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Pride Month: Public Libraries in the Crosshairs

Carley Stewart, former children’s librarian at Oconee County Library in Georgia, chose a book about entertainer RuPaul from the Little People, Big Dreams children’s book series to celebrate Pride month last year. Stewart said she chose the book because “it focused on celebrating your differences, how everyone's unique, and has something that makes them different. It told kids that you don’t have to sort of conform to this one specific idea.”

What happened next was a personal smear campaign that has played out in other communities across America as hard-right activists, dead-set on oppressing diversity and censoring reading materials, have targeted librarians, protested at library boards and attempted to pass legislation intended on erasing certain titles.

Once the Oconee County Library announced on its Facebook page that it would have a story time with readings from RuPaul’s book, community members expressed their outrage on Oconee 411, a private Facebook group run by Julie Mauck, chair of the local Moms for Liberty chapter. One member of the group commented: “I feel it is important that we express our disgust to these board members regarding sexuality being presented to children. I honestly don’t how know this isn’t a crime.”

Amid the controversy, screenshots of Stewart’s personal Facebook account and her full name were shared on social media. The Athens Regional Library System administration pressured her to take down the Pride display. She refused, telling Hatewatch that it was important to explain to library administrators that all families in the community are represented in library activities and resources.

As state lawmakers fight censorship attacks directed at libraries, Georgia state Rep. Teri Anulewicz considers public libraries the original third place that provide communities various low to no-cost resources. “The library is being used more than ever,” she said. “It’s where people are looking for jobs, where they are doing their resumes; it’s where they are trying to figure out housing assistance programs. Libraries are so much more than just books.”

Yet public libraries are under siege, barraged by violent threats and the danger of losing funding.

Last fall, in Prattville, Alabama, during a forum titled “Fighting to End the Sexualization of Children in Libraries,” panelist Bryan Dawson spoke about the need to protect kids from pornography in public libraries. Dawson, president of 1819 News, a conservative news site focusing on Alabama, said that he was not in the group of people who wanted certain books moved to the adult section. Instead, he is in the “burn the books” camp. “Burn the freaking books,” he proclaimed. “Burn them. I don’t care.”

Prattville has become the epicenter of Alabama’s debates on public libraries; however, such discussion is not isolated to this small town located just 10 minutes north of the state’s capital. Community members statewide have begun attending library board meetings to accuse library staff of providing children with pornography. Gov. Kay Ivey has even expressed her concern over libraries exposing children to inappropriate material. According to, she also claimed to be “entirely sympathetic to calls to disaffiliate our Alabama libraries from the ALA” and encouraged the Alabama Public Library Service to make state aid for public libraries contingent on new policies that promote “facilitate greater parental supervision of their children.”

Banning books comes at a cost

For the past few years, divisions in public education have been front and center, with unprecedented attacks on reading and instructional materials in schools by a small but loud minority. These calls for censorship have inequitably targeted books with LGBTQ+ themes and characters of color.

Public education has long been seen as the great equalizer, where children can obtain the same knowledge and skills regardless of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation or socioeconomic status. The role of libraries in bringing equity should not be overlooked.

“When opponents to free speech limit what is available in public libraries, the end result is that gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in this country widens. People who can afford books, internet and computers will have access to books, internet and computers,” said Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association (ALA). “People who cannot afford books, internet and computers will not have access to them and will be increasingly isolated from the necessities of our society.”

Polling by the ALA shows that most voters oppose banning books in public libraries. In a similar survey from EveryLibrary Institute and Book Riot, 92% of parents and guardians said they felt that their children were safe at the library.

Despite this, the ALA reported a record-high number of 4,240 unique books challenged in schools and libraries during 2023. In public libraries, this includes a 92% increase in censorship targets from the previous year.

Libraries have also experienced bomb threats via emails and phone calls. Earlier this year, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, library was forced to cancel its drag queen story hour after receiving a suspicious package and bomb threats by email. Another example occurred last year at a Los Angeles drag queen story time hosted by local officials, where protesters blocked the entrance, called the featured performer a pervert and groomer and chanted, “Leave our kids alone.”

These threats have become so prevalent that the ALA wrote a letter of concern to the FBI to formally express concern over threats to libraries and library personnel. “We are concerned that these threats, some of which include the disclosure of personal details and false and defamatory claims, may lead to actual violence towards library workers,” the ALA letter stated. “Given the seriousness and proliferation of these threats of violence and other acts of intimidation increasingly taking place in America’s libraries, we are gravely concerned for the safety of library workers and the millions of Americans who visit libraries each day.”

Libraries are also under siege from legislation. EveryLibrary tracked 124 bills of concern in 30 states during the 2024 legislative sessions. These include criminalizing librarians under obscenity laws, limiting or removing funding based on participation in professional library associations, and establishing book rating systems that would result in certain topics being removed or segregated.

Overall, the ALA anticipates that the trends in book banning, in terms of targeted authors and content, will continue throughout 2024, especially in June, which is known as LGBTQ+ Pride month. Given the hyperfocus on LGBTQ+ materials and observations, tensions are high, with expectations and fears of escalated attacks. During a Pride picnic in Prattville last year, members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front appeared alongside others to protest the event.

According to Drabinski, “Pride month is a time when queer lives are celebrated, so it should not be surprising that the people who do not want our stories to be told ramp up their efforts to ban those stories at that time.”

What it means to ‘Clean Up Alabama’

Last year, Prattville began to detect some rumblings within its small community when a new group, Clean Up Prattville, stepped onto the scene claiming that the local library was full of pornographic children’s books.

Through its close affiliation with nearby chapters of antigovernment powerhouses Moms for Liberty and Eagle Forum, Clean Up Alabama was able to quickly grow in power and influence.

In a blog posted to Eagle Forum’s website, Lori Herring, special projects coordinator of Eagle Forum Alabama, wrote, “I can say we are grateful to these brave parents and citizens for standing up to those who are trying to groom our children, spoil their innocence, and make the already difficult job of parenting even more difficult.” She went on to say, “We have partnered with Clean Up Prattville to form Clean Up Alabama and have formed groups across the state to examine local libraries.”

The rebranded Clean Up Alabama states its mission is to remove pornographic, obscene and indecent books from public libraries; “withdraw from” the American Library Association; redefine library policies; and change library leadership.

The three groups were also vocal supporters of proposed state legislation to criminalize librarians. The bill, which passed a House vote but eventually failed in the Senate, would have made library staff criminally liable for distributing “sexual or gender oriented” materials with minors without parental consent. The bill would have put public libraries in the same category as “adult-only video stores,” “adult bookstores,” “adult movie houses” and “adult-only entertainment.”

According to an article by Eagle Forum Alabama, a parent happened to come across a book in the library that they deemed objectionable. That quickly led to 80 books being identified as having LGBTQ+ themes, including transgenderism, explicit sexual content and “obscene depictions of deviant sexual activity.”

Clean Up Alabama’s website features a list of over 100 books that they say are “intended to confuse the children of [their] community about sexuality and expose them to material that is inappropriate.” The list includes Red, A Crayon’s Story. Michael Hall, the author, has publicly clarified the book is about his struggles with his dyslexia diagnosis. However, Clean Up Alabama warns that the book contains “reference to dysmorphia” and recommends parental consent.

In addition to identifying books that they deem controversial, another essential task in completing CUA's mission was to ensure that local officials were sympathetic to their cause. Hannah Mans Rees, executive director of Clean Up Alabama, took to the Moms for Liberty Madison County, Alabama, Facebook account to post about newly appointed Autauga-Prattville Public Library (APPL) board members who are aligned with them, writing, “We have 4 of the 7 and have a majority … waiting on two more appointments but likely those will be favorable if things go according to plan.”

In February, the newly appointed APPL board enacted new policies, including one that banned the library from purchasing and acquiring materials “advertised for consumers ages 17 and under which contain content including, but not limited to, obscenity, sexual conduct, sexual intercourse, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender discordance.”

Just a few days later, Clean Up Alabama publicly celebrated, posting on X (formerly known as Twitter), “Victory in Prattville! Local parents fought a months-long battle to protect children from sexualized content resulting in a brand-new library board that just passed sweeping policies to ensure the protection of children!”

The new board then produced a list of 113 books noticeably similar to the books identified by Clean Up Alabama as needing removal, including Red, A Crayon’s Story. The library board requested that library director Andrew Foster move the identified books to the adult section with a flag that they contain adult content.

Foster reviewed the books, noting that 84% contained varying degrees of LGBTQ+ content, some very indirect, and formally requested clarifications on the new policy. Foster was ultimately terminated for complying with an open records request from the press to view his correspondence with the board and the board attorney.

Local outlet WSFA reported that a board member claimed Foster was terminated for “revealing confidential information.”

In the following days, several other library staff were also fired for speaking to the press and closing the library to stand in solidarity with their fired executive director, according to Alabama Political Reporter (APR).

With this sudden staff shortage, members of Eagle Forum Alabama and Clean Up Alabama stepped up to work alongside the remaining library staff that they had previously labeled as groomers, APR reported.

After the board refused to reinstate Foster and restore his library access, he filed a lawsuit against them, which was settled with all parties denying any wrongdoing.

Angie Hayden, founding member of Read Freely Alabama, is a passionate advocate. She told Hatewatch that her group was formed to fight censorship efforts. The mother of an openly gay child, Hayden said: “I just couldn't stand the idea of these people telling kids like mine that stories about people like them are somehow dangerous or unacceptable or wrong. So, we are a group of women that have come together to push back against these attacks on the libraries.”

Read Freely Alabama has filed a federal suit against the AAPL board for its policies banning LGBTQ+ content for minors. “This is about who should get to decide what books our kids get to read — parents or politicians,” Hayden said. “Though we come from across the religious and political spectrum, the group who came together to take action in the case share an intense pride in our home state — and its deep history in the fight for civil rights — and we cannot sit on the sidelines at this critical moment.”

‘Books save lives’

During Georgia’s most recent legislative session, bills targeting public libraries were introduced, including proposals to prohibit the use of funds from the ALA. One of the most vocal proponents was Georgians for Responsible Libraries, another group affiliated with Julie Mauck. It hosted a legislative day at the state Capitol to show support for a bill intended to criminalize librarians who distribute harmful materials to minors. Their efforts were unsuccessful.

While the battle over the Pride display and story time waged on in Oconee County, Mauck also showed up at an Athens Pride parade to take pictures of Oconee librarians who participated with signs for the library’s Prism Club. Mauck posted the pictures on her Facebook, writing, “Interested in the community’s thoughts on the Oconee County Library representing a gay youth club sponsored by the library in the Athens/Clarke LGBTQ Pride parade.”

The club that Mauck referred to is Prism, which started at the Oconee County Library in 2015. According to a flyer from the library advertising an upcoming meeting, Prism is an “inclusive space without judgement for LBTQ+ teens and all other teens who are looking for a welcoming community.” All youth from grades 6-12 are welcome to come to play games, do crafts, and build friendships.

Mauck once again posted the contact information for local officials on her Facebook, also posting: “Where are the churches? Where are the fathers? It’s not enough to just ‘not take your children.’ Show up! Write the ‘leaders’ of this county. Pray. This is sick – these are children.”

Stop Moms for Liberty, a national group established to fight back against Moms for Liberty, has stepped up to push back against these efforts. “The local Moms for Liberty chapter chair is currently spreading misinformation about the public library’s Prism Club, which is a safe space for LGBTQIA+, and all teens, by framing it as a ‘gay club for 11+’ which is creating a fearful and hateful backlash in the community,” explains Stop Moms for Liberty Georgia leadership. “Moms for Liberty tries to frame their position as “love them without the labels,” but they neglect to acknowledge that it was the oppression of LGBTQIA+ people, which Moms for Liberty’s rhetoric only exacerbates, that created the labels and need for this club in the first place.”

Almost a year after the opposition to the Pride month story time, the library still finds itself playing defense as book challenges and attacks on the Prism Club persist. Officials with the Oconee County Library Advisory Board did not respond to Hatewatch’s request for comment.

Georgia state Rep. Teri Anulewicz encourages librarians to continue highlighting special celebrations like Black History month and Pride, because they allow people to learn about other’s experiences that they would probably have never been exposed to. “I don't know what it's like to be a 13-year-old Indigenous boy, for example,” she told Hatewatch. “When I read a Sherman Alexie book, I'm able to open up my mind and in turn build empathy for a situation that I otherwise probably wouldn't have known occurred.”

Anulewicz also uplifts the importance of books in affirming experiences and identities: “I think about the people I know, people plural, who died by suicide at a very young age, in part because they were really struggling with these issues of identity and sexuality. I can't imagine what it would have been like to have access to books to give them a vocabulary, and also to give their peers a vocabulary, to understand what these experiences are like for them. Books can change lives and they can save lives.”

Photo of Carley Stewart by Cornell Watson

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