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Catholic hospital chain escalates church war on LGBTQ+ workers

They’re working to set a legal precedent opening the door to workplace discrimination on a vast scale for LGBTQ people

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Image licensed from Adobe Stock

By James Finn | DETROIT – Do you think the rapidly growing trend of Catholic schools firing LGBTQ teachers, counselors, social workers, and custodians is off the chain? Think it’s more than rich that the Catholic Church gets away with violating employment law by claiming all staff — even when they aren’t Catholic — are religious ministers? Angry the U.S. Supreme Court lets the Church get away with such a ridiculous argument?

Well, clutch your pearls, boys and girls, cuz you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

Chain of Catholic hospitals throws down discrimination gauntlet

OSF HealthCare, a hospital chain owned and operated by an order of Catholic nuns in Peoria, Illinois, just opened a new front in the Catholic Church’s war on their LGBTQ employees. The chain, which dominates hospital care in parts of Illinois, with a near-monopoly in children’s care in Peoria, treats millions of patients per year with annual revenue exceeding 3.1 billion dollars. The chain employs 24,000 workers across Illinois and Michigan.

The Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, who run OSF, just threw down a legal gauntlet with frightening implications.

According to reporting in Bloomberg yesterday, OSF announced a new policy that will deny some health care to LGBTQ workers by limiting fertility-treatment coverage to married, opposite-sex couples. Lawyers say excluding same-sex married couples from coverage is a “pretty clear violation” of federal workplace discrimination law. OSF’s new policy is a direct challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 Bostock v. Clayton County decision.

Let’s break down what’s going on and why this is a critical development

First, this is unprecedented. Noel León, an attorney representing LGBTQ patients suing Aetna over fertility coverage, told Bloomberg she had not heard of policy language anywhere being “so explicit” about excluding same-sex couples. She’s helping clients sue institutions that either won’t pay for fertility treatment at all or who use excuses to deny coverage to LGBTQ people. She expressed surprise that any institution would cleary announce an intent to discriminate against same-sex couples.

* Ask yourself how likely it is they’ll treat LGBTQ people decently if the law doesn’t force them to. If you follow Catholic news at all, that’s a frightening thought. *

Second, state law doesn’t apply, even though Illinois has some of the toughest laws in the U.S. protecting LGBTQ workers. OSF workers won’t be able to sue in state court because Illinois non-discrimination laws do not apply to self-funded health care plans. (At least one lawyer I reached out to, however, says suing the plan administrator, BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, might be feasible.)

Third, federal law, regulations, and Supreme Court precedents are united in barring discrimination against LGBTQ workers. Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of sex. During the Obama administration, federal agencies began to include LGBTQ people in their enforcing regulations, presuming “on the basis of sex” included sexual orientation. The Trump administration reversed that interpretation, but in 2020 in Bostock v. Clayton County, the Supreme Court ruled definitively that discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity equals discriminating on the basis of sex.

Long and short, Title 7 now clearly protects LGBTQ people as a class in the workplace, everywhere in the U.S.

The nuns in Peoria want to discriminate, and they say they have a religious right to, despite clear federal law.

Does Title 7 let the nuns claim a religious exemption? No, they don’t have the law’s text or enforcement history on their side. Here’s an excerpt from the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission explaining religious exceptions to Title 7:

Title VII allows “religious organizations” and “religious educational institutions” (those organizations whose purpose and character are primarily religious) to hire and employ people who share their own religion (in other words, it is not unlawful religious discrimination for a qualifying employer to limit hiring in this way). Courts also apply a “ministerial exception” that bars certain employment discrimination claims by the employees of religious institutions because those employees perform vital religious duties at the core of the mission of the religious institution.

That’s it, that’s all. The nuns who want to discriminate against LGBTQ employees get zero help from the text of Title 7. First, OSF does not meet the Title 7 definition of religious organization. The network is not a “primarily religious” entity. It’s a hospital chain whose primary purpose is providing medical care. OSF employees — from maintenance workers, to nurses, to surgeons, to managers with PhDs in health administration — are no more likely to be Catholic than workers at any health care network. None of them are required or expected to perform religious duties.

Catholic schools that claim social workers and janitors are “religious ministers” have at least some case to make given the schools exist to educate children. But nobody has ever claimed Catholic hospital workers are religious ministers, and the Peoria nuns, if they are sued by a gay couple, won’t be using that as a defense. That’s what makes their new policy so disturbing. They’re trying to force open a broad new avenue to let nominally religious corporations exclude LGBTQ people.

Enter Alliance Defending Freedom, stage right, jumping in bed with the nuns

If you’re not familiar with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), they’re an organization of extremist right-wing lawyers the Southern Policy Law Center calls an anti-LGBTQ hate group. They’re on the record calling gay people pedofiles, urging the criminalization of same-gender sex, fighting to block same-sex marriage laws at home and abroad — often using provocative language that demonizes queer people.

Guess who the nuns are in bed with?

Yup, the ADF has come out swinging for them, and while they might not yet legally represent OSF, they’ve made it clear they intend to if federal lawsuits are filed. In fact, the nuns’ new discriminatory policy looks expressly designed to provoke a federal court fight.

The ADF’s position?

The government cannot force religious health care providers to violate their beliefs. Even if government officials disagree with the beliefs of a Catholic health care entity, the organization still has the freedom to provide insurance policies and health care services consistent with its convictions.

— ADF Senior Counsel Matt Bowman

Note that this is wishful thinking on Bowman’s part, despite the Supreme Court’s 2014 Hobby Lobby decision. He wants Catholic hospitals to have the clear legal right to discriminate, and he seems anxious to use this case to turn the ADF’s dream into a reality. Given extremist makeup of the current high court, his wishful thinking is not a pipe dream.

Catholic hospitals are not churches, no matter who owns them

Let’s talk about why giving Catholic hospitals free rein to discriminate based on religious belief is a terrible idea for society. First, the Catholic share of the U.S. hospital sector is enormous and growing. One out of six hospital beds in the U.S. was Catholic in 2016, and that percentage has grown steadily since.

According to the non-profit think tank Community Catalyst, Catholic hospital chains are expanding while others are shrinking. Many U.S. communities, particularly in rural areas, have access only to Catholic hospitals.

Second, Catholic hospitals accept public (mostly federal) funding at identical levels to non-Catholic and non-religious hospitals. Without taxpayer support, Catholic hospitals would, like all hospitals, go out of business. They are not charities in the sense that Catholic donations keep them afloat. In fact, charitable donations by Catholics in the pews play no significant role operating any U.S. Catholic hospital chain. Catholic hospitals are inextricably interlinked into the broader network of the American healthcare “system,” existing to serve and employ everyone in the sector.

OSF is a multi-billion dollar corporation, but it’s actually one of the smallest Catholic chains in the U.S. By comparison, the Catholic Ascension Health of St. Louis and CommonSpirit Health of Chicago are each more than 10 times larger.

These are vast, powerful networks that employ hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers and treat tens of millions of patients every year. Given their revenue is split between income from insurance companies and Medicare/Medicaid/VA payments, why should they have the privilege to disregard non-discrimination laws that apply to every other player in the field?

Look, if you’re a pediatrician in the Peoria area, you have one choice of pediatrics hospital to work for, and it’s owned by OSF. If you want to work at any job at any hospital in the Peoria area, odds are you’ll end up at an OSF facility — subject to whatever discriminatory workplace rules the nuns decide to enforce against LGBTQ people.

That is, if the ADF gets its way in this case.

This particular case is narrow, affecting only a small number of LGBTQ workers seeking fertility treatment, but the implications are much broader. If federal judges decide the nuns can disregard Title 7 law with respect to fertility treatment, then Title 7 could be rendered toothless.

Now pull the camera back and see broad swathes of the U.S. where the powerful Catholic Church is buying and running hospitals funded by taxpayers. Ask yourself how likely it is they’ll treat LGBTQ people decently if the law doesn’t force them to. If you follow Catholic news at all, that’s a frightening thought.

LGBTQ people deserve health care like any other people in the U.S.

Our marriages are not second-class. Neither are our legal rights. No employer should have the right to deny us care based on religious belief. This is basic. This is about decency and fairness for people living in a diverse society.

On some level, the Peoria nuns seem to understand that denying health care is indecent. They say this on their website:

We strive to serve the sick and the poor with the greatest care and love, and never to turn away anyone who comes to us for care.

The nuns are lying. They’re working to turn away their own LGBTQ employees, which would set a legal precedent opening the door to workplace discrimination on a vast scale.

That’s what the ADF is after too. They’ve been dead clear about that for decades.

Are you Catholic? Odds are, you hate what these nuns are doing. Can I ask you a question?

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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Mar-A-Lago is Stonewall? Gay Republicans grovel for Trump

Trump today supports the most right-wing, anti-trans, anti-gay candidates for state office the nation has ever seen

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Donald Trump takes a wrecking ball to democracy. Photo by DonkeyHotey. (CC BY-SA 2.0) Log Cabin Republicans logo superimposed by author.

By James Finn | DETROIT – If you can’t guess from my headline, I don’t much care for the Log Cabin Republicans. They’re an advocacy group of gay men and a smattering of lesbians who support Republican politics and say they deserve a place at the GOP table.

I don’t dislike the Log Cabin crowd because I’m a Democrat, though. When they formed in 1977 to fight as GOP insiders against a California law banning gay teachers in public schools, they were doing vital equality work. When they they stood up for same-sex marriage nationally, they accepted a damaging political cost.

The Log Cabin Republicans of today, however, are nothing like who they used to be.

I don’t dislike them because they’re Republicans; I oppose their implacable opposition to genuine equality for LGBTQ Americans. I recoil at their recent, rapid (rabid?) embrace of anti-transgender rhetoric imported from the U.K.-based LGB Alliance, which calls supporting trans people “homophobia” and “conversion therapy.”

Mostly though, I’m shocked at Log Cabin’s unquestioning embrace of former President Donald Trump. They endorsed him for president in 2020, and they’ve made clear they’ll support him in 2024. They’re encouraging him to run again, claiming he’s a great friend to them and other LGB (but not T) people.

The truth is that Trump presided over a federal LGBTQ equality rollback that gave landlords the nod to evict gay and trans tenants, let employers freely discriminate, told business owners they could refuse to serve trans and gay customers, let medical professionals do the same, and encouraged religious people of all stripes to treat gay and trans people as second- or third-class Americans.

Trump today supports the most right-wing, anti-trans, anti-gay candidates for state office the nation has ever seen — or “like we’ve never seen” to mimic Trumpian rhetoric.

Yesterday, the Log Cabin Republicans sank to a new low, comparing Donald Trump’s Florida resort to the Stonewall Inn

The Log Cabin crowd joined a chorus of Republicans yesterday complaining about the FBI executing a search warrant on Trump’s Mar-A-Lago golf resort, where he lives during the winter. Details are available in this news story from the Los Angeles Blade.

For background, the National Archives have been negotiating with Trump for months, asking him to comply with federal law (enacted in response to the corrupt Nixon administration) that makes all presidential communication property of the federal government. They say Trump and his aids illegally removed dozens of boxes of official documents from the White House, and they want them back.

However, sources inside the Department of Justice, speaking to reporters on background, say the federal warrant is NOT about routine documents.

They say the FBI is seeking top secret, compartmentalized intelligence (SCI) products with the potential to severely damage national security by revealing our most closely held sources and methods. For perspective, when I worked in national security as an Air Force intelligence officer, I was often briefed in dire terms that removing SCI documents from approved storage facilities would (not could) result in a long prison sentence, even in the absence of ill intent.

What do the Log Cabin Republicans think about the FBI investigation? See for yourself in a message they tweeted a few hours after Trump denounced the investigation.

Can we talk about The Stonewall Inn?

New York City cops raided the gay bar in 1969 as part of a routine arrangement with its Mafia owners. Mob bosses owned almost all gathering places for queer people in NYC in those days. The mob paid a regular kickback to the corrupt NYPD. In exchange, they didn’t enforce laws that banned people from wearing clothes of the “opposite” sex and that banned same-sex couples from dancing together in places where alcohol was served.

Once in a while, the NYPD would stage a raid for show, to let the public think they were enforcing vice laws. Usually, they tipped the bar off in advance and staff would warn patrons to go elsewhere for the evening. Probably by mistake, that warning didn’t happen on June 28, 1969. The NYPD showed up with a paddy wagon to find lesbians, gay men and “street queens” packing Stonewall.

When the cops started arresting the queer people who used the bar as a safe haven, a riot started that consumed Greenwich Village for three days and nights. It wasn’t the first time relatively powerless queer people fought back and refused to go peacefully to jail, but the incident captured the national imagination and fueled a movement to fight for freedom and equality.

Stonewall stands for freedom for the powerless. The Mar-A-Lago warrant fights privilege for the powerful

Donald Trump is angry that a federal judge approved a warrant seeking evidence of a serious felony. His supporters are just as angry, some of them calling for violence, with the hashtag #lockandload trending on Twitter.

Clearly, Trump believes he’s so powerful that he’s above the law, and so do his supporters. They’re claiming Trump is being persecuted by political opponents, suggesting the FBI executed the warrant to plant evidence.

But that seems more than far fetched.

The Democratic Party has been funding primary candidates Trump supports, on the (some say dubious) theory that they will be easier to beat in November. The Democratic establishment WANTS Trump to run again in 2024, believing they’ll trounce him more soundly than in 2020.

The FBI investigation is apolitical, premised on the idea that no politician is so powerful that the law does not apply to them. It’s led by FBI Director Christopher Wray, a Trump appointee and Republican who is a member of the very conservative Federalist Society.

Trump has a long history of holding himself above the law, plus a history of releasing classified intelligence in the face of national security requests not to do so. Obviously, national security officials want to make sure he can’t harm U.S. interests. He arguably had that prerogative as president. He does not today as a private citizen.

Trump almost certainly violated national security laws

Legal experts told Business Insider on background that the FBI likely found “pulverizing” evidence when searching Trump’s Mar-A-Lago office. They wouldn’t have sought a warrant if they weren’t sure what they’d find.

As USA Today columnist and former federal prosecutor Michael J. Stern tweeted today, “I have written hundreds of search warrants. Lawyers and people whose homes are being searched are routinely not present during the search. That Trump is now talking about “planted” evidence means he knows there is something damning they found.”

The Log Cabin Republicans don’t care if Trump is guilty. They’ve joined the GOP cult of personality.

It’s bad enough that the Log Cabin crew have abandoned their own principles, or at least what used to be their principles. But what they’re doing today is worse. They’re endorsing the Trump personality cult, seeking personal power at his coattails rather than fighting for freedom and equality for LGBTQ people.

They join many other Republicans praising Trump no matter what he says or does. They join a loud GOP chorus singing the praises of a man who would be dictator, a man who told General John Kelly that he wished his other generals would be loyal to him like Nazi generals were loyal to Adolf Hitler.

Log Cabin joins a chorus of loyalists who cheered and whistled at last week’s CPAC convention in Texas as Trump spoke for two hours providing what Texas Monthly calls “A Violent Blueprint for Seizing Power,” including sweeping plans to replace civil servants with Trump loyalists.

At the same convention, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán earned whistles and cheers as loud as Trump’s, praising authoritarian nationalism antithetical to American democratic ideals. An eastern European despot shared a Texas stage with Trump, and Republicans cheered them both.

Perhaps Log Cabin Republicans should think a little harder about Texas, where they were recently barred from participating in the state Republican Convention, which produced a platform calling gay people “abnormal” and rejecting trans identities.

That’s the Republican Party Trump is empowering. Those are the candidates he’s endorsing. Orbán’s rabid anti-LGBTQ ideology is WHY he was at CPAC, why he was cheered so loudly.

So, what’s up, Log Cabin Republicans? What have you done with your principles and integrity? Why are you slavishly supporting a man turning the GOP into a howling pack of anti-gay, anti-trans wolves?

Ask yourselves that as you think about the raid on the Stonewall Inn, about how it was an attempt by the powerful to crush the freedom of the marginalized and the powerless.

Think about that as you consider how powerful Republicans today are rallying behind Trump to try to crush us again.

The rest of you? Please get out in November and vote Democrat like your lives depend on it. Because they just might.

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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Legislation may negatively impact LGBTQ+ kids already feeling isolated

Why our policymakers should think twice before passing legislation that may inhibit access for queer teens to social media

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Graphic courtesy of the Grant Halliburton Foundation

By Isaias Hernandez | LOS ANGELES – It seems difficult to comprehend that living in California in 2022, coming out as queer is still terrifying. With homophobic and transphobic legislation being introduced and passed in states across the country, including Florida’s law that allows parents to sue a school district if a teacher says the word “gay,” it is easy to assume that the state of California is far removed from that.

Unfortunately, laws like these in California are not an impossibility. Let’s not forget, it was just a short 14 years ago that Golden State voters chose to ban same-sex marriage by passing Proposition 8. It’s an unfortunate reality, but the decision to fully come out may never feel completely safe for many of us – which is why finding a community where we feel welcomed and accepted when we are young is so important, and why our policymakers should think twice before passing legislation that may inhibit access for queer teens to social media. 

Like many other queer teens who are also people of color, my high school years were hard. I did not feel safe being myself at home or at school, and on the precipice of adulthood, instead of finding my voice, I retreated and shrank myself to fit the role I thought I was expected to play. And then finally in 2019, I created a place where I could be my true self: a queer, brown, environmental justice fighter.  

When I created my Instagram account, @QueerBrownVegan, I was told that I shouldn’t talk about my queerness and that my environmental activism would be diminished by my queer identity. Knowing what I do about LGBTQI+ communities and the outsized impact the climate crisis and environmental injustices have on this vulnerable population, though, solidified my choice to keep my queerness front and center. 

I relied on the social connectedness of Instagram to create my online presence and to discover people who had similar interests as me. The photos, videos, and accounts I searched for would lead to recommendations of other like-minded people. It opened an entirely new world to me – and led to me feeling accepted and seen. This platform has also helped me to hold space for others, too. When young, queer environmentalists find my account, they too can feel like they’ve finally found a space of their own where they won’t feel judged or be bullied for being who they truly are. 

The community I have built on Instagram is one I wish I could have found when I was a teenager. This community has not only allowed me to be myself but also to forgive myself for the years I spent hating who I was. Social media gives teens from marginalized communities – brown, black, queer, disabled, fat, whatever and whoever they are – a place to find a community where they feel less alone and less marginalized. 

Recently, there has been a discussion in California’s Capitol about how to best keep teens safe on social media. To Sacramento, I say this: Queer teens are not safe when they are being ridiculed at school, they are not safe when their parents abuse them for a sexuality or gender they did not choose, and queer teens are not safe when they cannot be themselves. Social media is sometimes the safest space for queer teens who have nowhere else to be themselves. 

Bills like California Assembly Bill 2408 (AB 2408), that would impose strict standards on social media companies, could prevent young people from using social media at all, and that could have a dire impact on an already isolated young person who is looking for information or support from a community of people they otherwise may never find. With 45% of LGBTQ youth having seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, that is not a risk lawmakers should be willing to take.

I urge lawmakers to think about queer youth and youth from other marginalized communities – listen to their stories and understand the importance of being able to create a community where they can finally be themselves, unapologetically.

**********************

Courtesy of Isaias Hernandez

Isaias Hernandez is an environmental educator & founder of QueerBrownVegan.

Queer Brown Vegan is an environmental media platform that discusses the intersections around climate, LGBTQ issues, and food.

He seeks to advance the discourse around climate literacy through an intersectional media lens.

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My Michigan neighbors shutter “pornographic” public library

Their definition is peculiar: LGBTQ = Porno. You know book banning is out of control when people fight to close public libraries

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Burning book photo licensed from Adobe Stock.

By James Finn | DETROIT – Think that book banning doesn’t happen in the United States, that it’s only the stuff of dystopian fiction? Think again! Hear about that Iowa library that closed early this summer because three head librarians quit, one after the other? They and the rest of the staff got tired (and frightened) of being called groomers and pedophiles by loud homophobes and racists who don’t want ANYBODY in their community reading books about LGBTQ people or about the U.S. history of slavery and segregation.

You know book banning is out of control when people fight to close public libraries

Some community members celebrated when the library shut its doors. Mission accomplished!

They were not fighting for space to express their own opinions. They were demanding their neighbors be barred from reading differing opinions. They were willing to make the lives of professional librarians hell — including a gay librarian who became a target of particular harassment, from the way he dressed to the way he spoke.

This NBC Newlong read is instructive and frightening: (LINK)

Last week, the story came home to me in Michigan

For a little background first, PEN America says U.S. public-library book banning has reached heights they’ve never seen before:

Today, books in the US are under profound attack. They are disappearing from library shelves, being challenged in droves, being decreed off limits by school boards, legislators, and prison authorities. And everywhere, it is the books that have long fought for a place on the shelf that are being targeted. Books by authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors, by women. Books about racism, sexuality, gender, history.

In 1922, literary luminaries like Willa Cather, Eugene O’Neill, Robert Frost, Ellen Glasgow, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Benchley, and Booth Tarkington founded PEN America to foster connections around the world and fight book banning. I wonder if they imagined that a century later the problem would be worse than ever?

They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires. [Shutting the library down] is not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.

While Pen fights community efforts to remove books from libraries, a Michigan town near me responded by going after the library itself.

Jamestown, Michigan voters opted last Tuesday to defund their library rather than tolerate books by or about LGBTQ people — not even if the books are in the adult section of the library with a jacket cover “warning,” not even if the books are behind the counter and have to be requested from a librarian.

“Gender Queer” cover art from Goodreads

It all started early this year when groups of up to 50 people began attending meetings of the elected library board, first demanding that the memoir-comic Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe be removed from the library’s collection, then moving on to a list of about 90 other books, almost the library’s entire collection of books about same-sex relationships and transgender people.

Then, just like in Iowa, two staff members quit their jobs. Former library director Amber McLain told Bridge Michigan she resigned after being accused of being a pedophile and becoming the target of daily online harassment.

She says the the details are ugly:

I had to change my name on Facebook for a time to prevent messages that were starting to come in. I never read any of them fully, but it was the typical fare — that I’m evil, that I’m indoctrinating kids. In March, a woman came into the library filming on her cell phone. She said she was looking for ‘that pedophile librarian’ and ‘the freak with the pink hair.’

Residents cite religious beliefs for voting to shut down library

A coalition of conservative Jamestown residents began campaigning against funding for the library in May while protesting a Pride Month book display. When the couldn’t convince the library board to remove LGBTQ-themed books from the shelves, not satisfied with compromises to restrict access to the books, they took to the streets to convince their neighbors the town would be better off without a public library at all.

Yard signs urging residents to vote no on funding the library popped up all over town, one sign across the street from the library, another in the lawn of a library board member who did not respond to Bridge Michigan’s request for comment.

One homemade sign said, “50 percent increase to GROOM our kids? Vote NO on Library!”

Amanda Ensing, one of the organizers of the drive to defund down the library, emerged from the library last Tuesday after, in a twist of irony, casting her ballot there. She told a reporter, “They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires. [Shutting the library down] is not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.”

She did not explain why her private religious beliefs should restrict access to books for people whose religious ideas differ from hers.

She won, though.

Voters said no to the funding, gutting the library’s 2023–24 $245,000 budget. After this year, the lights are likely to go off and the doors to close, permanently, according to Larry Walton, library board president.

“I wasn’t expecting anything like this,” he told reporters. “The library is the center of the community. For individuals to be short sighted to close that down over opposing LGBTQ is very disappointing.”

Many Michigan public libraries and school libraries have found themselves under community fire over books with LGBTQ themes, but last Tuesday is the first time a Michigan community voted to close a library because a library board refused to ban books.

Let’s talk about pornography, what it is and what it isn’t

A common theme in library censorship debates this year is pornography. The people in Iowa and Michigan who tried to force library boards to ban LGBTQ-themed books did so on the grounds that the books are “pornographic,” citing descriptions of sexual acts or sexualized images. One of the drawings in Gender Queer, for example, features frontal nudity, though calling that clinical drawing porn is beyond silly.

It’s true that some of the books they object to, like Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy, at the top of censorship lists this year, include passages about sex and sexuality, but to characterize them as pornographic is also beyond silly.

And it’s blatant hypocrisy.

I keep scanning banned book lists for mentions of beloved YA classics like John Green’s The Fault in Our StarsThat novel, and many like it, treat teenage (straight) sexuality with respect and sensitivity but don’t shy away from depicting it.

I hesitate to write this, because I don’t want to give book-banning activists any ideas, but Green’s novel and many like it contain much more frank discussion of sexuality than Lawn Boy or other books activists target over LGBTQ material.

Curiously, one California middle school briefly pulled The Fault in Our Stars from library shelves in 2014 due to parental concern, mostly arguing that 11–13 year olds are too young to read about teenage cancer and death. The school board voted to restore the book about two months later.

Green’s response to the censorship was sardonic and on point:

I guess I am both happy and sad.

I am happy because apparently young people in Riverside, California will never witness or experience mortality since they won’t be reading my book, which is great for them.

But I am also sad because I was really hoping I would be able to introduce the idea that human beings die to the children of Riverside, California and thereby crush their dreams of immortality.

I remember reading The Fault in Our Stars shortly after it came out and feeling a great deal of awe for Green — about how he mined beauty and insight from a story about a terminally ill girl. As far as I know, few people ever claimed that her loving (eventually sexual) relationship with a boy qualifies the novel as pornography.

Porn? What a silly idea!

The novel is art, though it contains sexual passages. It’s not porn because it contains important literary value, namely an exploration of mortality, grief, and joy — where you’d least expect to find joy.

Well, I’m here to tell you that Lawn Boy and most of the other LGBTQ-themed books topping this year’s ban lists contain far less sex than A Fault in Our Stars and other popular, non-controversial books for teens.

Lawn Boy is not porn. It’s a novel that features three or four non-graphic sexual paragraphs out of 320 pages that don’t talk about sex. Critics and readers love the book, which is also joyful in unexpected ways, written by a literary phenom with important insight into the human condition and certain contradictions of American culture.

That one of the main characters turns out to be gay at the end of the book is almost incidental.

Porn? What a silly idea!

But according to my neighbors in Jamestown, queer sexuality is porn by default. Is dystopia coming true?

My neighbors hate Lawn Boy so much they’ll close their library rather than leave open any possibility that somebody might read it. Making their own choices isn’t enough. They insist they must control what other people read and what other people’s children read.

Trans characters and lesbian/gay characters having sex or talking about having sex is, to them, pornography by definition. Cis/straight people having sex or talking about having sex is not. Maybe they don’t like that either, but they didn’t campaign to close the library over The Fault in Our Stars.

Remember Jack Petocz, one of the Florida high school students who rallied teenagers to protest against Governor DeSantis’s Don’t Say Gay law? PEN America honored him this year with their Freedom of Expression Courage Award after he campaigned to get books about LGBTQ people and Black people into students’ hands.

Jack says kids deserve to read about themselves and about people different from them. He says banning books is un-American. He says representation matters.

I agree with Jack and PEN.

Most people do. Banning books is antithetical to American values, contrary to our traditions of freedom, curiosity, and education. Most of us WANT to understand people who are different from us, not put our hands over our eyes and pretend those people don’t exist.

It’s come to this: Christian conservatives in a town near me just voted to shutter their library rather than tolerate books about people different from them.

Will you raise your voices with me in defense of books and libraries?

I can’t believe I need to ask, but according to PEN, the need is greater today than at any time in American history.

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James Finn is a columnist for the LA Blade, a former Air Force intelligence analyst, an alumnus of Queer Nation and Act Up NY, and an “agented” but unpublished novelist. Send questions, comments, and story ideas to [email protected]

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The preceding article was previously published by Prism & Pen– Amplifying LGBTQ voices through the art of storytelling and is republished by permission.

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