They checked out Pride books in protest. It backfired.

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They checked out Pride books in protest. It backfired.
A display of books for Pride month at the Rancho Peñasquitos branch of the public library system in San Diego, July 13, 2023. After two residents checked out nearly all copies of books in the display and threatened not to return them until all “inappropriate content” was permanently removed from the library, people donated more than $15,000 and the city will kick in over $30,000 for more LGBTQ-themed materials and programming. (John Francis Peters/The New York Times)

by Jill Cowan

SAN DIEGO, CA.- Adrianne Peterson, the manager of the Rancho Peñasquitos branch of the San Diego Public Library, was actually a little embarrassed by the modest size of her Pride Month display in June. Between staff vacations and organizing workshops for graduating high school students, it had fallen through the cracks and fell short of what she had hoped to offer.

Yet the kiosk across from the checkout counter, marked by a Progress Pride rainbow flag, was enough to thrust the suburban library onto the front lines of the nation’s culture wars.

Peterson, who has run the library branch since 2012 and highlighted books for Pride Month for the better part of a decade, was taken aback when she read an email last month from two neighborhood residents. They informed her that they had checked out nearly all of the books in the Pride display and would not return them unless the library permanently removed what they considered “inappropriate content.”

“It was just kind of like, ‘Whoa, curveball,’” Peterson said. “I began to wonder, ‘Oh, have I been misunderstanding our community?’”

Soon, she would get her answer: Stacks of Amazon boxes containing new copies of the books the protesters checked out started to arrive at the library after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on the protest. Roughly 180 people, mostly San Diegans, gave more than $15,000 to the library system, which after a city match will provide more than $30,000 toward more LGBTQ-themed materials and programming, including an expansion of the system’s already popular drag queen story hours.

In an ever-divided nation, Americans are waging battles in big ways and small, right down to turning their library cards into protest weapons.

Right-wing activists have challenged the recognition of June as Pride Month and have sought to remove textbooks from schools and LGBTQ-affirming picture books from libraries. In Republican-led states, those in office have used their power to change policy and ban materials contested by conservatives.

But even in California and other states led by Democrats, demonstrations against Pride events and LGBTQ-themed books have broken out in recent weeks.

In North Hollywood, a neighborhood within the liberal stronghold of Los Angeles, a Pride flag was burned at an elementary school, and dueling protests days later over a Pride assembly devolved into scuffles outside the campus. In Temecula, not far from San Diego, the conservative majority of the school board twice rejected elementary school materials that discuss Harvey Milk, the slain gay rights leader, and LGBTQ history before agreeing to acquire them after Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to fine the school district $1.5 million for not complying with state standards.

And in Chino, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, was kicked out of a school board meeting Thursday after criticizing a proposal by conservatives that would notify parents if a student asks to use a name or pronoun that does not align with their birth certificate.

In San Diego, supporters of LGBTQ rights were quick to counter opponents. The city council member who represents Rancho Peñasquitos, Marni von Wilpert, condemned the library protest against Pride books and asked the community to help restore the display.

Like many Southern California suburbs, Rancho Peñasquitos, in the northeastern part of San Diego, was once solidly Republican territory. But the community has become more liberal over the years, attracting a diverse range of residents with its highly rated schools and glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. Von Wilpert is the first Democrat to represent the neighborhood.

The political shift reflects changes in San Diego at large. Long known as a military town with religious roots that date back to the first Spanish mission in California, the city had favored Republicans for most of its history. But like other parts of the state, San Diego has grown more diverse after decades of immigration and the establishment of a booming biotech sector.

The city also has embraced the LGBTQ community; in 2020, voters elected Todd Gloria as San Diego’s first openly gay mayor and have sent Toni Atkins to the state Legislature, where she has become the first lesbian to serve as the leader of each house. Both are Democrats.

Von Wilpert grew up in Rancho Peñasquitos and in 2020 won a closely fought race to represent her home district, where Democrats now have a plurality of registered voters and there are almost as many independents as Republicans. Von Wilpert, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, said she appreciated how quickly her neighbors rallied to support the library.

“Suburban, formerly conservative communities are still not buying into this culture war idea that we can’t have love and tolerance and acceptance,” she said. “That has been amazing.”

Conservative groups nationwide have pushed to ban books that discuss LGBTQ issues from libraries and schools, saying that parents should be able to control what their children are being taught.

The San Diego residents who sent the email to the Rancho Peñasquitos Library, Amy Vance and Martha Martin, did not respond to requests for comment. City officials said they have not heard since from the library patrons.

The text of their email was identical to a template posted online by a right-wing group called CatholicVote, which has an office in Indiana and is not affiliated with the Catholic Church. The group has promoted a “Hide the Pride” campaign that encourages supporters to check out or move books that depict LGBTQ characters and families. Organizers have described such material as pornographic and obscene and said it should not be available to young library patrons.

“The library needs to use its discretion in how it will make certain content available to people who have very different beliefs about whether this is appropriate for kids,” said Brian Burch, the president of CatholicVote.

Among the books on the group’s target list are “Julián Is a Mermaid,” a picture book about a little boy whose grandmother takes him to a mermaid parade at Coney Island, and “Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress,” another picture book about a boy who loves using his imagination and wearing an orange dress to school. Both were checked out by the protesters in San Diego.

Burch said that his group does not encourage supporters to break the law. But, he said, if one decides to keep a book indefinitely, “that’s perfectly fine.”

The mission of public libraries is to provide access to any kind of information, even if it is offensive to some, said Misty Jones, the director of the San Diego Public Library. The San Diego library system also does not restrict children from materials that have adult content, according to its library card form.

Librarians say that it has become more difficult to retain open access, as book challenges have exploded in the past two years.

Last year, 2,571 unique titles faced censorship attempts — a 38% increase over 2021 and a record high, according to the American Library Association. The ALA also documented 1,269 demands to censor library books or materials, the highest number since the association started collecting data more than two decades ago.

In Greenville, South Carolina, library board members sought to ban two dozen titles this year, though they ultimately dropped that effort in favor of rules that restrict books on gender identity to adult sections. Last year, a Michigan town defunded its library after librarians refused to remove LGBTQ-themed books.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who serves as director of the association’s office of intellectual freedom, said that the protesters in San Diego and elsewhere have taken advantage of relaxed policies intended to make books more accessible to patrons who cannot afford hefty fines.

In the San Diego Public Library system, cardholders get five renewals for materials as long as no one else has requested them. Then, once a book is overdue, library patrons have two more months to return it before it is considered lost, and then they will be billed for it.

“Things intended to broaden access have been weaponized to engage in censorship,” Caldwell-Stone said.

At the Rancho Peñasquitos Library, the Pride display has since been replenished. As for the books checked out last month?

They were recently returned.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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