Adrianne Peterson, 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 exhibit in June. Between staff vacations and organizing workshops for graduating high school students, she had been overlooked and had fallen short of what she hoped to offer.
Yet the kiosk in front of the checkout counter, branded 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 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. She was informed that they had checked out almost all of the books at the Pride exhibit and would not return them unless the library permanently removed what they deemed “inappropriate content.”
“It was like, ‘Wow, curveball,’” Ms. Peterson said. “I started wondering, ‘Oh, have I been misunderstanding our community?’”
Soon, he’d get his answer: Piles of Amazon boxes containing new copies of books ripped off by protesters began arriving at the library after The San Diego Union-Tribune reported on the protest. Approximately 180 people, mostly San Diegans, donated more than $15,000 to the library system, which after a city match will provide more than $30,000 for more LGBTQ-themed materials and programming, including an expansion of the system’s already popular drag queen story hours.
In a nation forever divided, Americans are waging battles big and small, to the point of turning their library cards into weapons of protest.
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 questioned by conservatives.
But even in California and other Democratic-led states, protests against Gay 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 protest duel Days later, during a Pride assembly, they escalated into brawls off campus. In Temecula, not far from San Diego, the school board’s conservative majority twice rejected school supplies 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 failing to meet state standards.
And in Chino, state 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 doesn’t align with their birth certificate.
In San Diego, supporters of LGBTQ rights rushed to counter opponents. Councilwoman representing Rancho Peñasquitos, Marni von Wilpert, condemned the library’s protest against Pride books and called on the community to help restore the display.
Like many southern California suburbs, Rancho Peñasquitos, in the northeast part of San Diego, was once solidly Republican territory. But the community has become more liberal over the years, attracting a wide range of residents with its highly-rated schools and views of the Pacific Ocean. Ms. 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 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 establishment of a booming biotech sector.
The city has also welcomed 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 in 2020 won a close race to represent her home district, where Democrats now have a plurality of registered voters and there are almost as many independents as Republicans. Ms. Von Wilpert, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, said she appreciated how quickly her neighbors came together to support the library.
“Previously conservative suburban communities still don’t buy into this culture war idea that we can’t have love, tolerance and acceptance,” he said. “That’s been amazing.”
Conservative groups across the country have pushed to ban books that address LGBTQ issues from libraries and schools, saying parents should be able to control what their children are taught.
The San Diego residents who sent the email to the Rancho Peñasquitos library, Amy M. Vance and Martha Martin, did not respond to requests for comment. City officials said they have not heard from library patrons since.
The text of his 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 remove or move books depicting LGBTQ characters and families. Organizers have described such material as pornographic and obscene and said it should not be made 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 this is appropriate for children,” said Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.
Among the books on the group’s wish list are “Julian Is a Mermaid,” a picture book about a 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 to use his imagination and wear an orange dress to school. Both were reviewed 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, “it’s perfectly fine.”
The mission of public libraries is to provide access to any type 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 accessing materials that have adult content, according to their library card form.
Librarians say it’s gotten harder to keep access open as book challenges have skyrocketed in the past two years.
Last year, 2,571 unique titles faced censorship attempts, a 38 percent increase over 2021 and a record, according to the american library association. The ALA also documented 1,269 lawsuits to censor books or library materials, the highest number since the association began collecting data more than two decades ago.
In Greenville, South Carolina, library board members tried to ban two dozen titles this year, though they ultimately abandoned that effort in favor of rules restricting books on gender identity for adults sections. Last year, a Michigan town defunded his library after librarians refused to check out LGBTQ-themed books.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who serves as director of the association’s intellectual freedom office, said protesters in San Diego and elsewhere have taken advantage of relaxed policies aimed at making books more accessible to users who can’t pay steep fines.
In the San Diego Public Library system, cardholders get five item renewals 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’s considered lost, and then they’ll be billed.
“Things meant to broaden access have been weaponized to engage in censorship,” Ms Caldwell-Stone said.
At the Rancho Peñasquitos Library, the Pride exhibit has since been restocked. As for the books borrowed last month?
They were recently returned.