace is no longer dominant; instead, critical race theory, feminism and anything affirming a continuum of gender identities have jelled into a new bogeyman.

And nothing sticks in the conservative craw like Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH).

According to Jonathan Hamilt, executive director of DQSH, the program was created in 2015 by writer Michelle Tea and RADAR Productions. “It started as drag queens reading stories to children in libraries and grew into a global phenomenon,” Hamilt told Truthout. “DQSH now offers literary and creative programming for kids and teens of all ages by Drag Queens, Kings and Creatures.” Readings take place in libraries, schools, summer camps and book stores and are intended “to capture the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of childhood and give kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models. Kids see people defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress-up is real,” Hamilt says.

But despite its growth and popularity — it has not only run programs in at least 25 U.S. cities, but also in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Mexico and Sweden — Hamilt says that the program has also unleashed a barrage of hate. “I, myself, get multiple death threats and hate mail on a daily basis,” he says. “Among the charges: DQSH ‘promotes perversion’ and is ‘social engineering.’ Some dub it ‘child abuse.’”

It’s not just drag royalty who are being denigrated.

Lambda award-winning author Julia Watts found herself the target of right-wing animosity in 2019. Shortly after her 2018 novel, Quiver, was published, Watts was invited to read at LitUp Festival, an event sponsored by the Knox County, Tennessee, Public Library System. “It was going to be a big event to encourage teen readers with a lot of programming put together by the kids,” Watts told Truthout. She says she was pleased to be invited — and then shocked to have the offer rescinded.

“I was surprised and angry that this happened to me; I was the only author to be disinvited. I was told it was because I’d written lesbian erotica and apparently this made some of the adults nervous.” But after this happened, Watts says she got incredible support. “I was amazed at how far the news of my disinvitation had travelled and I was interviewed by a bunch of national publications and given an intellectual freedom award in 2020 from the American Library Association. People understood that if you censor one writer, it’s a slippery slope to censoring others.”

Right’s Focus Expands

Richard Price, an associate professor of political science at Weber State University in Utah, created a blog called AdventuresinCensorship.com in 2018 and notes that many of the books that have met with community opposition — including In Our Mother’s House, Heather Has Two Mommies, Daddy’s Roommate, Call Me Max, George and I Am Jazz — depict LGBTQIA people respectfully. “Parents have demanded that these books be removed, or put on a ‘parental reserve shelf’ so that kids need to get an adult’s permission to read them,” Price told Truthout. “What does it say to a kid who is trans or gay if their identity needs to be shielded from the public and placed behind a desk?”

Until 2020, Price says, most of the books on the American Library Association’s annual list of Most Censored texts were queer-themed. That changed last year, Price reports, following the police murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other people of color.

“The 2020 list is representative of the white grievance politics that former President Trump exemplified and amplified,” Adventures in Censorship concludes.

In Frisco, Texas, the brouhaha took shape after Cicely Lewis, named 2020’s National School Librarian of the Year by School Library Journal and Scholastic, proposed a voluntary reading challenge for students: to read 10 books “that cover current topics faced in society.”

“They basically understand that if young people are introduced to ideas about diversity and inclusion, we are creating an incubator for them to question every ‘traditional’ value.”

The Frisco School Libraries decided to implement the suggestion and created a list of optional readings. Among the recommended texts: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds; Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo; The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert; and Frankly in Love by David Yoon.

Far right parents, lawmakers and religious leaders called this “indoctrination” and zeroed in on a local high school librarian for particular acrimony. Although she asked that her name not be used to protect her safety and the safety of her family, she said that she understands that the conservative agenda goes beyond targeting specific individuals. “The far right in Frisco wants to dismantle public education and make our school district even whiter and more Christian-centric than it already is,” she told Truthout. “Our library reading program is optional. If the kids read all 10 books and write something, they get a T-shirt. I wrote a Facebook post saying that we want all kids to see themselves reflected on the library shelves. That post put me on the far right’s radar. I guess they’re upset that we recognize that students have different faces and this impacts how they’re perceived and received by teachers, librarians and society at large.”

Christine Soyong Harley, president and CEO of SIECUS: Sex Ed for Social Change, has seen the culture wars that surround changing racial and gender dynamics play out over the past few decades. Although the right has long been fixated on sexual expression, she says that opposition to sex ed in the schools and LGBTQIA inclusion is merely one facet of the right’s overall ideology. “For years, the Christian right has been worried about what it will mean for gender-queer folks to be treated as equal to straight people. This year, we’ve seen the idea of critical race theory become popularized, and it has pushed these folks to consider what will happen if all people of color are treated as equal to whites. They basically understand that if young people are introduced to ideas about diversity and inclusion, we are creating an incubator for them to question every ‘traditional’ value.”

And that, she says, represents a threat to white supremacists — and an incredible opportunity for organizing, whether through electing people who support diversity to library boards, or mobilizing community support for inclusive programming through mass meetings, street protests, petition drives or public demonstrations.

Correction: This article was updated on July 15 to clarify a quote by Joe Makula, and to clarify that Elizabeth Lynch is an organizer with #SaveNilesLibrary, a campaign of the Niles Coalition.

Eleanor J. Bader is an award-winning journalist who writes about domestic social issues, movements for social change, books and art. In addition to Truthout, she writes for The Progressive, Lilith Magazine and blog, the LA Review of Books, Fiction Writers Review and other online and print publications.

The preceding article is Copyright © Truthout and is republished by permission.

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Louisiana lawmakers fail to overturn Edwards veto of Trans sports bill

Edwards further said that the bill was “mean” because it targets “the most emotionally fragile children in the state of Louisiana.”

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Louisiana Democratic Governor John Bel Edwards (Photo Credit: Official state portrait)

BATON ROUGE – Louisiana lawmakers failed to override Gov. John Bel Edwards’ (D) veto last month of a bill that would have barred trans girls and women from participating on athletic teams or in sporting events designated for girls or women at elementary, secondary and postsecondary schools.

The measure, Senate Bill 156 authored by Sen. Beth Mizell titled the ‘the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act,’ in the Governor’s eyes, “was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana,” Edwards said in his veto statement;

“As I have said repeatedly when asked about this bill, discrimination is not a Louisiana value, and this bill was a solution in search of a problem that simply does not exist in Louisiana. Even the author of the bill acknowledged throughout the legislative session that there wasn’t a single case where this was an issue. 

The Republican majority state House chamber failed to override the Governor’s veto after voting 68-30 to override it, according to the state legislature’s website.

The vote narrowly missed the 70-vote threshold needed in the lower chamber to override the veto.

Two-thirds of both the House and Senate must vote to override a governor’s veto, according to the local Baton Rouge newspaper The Advocate.

The Governor reacted to the news that his veto withstood Republican efforts to overturn it in a press conference Wednesday.

Edwards noted that in his view he had “rejected a play” that had no place in Louisiana. 

“I would rather the headlines going out from today be that Louisiana did what was right and best. We rejected a play out of a national playbook that just had no place in Louisiana. That bill wasn’t crafted for our state, I mean go read it and look at the arguments that were made. None of that applies here,” Edwards said.

He further said that the bill was “mean” because it targets “the most emotionally fragile children in the state of Louisiana.” 

“We have to be better than that,” Edwards said. “We have to be better than that.” 

 

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Federal court blocks West Virginia Law banning Trans youth sports

“It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.”

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Becky Pepper-Jackson (Photo credit: ACLU/Raymond Thompson)


CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A judge of the United States District Court, Southern District of West Virginia ruled Wednesday that 11-year-old Becky Pepper-Jackson must be allowed to try out for the girls’ cross-country and track teams at her school, blocking West Virginia from enforcing a law that bans transgender girls and women from participating in school sports. 

The ruling came in the lawsuit challenging the ban filed by Lambda Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of West Virginia, and Cooley LLP.

“I am excited to know that I will be able to try out for the girls’ cross-country team and follow in the running shoes of my family,” said Becky Pepper-Jackson, the plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It hurt that the State of West Virginia would try to block me from pursuing my dreams. I just want to play.”

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signed H.B. 3293 into law at the end of April. It was one of hundreds of anti-LGBTQ bills pushed in state legislatures across the country in 2021. During legislative debate, it was not endorsed by any mainstream sporting or health organizations. A similar law in Idaho was blocked by a federal court in 2020, and a federal court in Connecticut recently dismissed a challenge to policies that allow all girls, including girls who are transgender, to participate on girls’ sports teams. Legal challenges are underway against similar laws passed in other states.

The Supreme Court recently refused to disturb Gavin Grimm’s victory at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, where he prevailed in challenging his school’s anti-transgender discrimination against him. This decision — which is binding precedent in West Virginia federal court — said that federal law protects transgender students from discrimination in schools.

“This is great news for Becky, and while our work is not done yet, today’s ruling jibes with similar rulings in other courts across the country,” said Avatara Smith-Carrington, Tyron Garner Memorial Law Fellow, Lambda Legal. “It is our hope that courts recognize and address discrimination when they see it, and nowhere is it more visible than in these stark attacks against trans youth.”

“Becky — like all students — should have the opportunity to try out for a sports team and play with her peers,” said Josh Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project. “We hope this also sends a message to other states to stop demonizing trans kids to score political points and to let these kids live their lives in peace.” 

“We’ve said all along this cruel legislation would not survive a legal challenge, and we’re encouraged by the court’s decision today,” said ACLU-WV Legal Director Loree Stark. “We hope trans kids throughout West Virginia who felt attacked and wronged by the passage of this legislation are feeling empowered by today’s news.”

“We are extremely gratified — for Becky, and for all trans youth — at the court’s recognition that the law and the facts clearly support treating people who are transgender fairly and equally. Discrimination has no place in schools or anywhere else,” said Kathleen Hartnett of Cooley LLP.

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Conservative groups attack proposed Alabama capital city’s LGBTQ law

The groups allege that the law would require Christians to violate their religious beliefs or face fines under certain circumstances

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Approach to the Alabama State Capitol (Blade file photo)

MONTGOMERY – The Alabama capital’s City Council is being urged to reject a proposed ordinance that would make sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes under the law.  Matthew Clark, the Executive Director of the conservative Alabama Center for Law and Liberty sent a letter on behalf of his group and six allied organizations asking the Council to abandon a vote implementing the ordnance.

According to the letter, the groups allege that the law would require Christians to violate their religious beliefs or face fines under certain circumstances. Prominent among the other signatures is Mathew D. Staver, Chairman of Liberty Counsel which the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an extremist anti-LGBTQ hate group.

The SPLC, which has its headquarters in Montgomery, writes; “The Liberty Counsel has also been active in the battle against same-sex marriage and hate crimes legislation, which it claimed in a 2007 news release to be “’thought crimes’ laws that violate the right to freedom of speech and of conscience” and will “have a chilling effect on people who have moral or religious objections to homosexual behavior.” In that same release, the Liberty Counsel falsely claimed that the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo., had nothing to do with homosexuality, but instead was “a bungled robbery.”

In the letter Clark noted; ““As we read the ordinance, churches could be fined if they refuse to allow transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, and they might be fined if they refused to let same-sex couples use their facilities for weddings,” Clark said. “They could also be fined if they declined to hire non-ministerial personnel, such as facility managers or secretaries, whose sexual orientation or gender identity contradicts the tenants of the church’s faith.”

“Christian schools, small business owners, and homeowners are also in the crosshairs. Schools could face liability if they decline to let transgender students use the locker rooms of their choice,” Clark said. “Small business owners like Jack Phillips [referring to Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission] could face liability. And homeowners who list their homes on Airbnb could be fined if they declined to let a same-sex couple engage in sexual activities in their home that violate the tenants of their faith.”

Clark then warned the City Council that if it passes the ordinance, litigation could result and the City would likely lose.

The Montgomery Advertiser reported last month that City Mayor Steven Reed said a council vote in favor of the LGTBQ nondiscrimination ordinance that’s now being drafted in Montgomery would send a message. 

“There are signals that communities can send, and this is an important signal not only to those residents that live here right now but people all over the country that have maybe one idea of Alabama and Montgomery, and we want to show them that there’s a different reality here,” he said. 

Reed and his team have been working with the Human Rights Campaign and other advocacy groups to draft an ordinance that would expand protections for LGBTQ residents in the state’s capital city. The proposed measure, which would specifically target discrimination in government, employment and housing based on sexual orientation or gender identity the Advertiser reported.

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