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University band director mocks trans, women, & others on podcast

University declined to comment on its hiring of Steven Hugley who repeatedly misgendered trans people on his conservative commentary podcast

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Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., Tuesday, January 17, 2023. (Photo Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today)

By Molly Minta | CLEVELAND, MS. – The new interim band director at Delta State University co-hosted a conservative commentary podcast in which he mocked people who choose to be childless, agreed pro-LGBTQ religious leaders should be stoned and misgendered notable transgender people.

In one instance on “Always Right,” the podcast that Steven Hugley co-hosted, he gagged at a photo of Jamie Lee Henry, the first openly trans active-duty military officer who was charged last year with providing confidential medical records to an FBI agent posing as Russian intelligence. 

“I do take a little joy in the fact that it’s the first openly trans person, I’m not even gonna lie,” Hugley said to his co-host, Jeff Dotson, in a clip captioned “Man With No Loyalty to His Genitals Also Has No Loyalty to His Country.”

“And oh man, that picture, it’s haunting. Like, oh, I’m going to see that in my nightmares,” he said, and gagged again.

Hugley’s June 29 Facebook post celebrating his new role, made the day before it was announced internally, caught the eye of Jonathan Szot, a library assistant at Delta State who has helped organize on-campus Pride events. Szot, whose pronouns are they/ them, had known Hugley ever since they were in a music fraternity in undergrad at Delta State. 

That day, Szot helped put together a Google Drive of recordings of Hugley’s podcast, which they reported to the university’s diversity, equity and inclusion coordinator. 

“Imagine you’re an 18-year-old band kid, probably one of the queerer groups in Mississippi — not to stereotype the whole group but a lot of band kids end up somewhere in that alphabet —  and now you’re going to college and you’re like ‘I’m gonna be free for once’ and you wind up with this,” Szot said.

Now, they’re calling on the university to rescind Hugley’s hiring. Hugley and Dotson have not uploaded a new episode since March, but Szot said they are concerned Hugley’s beliefs could show up in the classroom. 

“If Steven wants to govern his own life by those rules, fine by me. It doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t bother me,” Szot said. “But he should not tell our students how they should behave, and based on his own podcast, I do not feel confident in his ability to separate his role as an educator in a university and as an evangelist.” 

What’s at stake for Szot goes beyond Hugley’s comments; they say the university’s action or inaction is a litmus test. With support from the prior administration, the LGBTQ community has grown at Delta State despite backlash from some locals in Cleveland, the small town in the Mississippi Delta that plays host to the university. Will the new president, Daniel Ennis, make inclusivity a priority too ?

“If they don’t address his views — his outspoken, public views — in some way, then yeah, it definitely will feel like a step back,” Szot said.  

Delta State declined to comment for this story or to say what steps, if any, the administration plans to take to ensure future band students feel safe training under Hugley. The university also did not confirm if Dotson, who used to work in the registrar’s office, is still employed at Delta State. 

‘If you don’t like it, go somewhere else’: New band director at Delta State mocked trans people, women and other groups on podcast

Experts who study civil liberties in higher education told Mississippi Today that even though Hugley hosted his podcast as a private citizen, the university could still condemn his speech. 

Hugley told a Mississippi Today reporter on Tuesday that he could not talk for long because he was arriving at a recruitment event for the band. He added that he had not heard anything from the university. Shortly after, he locked his Twitter account. All the videos on the podcast’s YouTube channel, which has five subscribers, were deleted.

The next day, Hugley declined to comment or provide additional context for his statements on the show. His co-host, Dotson, did not return a request for comment, but in the first episode, he articulated the premise of the show: “We felt that our opinions were just too important to keep them to ourselves — that, and our wives got tired of listening to us.” 

The controversy is a test for Ennis, the university’s new president and an outsider to the Delta who took his post earlier this summer after a split vote from the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees. It remains to be seen how he will respond to Szot’s report.

“We’re still reading the tea leaves in his every gesture and mannerism,” Szot said. “A lot of the staff feels fairly optimistic about him. He seems like one of us. We’re all giant nerds.” 

It’s unclear when university officials first learned about Hugley’s podcast. Last week, the provost, Andy Novobilski, emailed Szot’s superior to confirm “that the ‘steve’ on the Steve And Jeff podcast is actually Steve Hugley,” according to a copy of the email. 

The interim chair of the music department, Kent Wessinger, couldn’t say if he knew about the podcast before interviewing Hugley for the interim band director position earlier this year. 

“There was so much going on in that moment, I don’t really recall,” Wessinger said.

Wessinger added that Hugley, who graduated from Delta State in 2012, is a dedicated alumnus who is deeply involved in the community. Hugley is a minister at the Bolivar Church of Christ. His Twitter username is a reference to the university’s okra mascot. He’s on the alumni board of directors. 

And in his Facebook post, Hugley wrote that it had been his 12-year dream to become the band director — a passion that has gained him sympathy with Wessinger. 

“I happen to believe that he can rise above and he can do something significant, not for himself, and not just for the university, but for every student that comes here that wants to major in music and be in the band,” Wessinger said. “And so I’m not going to be the person that judges him for the positions that he takes, because everybody has positions that are adverse to other people.” 

This is more than a dream for Szot. They want to live in a safe community, but instead, they’re used to backlash. And in a small town where Szot knows everyone, politics are inherently personal.

A Facebook post about the fall 2019 Okra OUT event prompted outcry from some conservative community members in Cleveland.

In fall 2019, a university marquee advertising a drag show as “family friendly” was shared in a Facebook group. Outraged community members left comments suggesting they would protest the show, which was going to be held on the library steps. As a precautionary measure, Okra OUT, the on-campus organization that hosted the show, relocated inside the Jobe Auditorium. 

Szot and other Okra OUT members were heartened to see Bill LaForge, the university’s former president, and other upper-level administrators attend. But that doesn’t change the wider context in Mississippi, they said, where the state government is hostile to LGBTQ+ rights

“It’s the whole paradox of tolerance,” they said. “To have a tolerant society, you cannot tolerate the intolerant. That is simply how that works.” 

A Facebook post about the fall 2019 Okra OUT event prompted outcry from some conservative community members in Cleveland.

“The First Amendment doesn’t stop the university from putting out its own statement criticizing what the band director said,” said Aaron Terr, the director of public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. “The university can use its bully pulpit in that way, if it chooses to.” 

There’s precedent for this, Terr noted, most notably in 2019, when the University of Mississippi condemned social media posts by sociology professor James Thomas. While nationally, conservative professors often find themselves at odds with university administration for controversial speech, Terr said in Mississippi, the reverse tends to be true.

Kristen Shahverdian, a program coordinator with PEN America, a nonprofit that promotes free expression, said Delta State could also hire a second band instructor so that students who don’t want to interact with Hugley could still participate in band. 

“I would say what the university should do is not ignore this and address the community by reaching out to the communities most impacted by the speech first,” she said. 

The 24 episodes of “Always Right” cover a range of newsy and at-time philosophical topics, including the police shooting of Tyre Nichols; the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio; Christmas (the only holiday Dotson likes); a TikTok made by the comedian Chelsea Handler about being a childless woman and even the nature of civic disagreement. 

Toward the end of episode 22, Hugley called Dylan Mulvaney, a trans female actress who received online abuse after she partnered with Bud Light on TikTok, a “flaccid man at best.” He added that since Mulvaney documented her transition online, she doesn’t “get to cry when people make comments and mean things about you.”

Then he addressed Dotson. 

“When you and I decided to start this podcast — we don’t care if we have one viewer, we don’t care if we have a million viewers — we knew we were putting ourselves out there and that ridicule comes with it,” he says. “That’s part of the game, you know? If you don’t like it, go somewhere else. You don’t get to be a public figure and then cry about people who disagree with you. It doesn’t work that way.”

In the most recent episode, Hugley refers to Dr. Rachel Levine, the United States assistant secretary for health and the first openly trans federal official, as “a dude.” He said transitioning — the process of changing one’s physical appearance to align with gender identity — should be illegal not just for trans kids, but for trans adults too. 

“If you do, not only are we gonna lock you up, we’re also gonna lock up the doctor,” Hugley said in reference to parents who seek gender-affirming care for trans kids, “and then we take it the next step.” 

Hugley doesn’t “hate” trans people either, he said in one episode. It is not “mean and evil” to misgender them, he said in another

“I’m concerned about these people,” he said. “I know that lying to them and feeding into their fantasy is not going to help them.” 

On the show, Hugley and Dotson watch multiple viral videos of religious leaders who support or are members of the LGBTQ+ community. In episode 21, they play a viral TikTok from an associate pastor in the United Methodist Church who preaches in drag, which prompts Dotson to say “every man in that building should have been talking over him and should have been pelting him with song books.” 

“We are so soft, we are so weak, we are so tolerant,” Dotson added.  

Another TikTok they watch, in a clip titled “Christians Need to Play Offense,” shows a progressive reverend wearing a rainbow stole and delivering a sermon that begins “God is gay, God is lesbian, God is trans.” 

“These people should be afraid to say these kinds of things in public,” Dotson said after referencing Biblical scripture. “Except, then we go back to the thing where there’s not really free speech in public, because we’re afraid to speak our mind, because we’re afraid to get fired. 

“They should be afraid to be stoned spouting this kind of nonsense,” Dotson said.

Hugley nodded.

“When all the institutions of power are on your side, we’re not punching down,” Hugley said. “The administration? They’re on your side. The media? They’re on your side. Hollywood and all entertainment? They’re on your side.” 

Dotson concludes that if he lives to see his “dream” of communism becoming illegal in the U.S., he wouldn’t care about the institutions.

“Oh, Jeff, that sounds like McCarthyism,” Hugley jokes, referencing the period in the 20th century when U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy accused hundreds of  government employees of being communist spies. 

Dotson replies, deadpan: “McCarthyism was good. It didn’t go far enough.”

“McCarthyism was highly underrated,” Hugley agrees. 

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[email protected]

Molly Minta covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on investigating higher education. Originally from Melbourne Beach, Florida, Molly reported on public housing and prosecutors in her home state and worked as a fact-checker at The Nation before joining Mississippi Today. Her story on Mississippi’s only class on critical race theory was a finalist for the Education Writers Association National Awards for Education Reporting in 2023 in the feature reporting category.

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The preceding article was originally published by Mississippi Today and is republished by with permission.

Founded in 2016 as the state’s first nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom, Mississippi Today’s roots in Capitol coverage have grown to encompass a myriad of beats beyond politics and policy, including education, public health, justice, environment, equity, and, yes, sports.

We believe that an informed Mississippi is a better Mississippi. We center readers in everything we do, informing–and engaging–Mississippians through reporting, podcasts, events and online communities.

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Mississippi

Mississippi school district adopts dress code targeting trans kids

The district’s move also comes on the heels of several efforts to restrict the rights of transgender people in Mississippi

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The Harrison County School Board - (from left) David Ladner, Barbara Thomas, Eric Simmons, Betty Daniel, and Steven Ramsey. (Photo Credit: Harrison County School District)

By Julia James | GULFPORT, MS. – The Harrison County School Board approved a change to its dress code policies last month that requires students to dress according to the gender they were assigned at birth, the Sun Herald first reported.  

Multiple changes were made to the dress code in the middle and high school student handbook for the 2023-24 school year, including three new items related to the gender of the student. They state “boys must wear shorts or pants” and “girls must wear dresses or skirts or shorts or pants.” The third section says attire must be consistent with the gender in the school district’s permanent record, or a student’s birth certificate. 

The same language is also included in the elementary student handbook for this year. 

The superintendent of the district, Mitchell King, and other district representatives did not respond to requests for comment. 

Earlier this year, the district made headlines for refusing to allow a transgender student to wear a dress to her graduation ceremony, resulting in a lawsuit by the ACLU. The complaint said the student wore “dresses, skirts, and other traditionally feminine clothing” throughout her high school career without issue. A judge declined to intervene in the case, and the student missed the graduation ceremony. 

The district’s move also comes on the heels of several efforts to restrict the rights of transgender people in Mississippi. The Legislature passed a law in 2021 to ban trans women and girls from competing on teams that align with their gender and another this year to prohibit gender-affirming health care for trans minors. 

In June, the University of Mississippi Medical Center dissolved its clinic that provided health care in an inclusive environment to LGBTQ+ individuals. The clinic had been under scrutiny by lawmakers for providing gender-affirming care to trans minors.

Rob Hill, Human Rights Campaign Mississippi state director, called on the school district to repeal this policy. 

“Every kid should feel safe and welcome at school,” Hill said. “Transgender kids deserve the opportunity to grow up knowing that they are valued and respected for who they are. This harmful policy will only further alienate and endanger kids across Harrison County who are already struggling with so many challenges today. The school district should reconsider its decision and repeal this damaging and discriminatory approach.” 

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Julia James, a Louisiana native, covers K-12 education. She previously served as an investigative intern with Mississippi Today helping cover the welfare scandal. She is a 2021 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied journalism and public policy and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. She has also been published in The New York Times and the Clarion-Ledger.

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The preceding article was originally published by Mississippi Today and is republished by with permission.

Founded in 2016 as the state’s first nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom, Mississippi Today’s roots in Capitol coverage have grown to encompass a myriad of beats beyond politics and policy, including education, public health, justice, environment, equity, and, yes, sports.

We believe that an informed Mississippi is a better Mississippi. We center readers in everything we do, informing–and engaging–Mississippians through reporting, podcasts, events and online communities.

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Ready to make history as Mississippi’s first Black LGBTQ lawmaker

“You don’t have to be the loudest one in the room to make an impact so long as you are standing your ground when it comes to bad legislation”

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Fabian Nelson (D), candidate for Mississippi state Rep. for the 66th House District (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON – During the LGBTQ Victory Fund’s National Champagne Brunch Sunday morning in Washington, D.C., the Washington Blade spoke with Fabian Nelson, a Black and openly gay Democratic candidate who would become the first out LGBTQ lawmaker ever to serve in the Mississippi legislature if elected.

Nelson will square off against two opponents from his party in the August 8 primary. If successful, he would face a general election on November 7, an easier gambit provided the seat to represent Mississippi’s 66th House District is solidly Democratic, he said.

Notwithstanding his electoral prospects, Nelson acknowledged the challenges with racism and homophobia that he has continued to contend with as a candidate, along with the hostile political environment in which he would serve if elected. Still, he is optimistic about the trajectory of his campaign and for the potential to move Mississippi in a better direction.

“I come from a family of a lot of ‘firsts,’” Nelson said. His grandfather opened a bank in the early 1900s for Black residents of his hometown, while his grandmother was the first Black nurse to integrate the hospital in Yazoo City and his father was the first Black graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University’s dental school.

“They keep raising the bar, so I have to raise it a little bit higher,” he said.

Mississippi has a Republican trifecta as well as a Republican triplex, which means the party exerts tremendous political power with control over both chambers of the state’s legislature and the governorship, along with the offices of the secretary of state and attorney general.

If elected, Nelson would represent residents of Mississippi’s majority-Black state capital, Jackson – which has long suffered with issues like high poverty rates and rising crime, including gun violence.

Years of poor governance have exacerbated these problems, while the state’s conservative legislators have used the city’s condition as a pretext to strip residents of the right to choose their elected leaders.

Nelson has an expensive range of policy areas that he said will be major priorities should he win the House seat, from expanding Mississippi’s Medicaid program to fighting back against the conservatives’ disenfranchisement of his constituents in Jackson and their harmful anti-LGBTQ legislative proposals.

Anti-LGBTQ legislative bigotry coupled with homophobic personal attacks

During Mississippi’s first legislative session of 2023, lawmakers considered 31 anti-LGBTQ bills, more than were introduced anywhere else in the country.

Nelson, who was involved in advocacy against these legislative proposals as a member of the Human Rights Campaign, noted the importance of mobilizing the public’s opposition to anti-equality bills in helping to defeat 30 of those 31 proposals that failed to pass in the last session.

Unfortunately, Nelson said, the lone bill that survived was perhaps the most harmful of those under consideration in the chamber – a measure barring access to guideline directed gender affirming health care interventions for youth in Mississippi with gender dysphoria, which the governor signed into law in late February.

It was a major blow, Nelson acknowledged. At the same time, he said, pushing back more effectively against Republican messaging on the healthcare ban, such as by framing its proponents as politicians who are trying to “play doctor,” may have yielded a different outcome.

Nelson is not just encountering anti-LGBTQ bigotry in the legislative context, but also that which has been directed at him personally as a gay candidate for public office in a deep-red state in the deep south. Especially in Mississippi and among older folks in the state, homophobia can come from voters and elected officials even from his own party, Nelson said.

“I think [my] being LGBTQ may pose a problem with some of the Democratic lawmakers” in the chamber, he said.

Nelson told the Blade one of his supporters, an 80-year-old Jackson resident whom he affectionately calls “Miss Emma,” was approached by a Democratic opponent who asked her, “How do you feel about him [Nelson] being gay with his [LGBTQ] agenda?”

“All these years, I’ve voted for straight people,” Nelson said she told him. “None of them came and picked my garbage up or cleaned my flowerbed out.”

Following the city government’s shutdown of trash hauling services earlier this month, Nelson said he had personally been picking up and disposing of garbage for Miss Emma along with Jackson’s other elderly or disabled residents.

Nelson said effectuating real change is possible when pro-equality candidates run for office, fight for their constituents, establish relationships with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and communicate effectively with the public about what is (and is not) happening in the Capitol building to encourage more active civic engagement and strengthen political organizing efforts.

Entrenched issues of racial justice

Nelson’s campaign comes amid the scandal over the GOP-led Tennessee House of Representatives’ expulsion of two Black Democratic lawmakers from the chamber, which was widely denounced as racially motivated.

Meanwhile, over the Mississippi border into Alabama, the state’s Republican Gov. Kay Ivey last week ousted the Black director of early childhood education, Barbara Cooper, for including teaching on concepts like inclusion and structural racism.

Asked how he expects to contend with racism in the chamber if elected, Nelson said conflict can be minimized and discussions made more productive in many cases by practicing active listening so those with different views feel heard.

“You don’t have to be the loudest one in the room to make an impact” he said, so long as you are “standing your ground when it comes to bad legislation and, you know, standing my ground and fighting for what I believe in, not backing down.”

Engaging members of the public and bringing them into the fold is another crucial tool, Nelson said. He pointed to the public outcry in Tennessee and across the country that led voters to return state Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones to their democratically elected seats in the legislature.

Residents in Jackson were not only deprived by their government of garbage collection services, but also suffered the near collapse of the city’s water system, prompting the U.S. Department of Justice to step in with a lawsuit last year on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights.

Meanwhile, rising crime in Jackson and calls for an increased police presence created the pretext for Mississippi’s Republican lawmakers to pass H.B. 1020, legislation that will allow conservative state officials to appoint, rather than allowing constituents to elect, judges and prosecutors in the city’s sprawling Capitol Complex Improvement District.

They will serve alongside a Capitol Police force whose jurisdiction was expanded despite the Department’s officers’ having shot four citizens since last August with little explanation or accountability.

News that the Governor signed H.B. 1020 into law last week had instigated protests, by which point Nelson said it was already too late. He said the time to rally opposition among voters, which would have first required effectively reaching them with information about how the law would strip them of political power and autonomy to pick their elected officials, was immediately after Republican lawmakers had introduced it.

“If you have the citizens, the people, in your corner,” he said, “you cannot lose when you start exposing this bad stuff that’s happening.”

“And one more thing,” Nelson said, pointing to a pin on the lapel of his jacket, “this is our new state flag.”

Four years ago, amid considerable pressure from the public, the GOP controlled legislature made the extraordinary decision to replace Mississippi’s state flag that had flown since 1894, which depicted the Confederate battle flag in its upper left canton.

The new banner features a white magnolia blossom befitting of the state’s official nickname.

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Mississippi bans gender-affirming health care for Trans youth

Mississippi is the fifth state in the country and the third state in the past month to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth

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Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves (Screenshot/YouTube NBC News)

JACKSON — Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law today HB1125, a bill banning health care treatments for gender dysphoria for transgender youth, prohibiting doctors from providing such care and stripping parents of the right to guide medical decisions for their own children.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Mississippi issued the following statement:

“This is a devastating development for transgender youth in Mississippi and heartbreaking for all of us who love and support them. This care was already difficult to access across the state for transgender people of any age, but this law shuts the door on best-practice medical care and puts politics between parents, their children, and their doctors. But this fight is far from over — we are determined to build a future where Mississippi is a safe place to raise every child. Our politicians continue to fail trans youth, so it is up to each and every one of us to rise against their fear and ignorance and surround these young people with strength, safety, and love.”

Mississippi is the fifth state in the country and the third state in the past month to ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth after Utah and South Dakota passed similar bans. Similar laws in Alabama and Arkansas are currently enjoined by federal courts.

“Barely two months into the year, lawmakers in three states have made it their priority to deny transgender and nonbinary youth the ability to access best-practice medical care that many rely on to simply lead happy, healthy lives,” said Kasey Suffredini (he/him pronouns), Vice President of Advocacy and Government Affairs at The Trevor Project. “Decisions around medical care should be made between parents, patients, and doctors — not by politicians. While this news is heartbreaking, we want to remind trans and nonbinary young people in Mississippi that The Trevor Project has your back. We will continue working with our partners and advocates on the ground to challenge these laws and fight for a world where all young people feel safe, supported and seen for who they truly are.”

According to The Trevor Project’s new polling, 86% of transgender and nonbinary youth say recent debates about state laws restricting the rights of transgender people have negatively impacted their mental health. When asked about new policies that will ban doctors from providing gender-affirming medical care to transgender and nonbinary youth, 74% of transgender and nonbinary youth said it made them feel angry, 59% felt stressed, 56% felt sad, 48% felt hopeless, 47% felt scared, 46% felt helpless, and 45% felt nervous.

Reeves said he signed the bill, which bars puberty blockers, hormone therapy and surgery for minors, because “there is a dangerous movement spreading across America today.”

“It’s advancing under the guise of a false ideology, and pseudo science is being pushed onto our children through radical activist, social media and online influencers, and it’s trying to convince our children that they are in the wrong body,” Reeves said at a news conference after he signed the bill.

NBC News reported that after he signed the bill, Reeves invited Matt Walsh, a commentator for the right-wing news outlet Daily Wire, to speak. Walsh has increasingly criticized hospitals, particularly Vanderbilt University Medical Center, for their treatment of transgender youth.

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Art spotlights people of color lost to AIDS in the South

The conference was attended by LGBTQ activists from the South, featured 100 quilt panels. Attendees participated in quilt-making workshops

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The National AIDS Memorial and Southern AIDS Coalition have announced a new initiative to raise awareness about the impact of HIV/AIDS among communities of color in the South. (Photo courtesy of the National AIDS Memorial)

JACKSON – The National AIDS Memorial has joined forces with the Southern AIDS Coalition to stage a series of art exhibitions and educational forums to honor Black and Brown people in the South who have been lost to HIV/AIDS.

The initiative, titled Change the Pattern, began in Jackson, Miss., on Wednesday with curated quilt exhibitions, displays, educational forums, advocacy, storytelling and quilt-making, according to a press release from the National AIDS Memorial. A $2.4 million grant from the biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences, Inc., funded Change the Pattern.

More than 500 hand-stitched quilt panels from the area were featured in what the National AIDS Memorial says is “the largest display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt ever” in Mississippi.

“By creating an empowering message and safe spaces for conversation, we can uplift, inspire and make progress toward ending the HIV epidemic, challenge cultural stigmas and continue the legacy of advocacy that the quilt represents,” said National AIDS Memorial CEO John Cunningham in the release. 

Change the Pattern was announced in honor of Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day during the Southern AIDS Coalition’s annual Saving Ourselves Symposium that took place in August. 

The conference, which was heavily attended by LGBTQ activists from the South, featured 100 quilt panels, and attendees participated in quilt-making workshops to make new quilt panels representing their loved ones.

Interested LGBTQ advocacy organizations in the South were invited to apply for funding to support local quilt-making workshops in their communities so as to ensure that the legacies of Black and Brown people are captured through newly-sewn panels on the quilt through the Memorial’s Call My Name program, according to the National AIDS Memorial press release. 

The application process opened on Sept. 15 with up to 35 eligible organizations receiving as much as $5,000 to support hosting local workshops. 

The first major Change the Pattern Quilt was founded 35 years ago as a visual representation of the need to end stigma and provide equitable resources to communities most impacted by HIV/AIDS, according to Southern AIDS Coalition Executive Director Dafina Ward.

“Change the Pattern is a call to action and change in the South,” said Ward. “Quilt-making has such a deep cultural connection in the Black community and in the South. The sharing and telling of these powerful stories through the quilt, coupled with advocacy and open dialogue, can help end HIV-related stigma and bring the stories of those we’ve lost to light.”

As the Change the Pattern initiative occurs, conversations about how to handle health epidemics within LGBTQ communities of color have become national topics, especially with the prevalence of monkeypox cases amongst Black gay men.

Despite earlier panic about the disease, the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention in a report released on Wednesday said that individuals who were vaccinated against the disease were less likely to be affected over the summer compared to those who weren’t. 

The effectiveness and duration of immunity after a single dose, however, is not known, and few individuals in the current outbreak have completed the recommended two-dose series, according to the report. 

The most recent CDC data reports that 25,509 monkeypox cases have thus far been confirmed in the U.S. Only one death has been reported.

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Police: Murder ‘isolated’ incident- no ongoing threat to LGBTQ community

Police arrested Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., a 22-year-old Ole Miss graduate, for Lee’s murder, & he is currently being held without bond

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Jimmie “Jay” Lee (Photo courtesy of the Oxford Mississippi Police Department)

By Molly Minta | OXFORD – The Oxford Mississippi Police Department released a statement Friday afternoon that the killing of Jimmie “Jay” Lee, a Black student who was well-known in the town’s LGBTQ community, is an “isolated incident” that does not reflect a broader threat to queer people in Mississippi. 

The statement comes three days after a Lafayette County judge determined there was probable cause for police to arrest Sheldon Timothy Herrington Jr., a 22-year-old Ole Miss graduate, for Lee’s murder, and that he should be held without bond. 

“Based on the information collected to date, our investigators believe this crime represents an isolated incident stemming from the relationship between Jay Lee and Tim Herrington,” the release states. 

Members of the LGBTQ community in Oxford have been asking police to release more information about the nature of the case ever since Herrington was arrested three weeks ago. Many members said more transparency from police would help them make decisions about how to stay safe. 

Police nodded to this perspective in the release: “More broadly, we want to stress that our agencies are committed to doing all that we can to maintain a safe environment for everyone in our community.”

Members of the LBGTQ community are more likely to be the victim of physical harm from domestic and intimate partners. This is especially true for Black queer people who face compounded discrimination due to homophobia and racism — a routine threat of violence that is personal and systemic, with roots much deeper than any one case.

The release also follows a story Mississippi Today published earlier this week based on accounts from 11 LGBTQ students, faculty and University of Mississippi alumni who said they no longer felt safe in Oxford. At least one community member is afraid to leave their house, said Jaime Harker, the director of the Sarah Isom Center for Women and Gender Studies at UM and the owner of Violet Valley, a feminist bookstore near Oxford. 

Harker said she felt that OPD’s silence contributed to harrowing rumors in the community about the nature and reason for Lee’s killing. 

“I think people are filling the void with what their biggest fears are,” she said. 

Lee, 20, was a well-known member of Oxford’s LBGTQ community who regularly performed at Code Pink, a local drag night. An open, confident person, Lee ran for homecoming king last year to promote a platform of “self love and living your truth.” He repeatedly spoke out about the harassment received for wearing women’s clothing. 

For many people in the community, Lee’s outspokenness made his disappearance all the more terrifying. 

Lindsey Trinh, a senior journalism student at Ole Miss, told Mississippi Today that after weeks of receiving no information about Lee’s killing, she decided she was too fearful and anxious to return to classes in person. She wrote an email to the university provost and her professors explaining how Lee’s case had affected her. 

“At the time and because of the unknown of why this has happened to Jay and the whereabouts of his body, I have decided that I cannot physically come back to Oxford for my last semester this Fall,” Trinh wrote in her email. “I fear for my safety and well-being as an outspoken and proud gay person of color.”

Authorities believe that Lee’s body, still missing, is somewhere in Lafayette or Grenada County. But the circumstantial evidence that police have so far gathered was enough to bring charges, Lafayette County Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Kilpatrick argued in court on Tuesday. 

“In 2022 you do not need a body,” Kilpatrick said. “It’s not the 1870s.” 

During the preliminary hearing, Kilpatrick alleged that Herrington’s casual relationship with Lee was unknown to his friends and family. She said that early in the morning on July 8, Herrington “lured” Lee to his apartment, strangled him, and then “staged a cover up” by driving Lee’s car to Molly Barr Trails, a student housing complex. 

Herrington then picked up a box truck belonging to his moving company, Kilpatrick said, and drove it to his parent’s house in Grenada where he retrieved a long-handle shovel and wheelbarrow. 

Kilpatrick argued that Herrington should have been denied bond because his charge – first-degree murder – will likely be elevated to capital murder as police uncover more evidence; some of which is still being processed at a private crime lab. Kilpatrick also argued Herrington was a flight risk, noting that a forensic search of his MacBook showed he had searched for flights from Dallas to Singapore. 

Herrington’s defense attorney, state Rep. Kevin Horan, disputed that Herrington, who has $1,910 in his bank account, could afford to flee the state. In his closing statement, Horan said the prosecution’s case amounted to “suspicion, conjecture and speculation.” 

Horan called four witnesses who testified, in an effort to obtain bond for Herrington, to his character and connections to the community in Grenada. The witnesses included Herrington’s mother, an elder at his church, one of his teachers, and ??Emily Tindell, the principal of Grenada High School. 

Tindell said that Herrington and his family have “the best of character in Grenada County.”

In her closing statement, Kilpatrick said that Herrington was not the same person that his teachers and family described. 

“They don’t know this other Tim Herrington, his double life,” she said. “They don’t know the Tim Herrington who lives in anonymity. This Tim Herrington, your honor, is the Tim Herrington who killed Jay Lee.”

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Molly Minta, a Florida native, covers higher education for Mississippi Today. She works in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on higher education. Prior to joining Mississippi Today, Molly worked for The Nation, The Appeal, and Mother Jones.

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The preceding article was previously published by Mississippi Today and is republished with permission.

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Pizza Hut’s Book It! program attacked by Hate group over kids drag book

Big Wig by Jonathan Hillman is about a magic wig and a child who dresses in drag to compete in a neighborhood costume competition

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Los Angeles Blade graphic

TUPELO, Ms. – In a city known as the birthplace of Elvis Presley, it is also headquarters to a leading national anti-LGBTQ+ group,  The American Family Association, (AFA) listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a ‘Hate’ group for its lies and propaganda about LGBTQ+ rights and expression, pornography, and abortion.

One ‘division’ of the AFA is the notorious One Million Moms headed by AFA’s Monica Cole who this past week sent out a newsletter attacking the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! Program, that encourages reading for grades PreK-6 young people, which for LGBTQ+ Pride Month this year featured a book titled Big Wig.

Big Wig by Jonathan Hillman is about a magic wig and a child who dresses in drag to compete in a neighborhood costume competition.

Cole, echoing earlier attacks by some right-wing conservatives on Twitter earlier this month as reported by Newsweek, wrote in her newsletter:

Pizza, Hut, the once kid-friendly family restaurant, is saturated in absolute filth, exploiting America’s children to be “groomed” by wokeness. Pizza Hut is now promoting a book about drag kids for its “Book It!” reading incentive program to indoctrinate children into transgenderism and homosexuality.

It has been added this month for Gay Pride Month. The book is geared towards children in pre-kindergarten up to third grade. Obviously, the goal is to normalize the LGBTQ lifestyle and indoctrinate young children.

The “Book It!” website features the book Big Wig, which is described as a “wonderful, read-aloud book that “celebrates the universal childhood experience of dressing up and the confidence that comes with putting on a costume.”

The description of Big Wig states, “In the spirit of Julián Is a Mermaid, this irrepressible picture book celebrates drag kids, individuality, and self-confidence from the perspective of a fabulous wig!”

The goal is to “groom” the next generation. It is disgusting what is being done in our culture against children. Evidently, Pizza Hut and other woke companies are seeing how much conservatives will, or in this case, will not put up with regarding their LGBTQ agenda.

It is outrageous that a family restaurant is marketing and normalizing gender dysphoria to young children. If you eat at Pizza Hut, you are also supporting child exploitation, which this corporation apparently contributes to and endorses.

The corporation of YUM! Brands owns Pizza Hut, as well as KFC, Taco Bell, and The Habit Burger Grill. 1MM, let us urge Pizza Hut to no longer promote Drag Queen storybooks such as Big Wig in their “Book It!” incentive reading programs.

There are plenty of other reading programs for children to participate in that do not encourage kids to read books about other kids’ sexuality. Families also have numerous other pizza restaurants available to choose from besides Pizza Hut.

TAKE ACTION: Sign our petition urging Pizza Hut to no longer promote Drag Queen storybooks such as Big Wig in their “Book It!” incentive reading programs.

The right-wing anti-LGBTQ+ outrage over the Pride-themed book for kids is the latest in a series of assaults by conservatives on the ability to inform and sensitise young persons about the LGBTQ+ community.

In March of this year Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed that state’s ‘Don’t Say Gay bill’, into law which dictates that public school teachers may not instruct on sexual orientation or gender identity in grades kindergarten through third grade.

“Pizza Hut has gone full woke, now we must make them full broke,” said Brigitte Gabriel, founder of anti-Muslim advocacy group Act for America.

Conservative political commentator and author Nick Adams tweeted, “Boycott Pizza Hut, order from Papa John’s instead. Better ingredients. Better pizza. No wokeness.”

Since 1984, the Pizza Hut BOOK IT! Program has been dedicated to encouraging reading in schools  nationwide and is partnered with Every Child a Reader, the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, Lucasfilm, Ltd., and book publishers such as HarperCollins Children’s Books.

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Gubernatorial hopeful says Trans people need to be killed- by firing squad

Although Twitter deleted the post and Foster’s reply in the thread, he has continued to tweet ad hominem transphobic remarks

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Former GOP Mississippi State Rep. Robert Foster (Photo via campaign; Foster for Governor website)

HERNANDO, Ms. – Former Mississippi State Representative Robert Foster, a Republican who had served from January 5, 2016 until January 7, 2020 representing House District 28 in Northwestern Mississippi approximately 23 miles south of Memphis, Tennessee, tweeted out last week that it was his conviction that transgender people and their allies need to be shot dead by firing squad.

Although Twitter deleted the post, (pictured above) and Foster’s reply in the thread, he has continued to tweet ad hominem transphobic remarks.

Foster, who campaigned for the governor’s chair in 2019 lists himself on his Twitter bio as a “Man of Faith, and Constitutional Conservative.”

Then, two days after the initial tweet Foster tweeted:

Spencer Ritchie, the former executive director of the Mississippi Republican Party from 2014 to 2017 and who is now on the Mississippi Ethics Commission, criticized Foster’s tweet and expressed his distaste with Foster’s blatant transphobia:

Mississippi Free Press journalist Ashton Pittman noted; Foster, who runs Cedar Hill Farm, an agritourism business in DeSoto County, Miss., served as a state representative from 2016 until 2020, where he authored the state’s current death penalty law in 2017, allowing for executions by gas chamber, electrocution and firing squad. He placed third in the 2019 Republican primary for governor after making national headlines for refusing to allow women journalists to ride along in his truck on the campaign trail despite allowing male journalists to do so.

The Mississippi Free Press requested an interview with Foster about Thursday’s tweet, but he sent a message declining the invitation.

“I said what I said,” he wrote, adding to what he had tweeted. “The law should be changed so that anyone trying to sexually groom children and/or advocating to put men pretending to be women in locker rooms and bathrooms with young women should receive the death penalty by firing squad.”

Pittman also reported that Foster’s tweet followed anti-trans remarks from other Republicans in the state and across the country. Less than three hours before Foster’s tweet, his former opponent, Gov. Tate Reeves, mocked President Joe Biden and his U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, for not answering a question related to gender and transgender issues.

In 2021, Gov. Reeves signed a bill into law banning transgender students from participating on school sports teams that match their gender. 

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Mississippi House bill bans Trans inmates from changing gender marker

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Mississippi State Capitol Building, Jackson Mississippi (Photo by Ken Lund)

JACKSON, Ms. – The Mississippi state House of Representatives last week passed a bill that would prohibit incarcerated individuals from requesting a name change or updating their gender marker in what advocates say is a direct attack on Trans people in the state. 

H.B. 1099, or the “Real You Act,” passed the House last Thursday in a 84-30 vote largely along party lines. The legislation now heads to the state Senate, which is already considering a similar bill. 

In its original form, the House version would have also banned minors from legally changing their gender marker. However, the bill was amended to limit its reach to just incarcerated individuals. 

“This bill does nothing to address any of the actual issues being experienced by incarcerated transgender people and instead places another hurdle in front of them,” said Rob Hill, state director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the country’s largest LGBTQ+ rights organization, in Mississippi. “Our elected leaders must do better.”

Under the bill, state officials would not be able to permit a name or gender marker change unless one was filed by a district attorney, a county sheriff, the commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Corrections or a department chaplain on behalf of the incarcerated individual.

Mississippi state Rep. Jeff Hale (R-24) didn’t immediately respond to the Blade’s request for comment. 

According to the HRC, the legislation follows the direct recommendations of a 2015 policy paper by the Family Research Council, an evangelical activist group that opposes and lobbies against LGBTQ+ rights. 

“Ideally, the law would forbid government recognition in any way (whether on birth certificates, driver’s licenses, passports, or any other government-issued identification) of any change in an individual’s biological sex as identified at birth,” the paper reads. 

Hill accused Mississippi state Representatives of making “Mississippi an innovator in anti-transgender discrimination.”

“This legislation is being pushed by anti-equality forces in the state house and not addressing any actual problem – it’s an exceptionally shameful example of politicians trying to score political points on the backs of some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society,” said Hill.

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Mississippi library defies anti-LGBTQ+ Mayor, holds fundraising campaign

Undeterred by the mayor’s blatant homophobia the library set up a crowd fundraiser to offset a potential financial shortfall

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Elsie E. Jurgens Library - Ridgeland MS (LA Blade screenshot, Google earth)

RIDGELAND, Ms. – When Tonja Johnson, the executive director for the Madison County Library System, reached out to Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee after failing to receive the City’s first quarterly payment of 2022 for funding- the mayor informed her that no payment was forthcoming. 

“He explained his opposition to what he called ‘homosexual materials’ in the library, that it went against his Christian beliefs, and that he would not release the money as the long as the materials were there,” Johnson said.

The director then explained to the mayor that the library system, as a public entity, was not a religious institution. “I explained that we are a public library and we serve the entire community. I told him our collection reflects the diversity of our community,” Johnson said.

Apparently, the mayor was unmoved. “He told me that the library can serve whoever we wanted, but that he only serves the great Lord above,” she finished.

The lack of funds would significantly negatively the library’s services and even cause a likely lay off its employees, Johnson told local media outlets as the story spread. Undeterred by the mayor’s blatant homophobia and coupled with the ongoing battle to receive its promised funding, the library set up a crowd fundraiser through its ‘Ridgeland Friends of the Library,’ volunteers group.

Initially the group set a modest goal of only a few thousand dollars with the posted message of; The Ridgeland Friends of the Library is a fundraising and support organization for the Madison County Library, especially the branch here in Ridgeland.  We are welcoming donor support in this difficult and trying time for the library. If the Mayor doesn’t relent, the library will see its funding cut. We believe that the public library is for the entire public. Help us prepare for the worst and send a message that the library budget should not be held hostage to these un-American views. All donations will be used to benefit the library and the people it serves.”

The response, however, was overwhelming. The group had then readjusted its goal upwards to $75,000.00 with an end date of Valentines Day, February 14 and as of Thursday, February 3, the group was within a few hundred dollars of reaching that goal with $74,380.00 raised.

 “We are amazed and humbled by the overwhelming support and generosity you have shown. Please know that your donations will be used to help ensure that our library’s collections and programs continue to reflect the diversity of our community and will remain uncensored. Thank you,” read a message from Teresa Gerald, the President of the Friends of the Ridgeland Library.

In the meantime the battle over the library’s funding continues. Whatever authority the mayor intends to serve, it’s unclear if his action is legally defensible.

“This is taxpayer money that was already approved by the board of aldermen,” Johnson explained. “It was included in the city budget for 2021-2022. It’s the general-fund appropriation that the City of Ridgeland sends every year for daily operation of the library. That money goes to everything from purchasing materials to supporting programs and staff salaries.”

Without the support of the board of aldermen, it is unclear if the mayor will be able to maintain the funding hold for long. Moreover, the mayor’s action may well violate basic constitutional rights, based on earlier court cases on the subject of LGBTQ book bans, including Sund v. City of Wichita Falls.

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Mississippi mayor demands LGBTQ+ book purge, threatens library funding

Mayor Gene McGee is withholding funding from the Madison County Library System allegedly on the basis of his personal religious beliefs

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Ridgeland. Mississippi Mayor Gene McGee (Photo courtesy City of Ridgeland, MS)

By Nick Judin | RIDGELAND, MS. – Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee is withholding $110,000 of funding from the Madison County Library System allegedly on the basis of his personal religious beliefs, with library officials stating that he has demanded that the system initiate a purge of LGBTQ+ books before his office releases the money.

Tonja Johnson, executive director for the Madison County Library System, told the Mississippi Free Press in an afternoon interview that she first reached out to Mayor McGee after failing to receive the City of Ridgeland’s first quarterly payment of 2022.

Johnson said the mayor informed her that no payment was forthcoming. “He explained his opposition to what he called ‘homosexual materials’ in the library, that it went against his Christian beliefs, and that he would not release the money as the long as the materials were there,” the library director said.

The director then explained to the mayor that the library system, as a public entity, was not a religious institution. “I explained that we are a public library and we serve the entire community. I told him our collection reflects the diversity of our community,” Johnson said.

Apparently, the mayor was unmoved. “He told me that the library can serve whoever we wanted, but that he only serves the great Lord above,” she finished.

McGee’s office did not respond to several requests for an interview from the Mississippi Free Press before press time, though he did speak with this reporter on Wednesday morning, acknowledging that he was withholding the funds from the library system. Nor did he attend a Tuesday board meeting at 5 p.m. at Ridgeland Library, which addressed the matter firmly in defense of the library system’s current collection. The board voted unanimously to bring the issue to the board of aldermen before seeking legal remedies.

At the meeting, attendees asked Bob Sanders, counsel for the library board, if the mayor had any legal authority to override the contract with the library system and the decision of the aldermen.

“Uh, no.” Sanders said flatly.

Ward 1 Alderman Ken Heard told the Mississippi Free Press in a brief evening interview that he had not been made aware of any plans to withhold money from the library system on the part of the mayor, and could not comment on the dispute until he learned more.

Tonja Johnson, second from left, executive director for the Madison County Library System, told the Mississippi Free Press that Mayor Gene McGee explicitly is holding public funds as an expression of his personal religious beliefs. (Photo by Nick Judin)

‘Adult Materials’

Based on the conversation she had with the mayor, Johnson explained that the targets of McGee’s demands are mostly books that touch on homosexual identities, themes and stories. The list includes books about incidentally queer family members such as children’s stories intended to provide representation to gay, lesbian and transgender individuals.

In the conversation, Johnson relayed that, among all other “homosexual materials,” McGee specifically demanded the removal of “The Queer Bible,” a series of essays by LGBTQ+ figures including Elton John, Munroe Bergdorf, and Tan France on other queer luminaries such as David Bowie, George Michael and Susan Sontag.

But the mayor’s order, the director believes, is the culmination of a spate of homophobic activism intended to censor other queer literature, especially children’s books.

One of the books that previous complaints have specifically targeted is “Grandad’s Camper,” a children’s book by author Harry Woodgate, who is nonbinary. Grandad’s Camper is the story of a young girl learning about her late grandfather by taking a road trip with her surviving grandparent.

Kirkus Review described the book as an effective learning tool for helping children discuss lost family members. “Caregivers, especially older ones, may see this book as an opportunity to talk about departed loved ones and introduce their happy memories to a younger generation,” a review of the book explains. “Many a family will find themselves pulling out photo albums to relate their own origin stories.”

Johnson explained that all library patrons have access to a form that allows them to challenge materials deemed unsuitable for inclusion in the library’s collection. The library previously received complaints about books including “Grandad’s Camper” demanding they be reclassified as “adult” materials and kept out of reach of children.

But these challenges, Johnson said, did not proceed through the formal system, and were instead verbal or written complaints without followup. “I think that’s probably where the mayor’s objections are coming from. Perhaps they reached out to him instead of back out to the library,” she guessed.

On Tuesday night, the Madison County Library Board voted unanimously to advance the question of the funding hold to the Ridgeland Board of Aldermen. Pictured from left: counsel Bob Sanders, board president Jerry Valdez, and Executive Director Tonja Johnson. (Photo by Nick Judin)

‘Sexual Whatever You Want To Call It’

On Wednesday morning, Mayor McGee returned the Mississippi Free Press’ request for an interview. McGee confirmed in a short phone conversation that he was holding the funds from the library, and asserted that he had done so because of citizen complaints.

“We’re holding (the money) right now because we found a large number of citizens who have complained about displays of sexual, whatever you want to call it, content. We’re just responding to those citizens’ complaints, and that’s the position we’re in.”

McGee then declined to address the content of the books presented at last night’s board meeting, and whether or not sexual content was an appropriate term.

The mayor acknowledged that the board of aldermen had approved the library system’s budget for the year, but argued that any contractual obligations were dated, although he did not clarify if that gave him the ability to withhold the funds indefinitely. “The last contract that was signed with the Madison County Library System was signed in 2009. There’s never been a new contract going forward,” McGee said.

This reporter asked McGee if he actually possessed the authority to keep the money from the library system. The mayor responded that he didn’t know: “That’s a legal question. I don’t know that I do or do not. But right now we’re holding the money. I’ll ask my attorney to address that.”

But the mayor’s position that his move is an attempt to force the library board to respond to citizen complaints conflicts with the board’s description of the scattered pushback. This reporter asked McGee how the board could have responded to objections over content in the collection without any formal requests for reconsideration.

“I can’t speak to that,” McGee said. “That’d be hearsay on my part.” The mayor then added that he’d said his part, and left to attend a meeting.

What little the mayor and the board seem to agree on is that the issue will likely be adjudicated at the upcoming meeting of the board of aldermen.

Taxpayer Money Withheld

Whatever authority the mayor intends to serve, it’s unclear as of press time if his action is legally defensible.

“This is taxpayer money that was already approved by the board of aldermen,” Johnson explained. “It was included in the city budget for 2021-2022. It’s the general-fund appropriation that the City of Ridgeland sends every year for daily operation of the library. That money goes to everything from purchasing materials to supporting programs and staff salaries.”

While the city’s aldermen may have approved the funds, Johnson said it was the mayor alone who is withholding it. “I asked the mayor specifically on the phone call if this had been decided by the board of aldermen. And he told me no, but (that) he could have them make that decision,” she said.

That $110,000 represents roughly 5% of the annual budget of the entire Madison County Library System, the removal of which could have far-reaching consequences beyond the City of Ridgeland itself.

“It would definitely impact services,” Johnson said. “I can tell you that there’s a potential for staff members to lose their positions if the board is not able to move funding from something else to keep those positions open.”

Cover courtesy Simon & Schuster

Without the support of the board of aldermen, it is unclear if the mayor will be able to maintain the funding hold for long. Moreover, the mayor’s action may well violate basic constitutional rights, based on earlier court cases on the subject of LGBTQ book bans, including Sund v. City of Wichita Falls.

‘I Firmly Believe In The Power of Books’

Harry Woodgate, author of the children’s book Grandad’s Camper, one of the titles that sparked the complaints against Ridgeland Library’s collection, told the Mississippi Free Press in a statement that the story’s intent was to represent the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ individuals, especially queer elders, who are rarely depicted in fiction.

“From the beginning it was important to me that (Grandad’s Camper) featured truly meaningful LGBTQ+ representation whilst also speaking to broader universal themes such as the beauty of restorative intergenerational relationships, the joy of shared adventures and the experience of losing a loved one.” 

“One of the key things I wanted to address was a lack of older LGBTQ+ characters in children’s literature, particularly picture books where they’ve been historically overlooked. I was also keen to include incidental representation, wherein a character’s sexual orientation or gender identity – or indeed any protected characteristic at all – isn’t a narrative obstacle but simply the way things are.”

Woodgate added that LGBTQ+ censorship was a familiar, persistent ignorance, and commended the activists and board members who resisted it. “It is saddening that we’re still seeing LGBTQ+ titles featured on banned book lists, and I think this not only represents the extent to which such prejudices remain underexamined and underchallenged by so many of our institutions and elected officials, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of children and children’s literature,” they wrote. 

“To suggest that limiting access to diverse literature will somehow prevent or dissuade queer children from being queer is simply preposterous, let alone deeply, thoroughly cruel. I take great heart in everyone whose tireless dedication to challenging these bans and similar anti-LGBTQ+ legislation across the globe is making such a positive difference to young people and their communities. I firmly believe in the power of books and libraries to change lives so am incredibly thankful for all that they do and anyone who champions and defends them.”

‘We Have To Understand Each Other’s Stories’

In a conversation with the Mississippi Free Press, Johnson seemed at a loss as to what actions might mollify the mayor. But participating in the LGBTQ+ purge was not something she was willing to consider. “Ultimately it is up to the (Madison County Library) Board, but I do not think they will make that decision,” Johnson said.

She explained her reasoning. “As a library, our mission is to serve our community and to provide everyone in the community with the information and resources that they need … Anyone can walk into a library and find something that they don’t agree with,” Johnson said. “But the book that’s not quite right for you is exactly what someone else needs. And my job is to make sure that (everybody) has access to that.

“And I think it’s important to understand that LGBTQ+ books and materials are not just for the LGBT community. Those books are for all of us: whether we can see ourselves reflected in those materials or so that we can develop understanding, empathy and respect for someone else.”

This advancement of human understanding, Johnson said, is the job of a librarian. “We all live in this world together,” she said. “We sit next to people in church, we work with people, we live next door to people, our children go to school with children who don’t look like us and don’t have the same experiences. If we’re going to be together, we have to at least understand each other’s stories.”

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Nick Judin began his career in journalism at the Jackson Free Press in 2019, coming on as State Reporter to cover the 2020 legislative session. That posting quickly gave way to a year leading the JFP’s COVID-19 coverage.

Nick’s reports from the frontline of coronavirus have repeatedly made national headlines, as he has asked hard questions of state leadership and done critical interviews with the state’s top public-health experts. Email the Jackson, Miss., native at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @nickjudin.

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The preceding article was previously published by Mississippi Free Press and is republished by permission.

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