Reciting prose from the pages of Penthouse magazine at a school board meeting is an unconventional way to make a point. But lately, caregivers and community members in Michigan are going to great lengths to express displeasure over queer content found in their kids’ book bags or on the shelves of school and classroom libraries. To be sure, in Milan, Michigan, where the Penthouse reading occurred, no adult entertainment is available for check out.
Pride Source “booked” interviews with half a dozen LGBTQ+ librarians in Michigan who had a lot to say about censorship — as well as the support they afford to young LGBTQ+ library patrons at this moment in time. Tellingly, not all of our librarian contacts felt secure speaking out.
Kelly Boston is a librarian at a middle school in West Michigan as well as a Grand Rapids library board commissioner. Like others interviewed for this story, she sees the hysteria over book titles as old wine in new bottles.
“I don't think it's new by any means,” Boston said. “This is something librarians have been dealing with forever, to be honest with you. I do think that currently, this is something that's been politicized and is being specifically used as a political scapegoat right now and a target. So that's why we're really seeing people emboldened or people circulating lists [of book titles] that they should be checking their libraries for.”
From Dearborn to Williamston to Jamestown Township, public and school libraries across Michigan — and across the nation — are experiencing an onslaught of attempts to remove certain titles geared toward youth. In school libraries alone, PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans lists 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles for the 2021 to 2022 school year. Forty-one percent were banned for either LGBTQ+ content or LGBTQ+ protagonists or prominent secondary characters. Most commonly banned was "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe.
Boston said it’s not uncommon for a parent or guardian to approach her with a concern over a particular title. In those cases, Boston will tell them she understands their apprehension but the library will not remove a book over individual complaints. “’You get to decide what's right for your family, but really, our library serves all the students in the school,’” Boston tells these patrons. It should be noted that generally speaking, kids are exposed to social media, television, movies, music and other content without much oversight.
In terms of a formal reconsideration of a book, “I have never — knock on wood — actually had it get to the formal point,” Boston said. “I know a lot of the librarians have.”
Patrick Taylor is another school librarian who said “I’m gonna knock on wood” to avoid jinxing the relative calm. Taylor is his district’s library director and ESL coordinator. He works in Macomb County’s relatively progressive community of Eastpointe.
In Taylor’s estimation, “There will be other reasons that people cite in terms of trying to justify their wanting to censor library materials,” he said. “But I really think that it just kind of boils down to homophobia, transphobia, that sort of thing.” As for those who would censor materials, “I would encourage them to ask themselves who they're doing this for,” he continued. “Is it for themselves or is it really for the students? 'Cause most of the time I would argue that it's for themselves.”
Sadly, school librarians are an endangered species due to technological advances and budget cuts. According to Michigan Department of Education numbers, in 2019, 92% of schools statewide didn’t employ a full-time, certified librarian. Fifty-two percent had no librarian. And Michigan ranks 47th in the country in terms of its librarians-to-students ratio. Not only has the case been made that school librarians are needed to combat the literacy crisis, it can also be argued that by being open about their sexuality, LGBTQ+ school librarians like Boston and Taylor represent safe adults to queer and questioning students. And that’s invaluable.
Boston said as an educator in West Michigan, coming out professionally was a difficult decision. “That meant not leaving out, at the beginning of the year when I do my introductions, like, ‘Here's a picture of me and my wife,’" Boston said. “And I can't tell you how anxious I was the first time that I presented that to students, and I talked to my administrator first."
“There's an example of some straight privilege that straight people don't have to think about,” she added. “And ever since I did that, you can always see a couple kids in each class, their eyes light up. And I've had kids approach me right away who are like, ‘When did you come out?’”
In Eastpointe, Taylor’s district received a Rainbow Library grant from GLSEN, who issued the grant based on an application inspired by a student who approached Taylor with questions about the gender binary. Not only that, Taylor reports the high school restored the LGBTQ club last year.
“For once, it's a little bit of a beacon of hope in Macomb County,” Taylor said.
Still, according to the 2021 GLSEN school climate survey, only 43 percent of U.S. students said they have access to LGBTQ-related library resources at school.
Despite the differences between school libraries and public libraries, the manufactured controversy is much the same.
Lauren Catoni-Ellis, the youth services assistant department head of the Bloomfield Township Public Library, described the process of formally challenging a title. It begins by completing a request for reconsideration form, a list of questions asking why the book is inappropriate and does not belong in the library. The American Library Association (ALA) recommends each library have a collection development policy with a resource reconsideration process approved by its governing body.
“One of the most important parts of that form is asking whether or not the person has read the book,” Catoni-Ellis said, “because I think many times people object to a book that they haven't read. So this sort of is hopefully a nudge for them to think, did I actually read this? Do I know what the content is?”
One local librarian, Simon, who currently works at the Ferndale Area District Library in adult services, is very familiar with book challenges. Simon asked that we not use his last name.
“The last place I worked, I got stuck with 15 title challenges in one day,” Simon recalled, “and I essentially had to write a book report on each title explaining why it was purchased, why it should be in the teen section, why we're not taking it off the shelf.” It quickly became the bulk of his work.
Lately, as Boston mentioned, lists of books with queer content are now circulated to “spam” libraries with formal complaints. Nationwide, coordinated attempts by conservative groups like Moms for Liberty justify book bans by drawing on harmful stereotypes of all LGBTQ+ content as inherently pornographic. Typically books that challenge racism are swept up in this too. Becca Russell, a librarian at the Royal Oak Public Library, knows of one formal challenge being presented there. She also referred to the so-called "Hide the Pride" campaign cooked up by CatholicVote, which encourages library patrons to check out all the LGBTQ-themed books featured in Pride Month displays.
The form letter reads in part: “To protect our children and the community, we have checked out the books in the pride display. We plan to keep these books checked out until the library agrees to remove the inappropriate content from the shelves.” Ironically, holding multiple copies of a book hostage only signals their popularity when it comes time to buy.
For readers shaking their heads at this nonsense, several of the librarians suggested easy ways to be a library advocate: Use the library. Check out books. Fill out comment cards. Library professionals respond to positive reinforcement as well as negative.
Today, Simon is comfortable being openly trans in his professional life. However, at his previous place of employment, he was “essentially shoved back in the closet” in response to the wave of censorship attempts. There were times, he said, he feared for his life if others found out about his true identity.
Now Simon wears Pride gear to work, like the trans Pride skeleton shirt he wore for this interview or his trans Pride Pokemon lanyard, “because you do occasionally get a kid or even an adult that's like, ‘Hey, you seem friendly. Can I ask you these questions?’,” he said. He noted a recent interaction with a library patron printing paperwork for a gender-marker change who asked Simon if he knew of trans-friendly places to work.
For Catoni-Ellis, while she is sometimes worried that people might see her as an “unsafe” adult just because she’s married to a woman, she knows her work is worthwhile.
“I don't know if they knew that I was queer at first,” Catoni-Ellis said, “but there was this 13-year-old boy who used to come talk to me regularly at the library and he came out to me. And I think I was the first person or one of the first people that he came out to. I think he appreciated just seeing somebody living a pretty average life who was queer, because that's not really the narrative that we get a lot of times.”
Mary Grahame Hunter also works in youth services. Alongside Simon, she’s a librarian in Ferndale. Hunter said that what’s new with the current wave of book hysteria is “the weaponization of social media.” She referred to closed Facebook groups instructing members to challenge specific titles or target certain library professionals.
Openly bisexual, Hunter is tasked with purchasing youth nonfiction. “That's all of our sex ed books,” she explained. “That's all of our books about gender. I feel lucky that I've got more parents coming in and saying, ‘Where are your books about this? I want to talk to my 3-year-old about gender stereotypes.’”
According to the ALA's Library Bill of Rights, “Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.” To put a finer point on it, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
In Royal Oak, the librarians put their heads together and came up with a way to visibly show support in the face of censorship. Borrowing an idea from another community library, they sold “I’m With the Banned” t-shirts as a fundraiser.
“We wanted to sort of publicize that this is a thing we were concerned about,” said Russell, who designed the shirts. “And thankfully the whole administration here is supportive of what's the opposite of censorship: freedom to read.”
Russell and another queer librarian — the “bi-brarians” — run the library’s Instagram account, frequently used to demonstrate the library’s inclusivity. “I made a post with sort of the tongue-in-cheek ‘make the Yuletide gay’ [theme] with a bunch of queer romances that you could read for the holidays, and it was very popular,” Russell said. At this moment in time, she feels it’s important to be visibly queer.
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That’s also important to Hunter, whose partner is a man and who presents very femme. She said she finds herself coming out frequently because it’s an integral part of her identity. Hunter emphasized what she and other queer librarians are doing is nothing like “going rogue.”
“It can be very easy to read all of this news and feel very scared and very hopeless,” Hunter said. “And I don't want to downplay that fear. I feel scared too. But certainly, from the work that I am doing, and the colleagues that I have, the community support that I am seeing, there's a lot of very stubborn, very angry queer librarians who are going to keep these books on shelves.”