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A West Michigan library faces closure after voters defund it over LGBTQ+ books

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A West Michigan library faces closure after voters defund it over LGBTQ+ books

Aug 06, 2022 | 10:54 am ET
By Jon King
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A West Michigan library faces closure after voters defund it over LGBTQ+ books
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A small West Michigan library was essentially defunded in this week’s primary election in a dispute over the LGBTQ+ material in its collection, although advocates say it represents more than just a dispute over books, but an assault on personal liberties.

What is normally a routine millage renewal for the Patmos Library in Ottawa County’s Jamestown Township was voted down Tuesday 63% to 37%, erasing 84% of the library’s $245,000 annual budget. 

Michigan Library Association Executive Director Debbie Mikula told the Michigan Advance that the organization supports the board of trustees at the Patmos Library. 

“We stand in solidarity because they retained a handful of LGBTQ books, and they are still on the library shelves,” said Mikula. “But I guess we’re equally disheartened to hear [those behind the vote no campaign] have used that to defund the library, literally to defund the library.”

A West Michigan library faces closure after voters defund it over LGBTQ+ books
“Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe was the most-banned book of 2021 but it never made the best-seller list. | Photo via the Minnesota Reformer

The millage’s failure followed a campaign by a group that called itself Jamestown Conservatives whose members began agitating earlier this year over the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” which they wanted removed from the shelves. That book also has been under attack in libraries in other states, including Iowa and Virginia.

Despite moving the book behind the counter, the group’s ire turned to Library Director Amber McLain, who is gay. She told Bridge Michigan that she began receiving hostile emails accusing her of “indoctrinating kids.” She ended up resigning soon after an incident in March in which a woman came into the library and said she was looking for the person she called “that pedophile librarian.”

However, the group then demanded that all LGBTQ+ material be removed from the library, which Library Board President Larry Walton told the Associated Press they would not do.

“They’re protesting all LGBTQ books that are on our shelves,” said Walton. They want it to ban books, he said, “which is unacceptable.”

“We, the board, will not ban the books,” said Walton, who added that they are not just going to give up and may seek a new millage in the future.

“I am optimistic that we will work through the hurdle the conservative group has thrown our way,” he said.

Mikula says librarians are seeing all types of material now being contested, not just LGBTQ+ themes, but also themes along racial and social issues, which goes against everything a library is supposed to stand for.

“They’re saying that if I don’t want to read it, you can’t read it either,” said Mikula. “So they want to take it out of the library, and that goes against every constitutional and First Amendment point of view that is out there.”

She adds that the consequences of the vote will go far beyond any single book.

“How does the community fare, economically, socially, educationally?” she asks. “It’s unprecedented to close a library. So if they go in that direction, what happens? So those are questions that the community’s going to have to grapple with. And are they ready for that? I think that a lot of them that voted no are surprised that they’re talking about closing the library.”

Local libraries are being targeted by ‘1st amendment auditors’, book challenges

Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, told Michigan Advance the real issue here is allowing hateful rhetoric to metastasize through apathy at the ballot box. 

“I think that Tuesday’s election in Jamestown Township shows that if you don’t vote, hate wins,” said Knott, who noted that only 46% of the eligible electorate cast ballots. “If you care about kindness, if you care about equality and your LGBTQ friends and family members, you can’t sit on the sidelines,” she said. “We can no longer stay at the dinner table when we’re with family members. You know [the sentiment that], ‘We’re not going to talk about politics. We’re going to be polite.’ 

“But that politeness? It’s killing people. We know that LGBTQ+ kids are disproportionately impacted by depression and mental health. We see higher rates of suicide. It’s all interconnected, which is why we need to stand up and ensure that our rights are protected and we don’t elect candidates that are going to continue to demonize us as a people.”

Knott added that the library millage vote didn’t come amid a vacuum, but instead follows a steady advancement of anti-LGBTQ+ policies by Republicans in Michigan.

“You saw like in the spring, there was like this perfect storm,” said Knott. “We had the rejection of [former state Rep.] Jon Hoadley’s appointment to the Western Michigan Board of Trustees [who is gay]. You had Sen. [Lana] Theis’ invocation on the Senate floor, praying for our children. We had the fundraising email war between Sen. Theis and Sen. [Mallory] McMorrow back and forth about whether or not if you supported the LGBTQ+ community, did that make you a supporter of grooming and pedophilia.”

Knott said simultaneously, the state budget process was unfolding with anti-LGBTQ+ policies being proposed. While those were eventually eliminated through negotiations between the GOP-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, it was still part and parcel with a hostile atmosphere that should not surprise anyone found its way to a small-town library millage.

“So here you have a community like Jamestown Township, where again, the library dared to be a safe space for not only LGBTQ adults, but for kids,” she said. “And we know how critically important it is for kids to have access to books where they can see themselves, and it helps validate their existence and their experiences. It reinforces their self-worth. 

“In Michigan, 57% of LGBTQ students do not have access to inclusive library resources. This is according to GLSEN’s 2019 state snapshot of the school climate for LGBTQ kids in Michigan. We’ve seen other libraries also being challenged as it relates to the resources that they make available to their students. And I’m not just talking about LGBTQ+ books and curriculum. We’re also talking about racial diversity books, books that talk about a variety of experiences that just aren’t the cis-gender white, middle American kind of experience. I think that’s what’s truly horrific is we’ve seen these cultural wars, and they’re playing out right now.”

They're saying that if I don't want to read it, you can't read it either. So they want to take it out of the library, and that goes against every constitutional and First Amendment point of view that is out there.

– Michigan Library Association Executive Director Debbie Mikula

That point of view is shared by John Chrastka, Executive Director of EveryLibrary, a group that bills itself as “the first and only national political action committee for libraries.”

“We see closing the library in Patmos, Mich., as a local tragedy with national implications,” Chrastka told the Advance. “The vote no smear campaign has achieved its goals: to stoke fear in the community and demonize our fellow citizens who have the right to exist and be heard. Freedom only exists when individuals can make their own choices, free from government obstruction and overreach.”

Chrastka says that what happened in Jamestown Township isn’t just an attack on libraries. 

“It is an attack on freedom and liberty,” he said. “We don’t think book banners understand the Constitution, or respect the rights of individuals and families, the separation of church and state, and what it means to live in a civil society. The community needs to reflect on whether or not they want to live in a town run by censors who use the government as a vehicle to dictate their choices to the citizens. Those choosing to close libraries have never been on the right side of history.” 

Mikula concurred and said this is a dangerous path to start down, no matter what your political or social beliefs are.

“I think about the censorship on both sides,” she said. “You know, the Bible has a lot of stuff in it that I don’t really like, right? So I’m going to go challenge them, having a Bible in their collection? People can challenge on either side of the political divide, right? So, what happens is that we’re going to challenge so much, we won’t have anything on our shelves. We talk about choice a lot. You have the choice to just walk away and not take it out.”