Resident Michael Clarkson speaks about how LGBTQ books help kids “see who they are in the world, helping them realize that it does get better, that they can be who they are, that they don’t have to commit suicide,” during a Douglas County Libraries board meeting on June 28, 2023, at the Castle Pines branch. (Andrew Fraieli for Colorado Newsline)
The safety of “children’s innocence” from what some residents insist are “pornographic” and “sexually explicit” books — all LGBTQ themed — was the topic of public comment in the Douglas County Libraries Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday. It was the third month in a row residents voiced such concerns at the board’s meetings.
A minority of residents demanded the removal of certain LGBTQ books they claim are in the children’s section, are grooming children, and have no value, while the majority of residents present, and library administrators, pushed back.
Bob Pasicznyuk, executive library director of Douglas County Libraries, referring to the demand of removing books from the children’s section, spoke at the beginning of the meeting and reiterated that young adult nonfiction books have always been shelved in the adult section “just as a matter of custom. We’ve done it at each of our locations.”
Even still, residents continued to demand multiple books — including “Let’s Talk About It” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, and “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe — be removed from public sight.
The discussion has involved a back-and-forth over whether such removal is akin to book-banning.
“No one is banning books,” insisted resident Amy Windju during a public comment period. “No one is calling for books to be banned. It is about age appropriateness, and leaving politics out of kids minds. That’s it.”
But others see removal from sight as just the same, and, more so, as an attack on LGBTQ people.
“If this was truly about the books, then you would see the logical, sane solution: If you don’t want to read a book, then don’t read it. If you don’t want your young child to read a book, then don’t let your young child read that book,” resident Sue Zloth said.
She mentioned the recent sentencing of the shooter in the mass murder at Club Q in Colorado Springs and the effects of such violence.
“Am I being sensational when I connect the dots between that senseless killing and these attempts to vilify people? I don’t think so,” Loft said.
“If protecting children is really our goal here, let’s protect all the children, not just the ones deemed appropriate for display,” resident Marty Richards said.
Pasicznyuk, who has 34 years of experience working in 10 different libraries — academic, corporate and public — explained to Colorado Newsline that book banning and censorship are often conflated.
“Book banning is making lists of titles that are forbidden or that someone can’t access,” such as a book not being permitted in a local institution like a library, removing choice from the parents, he said. Censorship is when the state removes access to some material, he said.
“Just because you can purchase a book doesn’t mean that you’re not banning it,” Pasicznyuk said. “But for me to make a decision for someone else, that you can’t read that, that’s the definition of censorship.”
Among various solutions proposed by residents opposing these LGBTQ books was just that: People can still buy them.
“So for those saying, we’re trying to censor or book-ban, we are not. You can actually buy these books,” Greg Francisco said. “I think every parent could easily just go out and buy these books, and there would be no controversy.”
Pasicznyuk is also the library official who reviews book appeals — requests for the removal of a book.
The appeal process has four steps: submitting an appeal form on a book explaining what is concerning, why, and what solution a resident may see; Pasicznyuk then reviews these concerns and the books, and determines if it warrants any action; if a resident is not satisfied with Pasicznyuk’s explanation and actions, it can be pushed further to the DCL board to decide; board members similarly review the book and make a final decision.
According to Douglas County libraries public records, five appeals total were submitted against books in 2022. This year so far, four appeals were submitted prior to the April board meeting — three by the same person — with eight submitted shortly after the meeting, by two people. No further appeals have been submitted, and only four of those appeals have involved a request for the board review it.
All four of those appeals were from Aaron Wood, the founder of conservative Christian men’s activist group Freedom Fathers and former Colorado Republican Party chair candidate. The board will decide on those appeals in its August meeting.
“Nobody is saying we need to start burning books, but what we need to say is, are these books actually worthy of being in the library catalog, do they offer any sort of educational purpose, advance our culture and values, or are they simply just trash,” Wood previously told Colorado Newsline.
The books were “The Hips on the Drag Queen go Swish, Swish, Swish,” a children’s picture book of cartoon drag queens in bright colors; “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a young adult memoir about a young Black queer man growing up in New Jersey; “Jack of Hearts,” another young adult novel, which the library only has as an e-book, about a queer teen trying to uncover a blackmailer; and “This Book is Gay,” a young adult sex ed book aimed at LGBTQ youth.
In Pasicznyuk’s response to Wood’s appeals, he highlights that removal based on wholesale topics is not legal, and neither is removal based on sexual orientation. Judging each on its own merits, a conversation about library section might have been possible, but “they were already where he would have them,” he said.
A warning didn’t make sense to him, he told Colorado Newsline, because “everybody seems to know what they are, so not sure what the warning would accomplish.” Removal can’t be justified either, he said, because so many people are reading them: “If there’s demand in the community for them, who am I to say that they can’t read it?”
He also mentioned that the library has a book attacking “the transgender craze,” “Irreversible Damage,” by Abigail Shrier, as an example of the library not “keeping a particular moral framework.”
Nationwide, challenges to books in libraries, schools and other public institutions have been increasing, with the American Library Association announcing in March that 2022 saw almost 1,300 challenges to books and other library resources. That was almost double the number of challenges of the previous year, and the most challenges in a year since the association started tracking 20 years ago.
These challenges were aimed at almost 2,600 unique books, of which “the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color,” the ALA said in a release. The majority of those books were in school libraries.
The Washington Post also released an analysis last month of research by Tasslyn Magnusson of PEN America, a free expression advocacy group, showing that people who filed 10 or more book challenges across 153 school districts and 37 states accounted for 6% of all book challengers, but had filed 60% of all book challenges.
What merits the label of “obscenity” was brought up constantly at the Douglas libraries meeting.
One resident, Peter Wilkinson, went into more detail than others, pulling out panels from the adult graphic novel “Gender Queer,” where one person is mimicking oral sex on another. He asked where the value in this was, and how it was not porn.
According to the Supreme Court, since the 1970s, for materials to be considered obscene, the average person, within local community standards, must find that it, as a whole, appeals to an erotic, lascivious, abnormal, unhealthy, degrading, shameful, or morbid interest in nudity, sex, or excretion; it depicts sexual conduct in an obviously offensive way, and it lacks “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific values.”
A key point is “as a whole,” as multiple residents pulled single pages or frames from a book. In “Gender Queer,” there are only two frames mimicking sexual positions, but many more representing the character’s struggles with getting their period, feeling forced into female gender norms, and understanding their disconnect with their own body.
Resident Cathy Lees asked the Board, “Does anyone have the right to say what is the value to an entire community? What are the lasting consequences when you let someone dictate value to a community?”
“It’s very important to push back on this false pornography narrative. The library does not buy or provide pornography to minors,” Jessica Fredrickson, a librarian since 2019 in the Denver metro area and recent co-creator of anti-censorship group Douglas County Freadom Defenders, told Colorado Newsline. “Here in Douglas County, the Freedom Fathers are driving the smear campaign, falsely accusing library staff of indoctrinating children and exposing them to pornography. We are determined not to let this loud minority speak and decide for the majority in our community who support our local library and the freedom to read.”
Throughout the meeting residents, such as Jay Grigglin, continued to say that their effort is not a case of “us versus the LGBT group. This isn’t meant to be any sort of, you know, attack.” He then went on to say that people from “this generation have had it so easy, that they’ve developed shades of narcissism bent on forcing their individuality onto others,” and “this movement has overstepped, it has shifted from seeking equality or tolerance into the dangerous territory of forced speech that is accompanied by social penalties if you don’t participate.”
“If it’s not an attack on a community,” said Garret Spradlin, “how awful that during pride month, a group of people have taken to the county to ban the pride event, to go to the school district and no longer allow preferred names, and go to the library and try to ban books — all in the same month.”
“You can say it’s not targeted, you can say it’s just the kids. You can claim whatever you want. But it’s acting on fear to gain control,” they said. “You could be a Freedom Father, a conservative Christian, whatever else you want to be. But someday, you’ll just be forgotten while the world continues to progress and be more accepting.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Sue Zloth and Cathy Lees.
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