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Librarians Didn’t Sign Up to Be Queer Activists—but This Year, They Are

Anti-LGBTQ activists are increasingly targeting public reading spaces—and librarians are our best defenders.

Daniel Knighton/Getty Images
The San Diego Library contingent marches during the San Diego Pride Parade on July 15.

Maybe it was inevitable that anti-LGBTQ groups would target the public library in Ferndale—nestled between the police station and a few blocks from the cute cafés peppered around this Detroit suburb. But Hide the Pride,” a national campaign coordinated by the group CatholicVote, hit Ferndale one day back in early June. The campaign’s mission is to eliminate books by and for queer and trans people from public libraries. They are not secretive about this. The Hide the Pride activists claimed credit soon after their action in Ferndale, posting before-and-after photos showing off how they had removed A Queer History of the United States from the library’s Pride display and replaced it with the Bible; how they took out The Book of Pride and shelved in its place Catholicism for Dummies.

Ferndale youth librarian Mary Grahame Hunter had anticipated something like this, she told me back in January, when we met in the children’s section—where one of the displays would be put up for the Pride celebration six months later. But did Hide the Pride care to know, as she put it to me after, that the reason some of those titles were there is because “a queer Christian woman bought those books” ­for the library, because selecting books for the children’s section is her job?

It’s a critical matter that keeps getting lost in the wake of such acts of harassment: The library is a public good made possible by the people who work there, the people whose jobs now involve dealing with the aftermath of anti-LGBTQ groups’ constant attempts to prevent them from doing their jobs. The stakes of this kind of harassment may be easier to recognize when it’s taking place on a sidewalk outside a clinic providing abortion—perhaps less so in the children’s section of a library. The targeted books, which the activists did check out, were quickly replaced, but the threat to the library’s patrons and workers lingered. As much as fighting book bans is about fighting censorship, it’s also about confronting and demobilizing those who are driving that censorship and the attendant instability left in their wake. Because they are not just coming for the books; they are coming for the library and the people and ideas that make libraries possible. The work of library defense right now is unapologetically queer. 

“The fight has been brought to us,” Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association, told me when we spoke in August. It was little more than a month into her term, one that has been defined thus far by book bans and the broader attacks on libraries. Many months before Drabinski officially began her term, various influencers on the right had transformed her into a symbol—one largely based on a single post the librarian of 23 years had made marking her election victory

“I just cannot believe that a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world is the president-elect of @ALALibrary,” Drabinksi wrote in April 2022, in a since-deleted tweet. “I am so excited for what we will do together. Solidarity!” The tweet has lived on, repeatedly referenced by Fox, National Review, Breitbart, and so on—as well as anti-LGBTQ groups like Focus on the Family

“We didn’t decide to become the terrain of the battle for public institutions,” Drabinski continued, “or the battle for the right to exist as we are and to have sovereignty over our minds and bodies.” Not that she’ll shy from such a fight. It’s merely that, as she underlined: “Mostly we run libraries, right?” A lot of library workers were surprised, she said, “that the fight for the right to exist as we are has come to the doors of the library.”

Drabinksi has been touring libraries across the country, while, as if in parallel, groups seeking to end libraries as we know them have been demanding that state library associations leave the ALA, using the specter of obscene books, or creeping Marxism, or both. In one library, Drabinski might talk with librarians about how one of the most in-demand items isn’t a book at all but, rather, a carpet cleaner—“They’ve got two, and a line of 45 holds.” At the same time, in Montana, a state where library workers have had to deal with books returned with bullet holes in them, library directors are resigning over demands to remove books and the state library commission opted to withdraw from the American Library Association in July, informing it, “Our oath of office and resulting duty to the Constitution forbids association with an organization led by a Marxist.”

“To be used as a bludgeon against the library workers of Montana,” Drabinksi told me, “that’s very painful for me.” Though the Marxism may have been the commission’s stated reason for the disaffiliation with the ALA, she said, “I was struck in the meeting by the regressive language around my sexual identity.” One speaker read aloud from the Bible—a bit about how a woman wearing men’s clothing was an abomination. “It really was a flashback to growing up as a queer kid in Idaho and hearing a lot of those same messages.”

The Montana library commission’s rejection of the ALA isn’t limited to what it is saying about Drabinksi; it’s about sending a message of rejection to young people in the state who are like her. In June, the month before the vote, the Montana library commission fired a public relations firm after rejecting the new commission logo it designed, simply because some members of the commission thought the logo looked like a Pride flag, which they claimed would inevitably foster a “firestorm” of backlash. That the commission exited the ALA as it did, Drabinski said, was “like an attack on queer people in the state of Montana, with the library as a proxy in that fight.”

Though this movement was first shorthanded as an organized effort to ban books, the forces that quickly arrayed themselves always intended to go substantially further, all the way to an attack on the existence of public libraries themselves. What is now evident is that it was always conceived as a witch hunt, one that is blatantly reviving anti-Communist rhetoric—a Marxist, in the library!—redolent of the anti-gay panic that was entwined within the twentieth century’s infamous Red Scare in the United States. The Lavender Scare, also a product of the Cold War, revolved around associating homosexuality with threats to national security, marking gay and lesbian members of the federal workforce in particular as vulnerable to espionage. As Senator Joe McCarthy put the unified theory of vilification to reporters, “If you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.”   

One lesson from that period stands out. So many people were tagged as a Marxist or a Communist or an anarchist—or as queer or trans—that it didn’t require the accuser to be accurate. Refuting such a charge didn’t matter; the point was to create the conditions for the absolute suspicion of others, to force people into the position of denouncing these “others” as those people, the threat. What does it mean today to call a lesbian a lesbian, or a Marxist a Marxist, when one might think those words just don’t carry the same charge they did during the mid-twentieth century? Rest assured, it is the same now as it ever was: to force people to distance themselves from those “others” and to force these accused undesirables to live in a state of suspicion and threat.

Perhaps what’s also behind this present revival of the Red and Lavender Scare at the public library is that the truth is right in front of us. Libraries are a place where queer and trans kids might feel freer. Libraries are like a kind of social collider: a space intended for people to freely cross paths with ideas and others unlike themselves. Libraries are tools for getting people the things they need and want for free. It’s these truths that demand our defense.

Consider again that library that’s made a carpet cleaner available to its patrons, with a waitlist that’s 45 people deep. This is just one of the household tools a person can check out of the library—a little bit of liberation from worry. Recall that during the heat waves that rolled across the country, libraries became a free, safe, and cool place for people to seek refuge. Or just think about how hard it is to find a clean bathroom that’s free and open to anyone. As Drabinski underscored, it’s these kinds of services that show that public libraries “can meet the needs of the public, they can do what we want the state do—which is to care for the public and to provide public resources that are distributed equitably in the community.” These functions may not inspire national campaigns, but they are also going to be casualties if the right succeeds in terrorizing and defunding libraries out of existence.

“Of course, the fight is defined around the book,” said Drabinski. “But if we limit our analysis to just the problem of censorship, then the solution can only be to keep that book on the shelf.” Removing books is one small part of the problem, and defending books alone can’t be the solution to the larger dilemma.

These highly organized attacks on libraries and their public function serve as one wing of the right’s ever-expanding project of unwinding democracy. I am sick of the litany their names have become: Moms for Liberty, who playact as just regular moms reluctantly drafted into politics—and who more or less have been made the face of twenty-first-century book banning—rub shoulders with the Proud Boys, who have spent the last few summers menacing Drag Story Hour events at public libraries, and whose leadership are serving long prison sentences for their role in the January 6 riot at the Capitol. It would be a mistake to think this is solely a “culture war” for these groups or that their attacks are directed primarily at books. They are aiming their rage at people. The book bans, the accompanying attacks on libraries—they’re motivated by anti-queer, anti-trans, and racist politics—a desire to remove the people they don’t like from public life, as easy as plucking a book from a display. If progressives aren’t willing to be honest about this, they will only aid in the advancement of this merciless crusade.

“I can’t ignore the homophobia element of it,” said Mary Grahame Hunter, the youth librarian in Ferndale, to whom I spoke after the Montana library commission voted to depart from the ALA. “It’s not just that she’s a Marxist; she’s a Marxist lesbian.” That dimension of the fight was not mentioned in the response by the Montana Library Association, which opposed the state commission disaffiliating with ALA. The MLA seemed to refer to the Red and Lavender Scare tactics only in the sentence, “We urge them to look beyond short-term partisanship and view this situation through the lens of what serves the public good and long-term interests of all Montanans.” Mentions of anti-LGBTQ politics or a political dimension to the fight were absent too from the American Library Association’s own statement.

Librarians noticed. In an open letter signed by more than 2,000 library workers in support of Drabinski, they wrote, “We are living in times where homophobia is rampant in libraries,” and noted that the ALA “did not reference Emily or address homophobia or speak to how Marx’s idea that ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’ is not a radical notion.” On an ALA discussion board, one library director expressed disappointment with the statement, noting they face “the biggest culture war against libraries since McCarthyism.” Since then, seven more states have begun efforts to disaffiliate from the ALA, in what appears to be a coordinated campaign involving members of the State Freedom Caucus Network. Senator Marco Rubio has now launched a federal effort to defund the ALA.

These responses, Hunter told me, reminded her of the Ferndale library board. “When are you going to stand up and full-throatedly, proactively say, ‘The rights and respect of the queer people in our midst are not up for debate’? You’ve got to be loud about that, and you have got to be kind of aggressive.” 

While Hide the Pride’s decision to hit the Ferndale public library didn’t bring a mass of book banners through the building’s doors, Hunter said librarians were left asking each other, “Is it going to get worse?” They had long been bracing for just that sort of anti-LGBTQ attack. They had even primed their patrons to demonstrate support if and when the library needed it after such an incident: Hide the Pride came to town a few months into the library workers’ new union, which Hunter and other Ferndale library workers told me, was, in addition to improving their working conditions generally, one way to build popular support for the library before something like Hide the Pride happened. Hide the Pride didn’t just attack books; they brought their fight into the librarians’ workplace.

The first board meeting after Hide the Pride hit Ferndale, Hunter told me, was “standing-room only; people pouring out into the hallway.” The news of the anti-LGBTQ group removing books from the library’s Pride displays had already circulated—in part because one of the library workers put up online wish lists for the titles that been removed. Library patrons and other supporters purchased multiple copies of each book, more than they needed. The vice president of CatholicVote, the far-right group that organized Hide the Pride, said this was “bizarre”; that in Ferndale, “they are sadly doubling down and begging people to go to Amazon so they can restock the shelves with smut for kids.”

Ferndale library director Jenny Marr was very direct about what Hide the Pride characterized as “doubling down” on “smut” when she spoke at the library board meeting. “What we really wanted to do was to undercut the intent behind this, which is to deny the community of books, specifically LGBTQ books.” That’s also why members of the community turned up to the meeting in force, to defuse in advance any further confrontation that Hide the Pride might instigate at the meeting itself. And so the Ferndale library board now faced the kind of high-intensity library board meeting that countless other communities have been dealing with for several years now—except in Ferndale, it was community members demanding defense of the library and the library workers’ safety. 

Everyone who turned up to make a public comment was there to say something supportive of library workers, Hunter said: people asking the board, How could you not see this coming? What are you going to do to protect people? At one point, said Hunter, someone started a chant, “When queer rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!” Then in response, she said, “The chair of the board told us that she could clear the room; that we would need to stop chanting or she would just kick us all out.” The appearance of not disrupting public order had trumped the moment, itself a response to the disruption and harassment that had packed the room. As concerned as everyone was about Hide the Pride activists removing the books from circulation, replacing the books would be the easy part.