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As two Library Board terms near their end, some Campbell County residents see an opportunity

Campbell County Library Board and Commission meetings have been venues for some members of the Campbell County community to voice their opposition to books in the library that discuss topics on LGBTQ and sex education aimed at children and teens.

Since last July, a group of residents has been voicing their objections at these public meetings after the library promoted Pride Month and Rainbow Book Month on their Facebook page. Library staff also booked a magician to perform for school-aged children, who just happened to be transgender. As word began circulating through the community, and on social media, a protest was organized. After the outcry, the magician ultimately canceled their scheduled performance.

"It started with concerns related to the LGBTQ community and they initially wanted those [books] completely out of the library, but the community was very vocally against that," said Miranda Finn, a member of the library board.

Library Director Teri Lesley said library books are vetted and chosen by the library director and staff who have master's degrees in library science. They look to the community to see if there are any needs there, recommendations from library associations, and what they have room for in their collection to decide which books to get.

TheAmerican Library Association (ALA) also has some influence on their decisions, though Lesley said their recommendations only play a minor role. The ALA has been harshly criticized by some meeting attendees as being a liberal organization that is promoting an agenda and that aims to undermine community values by promoting these books.

"I have my master's degree in English literature, so I'm not an expert in shelving practices, but I've done an extensive amount of research for many of my librarian friends, and it's simply not standard to take sex education books directed to teenage audiences and put them in the adult section," said Finn.

A bright seating area with children's books on tables and shelves. A wizard is painted on a nearby wall.
The Campbell County Public Library's Children's section.

That has been the major demand from the local group against certain books in the library: take them out of the children and teen section and put them in the adult section. Last year, some of those who had objections to the books contacted MassResistance, an anti-LGBTQ group that advocates for socially conservative positions, for guidance.

The library board has consistently voted against relocating the challenged and appealed books to regular adult circulation or removing them entirely. However, two books have been relocated by library staff: Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe (moved by manager from Young Adult Graphic Novel to Adult Graphic Novel and was subsequently appealed to Library Director to remove from library completely; appeal denied by director; patron did not appeal to library board) and A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability, by A. Andrews (moved by manager from Young Adult Graphic Novel to Adult Graphic Novel).

Library Director Teri Lesley said that these titles were moved after residents came in and voiced their concerns, which library staff ultimately agreed with.

Lesley was recently announced as the 2022 John Phillip Immroth Memorial Award from the ALA. According to the organization's website, it honors those who make notable contributions to intellectual freedom, act in defense of expression, and who show personal courage.

Charlie Anderson is the library board chairman and an attorney by profession.

"It appears to me that the standard is an obscenity standard and that none of the books we've seen come close to that standard," said Anderson. "I've read every one of the books that's come up on appeal just so I feel good about, you know, any decision I would make."

Kevin Bennett is a Gillette native and has been a regular attendee at library board and commission meetings. He didn't plan on getting involved with the activism that he's become known for in the community. His involvement began when he was asked to attend a county commission meeting in support of his mother and her church group as they expressed their concerns about some of these books in the library. He claims there's nothing funny or appropriate about what these books contain.

"I have to fight, and other people should stand up and do that as well if they care about this country on the left or right side of the fence," he said. "This is not a Republican or Democrat issue, it's a protecting the children issue."

Bennett said he's never advocated for the removal of any books from the library.

"All we wanted from the beginning was to put these materials in the collection that's general for adults, just not to promote them to children specifically or stack the deck so that a child who doesn't know any better might come across that book in the library," he said.

Some of the heated criticisms of the youth-aimed books claim that they encourage sexually inappropriate behavior and that the drawings and pictures equate to pornography. They also say that by having these books available, library staff is promoting this kind of behavior.

But Karin Ebertz strongly disagrees. A longtime Gillette resident, she's a member of PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays), a nationwide organization with a chapter in Gillette. Though she's straight, her daughter is a member of the LGBTQ community.

"These books actually help families and especially people who are questioning their gender identity or their sexual orientation," she said. "People that don't even identify as LGBTQ can read from these books and gain some understanding and hopefully some empathy for how families like mine live and the problems that we grapple with. It is such an issue of safety for some kids that they are affirmed in some way."

She also said that she feels these books are positive for the community and that they can help bridge gaps that exist between people. The thought of having books removed or relocated is something that she feels would be detrimental to the community.

"Say the library staff and director asked to keep a book in a certain section and the board overruled her, that would be terrible actually because you're taking away access to books that people need," she said.

Leah Vader expressed similar sentiments. As a member of the LGBTQ community, she said that books like those that are being challenged and appealed can help give hope and guidance to those who are questioning or struggling with their sexuality.

"We know about suicide in Wyoming," she said. "We've had young people in this community that, whether or not they were gay, who knows, but they were harassed for being gay and then took their life. It's so beyond just challenging books, these are peoples' lives."

Vader, who has lived in Gillette for 25 years said books that tackled LGBTQ issues for young people really didn't exist when she was growing up. She said she can stand her own, but she worries about what this means for young people.

The county commission selects the library board, and three commissioners have previously shared their concerns to the library. Hollie Stewart, the former library board chairwoman, recently resigned. The vacant board position attracted nearly a dozen applicants, which was filled by the wife of a Republican state representative who made comments criticizing the ALA.

Library board member Miranda Finn said that she thinks the situation will get worse. Though she could serve another term if the county commission were to appoint her again, she said the stress of serving on the board just isn't worth it.

"My library term is up as is Nancy Stovall's and we are both pro-library, we vote the same way, so we're going to fall off the board, so that leaves two empty places," she said. "And I absolutely anticipate these commissioners filling them with people who are pro-censorship."

Finn's and Stovall's terms end on June 30th.

Correction 4/22: The article previously said three commissioners had spoken at library board meetings on the concerns they have with one or more of the books in question. It has been updated to three commissioners have previously shared their concerns to the library. Only one commissioner has addressed the library board publicly about their concerns.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.

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