In late July, the board of directors at Campbell County Public Library in Wyoming voted 4-1 to fire its longtime director, Terri Lesley.
For two years, the library board, with the support of conservative community members, had tried to get Lesley to remove books she claimed were sexually unsuitable for minors. But Lesley refused – fearing a lawsuit and her firm belief that a diverse collection of books is essential to a successful library.
“I think it’s damaging to the community if they don’t have access to a lot of information,” Lesley said.
Lesley insists LGBTQ-themed books belong in the library — even if certain parents don’t want their kids to read them. She also feared being sued for violating the First Amendment, which prohibits state-sanctioned censorship.
“They created this crisis,” she told HuffPost, speaking about the board after her sacking. “Your claims have no substance and no credible support.”
The Campbell County Library Board did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Lesley has been a staff member in the library system for 27 years, including 11 as director. According to members of the community in the town of 30,000, she was widely popular; at the special session at which she was dismissed, hundreds of people appeared to support them. So how could she be freed from such a critical position?
Challenges to Lesley’s oversight of the library have taken a strategic line: Conservative activists, often backed by Republican lawmakers, have launched an initiative all out war on LGBTQ+ people. Under the guise of parental rights, they are pushing to remove books from schools and censor educators — and public libraries have also come under attack along the way — the latest front in the culture war trying to erase the existence of LGBTQ people and their loved ones’ experiences from the public life, through instruments such as laws that dictate what teachers can say about gender identity and Prohibiting transgender children from playing sports at school.
In the spring of 2021, community members came to the library to complain about alleged sexual content in teenage and children’s books, involving titles such as ” “How Do You Make a Baby” by Anna Fiske and “Doing It” by Hannah Witton. In June of this year, a teenage volunteer wrote a Pride month blog entry for the library, which celebrates LGBTQ writers, and some Gillette residents declined, including a local official who claimed so “harmful” to the community. And when the library hired Mikayla Oz, a child magician who happened to be transgender, to an event a month later, all hell broke loose.
“The magician was just a well-known magician who was hired for a summer program,” said a longtime library staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “[Her] Gender identity was irrelevant. But that was the match that lit the tinderbox.”
Oz received violent threats online and over the phone after her gender identity was made public on social media, according to The Associated Press. The threats prompted Oz to cancel her show; The library also posted on its Facebook page that Oz’s performance would not go ahead as planned due to safety concerns for staff and visitors.
From there, it became a familiar refrain among conservative culture fighters: The library allegedly provided inappropriate materials for children—and the librarians were responsible for it.
in October 2021, Supporters and critics of the library gathered for a board meeting express their concerns.
The critics alleged that the library made sexually explicit and abusive material available to minors. One woman said in a public comment that her personal survey of the youth department found 60% of the books were “witchcraft,” while another said the library had become an “indoctrination center.”
According to Gillette News Record, community members 29 books challenged in 2021 and 2022, including Gender Queer, a memoir by Maia Kobabe, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson – all of which have been frequently targeted by right-wingers across the country. In the end, no books were completely removed from the library, but two, including Kobabe’s memoir, were moved to the adult section. The other 26 remained in their respective sections. (Evison’s novel was already in the adult section.)
In October 2022, the library board voted to sever ties with the American Library Association, the large and influential library advancement organization, and the Wyoming Library Association, its state branch. Under other resources, the ALA provides guidance on collections development policy—how the library fills its shelves—and professional ethics and standards. Among those standards is a staunch opposition to book censorship in schools and libraries: A November 2021 opinion of the ALA specifically condemned “the censorship of books and resources that reflect the lives of gay, queer, or transgender people or that tell stories of people who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color,” and called for efforts to remove books about these subjects “Acts of Censorship and Intimidation”.
“Libraries fulfill the promises of the First Amendment by providing the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas so that every person has the opportunity to freely read and consider information and ideas, regardless of their content or the author’s point of view. ‘ the statement said.
According to Wyoming Public Media, the library passed a new collection development policy in June after two years of chaotic library board meetings and input from the Liberty Council, a Florida-based right-wing organization. The new policy no longer mentions the Freedom to Read or the Library Bill of Rights, the ALA’s anti-censorship policies, but includes a new section on the removal of “sexually explicit” material to protect children.
“The ALA is a self-proclaimed socialist Marxist activist group, and they’ve said that over and over again, so this has absolutely nothing to do with targeting LGBTQ ideology or anyone’s lifestyle, which is the ALA narrative,” he said Library Board Member Charles Diener said Wyoming Public Media about the new standards.
“This is about making the library more responsible for protecting children from sexually explicit material until they are mentally fit and developing [mentally] “Mature enough to understand the impact and consequences of sex and different lifestyles,” Butler said.
Pleased with the new policy, the board members asked Lesley to remove books they felt were “outrageous” and in violation of the new policy.
Lesley would not be moved. “Public libraries are for everyone,” she said. “Our collection is intended to serve all citizens of the community.”
But board members were determined to remove books.
“I think they should go through and find the egregious stuff. They know what it is, they put it there.” said board member Sage Bear in response to Lesley’s concerns at the regular board meeting in late July.
Lesley was fired a few days later after refusing to resign.
“They did their best to overwhelm me,” Lesley said of the library board. “They saw me more as a pawn in this bigger game. It feels like they have a political agenda.”
Large sections of the community were unhappy with Lesley’s removal.
“I’ve worked here for a long time and I felt it was a respected and well-funded institution,” said the anonymous librarian. “Sure, we’re a red community in a red state, but many of the people who have real roots here are angry that the library was attacked.”
Lesley’s firing heralds what may come next as versions of her story are repeated across the country.
The Gillette book furor is a familiar refrain among conservatives who have made anti-LGBTQ rhetoric a core part of their ideology. Below increased restrictions In terms of schools and curriculum requirements, conservatives have increasingly targeted books, denigrating all books dealing with LGBTQ issues as sexually explicit or harmful to teenagers and children. In Florida, Georgia, Missouri, In addition, both public libraries and school libraries are increasingly being attacked by the right.
“It started with the theme of protecting kids,” Jenny Sorenson, a teacher and library patron who lives in Gillette, told HuffPost. “Then it culminated in a librarian being fired because she was uncomfortable removing books from the library.”
“They position the library and librarians as ‘groomers’ who want to enforce ‘wake agendas,'” Sorenson said.
The library’s treatment and Lesley’s dismissal could have far-reaching implications that could impact the library system for years to come. Public libraries, which provide underserved communities with free access to information as well as services such as Internet connections, have come under attack for several years, including by privatization and monetization such public services.
Now the individual workers who keep the doors open must bear the personal cost of investing their careers in these institutions.
“I think there will be people who will give up the librarianship as a profession,” said the anonymous librarian staffer. “You want to serve the public, but don’t underestimate the stress that that puts on the staff.”
“I was personally touched by the actions of the Management Board. They took away my livelihood and my 27-year career,” Lesley said. “But I think this case is worth fighting for. I believe in the work of public libraries and the services they provide to all people.”