Metro Weekly

Wyoming librarians may face criminal charges for stocking LGBTQ books

Some community members and religious leaders demand books be banned or moved to the adult section.

Campbell County Public Library – Photo: Facebook.

Local prosecutors in Wyoming may consider charging librarians for having books in the library’s collection that include information about reproduction, sex, or being gay.

The books were flagged by conservative parents and local religious leaders in Campbell County, Wyoming, outraged that such material was allowed in the teen or children’s section of the Campbell County Public Library. 

At issue are five books that were placed in the teen or children’s section of the library, including Sex Is a Funny Word, a children’s comic book by Cory Silverberg that discusses sex, gender identity, “privacy, safety, and respect,” “protecting yourself against unwanted sexual touch and abuse,” and “boundaries regarding nudity”; Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy, a book by therapist Andrew P. Smiler about dating, relationships, and sex geared towards teenage males that “relies on secular ethics and emphasizes sexual health and personal responsibility,” and This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson, focusing on LGBTQ issues.

Ed and Susan Sisti, the pastors of Open Door Church in Gillette, Wyoming, who are among those leading the charge against the library, believes the books are a form of illegal obscenity and should be removed from the library.

The Sistis have been working with Hugh and Susan Bennett, a couple who went to the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office seeking to charge the library with disseminating obscene material, in violation of local child-sex laws, according to the complaint they filed with the sheriff’s office, as first reported by the Gillette News Record.

“It’s really easy to go into the library and look around a little bit and find a filthy book that should not even be in a public library,” Susan Sisti told The Associated Press, noting that This Book is Gay includes illustrations of male and female genitalia and descriptions of oral and anal sex. “These books are absolutely appalling.”

Hugh Bennett has called the five books in question “hard-core pornography,” adding: “It’s very challenging to imagine how a child who’s sexually immature, physically immature, if there’s any reasonable purpose for exposing them to sexual behavior that’s far beyond their physical and mental and emotional and intellectual abilities to understand.”

But the fight has spread beyond the original five books in question with up to 22 books being flagged as “indecent” or “inappropriate” by parents and community members who filed 35 different complaints with the library in the past two months, asking that the books be banned altogether or moved to a different section of the library, such as the “adult” section.

Library director Terri Lesley said that letters regarding 16 of those 35 complaints have been sent out to the people who filed them, informing them that the books they challenged will not be pulled from the shelves and will remain in their current location within the library.

See also: A Wyoming teacher complained about anti-gay flyers appearing in school. The principal fired her.

Ironically, the library just finished celebrating Banned Book Week, when libraries across the country celebrate or highlight books that have been banned or pulled from library shelves for their content — including heralded literary works like The CrucibleCatcher in the RyeTo Kill a MockingbirdI Know Why the Caged Bird SingsOf Mice and MenThe Great Gatsby, and The Color Purple.

Lesley told the Casper Star-Tribune she can’t remember the last time she’s had this volume of complaints about so many books.

“It’s unexpected,” Lesley said. “We are trying to be the force of reason, trying to work through these things using the policy we have in place — review these books and do our due diligence.

“We feel like the items are correctly placed in the collection. But we still have a ways to go” to assess the remaining complaints and decide which course of action to take.

Lesley said that libraries around the country have faced an influx of challenges this year — often relating to books that broach either the topics of sex or LGBTQ-related issues.

“I think this is bigger than our library,” she said. “This is a political movement, and we just happen to be caught in it here.”

She also noted that she has received some letters, emails and phone calls from community members not associated with the group seeking to ban the books, who have expressed their support for the library.

Exterior of the Campbell County Public Library – Photo: Facebook.

But if local prosecutors have their way, the library will have to defend itself in court. After receiving the Bennetts’ complaint, local prosecutors will be asking for an outside special prosecutor to weigh in on the case to determine whether to pursue charges, according to County Attorney Mitchell Damsky.

Damsky claimed that the dispute over the flagged books has “gotten contentious and out of hand” when it could have potentially been resolved by putting the books in the library’s adult section.

“Personally, as a parent, I find the material to be just inappropriate for children and disgusting. But as a lawyer I’m sworn to uphold the Constitution and that’s why we are dealing with it with a fine-toothed comb,” he said.

Campbell County Commissioner Del Shelstad even suggested defunding the library by cutting its funding during a recent public meeting — something he later walked back to saying that the library might only lose part of its funding, according to the Star-Tribune.

He also said that the easiest way to resolve then situation is to placate the complaining community members by moving the books out of sections where they can be accessed by youth.

See also: Wyoming biker bar sold T-shirts calling shooting gay people the “cure for AIDS”

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, writing for the national libertarian publication Reason, criticized those seeking to ban the books and Damsky for considering pursuing criminal charges for activity that would likely be found to be protected under the First Amendment.

“That some people think anything about sex should be hidden is hardly surprising. The more disturbing element here is the aid that these illiberal forces are getting from local law enforcement in Campbell County,” Nolan Brown wrote. “While it’s absurd that this matter is even being referred for potential prosecution, Damsky at least admits that there’s some constitutional tension here.”

The library was targeted earlier this summer by conservatives who objected to a scheduled performance by a magician who happens to be transgender. The library received so many death threats and threats of violence for allowing the performance that the magician decided to cancel the show.

Sara Burlingame, the executive director of Wyoming Equality, the state’s top LGBTQ advocacy group, said her group reached out to the library to lend support to its staffers, who have been treated poorly by the local community and continue to receive threats of violence against them.

Burlingame says it should be up to individual parents — not the county or prosecutors — to police their own children’s reading habits and determine when their children should be able to access books like those that were flagged. 

“Maybe the answer is never. If it’s never, that’s fine,” she said. “But do you get to make that choice for other families?”

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