Think of the Children!

How Book Bans are Being Used to Concoct the Latest Moral Panic
A crowd at a meeting with someone holding a sign reading "We support our librarians"

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.”
—Oscar Wilde / The Picture of Dorian Gray

Politicians are alchemists: They can take a society’s subconscious biases, mix them with social ills of the moment, and create a golem built out of fear and ignorance instead of clay, that only they can defeat. In other words, they’re good at making shit up to win elections.

No party is better at making shit up than the GOP. They’ve been racial dog-whistling and fear-mongering for a long time, like when Reagan invented the welfare queen: a fictional Black woman that sits on her ass all day while the rest of us hard-working Americans fund her lifestyle. They recontextualize words by saying them over and over again until meaning has been extracted. They roll buzzwords out months in advance to get them into the zeitgeist; then once they’ve been nestled in our minds long enough, they rebuild it to their own ends. We form a visceral, emotional attachment to the buzzword; it becomes an easily digestible talking point within itself.

Chris F. Rufo, one of the men who laid the foundation for the fight against critical race theory, alluded to this strategy in a tweet: “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” People are now convinced that their 5th graders are being taught a law school theory that has been around for decades, adding fuel to the fire of book bannings.

Take think-tank and PR firm-tested words, mix them with caricatures of political enemies, and you get the GOP’s next big enemies for this election cycle: “Radical” Left; “Groomer” drag queens; “Woke” educators teaching “critical race theory;” and in the case of Louisiana, the “porn-peddling” librarian.

Just ask Amanda Jones, a librarian from Denham Springs. Jones is the award-winning head of the Louisiana Association of School Librarians, and a librarian at Live Oak Middle School. According to her interview on The New York TimesFirst Person podcast, she had noticed that a group in Lafayette had been causing a fuss over book displays. Then she saw a Facebook post on her town’s page about a library board meeting that next night. The post came from a woman who didn’t live in the parish, and showed a contextless photo of the book Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy. Jones checked the book and saw that it was professionally reviewed as suitable for ages 13 and older, and that it was in the teen nonfiction section.

At a board meeting on July 19, Jones gave an impassioned speech about the slippery slope of banning books, as it’s typically minorities and LGBTQ authors who have their books banned, also adding, “Censoring and relocating books and displays is harmful to our community, but will be extremely harmful to our most vulnerable—our children.”

According to PEN America, 41% of the books banned in the U.S. during the 2021-2022 academic year dealt with queer themes; 40% have main or secondary characters of color; and 21% addressed race and racism. Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer is the most banned book within the academic year all across the country; the book was removed from school libraries and classrooms in 41 different instances. The second-most banned book is All Boys Aren’t Blue. Both books deal with the respective authors’ attempts to grapple with their sexuality and gender throughout their youth. Restrictions have occurred in over 130 school districts, affecting 5,000 individual schools and nearly four million students. This number is staggering when put in context, since books by queer and minority authors make up a very small portion of all books published yearly.

That night on July 19, about 19 people supported Jones’ position or spoke along the same lines, with two people dissenting: a grandmother and Michael Lunsford, who took to the mic and spoke against the book Dating and Sex.

Lunsford doesn’t live in Livingston Parish, according to The Advocate. He has no formal background in education or libraries or with child and teen development. His background is in web development.

Two days later a Facebook group operated by Lunsford posted: “Why is she [Jones] fighting so hard to keep sexually erotic and pornographic materials in the kid’s section?” Then another Facebook group called Bayou State of Mind, run by Ryan Thames, posted a photo of Jones, insinuating that she was advocating for teaching kids anal sex.

For days, Jones was called a “groomer” online and was accused of being a pedophile. Some shared where she worked, and said she needed to be slapped. She became afraid to leave her house and one day, while at work, she saw a man ambling around the parking lot and feared leaving her car (she was later informed that the man was a custodian). The scariest threat she received was from a man in Texas, threatening to kill her. She sued Lunsford and Thames for defamation, but the case was dismissed. Jones ended up going on medical leave due to the stress of the situation.

Jones told me, “One person’s obsessive focus is a little concerning” but also added, “each day gets better as far as dealing with online harassment. At some point, you become desensitized to it.”

The book Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe

In recent years there’s been this idea of a widespread conspiracy to disseminate inappropriate books to children, or that critical race theory will be taught in class. There’s also been this myth that teachers and librarians are trying to “groom” students, a term often referring to an adult attempting to gain a child’s trust in order to exploit or manipulate them. This has led to municipal board meetings and drag queen shows becoming hostile environments, where sometimes protesters arrive armed and wearing militia garb. It has also instigated widespread book banning. During the 2021-2022 school year alone, more than 1,600 books were banned or challenged across the country, according to PEN, a huge jump from the counted challenges or bans of 273 in 2020, 377 in 2019, and 483 in 2018. However, the vast majority of Americans are opposed to book bans, and there is no evidence behind the indoctrination claims.

I spoke to Patrick Sweeney, the political director for the national political action committee EveryLibrary, about this phenomenon. He told me that only 8% of Americans support book bannings. I then asked him what was driving the hysteria. He said, “Money.” In other words, money to win elections, to push propaganda, to fund PACs, to win the culture war. Special interest groups, think-tanks, and politicians are using a long-held homophobic belief that queer people and pedophiles are synonymous—and the racial resentment left in the wake of the 2020 uprisings—in order to gain power. Sweeney stated, “The biggest reason that we’re seeing such an extreme volume of book banning right now is because the far right has found an easy target that allows them to agitate the public into giving them donations. None of these books fail the Miller test for indecency and libraries don’t have the money or resources to fight back so it’s easy for these orgs to send an email to a million people while pretending to ‘protect children’ just to ask for donations. It’s the most profitable scam in politics.

Moms for Liberty, which has 200 chapters in the country despite being founded in 2021, is leading the charge around the nation in demanding book challenges. A major contributor to the movement in Louisiana is Citizens for a New Louisiana (CFNL), whose executive director is Michael Lunsford—the man who spoke at the meeting on July 19.

CFNL has been active in several parishes, including Vermilion and Rapides, and has had some success in Lafayette, when an openly conservative and religious majority took control of the Library Board. Lafayette Public Library Board of Control President Robert Judge told NPR, “I think the idea that I have to drop off my Catholic Christian worldview at the door when I walk into serving the public is silly.” He also added that he thought a library’s mission should be to submit to a “traditional notion of family values” and community standards.

According to CFNL’s website, it’s taken them “about four years, but we have worked to replace the director and every single board member who had planned on allowing that event [Drag Queen Story Hour] to take place. As of this writing, there is only one of the original eight board members left to go.”

According to The Current, CFNL was integral in slashing the Lafayette library system’s budget by $10 million, back when they were known as Lafayette Citizens Against Taxes. CFNL has plans to have a presence in all 64 parishes, and they and their allies are making their way further into Southeast Louisiana. Their next stop is St. Tammany Parish.

The book "Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy" by Andrew P. Smiler, Ph. D.

Louisiana’s Republican Party Chairman Louis Gurvich set the tone for the current culture war in the state. In his op-ed in The Hayride, titled “WANTED – Conservative Parents and Citizens to Run for School Board,” he said the state GOP was looking for “any interested conservative Republican citizens, to run in districts that are not already represented by a conservative. We are specifically focused on recruiting candidates who oppose vaccine and mask mandates and the Neo-marxist[sic] ideology known as Critical Race Theory.”

Louisiana’s Attorney General Jeff Landry moved the culture war a step further when he penned an op-ed in the Gonzales Weekly Citizen titled, “Why are taxpayers subsidizing the sexualization of children?” published last October. He claimed libraries were “normalizing and even encouraging” porn addiction. Two days later, he announced his bid for governor.

In June 2022, three people formally submitted complaints against Pride Month displays at three  branches of the St. Tammany Library system. In a packed meeting over the display in July, supporters shared personal stories. One woman shared that their child couldn’t have friends over because she was in a same sex marriage; another spoke about how the displays validate the humanity and lower the rate of suicide among queer youths. Another shared his late younger brother’s experiences navigating life as a gay man. Rev. Dr. Jarrett Banks noted the importance of community members meeting their neighbors and walking in their shoes. One woman shared a story about being a lesbian before she knew what it meant and stated, “I didn’t learn it from a book.”

Protesters with signs

Protesters gather in front of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans on February 7 to oppose Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and proposed book bans across Louisiana, including pending Senate Bill 7, which would further restrict minors’ access to public library material. (Photo by Hayden Legg)

 Mel Manuel, a trans activist, told me the majority in attendance supported the displays. Only one person dissented. After the meeting, complaints against six books flowed in: four children’s picture books, a children’s chapter book, and a nonfiction book, Sex: A Book for Teens, that library officials said was in the adult nonfiction section of the library. At a meeting in October, another book was brought up: Lawn Boy, which was housed in the adult section. More complaints were filed across the library’s 12-branch system, and Amy Bouton, a library spokesperson, told that 10 formal complaints had been filed that year, which had been the most in “quite a while.”

St. Tammany Parish Library Director Kelly LaRocca had new children’s cards created, with the aim of giving parents more control over what their kids can and can’t have access to. There were already two types of cards, one that allows checking out any material except for R-rated DVDs and one that allows you to check out R-rated material with parental permission. LaRocca also planned to ask the Library Board to change its policy for reviewing challenged books.

This didn’t stop the criticism.

Slidell attorney David Cougle stated, “This card is clearly done with her kicking and screaming, but all the books in the library are still there to be read when kids come in… the library administration exposed the children of St. Tammany Parish to pornographic and pedophilic material. How can [LaRocca] be trusted to remain in charge?”

Book "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson

St. Tammany Parish Library Accountability Project, led by Connie Phillips and David Cougle, has a goal similar to CFNL: Replace board members, have Kelly LaRocca removed from her post, replace the Parish president and Council, and form a committee of untrained and unqualified citizens (“lay men and lay women of the community,” according to Cougle) to oversee the Library Board. When another Library Board meeting rolled around in October, the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric was overt. According to meeting notes, one speaker quoted Bible verses and told the Board she was going to heaven and insinuated that the board was trying to promote toddlers to change their sex because of the book I Am Jazz. Cougle spoke of gender transitions as mutilation, and stated the board was pimping out the library to activists (ignoring the irony that he himself could be described as an activist). One woman told the room she’d been sexually assaulted as a child and ended her story by stating that children could read those books and become pedophiles themselves.

Manuel and their 11-year-old were in attendance for this meeting when someone from the Accountability Project showed blown-up images from books, including Gender Queer—exposing a child to the very imagery she’d called pornographic.

Not all comments were negative. Rev. Dr. Jarrett Banks stated he would stand for those Jesus stood for: “the marginalized, vilified, and demonized by culture, politics, and religion.” Banks was later followed to his car and verbally threatened. Director LaRocca had to point out to a speaker, who stated they found 86 inappropriate books in the library, that there’s roughly 750,000 books in the parish system, meaning the 86 she mentioned accounted for far less than 1% of the system’s books.

In conjunction with the rather small number of books being deemed inappropriate within the system, according to The Guardian, 89% of the books being challenged are meant for young adults and adults. Only 10% of them are juvenile fiction or picture books and only 1% of the books are targeted at teens.

The local tension swelled on November 28, when 300 people filed into a meeting hosted by the St. Tammany Republican Parish Executive Committee (RPEC), holding signs with slogans like “Enough is Enough!” and “Stop Peddling Porn to Our Kids.” Speaker after speaker questioned why “porn” is being given to children. The RPEC asked the parish’s elected officials and librarians to address “intentional exposure of children to pornographic material at our public libraries. A Slidell pastor gave a 10-minute speech allegedly condemning queer people to hell. District Attorney Warren Montgomery explained hypotheticals on how librarians could be arrested. One mother gave an impassioned speech about how worried she is that pedophiles are hiding within the library, and according to Manuel, Connie Phillips gave a presentation calling Kelly LaRocca a groomer. The question of the legality of the books came up over and over, as well as whether or not someone could be arrested. Manuel said that even Lunsford spoke.

AG Landry took the mic and stood in front of a projector screen with the link to his “tip line” for so-called “offensive” books shining in the background, with the purpose of fighting “taxpayer-subsidized sexualization of children.” Landry finished his champion cry by announcing to the citizens they would have a “voice in Baton Rouge,” and after he was done speaking, applause rained down on him. Manuel told me that it was one of the most frightening events they had ever witnessed. “It was like watching the formation of a Fourth Reich.”

Since the conservative takeover of Lafayette Parish’s Library Board, the board has gained national attention, so much so that Margaret Atwood, the writer of The Handmaid’s Tale, shared an NPR story about how they have removed all cultural displays. The abolished displays include: Pride Month, Cajun Heritage Month, and Black History Month, among others.

The now-politicized board has had a busy few years. Melanie Brevis, co-founder of Lafayette Citizens Against Censorship, was removed by guards from the Library Board meeting after she “disturbed the peace.” Last July, the board tried to have popular librarian Cara Chance fired after she put up a display including queer teen romance. They even rejected a $2,700 grant from Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and declined to host a discussion on the history of Black voter suppression, due to it being too “far left” and not “apolitical.”

Things in St. Tammany haven’t gotten to that extreme yet, and are still developing. According to the Louisiana Illuminator, Lunsford said, “There are laws in the state of Louisiana about material harmful to juveniles.” He went on: “[Jeff Landry] as the chief law enforcement officer in the state, it only makes natural sense that he would be curious and want to look into these things.” Landry admitted at the November 28th RPEC meeting that he didn’t believe that the books deemed problematic fell under any Louisiana statute.

As of December 14th, the St. Tammany Library was fielding 75 complaints, and 83 books have been removed, pending a four-month review. David Cougle stated after a December meeting that libraries could be a key election issue, since some of the Parish councilmembers are up for reelection in 2023. Manuel also informed me that the library millage renewal is in 2024, so it wouldn’t be shocking if the camps wanting to restrict access to certain books lobbied against the millage, similar to what happened in Lafayette.

According to State Rep. Valarie HodgesFacebook post, members of Louisiana’s Conservative Caucus visited Florida to meet Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been waging war against any topics or books he deems “woke,” including banning the teaching of AP African American studies, since he finds it to have no educational value. Hodges’ post stated that the caucus went to Florida to learn about how “Florida is leading the fight against socialism and the Marxist agenda that has infiltrated schools and universities.”

It’s important to note that Hodges once pulled support of a bill meant to divert public funds to private and religious schools once she found out that it would also go to Islamic institutions. She told The Livingston Parish News, “Unfortunately it will not be limited to the Founders’ religion, which is Christianity… We need to insure [sic] that it does not open the door to fund radical Islam schools.”

The blueprint for what’s to come is in our faces, and thus far, Jeff Landry has gotten the endorsement of the state party, and currently has a campaign war chest of $7.3 million.

I knew I was queer when I was eight, but I spent most of my adult life in the closet,” Manuel told me. Manuel is 38, trans, and has worked as a public school teacher for 15 years. They grew up in a Southern Baptist home and didn’t come out for years due to fear of rejection by their family and wider community. That was until five years ago, when they started the Gender and Sexuality Alliance at their school for 8th to 12th graders. “I guess I didn’t have to come out to start one,” they said. “But I figured most of my colleagues would suppose that I’m queer.” That’s when they noticed that queer adults in St. Tammany needed their own groups. They co-founded Queer Northshore with their best friend Jeremy JF Thompson one year ago. The group started as a social club, but after the incidents in Lafayette and Denham Springs made their way to St. Tammany, they got into activism, forming the St. Tammany Library Alliance (STLA).

The STLA’s petition against book removals currently stands at over 2,900 signatures (as of press time), and Manuel is cautiously optimistic. “At the December meeting the crowd was overwhelmingly against censorship and the tone was almost celebratory.” The Slidell pastor who spoke at the RPEC gathering in November showed up to that December meeting and was heckled, with people making jokes referring to “duct tape,” in reference to charges of cruelty to juveniles after taping several students’ mouths shut. He eventually left the meeting.

Manuel informed me that “no books have been permanently removed from shelves and since we launched our fundraising campaign last Friday we’ve almost reached half of our initial goal of $10,000. We do understand, however, that Michael Lunsford has a lot more financial resources at his disposal than we do and we fully expect that he will campaign against the library millage renewal in 2024.”

In 2018, the year of their founding, CFNL spent $21,500 on ads, including $17,750 for mailers urging people to vote against a 1.61-mill tax renewal for the library. On top of CFNL’s financial resources, St. Tammany Library Accountability Project is deploying Facebook ads in St. Tammany right now. One of their ads includes the image of kids clustered together, smiling, with the caption on the post stating, “Keep our library system kid-friendly!”

But STLA isn’t alone. EveryLibrary has lent informational resources to St. Tammany Library Alliance and helped set up a web domain and hosting site. EveryLibrary is also helping with the fight in Denham Springs.

As far as updates on Denham Springs, Jones informed me that attempts by a board member to start a review committee were shut down at a meeting in September, and attempts to restrict e-resources were blocked in a November meeting. Jones said, “People complaining on social media about the books have only filled out two formal complaints at the library, but there seems to now be a focus on trying to stack our Library Board of Control by way of our Parish Council.”

Landry’s snitch-line, according to the Louisiana Illuminator, has received roughly 5,500 pages of complaints. There were a few serious entries, but most of it was spam, including complaints about Library Board President Robert Judge, insults telling the AG to get a life, and about a dozen instances of people copying and pasting the entire script to Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie.

I asked Sweeney what could be done to fight against censorship. We know that only 8% of Americans are in favor of banning books and we know less than 1% of parents restrict their child’s reading when given the chance. But if the 92% of Americans who are against banning books do not speak up, we will live under a very small minority rule. We need the anti-book banners to stand up, join together, and fight back.” He also added over our Zoom call the importance of organizing groups, getting people to join those groups, petitioning, and from those groups finding candidates to run for board and council seats.

I asked Manuel how all of this may be affecting queer children, and they believe this will create an entire new generation of young queer activists. When I asked what could be done to support their efforts, they said, “Join the Facebook group for the Library Alliance; sign our petition; donate; vote for all local and state elections and run for office!”

When I asked Amanda Jones for advice, she said, “If you see librarians being harassed and defamed online, reach out to those librarians with messages of support. I have received hundreds of messages and gifts from around the world that have helped me through my ordeal. Visit your local library and utilize the facilities, praise them on social media, and share with others the wonderful services our libraries can offer the community. If you are able, attend school and library board meetings as an attendee and to show your support.”

Book "I Am Jazz" by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings

Top photo: Community members gather at a December 2022 meeting of the St. Tammany Parish Library Board of Control meeting in Covington, Louisiana, where the board proposed new measures in response to mounting accusations leveled against them. On the agenda were statements of concern about I am Jazz and My Rainbow, both books related to the LGBTQ community. (Photo by Julie Dermansky)

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