Late last year, I covered a huge story out of Huntsville, Texas. The public library was being taken over by a private company, in a move most believed to be directly related to the library’s inclusion of queer materials and book displays. You can read the full story here.
A former Huntsville Public Library employee, Elissa Myers, reached out to me to ask if she could share her story about working at this institution. Her work is less about the book banning–that is there, too–but about what it means to be a queer librarian in a time of unmitigated bigotry, much of which is being directed at public employees in education and libraries.
In addition to a look behind the desk, this piece offers generous suggestions for how to help your local libraries continue to be places of inclusivity, access, inquiry, and safety for both the whole of the communities they serve but also the people who work within their walls.
Elissa Myers is a queer writer, library worker, and educator. She also runs a tiny queer bookstore called Rainbow Books in Huntsville, TX. She has a Ph.D. in children’s literature and Victorian literature, and loves to nerd out about embroidery, crochet, and other crafts in her spare time.
I began working at the Huntsville Public Library because children’s literature and providing young people with diverse books were two things I cared deeply about. I grew up in East Texas, and it meant a lot to me to be able to ensure young people’s access to diverse literature in the area where I grew up. I have a Ph.D. in children’s literature, and though I had never planned on taking a job outside academia, the opportunity seemed made for me. It was local, so I wouldn’t have to move, and I’d get to help make sure kids in an area close to my hometown had the kinds of books I always wished I had had as a kid.
However, I did not and could not have anticipated the strength and intensity of the local backlash to queer literature–particularly books for children with LGBTQ content–and the ways in which the structures in place could both create a personally difficult situation for me as an individual and prohibit our library and its staff from providing the service we were there to provide. I am in the position of no longer being in my job at the Huntsville Public Library, and so I want to speak to what queer library workers have been facing and to a few ways that I think the general public (and especially queer folks) could help us respond to this intense backlash. While the many kits and resources to help folks resist book banning are a great start, these kits don’t always take into account the specifics of book banning situations–in particular, the fact that librarians themselves and the local queer community (and especially library professionals in the queer community) are often the ones who are really being targeted. This can, unfortunately, make many of the suggestions given in these resource kits impossible or totally impractical. Here, I’m going to speak to what it’s like to be targeted in such a way, how that limits your options, and the kinds of things that can really help stop or mitigate such discrimination. I won’t promise I can solve all the problems that I lay out, but I know we definitely won’t solve them till we name them.
A few months before I began working at my library, the backlash toward queer books had already begun, as a local censorship group called Mama Bears Rising spoke at churches up and down Interstate 45, the corridor that connects Houston with its outlying conservative suburbs. This group encouraged those churches’ members to speak out against books they didn’t agree with at public and school libraries–primarily books that featured LGBTQ+ content or YA books that featured sex scenes. Those members then began speaking to their city council members about these books instead of going through the library-approved process for challenging materials, circumventing the expertise of librarians, who buy materials for all members of their communities and consider such matters as age-appropriateness from the beginning when they make their purchases.
A few short months after I began working, I began facing the backlash in a personal way. It all began when community members first realized I was queer. I had several rainbow articles on my desk, but one day when I wore a pair of socks with the word “queer” on them on a day when I had to lead storytime, things came to a head. A parent called me a few days later to complain.
She told me, to paraphrase her words, that her friend had taken a picture of the socks and that her kid could read, and she didn’t want him reading that word. She also claimed I had an LGBTQ agenda in storytime, though she couldn’t name one book that had given her that impression. She also made references to “globalism” and “transgenderism” in my storytimes, though again, she did not offer support for her statements. The only book she named that she did not like was one that supported racial diversity, entitled “What’s the Difference?” This book teaches children to talk about racial differences without judgment and features such statements as “So what if your friend has curly hair and you have straight hair? You both like to wear cool hats!” It’s a very sweet and age-appropriate book. She told me there was more I could be talking about than simply “feelings and being nice to each other” and asked if I wanted her to recommend some “classic” children’s books.
I declined her offer of help. I was put in my job for a reason, and believe I was fully capable of doing it. I told her that I had a Ph.D. and that she clearly had a problem with my identity more than my choices as a library professional.
And then the takedown of our Pride display happened. Our display was taken down less than 24 hours after we put it up. This display was not my decision, but many assumed I had something to do with it (as the only out queer person at my job). What ensued was months of complaints at city council meetings, in which thinly veiled judgments about me and my boss and our decisions at the library were continually made. At one meeting, patrons dissected a newsletter article I had written, which consisted of new titles I thought teens might want to check out. They figured out which percentage “were gay books” (about half) and proceeded to imply there was something deeply wrong with this, which, of course, didn’t need to be stated because it was obvious to all the god-fearing people in the room.
Shortly after that, the police were called into the library to investigate a list of books that featured commonly banned books for “obscenity.” The list of books they investigated was not identical to the list coming from the newsletter I wrote. However, a FOIA request done by a patron later confirmed that a patron had requested that they investigate my list as well.
Additionally, the FOIA request also returned emails and texts inquiring into who had purchased Gender Queer and why–one of the books that was investigated by the police.
Around this time, pictures of my desk were posted on NextDoor and Facebook on the misunderstanding that the rainbow knick-knacks and small flag I had there were the Pride display. Because I was the children’s librarian, my desk was in the children’s section, and this led to the mistaken belief that the Pride display was in the children’s section. At some point, threats were made. People said we should “all lose our jobs,” bemoaning our “shameful behavior,” and even saying we “should all be shot.” I began monitoring these sites to make sure more such threats weren’t made for my own safety.
Around the same time, our HR director informed me that I could no longer wear socks that said the word “queer.” More fundamentally, the city refused to put forward any statement of support for its employees or for queer citizens of the town.
As the only out queer person at the library, I felt profoundly isolated. Everyone else could choose to simply “lay low” while this blew over. But once people knew I was queer, they did not let up on me, and explaining the toll this was taking on me to coworkers and family was difficult.
Additionally, our location made it difficult to take advantage of many common resources for book banning situations. As we were city employees, we understood our employee manual to limit what we could say about the situation. And because we were in a “right to work” state without unions, this made it almost impossible to mobilize patrons. Though many patrons and townspeople found out what was going on and protested it vehemently, I am sure that there are also many progressive community members who don’t even know what happened at the library.
We also had no other members of our professions to organize with. Most resource kits also suggest going to orgs like ALA, but when I did so, I was always told that because I wasn’t the library director, there was little I could do and little they could do to help me. The things I could do were always small and, in my particular position, unhelpful–report the challenge to ALA, make sure they use the official challenge procedure, etc. No one seemed to understand that at our library books hadn’t even been formally challenged, much less banned. Rather, queer people themselves were being challenged, and with the official endorsement of the city council and the police.
Thus, we were intimidated into what felt to me like soft censorship–doubting and playing safe every program, and especially children’s programs. A visit by a trans author was vetoed with no reason given. Earlier that year, I was written up for suggesting we do a book about a bear eating a bunny. My boss was suspended for two weeks for the display issue. No one wanted to be fired. And it seemed like until that happened, no one could really help us.
Finally, in January, our library was privatized in what I believe to be a thinly-veiled attempt to control library employees. In late December, all employees received a letter from the City letting us know that they would no longer employ us. Instead, we would have to re-interview with Library Systems and Services, to whom day-to-day operations of the library would soon be supposedly handed over. After one angry city council meeting in which all but a few residents expressed their intense displeasure over the decision and the speed with which it was made, we lost. The library was turned over to LSS.
The next month, when LSS took over the library, we all were scheduled for short conversations with their vice president of operations–supposedly a formality for us to begin work with LSS. Instead of a formality, however, my meeting turned into what seemed to me to be a grilling session about why I had the small rainbow flag on my desk. At our next meeting, the VP expressed “surprise” that I accepted the job. It seemed obvious to me that LSS would act as a puppet, enforcing the City’s opinions and wishes rather than considering what might be best for the community or library workers.
After those meetings, together with everything I experienced throughout my employment with the city, I began to look for other jobs, convinced I would no longer be able to do good with my boss now required to enforce the decisions of an outside company, which it seemed was likely to continue the city’s policy of antagonism toward the LBGTQ community. As a way to continue to help out my community, however, I started a small queer bookstore called Rainbow Books inside a local cafe. I have immense respect for those who continue to do library work under such impossible conditions, but I have been able to do things for the queer community I never could have done in the role of a small bookstore owner. I have held local events for the queer community, such as a queer prom, when Pride was canceled by our city due to a technicality. I have also been able to hold space in our town where queer folks are constantly celebrated, both during Pride and all year long, and where no one can take our display of that pride away. So, in my own way, I’m still fighting.
I’m also still fighting for the library but from a different perspective as a patron. I still check in with my former coworkers about what is going on and let my activist networks know if something seems odd or troubling. Additionally, I still am, literally, a patron of the library. I check out books, regrettably rack up late fees, and plan to schedule events with my queer book club in their meeting rooms. This isn’t to say that the climate at the library is better now than it was or that I now feel at home there. On the contrary, I feel deeply uncomfortable there, but am determined not to let the city push me out of this public space.
If you take anything from this piece, please take away the fact that being a patron of a library gives you *so* much more power than your public librarians. They are almost always serving at the will of the city, and in states with no union protections, this means they can lose their jobs for any reason or no reason (this is not an exaggeration, but official wording). Additionally, cities often make explicit policies that forbid city employees (like librarians) from speaking out about them. Under those conditions, librarians are often forced to comply with any policies that city officials make–even when those policies go directly against our professional and personal codes of ethics. So again, while your librarians may be able to do little against book bans, you can make your displeasure known to your officials and, above all, use the library so that you know what is going on.
My parents don’t understand why I’m still fighting, but I keep fighting because I am queer in Huntsville, TX, and I need the library to be a public space where I feel safe and affirmed. And I know that it’s not just about that space; it’s about signaling that we matter in a country where laws are being made every day to take away the healthcare of our trans friends and family, and where drag is being criminalized. In these days where our public spaces as queer people are being endangered, where our bars close, and Pride is being canceled as it was here in my town. Where Pride celebrations and big box stores receive threats for celebrating us–in such a climate, every Pride flag and every queer book someone sees could make the difference between them feeling alone and afraid to them feeling seen, worthy, and confident to keep fighting in their own lives. This ability to keep fighting is what I want for us all, so with that in mind, here are a few tips to help support your local library and librarians in this time of book challenges. I’m directing these tips particularly toward my queer family, as I know this book banning feels personal to us and is, perhaps, emotionally more difficult for us than it is for others:
A few tips to help queer folks support your (likely relatively disempowered) public librarians:
- Go to the library in person. Get to know the staff, and ask them what’s been going on.
- Make it YOUR library. Make friends with a staff member. Have a club or create a club that you enjoy going to. Bring your kids to things, if you have them.
- If you’re partnered, bring your partner(s) if you feel safe to do so. Queer visibility in the library is so important, and you could be helping somebody who feels less safe feel more so.
- Suggest new programming ideas to staff! Most of them will be very grateful for new ideas! The point is that, whatever your perspective and/or lived experience, the library SHOULD have programming that appeals to you. If they don’t, then this is part of the problem. Don’t disinvest from the library if you feel it doesn’t serve you; instead, fight for your vision! When we are as loud as the other side, and we are proactive about what we want rather than reactive, it makes us harder to ignore.
- Go to city council meetings and sign up to comment if there’s something going on you have an opinion about. Numbers matter, even though we still won’t always win. Get used to losing and keep going anyway.
- Go to library board meetings and sign up to comment.
- Write an op-ed for your local newspaper.
- Consider geography and local cultural climate: If you’re somewhere where churches matter culturally (like the South, where I live), and you yourself are religious, speak up for your values in that venue and to your church members. If you aren’t religious, try to network with folks who are, if that feels safe for you. In places where religion is an important part of the culture, it has power as an institution that individuals do not.
- Public library fights are often centered around “the children.” You don’t have to have children to fight for the library, though. When you see them gutting children’s programming and collections (one of the most expensive and central areas in a public library), it’s okay to speak up even if you don’t have kids. I say this because this “for the children” thing is just another one of their tactics, and it’s used to silence the left. Speaking as an aunt, grandparent, community volunteer, etc., should be just as valid! We have a stake in the next generation’s sense of belonging in this world, too.
- Recognize defunding and underfunding as ways of dismantling the library as a public space. Censorship isn’t the only danger our community is facing. If they just don’t give us enough money, this is also a way that a public space dies.
- And finally, maintain your hope. Have a queer community that you turn to for venting and also for celebrating your wins as a community. May we all have the strength to keep fighting and a community that we feel blessed to be able to fight alongside.