The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Mich. library refused to remove an LGBTQ book. The town defunded it.

Sea-themed books are displayed at the Patmos Library. Voters rejected a proposal this month to continue funding the library after residents voiced their concerns over the availability of LGBTQ titles. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

JAMESTOWN, Mich. — Two librarians had quit since the trouble began, and Kaitlin McLaughlin didn’t want to be the third.

But the same term kept coming up in board meetings and on yard signs, making her feel awkward and wrongly accused: grooming.

People in this western Michigan farming town said the Patmos Library was “grooming” children and, according to fliers that one group printed, promoting an “LGBTQ ideology.” They said bookshelves meant for young readers featured same-sex pornography. They called the staff pedophiles, McLaughlin said. Then one August morning, they voted to defund Jamestown’s only public library, jeopardizing the institution’s future as neighbors clashed over who gets to decide free speech in this deep-red corner of America.

“I’m not a ‘groomer,’ ” said McLaughlin, 34, gathering children’s books for a lunchtime story hour. “I’m not a pedophile. I’m afraid of what people see when they look at me.”

The vitriol in Jamestown spiked with the rise of groups campaigning across the United States to banish texts with LGBTQ characters, accusing authors, teachers and librarians of trying to brainwash the nation’s youth. The American Library Association said it counted an “unprecedented” number of book ban attempts in 2021, noting that most of the titles dealt with sexual orientation, gender identity or racism.

Americans have long sought to censor literature — “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was an 1852 target for its anti-slavery message — but debates over transgender rights and critical race theory have lately spawned aggressive grass-roots movements to control the worldviews shared with children.

Which is how a railroad-themed library on the site of an early 20th-century train station lost the financial support of its community. Which is why the staffthree librarians, down from the usual roster of five — are mulling which activities they might have to slash (puppet shows? craft-ernoons?) and how long the lights can stay on.

“The loss would be enormous,” said McLaughlin, the youth services librarian. “We have something for every single person — from every walk of life.”

Jamestown, with a population of nearly 10,000, has Christian conservative roots. Dutch last names are common — a legacy of the Calvinists who split from the Netherlands in the mid-1800s to settle here and practice a stricter form of Christianity. The county celebrates this heritage each spring with a tulip festival.

The 22-year-old library hosts birthday parties, bridal showers, HOA meetings and blood drives. Residents praised it as a haven for all ages until controversy ignited with an award for the best teen books.

The National Library Association’s young adult branch named 10 winners in 2020, including a post-apocalyptic thriller about a boy searching for his lost dog, a science-fiction horror about twins with superpowers and a memoir about growing up nonbinary called “Gender Queer.”

Amber McLain, the library’s director at the time, ordered a copy of each. Pink-haired and openly queer, the 30-year-old stood out in a county that hadn’t backed a Democrat for president since 1864. Yet people embraced McLain, her former colleagues and patrons said.

“She helped bring my son out of his shell,” said one mother, Sara Crockett, checking out a STEM toy kit on a recent afternoon. “He’d light up when he saw her.”

“I miss Miss Amber,” 5-year-old Cecil said, clutching her hand.

Nobody complained about McLain until last November, after video of a Virginia mother condemning “Gender Queer” as “pornographic” took off on social media and protests against the memoir spread nationwide.

The 239-page graphic novel contains illustrations of masturbation, a sex toy and oral sex, as well as depictions of menstrual blood. Fans saw the scenes as part of the author’s coming-of-age experience, while critics blasted them as sabotage to developing minds. “Gender Queer” became the most banned book of 2021.

Some parents found a copy in the Patmos Library and created a Facebook group called “Jamestown Conservatives” pushing for its removal. One of the organizers, Lauren Nykamp, declined to be interviewed but responded to some of The Washington Post’s questions over text. “This is not about LGBTQ material,” she said. “It is about sexualized material.”

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One resident posted on the Facebook page: “These pictures cannot be unseen and they are dangerous and disturbing!”

Another wrote that a “Marxist lesbian” led the National Library Association, adding that “this shows the mindset of those we are up against.”

Several appeared at board meetings, railing against “Gender Queer” and McLain. One grandfather told her that “God designed the original plumbing,” that marriage should stay between a man and a woman, and that exposing children to content outside of those bounds could lead to suicide, pedophilia and human trafficking.

“I know we live in a nation where you can have your right to your lifestyle, and that is fine,” he said, according to audio of a meeting last November, “but we don’t need to push it on our kids.”

McLain countered that 90 out of their roughly 67,000 books had an LGBTQ keyword. She said they spent the most money on Christian fiction.

Nykamp, the Jamestown Conservative organizer, was also there, lambasting “Gender Queer” as pornographic.

“On Page 135, I can see a middle-aged man with an erection touching another young man’s erection,” she told the room. “Possibly a man younger than 18.”

The township supervisor, Laurie Van Haitsma, sided with Nykamp.

“It’s graphic as you can be,” she said. “I would not want my children and grandchildren seeing it.”

A lawyer had reviewed the book and determined it wasn’t pornographic, McLain replied. Still, given the mature content, she’d initially placed it in the adult section — near novels with heterosexual sex scenes. As the objections mounted, though, she moved “Gender Queer” behind the counter, making it available only upon request.

“We have to represent every segment of the population,” McLain said, “not just the vast majority.”

The backlash grew from there. One March day, staffers said, a woman showed up at the library, recording a video and yelling: “Where is she? Where is the pink-haired freak? Where is the pedophile librarian?”

McLain hadn’t been there. The library board president told her about the incident, saying she could work remotely if she’d like. (McLain declined to be interviewed for this story but confirmed the sequence of events to The Post.) Citing harassment, she opted to quit.

So did her replacement, Matthew Lawrence, 25, who transferred to a library in another town — he doesn’t feel comfortable saying where — after a tense encounter in June. A patron had demanded to know if he was gay, he said, and insisted he remove a rainbow-hued sign that said: “Please use the other door.”

The environment had grown hostile, Lawrence said, but seeing the local official join the protest against “Gender Queer” ultimately motivated him to leave.

“The complaint is that kids are going to pick it up and see things they can’t unsee,” he said. “The easiest way to avoid that is to parent your children.”

The battle was brewing at a pivotal moment: Every 10 years, Jamestown voted on renewing the Patmos Library’s public funding, the bulk of its budget, and the next decision was slated for August. This time around, the library had proposed a slight increase. Board members estimated that the annual bill for the average household would rise to $20.

The Jamestown Conservatives responded with fliers saying that the library peddled “LGBTQ CONTENT” and “PORNOGRAPHIC MATERIALS” and that the community must address “these evils.” Up went yard signs against approving tax dollars to “GROOM our kids.”

“If you think your child needs to have sexual books, on either side of sexuality, then you should pick it up at the store and share it at home,” said Jodi Buchanan, 58, a Christian thrift shop volunteer who applauded her neighbor’s “GROOM” sign.

Buchanan said she voted against the funding renewal to send a message, doubting that the Patmos Library would actually be forced to shutter.

“That’s a threat to the community,” she said.

On Election Day in August, about a third of the town’s voters turned out. A slim majority chose to defund the library.

“You want to defund the freaking library?” asked Chavala Ymker, 23, a nonprofit farmworker who grew up behind the building.

As a home-schooled teenager, Ymker, who uses they/them pronouns, said they’d wander over and dig into a series about World War II or a paper house-building guide or an Amish romance novel — their “spiciest” indulgence.

“When I was stressed or anxious, I’d go there to relax,” Ymker said. “It always felt like a safe and welcoming place.”

Any theme could be seen as threatening, so McLaughlin decided the safest bet for her recent story hour was “cats.”

It had been nine days since the vote, and the librarian told herself to stay strong for the children. A Christian, she’d started the morning with a plea to God: Please let people see that my co-workers and I aren’t here to groom anyone for any causes.

At first, she thought the term was silly — grooming — and associated it with her boyfriend’s family golden retriever. Gradually, it came to haunt her. Parents remained polite to her, but what if they harbored doubts about her intentions?

“How are you today?” McLaughlin asked a mom and daughter on a bench outside, where she liked to read when the weather was nice. “I’m going to be reading about cats.”

“Oh! I love cats!” a 9-year-old girl with blonde pigtails replied.

“I’m going to start with a silly book called ‘Stack the Cats,’ ” McLaughlin said.

Two other moms perched in the shade. Three little boys crowded at their feet. Yellow daffodils swayed in the breeze.

“One cat sleeps. Two cats play,” McLaughlin read in a singsong voice. “Three cats! What do you do with three cats?”

The children stared.

“You stack them!”

McLaughlin yearned for the critics to see what really went on here. She told patrons that her only agenda was promoting literacy. She made $16.25 an hour and supplemented her income with shifts at a senior home. It was enough to cobble together a decent living, but McLaughlin — who’d lost her job for two months during the pandemic — wondered if she should be looking for a more stable paycheck.

Patmos Library had enough money to stay open until late next year, and the board had scrambled to get the funding issue back on the November ballot, hoping they could change the town’s mind before the midterm elections.

One resident, meanwhile, started a GoFundMe to cover financial gaps. It had already raised $146,000 — about $100,000 shy of the library’s yearly budget.

The support touched McLaughlin, but quietly, she feared for her safety. If people truly thought they were grooming children, harassment could fester into something worse.

The librarian wasn’t sure what to do, so she just kept reading.

“Two cats hide and two cats seek,” McLaughlin intoned to her story hour audience. “And four cats stack!”

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