Friday, November 4, 2020: The article, the social media, the advocacy letter

Friday night, I saw a Facebook post from my friend from way back, Dr. Amy Hodges, and then read several Twitter posts and they all led to me to read Caleb Daniel’s article “Library removes LGBTQ books from kids’ section” in The Ruston Daily Leader1. If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do so because it’s really well done in my view. The gist of it is someone either read or saw the books George and Rick by Alex Gino2 on display in the children’s section of the library (which is tailored by professional librarians for ages up to 12) and took pictures and started complaining that they were “questionable” and/or “inappropriate” for children. Then it snowballed into other books with LGBTQ characters – including different configurations of kids and their families (living with a mom and a dad, a grandma and a grandpa, just a mommy, two mommies, or two dads…) and a lesbian dragon – being complained about by people “all with identical verbiage.” Those complaints went to the library board of control and library director Vivian McCain, MLIS. A few of the board members got together to discuss the complaints and come up with what they called a temporary solution: remove the books from the shelves, displays, and regular circulation and make them by adult request only until they figure out what to do next.

So I did something that I night I had no intention of doing when I woke up that day: I wrote an advocacy letter. I am on semester break after the longest fall semester ever which featured a pandemic, an adventurous hurricane that caused 4.5 days of no electricity in North Louisiana (and Southwest Louisiana? My goodness) in Louisiana heat, and a presidential election – after a whopping 2 week break between summer and fall semesters3. I spent 14 weeks studying and doing projects on task group dynamics, macro practice, homelessness and income injustice in northeast Louisiana (whew! We poor, y’all.), and various forms of oppression and theories and doing my internship working directly with/serving clients facing myriad challenges while building up my skills as someone training to do social work. I did not anticipate that two weeks after the semester ended I would break my “chill out and just feel like a human again” streak and jump into advocacy mode. But the library – MY library – was being challenged on multiple fronts, and one of the things you ought to know about me is I go up for libraries.

School libraries, public libraries – I goes up. I used the public library when I hadn’t heard of the internet and we had to look in drawers of card catalogs. They had to rubber stamp the books I checked out. OG. As an adult I’ve used the library as a quiet place to study, job search, apply for the grad school I’m in now, checkout DVDs, and discover materials I hadn’t before like the entire The Wicked + The Divine comic series, The Chronicles of Alice books, and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies. Prior to the pandemic, I took my three nieces to check out books of their choosing, hang out in the library, and participate in the programs, and see their favorite librarian Laura. They got excited every time they knew they were going to the library. Every single time.

The idea that concern for kids was being used as a cudgel to push our library toward censorship – which I know great librarians all over do not stand for – was too much for me. And let’s pause for a second (as my low brass teacher Dr. Alexander would say), and talk about that word censorship. Board President Dr. Augusta Clark and outgoing board member David Gullatt have maintained what they were doing was not censorship nor would they ever want to engage in censorship. I’m glad they are not cheerleaders for censorship. However, it was censorship. Censorship is suppressing, removing, or restricting materials deemed objectionable to impose the limitations of some people’s personal, political, or moral values on others. Some “more than a dozen patrons” objected to the juvenile literary materials and the partial board suggested the director remove the books from regular circulation (or restrict) in the children’s department… temporarily. Censorship.

And I did not want that to happen to my library, our library. Libraries are too magical for that.

Saturday, November 5, 2020: The response message, the election, the question of the future of the library

Saturday morning I got an email response from Mr. Gullatt. It was a fairly quick response, so kudos to him for that. He thanked me, invited me to a meeting of part of the board on Sunday afternoon where they would discuss the issue, and said the restriction (a form of censorship) was a temporary fix to buy them time to look at policy and come up with a more permanent policy. He also said, “Unfortunately, the Director has not met with any concerned groups and has provided little help to us in working on operational policy so we are looking for policies to cover the issues here now” which struck me as an odd thing to include. I can understand making a decision you think is the best one based on the information you have then feeling wounded when you get feedback that basically lets you know “this ain’t it.” What I’m still trying to compute is laying the limbo status of these books at the feet of the library director who was quoted as saying “We’re here to serve everybody equally, no matter who they are,” and “This goes against every grain in my body as a public librarian.” It came across to me as a bit evasive and personal or as if there was some other conflict (which is part of the normal process of groups – check out Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development4) at play. It was puzzling.

We also had an election for a few things Saturday – U.S. Rep, city marshal, constitutional amendment about university systems’ boards, and renewing the tax that brings in most of the library’s revenue – the tax that keeps the library open and able to offer all it does for the public.

What I love about election day voting5 is seeing the poll workers from my neighborhoods6. I hand them my ID and they recognize that’s Mrs. Chadwick’s granddaughter, Larry Gipson’s daughter. My next door neighbor was a worker Saturday (she usually is), and she asked, “Joi, what happened to your Christmas decorations?” (The wind, then I brought them in before the rain last week.) At the next table I was asked how my father is doing and got “Oh, YOU’RE the one that does all the driving!” when I mentioned we had recently come back from his checkup at the cancer center in Houston. I don’t get that when I early vote.

Only 16% of voters showed up to vote in Lincoln Parish. The renewal didn’t pass. Whether that could be attributed to the low turnout, people upset about the censorship, people thinking the tax renewal was a tax increase (it was actually a 14 cent per mil decrease which could have been rolled down even lower at any point by the police jury over the next 10 years just as the last 5.99 rate was), or some combination of these, I don’t know. But I do know that means the police jury (our parish legislative body) and the library board and staff have an unfortunate situation on their hands that could be bad for our community, and they’ll be discussing that (as well as policy for the books) at the library board meeting Wednesday at 4 pm. (Police jury meets Tuesday at 7 pm.)

…the library tax will be off the books starting next year, unless voters pass a subsequent proposal that the police jury could place on a future ballot.

In the meantime, the library will likely soon have to start spending its fund balance to maintain operations. It has a little less than $3 million in reserve.

Informational materials the library used to market the tax vote claimed the library could potentially face closure if the renewal were to fail.

“Parish picks Hawkins as marshal, backs Letlow for Rep, rejects library tax” by Nancy Bergeron and Caleb Daniel for the Ruston Daily Leader

Sunday, December 6, 2020: The meeting (not in fully chronological order)

After a fun round of “find some keys” because my sister and I switched cars, I went to the meeting. Being upfront with you, I was nervous. I didn’t know who would show up, what their views would be, if the place would be crowded, or what. I had intended to double mask using a stylish cloth mask and a faux surgical masks, but my faux surgicals were in my car… that I didn’t have at the time. So I showed up with my one cloth Case Western mask, and was relieved to walk in the room to see chairs spaced apart and the room not crowded. David Gullatt was standing near the door and gave a warm welcome and “How are you?” as I walked in. I found a seat on the third row then changed my mind and opted for the second to be closer to the front (but still a decent distance from the table where the board members and director McCain sat). I recognized the person I was sitting next to was Gumbo (they posted a full body pic of their outfit just before the meeting) who had just become a Twitter mutual within the last 24 hours. I also recognized that save for two members of the board – Dr. Clark and Sandra Dupree – I was the only Black person in the room. One notices things like this.

The meeting began with some explanation about how we got here (over a 100 social media posts, emails, etc.), thanking us for being involved in our library, saying nothing would be decided in that meeting because legally they couldn’t and they just wanted to hear from us as a focus group, and telling us how it would go. The first speaker from the floor did not want to be the first speaker because she wanted to see where everyone else’s heads were and I empathized with that so hard even though I didn’t know what her views were yet. Still she got up and spoke, and I was ’bout ready to cry. She spoke – “selectively” as she put it – about her Christian family who has rallied around her sister who is a lesbian. Her sister has a wife and two kids and the whole family does not feel comfortable coming to Ruston to visit her family here. (When people speak of our “shared community values” as they did in the complaints against the books, they generally do not mean “Embracing marginalized people on every level and treating them as fully human and worthy of dignity, respect, and resources.”) She also cited the library’s Materials Selection Policy and stated she was secretly proud of the community for having those books on the shelves and the decision to restrict the books sided against the people who were proud and with the dissenters. The second speaker was a retired teacher who spoke about her son who came out to her family 20 years ago and cited the materials selection policy and the Unattended Children Policy as current policy that gives answers.

The meeting continued with many speaking about their loved ones and students who are trans, queer, lesbian, gay, bi, and all of the spectrum, the pride they felt in seeing those materials in the library, and how they felt the decision to restrict the books even temporarily was harmful and sent the wrong message. They spoke of how they watch(ed) their children in the library and discuss materials with them and enjoy(ed) watching them explore and discover themselves. There were K-12 and university teachers who talked about their experience with students needing support, students, parents (one brought her grown up daughter), and a lawyer (“One of two openly gay lawyers in town”) who talked about policy and law and how the encyclopedia contains all the “objectionable” terms we discussed. I talked about my love of and history with the library, how I bring my nieces (who also love it), how I have friends and family – including many who grew up in this community or came here for school – who are LGBTQ+ and how they may have struggled with the discomfort or taken years into adulthood to “come out” and some might still not be “out” publicly because they’re afraid of people’s reactions, and how we shouldn’t make decisions to treat people like second-class citizens based on some people’s discomfort or disbelief. Discussion also included a couple parents who said the messages in at least some of the books were graphic or sexual and not for children. One mother said the parents, not the library, should decide what is appropriate for children and what aligns with their family values and sexual content should not be included in children’s books. She said there was explicit mention in the materials (we can safely assume George) of “masturbation, cutting off genitals, changing hormonal… with medications” and pornography and themes that boys are “evil, that they’re crude, that they’re immature, that they’re always bullying, and that’s very biased and hurtful and divisive as well.”

Another mother specifically quoted this excerpt from the book George as an example of discussing pornography:

“That’s my little bro! Growing up and looking at dirty magazines.”

“Oh,” George said out loud. She knew what dirty magazines were. She almost laughed. The girls in the magazines she was looking at wore a lot more clothes than that…”

George by Alex Gino, p. 10

She said she encourages her kids (who are 10 and 12 and don’t know what dirty magazines are) to look things up they don’t know and understand, and I think that’s awesome. She said if her child were to look up dirty magazines they would find pornography. At this, the first thing I imagined was parental controls like I have on my nieces’ (5,8, and 10) profiles on our streaming accounts. At one point I blocked YouTube completely from their phone and tablets and set age restrictions for their apps. Then I thought about conversations like the one when we told them to stay off TikTok for a while (they love to do the dances, watch funny videos, and create TikToks with their mom) because there was some dangerous stuff going on. Do you know what happened? They stayed off TikTok until we gave them the clear. And when we find they’re listening to or watching or reading something not appropriate? It gets a quick “TURN IT OFF!” or “CHANGE IT” or “NOPE! Not appropriate” and we tell them it’s why it’s not appropriate if necessary. There are also the times when they ask questions like “What is a period?” and “Why do you use these tampons and not those?” and “What does sober mean?” (Literally, I just got that last question today. I said, “It means ‘not drunk.'” She said, “Oh, okay.” That was it.) We just answer them. I’m not saying we’re perfect in how we engage them or they’re not going to be kids who do stuff they’re not supposed to (because kids!), but open, honest conversation like they’re human beings working toward both increased autonomy and interdependence goes a long way. In the process they challenge and teach us and help us grow. That’s pretty cool. We like them. Guess we’ll keep them.

(I also had to look at the copyright in George to see when it was written because the reference to dirty magazines is so 90s. It was written between 2003 and 2015.)

The lone transgender person in the room (I’ll tell you how I know in a minute), Natalie, spoke late in the session. She told us she was a parent, in a lesbian relationship, and also trans. She spoke of her family growing up and how she didn’t have the option to disclose she was a trans kid, and how her dad responded with violent language after she came out as an adult. She said she is the Northeast coordinator for the statewide trans group and how many trans people approach her for information and support including kids who feel they can’t go to their parents and may be struggling emotionally. She said she has dealt with death threats from people knowing she is trans and in a lesbian relationship “So, these kids coming up, they shouldn’t have to go and tell someone ‘Hey, I need this material’ and put themselves into that type of a situation. And that’s my biggest thing. I don’t want someone that is questioning themselves coming up and that’s just wanting some info – they should not have to put themselves into a scenario to cause more discrimination and more problems against them, more problems against their family.” She also spoke of how she, like many of the other parents, guide her kids and discuss with them what’s appropriate for them. She said she has a fifth grader who already knows way more than she wishes he would because of school. (Real, okay! Kids’ conversations with each other at school? They will find a way to discuss whatever they can think of that is treated as taboo. They may or may not tell you.)

After she spoke Gumbo thanked her and said, “It’s a little sad that the first time we heard from a queer person was almost the last person in the room.” They asked us to raise our hands if we were straight – everyone but Natalie raised their hands. Gumbo then spoke passionately about how they hated themselves or a part of themselves for being a queer kid growing up who was bullied because most of the people their age weren’t exposed to queer people and thought it was wrong. Gumbo struggled with coming out and still hasn’t talked to their parents about it. Gumbo said not allowing kids to see being LGBTQ is normal “reinforces the idea that they can bully and harm people for being different.” They spoke about how trans people – particularly trans Black people – are one of the most at risk groups in the country, and “to not show children that they are just as valid people as straight and cisgender people is going to perpetuate that harm and never actually solve the problems that we hope to solve for the future.”

The meeting wrapped up with David Gullatt thanking us for showing up and emailing them, encouraging us to continue to do so, and stating the committee would meet in a day or so and they had to have the policy proposal ready Wednesday evening. He then turned it over to Dr. Clark who said she appreciated our comments and they would take them into consideration. She said they have been watching and revisiting their policies and to check the updated website (mylpl.org). Board member Sandra Dupree7 then urged us “Please, if you can, attend our meeting on Wednesday at 4:00 in this room. And any other meeting that we have on the third Wednesday of every month unless it’s a holiday or something. We would love to have you, we love to hear your opinions, we love to hear whatever you need to tell us. That’s what we’re here for.” David Gullatt followed up by saying they may have some more focus groups in the future on different topics, and Dr. Clark thanked us all and ended the meeting.

Sunday Night/Monday Morning December 6-7, 2020: Reading George

I took another break from taking my break to read George. It’s about a transgender girl in the fourth grade. I wanted to see its objectionable and inappropriate qualities for myself8. Besides that previously mentioned dirty magazine excerpt from chapter 1, I wanted to see what might raise some people’s antennae in the book. SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t read George.

Chapter 4

So George knew it could be done. A boy could become a girl. She had since read on the Internet that you could take girl hormones that would change your body, and you could get a bunch of different surgeries if you wanted them and had the money. This was called transitioning. You could even start before you were eighteen with pills called androgen blockers that stopped the boy hormones already inside you from turning your body into a man’s. But for that, you needed your parents’ permission.

George, p. 32

So this is the “hormones and genital mutilation” that mother was talking about! Or it might seem to be that. As someone who has learned a lot (and is still learning) from listening to trans and queer people, what I see is a trans girl experiencing dysphoria and contemplating possibilities for affirming her gender. Is that inappropriate for children to read? The American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement in which they say:

Exploring different ways of expressing gender is common for children and may challenge social expectations. […] Children report being aware of gender incongruence at young ages. Children who later identify as TGD [Trans and gender diverse] report first having recognized their gender as “different” at an average age of 8.5 years; however, they did not disclose such feelings until an average of 10 years later.

Ensuring Comprehensive Care and Support for Transgender and Gender-Diverse Children and Adolescents

At an average (meaning some lower and some higher) age of 8.5 some children are recognizing they are not the gender they are assigned. I wrote a research paper for my child development class a couple semesters ago in which I said that for some trans youth, puberty “can be a particularly vulnerable or dreaded time due to changes in their hormones and physical appearance that have the potential to exacerbate a primary problem of their minority status – the association of their body with natal gender rather than their gender identity.” Melissa (she is referred to as George throughout the book, including by the narrator, but she chose the name Melissa for herself) knows that is coming, dreads being seen as a “Mr.” anything. Kids at these ages know puberty is coming, and even cisgender kids have concerns about it, so it makes sense that a trans kid character who feels like her body isn’t telling her truth would think about what she could do to try to stop if from lying on her even more. But we are debating over whether it’s appropriate for kids in grades 3-8 (ages around 8-13) to read a children’s book in which a 10-year old trans girl thinks about her gender being different and what she would do relieve the incongruence. This contributes to them not feeling safe to disclose their thoughts and their identity for maybe a decade or more.

Chapter 6

“You look like you slept in that!” Mom declared.

“I did,” Scott grinned.

“And you haven’t brushed your teeth, have you?”

“Nope,” Scott’s grin grew wider.

“You’re disgusting,” said Mom, resignation in her voice.

“I’m a teenage boy,” said Scott. “What do you expect?”

George, p. 53

The family wakes up late and Melissa’ brother Scott goes to school without brushing his teeth. Is this saying boys are crude? I think it’s just saying Scott did something gross in this moment. This cannot be the first media on our children’s section library shelves to portray teenage boys acting in ways many are socialized to act (“boys will be boys”) which includes doing gross things. It’s basically Hallmark or straight-to-video (before the pandemic) movie cheesy family dialogue.

Chapter Eight

“Did you know you can take hormones so that your body, you know, doesn’t go all manlike?”

“Yeah, I know.” George had been reading websites about transitioning since Scott hat taught her how to clear the web browser history on Mom’s computer. “But you need your parent’s permission.”

George, p. 66

Melissa and her best friend Kelly bring up hormones again as an alternative for going through a mismatched puberty, and George thinks about how her brother Scott taught her how to clear the web browser on their computer. This seems to be where the masturbation argument comes from (assuming teen brother Scott is masturbating to what he is deleting from the browser history) because literally at no point in the book do they mention masturbation. I read the whole book. Never. However, if they had mentioned masturbation, as uncomfortable as it is for us to consider, kids do self-stimulate. Going back to the the American Academy of Pediatrics, their Bright Futures Guidelines say this about ages 5-10:

Middle childhood is the time to begin providing accurate sexual information for children and give them opportunities to explore, question, and assess their own and their family’s attitudes toward gender, sexuality, and human relationships. At this age, the changes of puberty also can be addressed.

Promoting Healthy Sexual Development and Sexuality, p. 219

Further, an article by two board certified pediatricians in Pediatrics in Review (The AAP journal) says this:

Self-exploration and masturbation are a normal part of development but are not discussed often because they are challenging topics for parents and pediatricians. Most children will engage in some sexual behavior before puberty, and after puberty the practice is even more common. In one report, 90% to 94% of males and 50% to 60% of females recalled masturbating at some point during their childhood.

Masturbation by Ellie Strachan, MD and Betty Stapes, MD

It’s appropriate that we do not stigmatize behaviors that are simply part of child and adolescent development. But, again, there was no masturbation in this book. None.

Chapter 9

“So, like, do you want to” – he made a gesture with two fingers like a pair of scissors – “go all the way?”

George squeezed her legs together. “Maybe someday,” she said.

George, p. 86

Melissa confides in her older brother Scott that she is a girl. Scott wonders aloud, in his own way, if she has been considering getting gender affirming surgery (vaginoplasty, in her case), and she has been. It’s not a lengthy conversation. It ends four short sentences later with Scott saying it’s weird but makes sense because Melissa doesn’t make a good boy and Melissa agreeing with him. In my research paper on trans youth, I cited an article by social worker Ashley Austin, LICSW, PhD from the peer-reviewed journal Sex Roles that said this:

Although it is clear that the opportunity to medically transition is a critical component of health and well-being for some TGNC [transgender or gender nonconforming] youth and adults, recognition of this need is often preceded by a long, confusing, and painful process of self-discovery.

There I am: A Grounded Theory Study of Young Adults Navigating a Transgender or Gender Nonconforming Identity within a Context of Oppression and Invisibility, p. 216

Melissa may or may not medically transition. Each trans person has to discover for themselves if that is the right choice for them. But Melissa, like many other trans youth, is considering it as a possibility for her future. Given that transgender youth deal with higher rates of depression, suicidality and self-harm, and eating disorders due to social-emotional rejection, dysphoria, and aggression and victimization, we ought to celebrate Melissa is envisioning her future – her trans future – with a spark of hope. We should reflect on the fact that three short paragraphs later, Melissa is glad to have her older brother because he looks at her “as if his sibling made sense to him for the first time” now that he knows she is a girl. Yes, the same brother who didn’t brush his teeth earlier. Because people are complex.

Chapter 12 (The last chapter)

“I didn’t even know you had any skirts,” said George.

“I don’t wear them to school. Boys are dirty and try to look up them.”

George, p. 107

So this is where we’re being biased against boys and divisive I suppose. Melissa and her best friend Kelly are getting dressed up before they go to the zoo, and they are discussing clothes. Kelly speaks on her experience that boys try to look up her skirt. Plenty of girls and women have stories of boys-will-being-boys at every age doing things like that. When I was in kindergarten, a boy tried to put his hands down the back of my pants at nap time. (I told the teacher.) I remember that from 32 years ago. That’s one example. It. Happens. Me telling you that, the character Kelly saying she doesn’t wear skirts to school because she has experienced boys trying to look up her skirts, or the narrator telling us about two boys in a whole school bullying Melissa doesn’t mean we are victimizing boys/men or pigeonholing them. Again, Melissa has a brother who it turns out is pretty clutch for her. Kelly has a father and an uncle who she adores. A male teacher in the book turns out to be kinda awesome. I talk to my father and little brother all the time. I adore my nephews as well as my nieces. I have friends who are men and I think we mutually enjoy that fact and respect each other as full humans (key!). Its not divisive. It’s saying, “There are some unpleasant and inappropriate things that enough boys do to girls, this is how it makes girls feel, and they should cut that crap out.”

All in all, George was far more tame than I anticipated after all the much ado. Nobody used any anatomically correct language or euphemisms for genitals or even had a crush. And my niece is sitting on my bed watching Netflix on my tablet just to hang around me, so I guess that’s it for now. Besides, I’m on a break!


Footnotes

1 Disclaimer, maybe? I used to work at the Leader for almost six years. Not in the newsroom – circulation. I don’t know Caleb. After my time. But Nancy was there. She’s a Ruston media staple.

2 Scholastic rates these books for grades 3-7. Common Sense Media rates George for ages 10+, and its adult reviewers have varying views but average suggesting George for 10+ while kids (ages 9-16) average it is for ages 9+. Common Sense Media rates Rick for ages 10+.

3 Still got that 4.0, tho! If I hadn’t, at least I would have survived.

4 Hat tip to my macro and policy practice skills course for that reference.

5 With precautions nowadays – masks, hand sanitizer on deck, distance, more hand sanitizer, more distance. I live with children who will catch ANYTHING going around, have a father with two cancer diagnoses, and I certainly don’t want to catch even a mild case of COVID and risk exposing others or having long-term side effects myself.

6 I say “neighborhoods” because my polling place burned down a few years ago, then it moved to the church a few hundred feet down the road, and this year before the general election it moved to the rec center on Eastside.

7 After the meeting I spoke to her and learned my grandma taught her at GHS (a very common occurrence in my life), and she’s a good friend of my father’s who apparently has heard a lot about me from him. They used to work to together at the GSU library in college. Of course I called him from the parking lot and told him I met his friend.

8 Mind you, I read Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery & Terror in the classroom at Hillcrest Elementary (Go Hawks!) during free time after finishing my work in third grade. Scholastic rates that book for grades 6-8 and adults and kids on Common Sense Media rate a Poe collection with some of the same stories as ages 13+, so… *shrug*

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