Libraries Are Becoming a Battleground for LGBTQ+ People

Between armed Proud Boys, book bans, and online attacks, librarians are finding themselves at the center of a new assault against queer communities.
Drag queen Just JP reads stories to children during a Drag Story Hour at Chelsea Public Library in Chelsea, MA.
Image: Boston Globe

Far-right extremist groups are infiltrating drag queen story hours. Library boards are voting to remove books with queer and transgender narratives. Online trolls are stalking librarians’ personal social media accounts and calling them “sex groomers.”

There’s been a swift escalation of LGBTQ-related attacks on libraries in recent months, turning typically quiet public spaces into political battlegrounds at a time of growing hostility against queer and trans people. Over the past two weeks alone, members of the Proud Boys have disrupted Pride-themed events hosted at libraries in North Carolina, Indiana, Texas, Nevada, and California, provoked by far-right social media accounts like LibsOfTikTok that post the events’ locations for their hundreds of thousands of followers. 

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Across the country, advocacy groups and individual community members are sticking their necks out for their local libraries with some success. In Texas, a community successfully kept the group from disrupting the event, as reported by Buzzfeed News. A similar event in California last week was able to continue after local police de-escalated the situation. But in other states protesting these events, the far-right group is driving advocates to use library spaces to take shelter from protesters with guns. 

“When I got there, I could see that we were closely outnumbered,” Angie Kahney, a local activist who showed up to an event at the Hanover County Public Library in North Carolina, told Motherboard. “There were five families there at the time, and [Proud Boys] were right by the door at the library. I watched these protestors follow young children and their parents out of the library into the parking [lot] and to their cars. The protesters were within several feet of the children. It was horrifying, and the officers on duty did nothing.”

Kahney is part of a local activist group called NHC Educational Justice, which advocates for transparent decision-making in schools. She and several other advocates heard rumblings about a potential Proud Boys protest at the event and went to the library that day to monitor the situation. She said library staff and event attendees were under the impression protesters would not enter the building. 

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Kahney and others with the organization say the local sheriff’s department misrepresented the incident in a media release, by noting deputies did not respond to the call of a disturbance. 

“I think people are under the impression that law enforcement is always going to do the right thing but that’s not always true,” she added. 

It’s not just in-person attacks. Librarians say they are increasingly facing online harassment from specific accounts being stalked and tagged as “groomers”—a catch-all phrase that has recently been adopted by far-right extremists to baselessly accuse LGBTQ+ people and their allies of pedophilia and child abuse. But it’s hard to know when online attacks warrant getting law enforcement involved—especially when large parts of the LGBTQ+ community hold a deep, historical mistrust of the police.

“To be very candid, we’re a national organization and we rely on local authorities to protect individual libraries and librarians,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association (ALA), told Motherboard. “We’ll work with libraries and our state chapters to address local situations to the fullest extent of our ability and engage in advocacy where we can. But we have to rely on local authorities, local elected officials to do the right thing and we do what we can to encourage them.” 

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One librarian who was targeted recently and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation describes the experience as deeply unsettling. 

“It was very unnerving at first when it happened … I just had never been called a sex groomer or a pedophile before,” they told Motherboard. “Some of it was coming from local individuals, which has made me feel just very nervous for my safety. You just don’t know how intense people are [offline].” 

The librarian said more activity tends to happen around larger conferences, particularly when librarians share their professional expertise.

“The people who purport to care about [pedophilia] are causing the term to be almost meaningless because they’re just calling everyone a groomer now,” they added. “That seems like an odd thing to do if you really care about that as a crime to just make it have no weight or meaning whatsoever.” 

The recent attacks have contributed to a growing conflict within the library community on the role of librarians in representing and protecting marginalized communities. During a recent panel discussion at the ALA annual conference in Washington, DC, comments were made suggesting that pro-Holocaust books should have a space on library shelves. This sparked outrage from a growing number of librarians who are critical of what they’ve called the contradictory stance ALA has taken on book bans—condemning hate while holding onto traditional values of neutrality. 

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The conflict comes amidst a wave of efforts to ban books on racial and LGBTQ+ topics from school libraries and bookstores across the US. Motherboard has previously reported on the groups trying to have LGBTQ+ books removed from school libraries, and administrators exercising their power to sway school board votes on book bans.

More recently, a board of trustees in Smithtown, Long Island voted to remove all pride displays and children’s books with LGBTQ+ themes from all Smithtown Public Library buildings. The move caused a swift backlash amongst the local community and was condemned by New York governor Kathy Hochul, causing the board to quickly issue a mea culpa. 

“Like other public libraries across the country, I think the strength of the reaction [to] this situation [at Smithtown Public Library] shows that people are paying attention and they are getting involved,” Darla Salva Cruz, a youth services consultant for the Suffolk Cooperative Library System told Motherboard. 

Three other New York library systems in addition to Smithtown also walked back their decisions to ban LGBTQ book displays from their children’s sections around the same time. But recent events have caused advocates to question whether libraries are truly prepared to provide safety to the LGBTQ community. 

“We think there are safe zones around the country where things like that wouldn’t happen, but it hits differently when you realize that it can happen anywhere,” said Cruz.