Adrianne Peterson, the director of the San Diego Public Library’s Rancho Peñasquitos branch, was actually a little embarrassed by the modest size of her Pride Month exhibit in June. Between staff vacations and hosting seminars for high school students, she’d fallen through the cracks and fallen short of what she’d hoped to deliver.
Yet the kiosk in front of the checkout, marked with a Progress Pride rainbow flag, was enough to propel the suburban library to the forefront of the nation’s culture wars.
Ms. Peterson, who has run the library branch since 2012 and has highlighted books for Pride Month for the better part of a decade, was surprised when she read an email last month from two neighborhood residents. They informed her that they had checked nearly every book in the Pride exhibit and would not return them unless the library permanently removed what they deemed « inappropriate content. »
« It was just kind of, ‘Whoa, curveball,' » Ms. Peterson said. « I started asking myself, ‘Oh, did I misunderstand our community?' »
He would soon have his answer: Stacks of Amazon boxes containing new copies of the books the protesters had been borrowing began arriving at the library after the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on the protest. About 180 people, mostly San Diegans, donated more than $15,000 to the library system, which after a game in town will provide over $30,000 for more LGBTQ-themed materials and programming, including an expansion of the system’s already popular drag story hours.
In an ever-divided nation, Americans are waging battle in ways big and small, eventually turning their library cards into weapons of protest.
Right-wing activists contested June’s recognition as Pride Month and 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 Democrat-led states, 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 during a Pride assembly it escalated into off-campus brawls. In Temecula, not far from San Diego, the school board has a conservative majority twice elementary school materials rejected discussing slain gay rights leader Harvey Milk and LGBTQ history before agreeing to acquire them after Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to fine the school district $1.5 million for failing to meet state standards.
And in Chino, state superintendent of education Tony Thurmond was expelled from a school board meeting on Thursday after he criticized a proposal by conservatives that would notify parents if a student asks to use a noun or pronoun that doesn’t align with their birth certificate.
In San Diego, LGBTQ rights advocates were quick to counter the naysayers. City council member representing Rancho Peñasquitos, Marni von Wilpert, condemned the library’s protest against Pride books and asked the community to help restore the exhibit.
Like many Southern California suburbs, Rancho Peñasquitos in northeastern San Diego was once solid Republican territory. But the community has become more liberal over the years, attracting a diverse range of residents with its highly regarded schools and glimpses of the Pacific Ocean. Mrs. von Wilpert is the first Democrat to represent the neighborhood.
The political change reflects changes in San Diego in general. Long known as a military town with religious roots dating back to the first Spanish mission in California, the city has favored Republicans for most of its history. But like other parts of the state, San Diego has become more diverse after decades of immigration and the creation of a thriving biotech sector.
The city has also embraced the LGBTQ community; In 2020, voters elected Todd Gloria as San Diego’s first openly gay mayor and sent Toni Atkins to the state legislature, where she became the first lesbian to serve as leader of each house. Both are Democrats.
Ms. von Wilpert grew up in Rancho Peñasquitos and won a closely contested 2020 race to represent her home district, where Democrats now have a plurality of registered voters and there are almost as many independents as there are Republicans. Ms. von Wilpert, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, said she appreciated how quickly her neighbors rallied to support the library.
“The once conservative suburban communities are still not accepting this culture war idea that we can’t have love and tolerance and acceptance,” he said. « It was great. »
Conservative groups nationwide have pushed to ban books discussing LGBTQ issues from libraries and schools, saying parents should be able to control what their children are taught.
The San Diego residents who emailed the Rancho Peñasquitos Library, Amy M. Vance and Martha Martin, did not respond to requests for comment. City officials said they never heard from library patrons again.
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 run a « Hide the Pride » campaign that encourages supporters to check out or move books that depict LGBTQ personalities and families. The organizers described the material as pornographic and obscene and said it should not be available to young library users.
« The library must use its discretion in how it will make certain content available to people who have very different beliefs about whether it is appropriate for children, » said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.
Among the books on the group’s bucket list are « Julián Is a Mermaid, » a picture book about a little boy whose grandmother takes him to a Coney Island mermaid parade, and « Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress, » another picture book about a boy who loves to use his imagination and wear an orange dress to school. Both were controlled by protesters in San Diego.
Mr Burch said 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. »
Public libraries’ mission is to provide access to any kind of information, even if it is offensive to some, said Misty Jones, 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 the library card form.
Librarians say it has gotten harder to keep open access as book challenges have exploded in the past couple of years.
Last year, 2,571 unique titles experienced censorship attempts — a 38% increase from 2021 and a record, according to the American Library Association. The ALA also documented 1,269 requests to censor books or library materials, the most since the association began collecting data more than two decades ago.
In Greenville, SC, library board members tried to ban two dozen titles this year, though they ultimately abandoned that effort in favor of restrictive rules gender identity books to adult sections. Last year, a Michigan city he defunded his library after librarians refused to remove LGBTQ-themed books.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who is director of the association’s intellectual freedom office, said protesters in San Diego and elsewhere have taken advantage of relaxed policies meant to make books more accessible to patrons who can’t afford steep fines.
In the San Diego Public Library system, cardholders get five renewals for materials as long as no one else has requested them. So, once a book has expired, library patrons have two more months to return it before it’s considered lost, and then billed.
“Things intended to broaden access have been used as weapons to engage in censorship,” Ms. Caldwell-Stone said.
The Pride display at the Rancho Peñasquitos Library has since been replenished. As for the books pulled last month?
They have recently been returned.