Louisiana’s attorney general – a Republican gubernatorial candidate – is receiving backlash from LGBTQ+ activists after releasing a report recently that they say might silence LGBTQ+ voices in libraries.
The brewing fight over censorship in Louisiana’s libraries has opened a new front in the culture war pitting political conservatives and the LGBTQ+ community. Far rightwingers across the US tried hundreds of times last year alone to ban more than 1,600 books with themes of gender or sexuality from public libraries, schools and universities, saying they wish to protect children from accessing them. But LGBTQ+ activists say there is no evidence that such material is readily available for children without the bans or that it primes minors to be harmed, and they are instead a tactic for conservatives to silence voices which offend their cultural values.
To that end, the Louisiana attorney general Jeff Landry’s Protecting Innocence report from February is calling for state public libraries to bar children from accessing sexually explicit books. He proposes that libraries keep print or digital content with sexual subject matters out of collections intended for children.
And his report encourages libraries to create a card system that gives parents or guardians the right to choose if their child can check out sexually explicit content from the young adult section. That means public library directors would be required to get approval from their governing boards to include sexual content in young adult, teen or tween collections.
Landry said in his report that library resources should cater to “diverse and inclusive viewpoints” but keep materials in children’s collections age-appropriate.
“The goal of providing a variety of viewpoints does not require the library to include unrestricted access to sexually explicit materials in collections available to minors,” Landry said in his report, without providing evidence that such access is being provided in the southern state of more than 4.5 million people.
The report defines sexual explicitness as any display of masturbation, sadomasochism, touching or caressing of areas like the pubic area or female breast nipple between “humans, animals, or a human and an animal, of the same or opposite sex …”, the stimulation of a genital organ and any other clear sexual acts.
The report maintains that nine books containing descriptions of sexual conduct are allegedly available to children in some Louisiana libraries. One of the titles is Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe’s 2019 autobiography about growing up with a non-binary identity, which drew the most ban attempts in the US last year, according to an American Library Association report.
Overall, the report’s list includes five books with gay sexuality themes and four books with hetero sexuality themes.
Landry proposed that the state commission which approves the sale of tax-exempt bonds to finance public construction could refuse to forgive any debt incurred by libraries which do not comply with the ban urged by the report.
Peyton Rose Michelle, the executive director of LA Trans Advocates and the first transgender woman to be elected to Louisiana’s Democratic state central committee, said that she of course supports protecting minors from accessing sexual content. However, to Michelle, the mission of the report appears to be to justify the removal of material that humanizes LGBTQ+ community members because Landry didn’t supply any proof that there are sexually explicit materials in young readers’ library collections.
“If this were the intention, then I would totally be cooperative and collaborative, and discuss the ways we could do this that are equitable, but those opportunities are not being given,” Michelle said. “They’re just not sending the signal that this is not about us. I’m getting signals that this is about us.”
Michelle said she did not get the chance to start her gender transition until she was 18 because of her lack of exposure to transgender identities and viewpoints growing up. She fears that censoring certain books will make trans youth feel misunderstood, as she once did, and that could have more harmful consequences than a library having a book containing a consensual love scene.
“[Children] need something to show them that it’s OK for them to be who they are,” Michelle said. “And that might be a book.”
Though the co-founder of Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship, Lynette Mejia, did not comment to the Guardian, she told Nola.com in a recent interview that Landry’s report is little more than a “political stunt” because librarians are heavily trained to select appropriate materials.
“[Landry] is pandering to this small group of bigots who want LGBTQ books out of our libraries and he is trying to scare parents into thinking there is something to fear in our public libraries when there is not and never has been,” Mejia said to Nola.com.
Last year, the US Department of Education proposed changes to Title IX to protect LGBTQ+ students from sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination in schools. But the state education superintendent, Cade Brumley, said that Louisiana schools could ignore the proposed federal expansions because they had not received congressional approval.
Michelle said that Brumley’s position on that matter marked the first step by Louisiana’s government to begin trying to ban books.
By December, a member of the library control board for Rapides parish, James Morgan, proposed labeling books with themes of “sexual orientation and gender identity” as “unsuitable for … children and teen collections”. The library for the parish, which is the word Louisiana uses for county, voted to seek a legal opinion from Landry’s office about Morgan’s proposal.
And shortly afterward, Landry released the Protecting Innocence report. Since then, state senator Heather Cloud has filed a bill in support of Landry’s efforts to create a library card system and give local library boards rather than librarians the power to decide which materials are sexually explicit.
Cloud’s bill could be voted on after Louisiana’s legislature begins its annual session on 10 April. The gubernatorial election that Landry is running in is scheduled for the fall. He is seeking to succeed Democrat John Bel Edwards.
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