The battle to keep LGBTQ+books in Louisiana libraries

The battle to keep LGBTQ+books in Louisiana libraries

Conservatives in the state are pushing for library systems to remove books with LGBTQ+ themes and characters

Mel Manuel never expected to be an activist – they even shy away from the term.

“No, no way,” they said with a laugh. “No, I’ve just been a teacher my whole life.”

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But earlier this month, Manuel found themselves at a St Tammany library board of control meeting, packed in a small room of the local library in Covington, Louisiana, a town of just over 10,000 people directly across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. They were there to speak out against efforts to remove certain books from the library’s collection.

Public library systems in Louisiana are seeing books and materials, many with LGBTQ+ themes and characters, challenged by conservative groups in the state, who are calling for them to be taken off the shelves. St Tammany parish, which includes Covington, is the latest parish – the term Louisiana uses for county – to see a showdown between pro and anti-censorship groups.

Borrowing rhetoric already seen in other parts of the US, the pro-censorship groups say the books are inappropriate for children, labeling them as pornographic and pedophilic, and charging them with “grooming”, a term that refers to the process of earning the trust of a minor in order to lure them into sexual exploitation. Far-right groups are increasingly using the term as a homophobic slur against queer people.

Attacks on books in public libraries come at a time when the U.S. is in a “heightened threat environment” and LGBTQ+ people are “targets of potential violence” according to a 30 November homeland security department bulletin. And young LGBTQ+ readers in St Tammany parish say they feel hurt when they see people in their community targeting books with characters like them.

The anti-censorship groups that believe the books should stay on the stacks say they tell stories of marginalized and underrepresented people and their availability is important for a diverse and equitable society.

“We have the highest murder and maternal death rates in the nation and the highest incarceration rates on earth,” Manuel told the library board during the meeting’s public comments, alluding to three of Louisiana’s most pressing endemic issues. “Louisiana has some serious problems, all of which directly harm our children.

“We’re ignoring the very real issues our kids are facing and spreading hate in the name of protecting those very same children.”

Manuel is trans and a lifelong resident of Covington. They teach high school Spanish and said it’s always been tough to meet new people like them in town. So, in January 2022, Manuel and a friend started a group called “Queer Northshore” to organize events and meet ups for LGBTQ+ people and allies in the area.

The group ended up on the frontlines of the battle over local libraries after complaints from conservative groups about an LGBTQ+ Pride month display in one of the branches in July.

Opposite them are conservative groups – mainly the St Tammany Library Accountability Project – which claims to be seeking the removal of books and materials they consider to be pornographic or pedophilic in order to “protect children from sexual exploitation”, according to written responses.

In addition to other ordinary library business, the 13 December meeting, which drew Manuel and Accountability Project members, considered appeals for two children’s books about which the library had received complaints, or “statements of concern”.

One was I Am Jazz, a picture book written by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, relating Jennings’ experience growing up as a trans child.

“Transgenderism is a movement and ideology being promoted worldwide without regard to the long-term damaging effects to youngsters who fall victim to the perverting ideology and their promoters,” St Tammany resident Diane Bruni, who submitted the statement of concern, told the library board at the meeting. “The result of accepting this lie is that young children and teens are encouraged to mutilate their bodies with irreversible castrated hormones and surgery.”

Bruni also submitted a statement of concern for another book being considered by the board, titled My Rainbow, an autobiographical picture book cowritten by DeShanna and Trinity Neal about a time when DeShanna made a rainbow wig for her trans daughter, Trinity, to boost her confidence.

Self-love and acceptance are exactly what author DeShanna Neal said she intended with her book, along with loving family support. “We need to not only listen with our ears but with our hearts,” Neal told the Guardian. “That is what I hope people would take from My Rainbow. That every voice matters, especially when it’s from someone you love.”

Ultimately, the library board found that the books did not contain any vulgar material that would warrant their removal and voted to keep them freely available on the stacks for all patrons to browse. “In these books that I’ve read,” library board member William Allin said during the board’s discussion period, “the common theme is, ‘We love you for who you are.’ That’s where the parents end up. That’s the message.”

Attendees seeking the removal of the books were disappointed in the board’s decision but said the battle wasn’t over. Accountability Project attorney David Cougle reacted to the telling by telling the board his group would take its case to the parish council and seek a local law that would prevent the materials from being accessed.

“We will not stop fighting this until … the children of this community are protected from a predatory library administration,” Cougle said. He predicted voters would ultimately reject a property tax set to be voted on next year that would affect the library system’s budget, essentially threatening to defund the libraries.

Numbers do not back up Cougle’s claims that his group’s primary concern is child safety. To date, the St Tammany parish library system has received 82 statements of concern, but only 10% of them are for books classified as juvenile fiction or picture books. Only 1% of the books are for teens. An overwhelming 89% of the books being challenged are for young adults and adults.

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Even so, the St Tammany library has adopted safeguards. Library director Kelly LaRocca, who was named the 2022 Library Director of the Year by the state’s library association in July, recently instituted new library cards that would prevent children from checking out adult books without a parent. Moreover, LaRocca said St Tammany libraries do not contain any pedophilic materials. “We do have materials that make mention of its existence,” LaRocca told the Guardian, “but we do not own materials with the expressed purpose of furthering pedophilia.”

Adding fuel to the fire, Louisiana’s Republican attorney general, Jeff Landry, recently set up the “protecting minors” tip line where people can report complaints about librarians and teachers that connect children with books they say contain inappropriate content. “Rest assured that we are committed to working with our communities to protect minors from early sexualization, as well as grooming, sex trafficking and abuse,” Landry wrote in a Facebook post about the tip line.

In a 19 December opinion in the local Times-Picayune newspaper’s website, Landry asserted without evidence that “graphic sexual content” in library books caused porn addiction in children as well as “violent and criminal sexual desires”.

Even with the vast majority of the challenged books unavailable with children’s library cards in St Tammany, the Accountability Project and other conservative groups still don’t want them on public library shelves. One of the books that’s been a focus of attacks is Lawn Boy, a semi-autobiographical adult novel about Mike Muñoz, a 22-year-old biracial, non-binary, low-income character who educates himself by reading books at his local library.

Author Jonathan Evison told the Guardian that he’s received death threats and has had people threaten to harm his children after his novel was brought before a Texas school board and charged with containing pedophilia last September, a claim that he denies. He said he believes books with LGBTQ+ characters and stories are needed now more than ever. “There’s a whole swathe of young, intelligent people looking for books that are about them, they’re looking to just belong and find their place in this larger culture,” Evison said. “Like Mike says in the book, ‘Where are the books about me?’”

Some of the challenged books don’t contain any LGBTQ+ themes or characters, either. Among the list of titles the Accountability Project believes should not be on public library shelves is Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye, which explores the cruelty and pain wrought by racism, and Rupi Kaur’s first poetry collection Milk and Honey.

Kaur said she started writing the Milk and Honey poems when she was a young teen as a way to help cope with bullying, mental health issues, sexual assault, depression and anxiety. The collection aims to comfort young readers.

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“It’s meant to help,” Kaur said of such literature, “and it’s so important they’re able to access it no matter where they are.”

Bailey Cook, a 12-year-old St Tammany resident who identifies as non-binary and bisexual, told the Guardian that the books targeted by the Accountability Project “make me feel supported”.

Cook, who is in Manuel’s daughter’s class in school, said they think the reason books with LGBTQ+-affirming stories are under attack is because some St Tammany parents don’t want their children to be queer.

But that shouldn’t be an impediment, Cook said, adding: “Books don’t make people, a person makes a person. You don’t need to get them if you don’t want to. Every book is for somebody, but there is no book for everybody.”


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