Utah Library Workers Take Leadership to Task Over LGBTQ Display, Buttons

When workers at the Hurricane branch of the Washington County Library System, UT, were told to change signage on LTBTQ-themed displays and stop wearing buttons pointing library visitors to LGBTQ resources, they brought their concerns to the local press.

When workers at the Hurricane branch of the Washington County Library System (WCLS), UT, were told to change signage on LTBTQ-themed displays and stop wearing buttons pointing library visitors to LGBTQ resources, they brought their concerns to the local press. Director Joel Tucker stated that promoting LGBTQ materials was sending a message of advocacy on the part of the library, which he wanted to maintain as a neutral space. Library staff, however, saw the policy as discriminatory and directly in conflict with the American Library Association (ALA) Bill of Rights.

In June 2017, WCLS employee Natalie Daniel created an exhibit for Pride Month titled “Got Pride?” featuring a collection of LGBTQ-themed material. Some patrons reportedly complained, according to Tucker, as did an unnamed county official; also, Tucker told LJ, he wanted to avoid similarities to the “Got Milk?” advertising slogan. Tucker, who is in charge of WCLS’s eight branches, instructed workers to change the display midmonth to “June is Pride Month,” and to remove additional LGBTQ resources to outside organizations from the display. Although the rest of the display remained in place throughout the month, Tucker issued a directive that future displays should not be LGBTQ-themed. Some patrons would interpret such signage as “advocating for that point of view” on the part of the library, he told the press.

This year, library staff was again instructed not to create a display specifically pointing to LGBTQ-themed material. Instead, the display addressed the broader theme of diversity, featuring material on race, religion, sexual orientation—including LGBTQ materials—and other topics, with signage reading “Libraries are for everyone.”

To supplement the display, some employees had buttons made that said “Ask me about LGBTQ Reads,” which features LGBTQ-themed material, author interviews, guest blogs, and more. Again, claimed Tucker, patrons complained, and he directed employees to take their buttons off—also citing the library’s dress and appearance policy, which called for a “business casual” appearance. “Buttons of any kind are not in line with that professional appearance,” he told LJ.

SUPPORT FROM THE MEDIA AND MORE

Ammon Treasure, a clerk at the Hurricane branch, was one of the library workers who spoke out against Tucker’s actions. Treasure first went to the WCLS human resources department, but was dissatisfied with the response, which he described as repeating Tucker’s justification. So he reached out to a local paper, The Spectrum; the story was then picked up by a number of media outlets, including Good4Utah.com, St George News, The Advocate, and the Associated Press.

Treasure explained that highlighting LGBTQ resources in the library is not the same as promoting an agenda—and forbidding such displays undermines the library’s role as a safe space. "There are a lot of people who have yet to come out of the closet, or are unsure of the environment we're in, whether or not they're going to be ridiculed,” Treasure told Good4Utah. “We wanted to be able to provide all of our community with information that they need.”

The library had built displays around other holidays and topics, Treasure noted, such as Black History Month and St. Patrick’s Day. "My hope is that by coming forward we can start an important conversation about inclusion and work toward eliminating the stigma that still surrounds this topic," he told The Spectrum.

Representatives from advocacy group Equality Utah convened a public forum at the St. George branch library on August 9, where they met with library officials and staff. There, Tucker explained that LGBTQ displays have been banned at all of Washington County’s libraries, noting, "If you put up a display that says LGBTQ, you're pushing away a segment of our society."

When Tucker acknowledged that he did not consider Black History Month displays controversial, Mark Chambers, a former town councilman, state senate candidate, and member of Equality Utah, stated, “When you say Black History Month is not controversial, but our month is, you are dismissing us.”

“I would liked to have found more common ground,” Tucker told St George News after the forum. “I strive to be accepting to all people and all perspectives, and the LGBTQ community is a part of that. I want them to feel included and a part of the library.”

However, he told Good4Utah.com, if that common ground could not be reached he considered banning all displays throughout the WCLS system.

ALA weighed in as well. James LaRue, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told Good4Utah, “Libraries providing robust services and lots of information about the world is just business as usual—that’s our whole purpose in public life…. We very much believe that the kinds of displays that go on in Pride Month…are just part of the human condition, and it makes perfect sense for them to be in libraries.”

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), joined by members of Lambda Legal, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Utah Library Association (ULA), and ALA, sent Tucker an open letter on August 16. The letter read, in part, “Not only is suppressing LGBTQ displays likely to be a violation of the First Amendment, it further marginalizes a vulnerable minority group and would set a dangerous precedent of intolerance to purportedly controversial ideas. Such a culture of prejudice is toxic in any community forum, especially the library where everyone should be equally welcome and guaranteed freedom to read, think and explore new ideas.” It also pointed to resources such as ALA’s Exhibit Spaces and Bulletin Boards guidelines and NCAC’s “Museum Best Practices for Managing Controversy.”

ULA IS THERE TO HELP

ULA posted its own Statement on Exhibits, recognizing “the importance of having a collection development policy that includes a process for responding to challenges to our materials, exhibits, and use of space.” Helping WCLS put such policy in place is one of ULA’s primary concerns, and the organization has been working directly with Tucker and his staff.

In addition to offering resources and guidance, said ULA president Rebekah Cummings, digital matters librarian at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, Salt Lake City, “We see great value in having a variety of voices represented in our collections and our exhibits—but we do want to make sure that, more than anything, the director in Washington County and all the other librarians in the state use this as a learning experience to know how to deal with these challenges going forward.” For directors such as Tucker, who do not have an MLIS and may not have studied library values statements such as ALA’s Library Bill of Rights or the Freedom to Read Statement, working with an association like ULA can help define those guidelines.

“All of our policies conform with the Library Bill of Rights,” Tucker told LJ on August 20, “and seek to further our mission of providing people with materials, information, and the space to promote ideas, inspire lifelong learning, and strengthen communities.”

Cummings and ULA advocacy chair Peter Bromberg, executive director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, UT, recently penned an op-ed column for Utah’s Deseret News. As well as emphasizing the values posted on the WCLS website—to “provide open, non-judgmental access to collections and services,” “advocate and support the First Amendment Rights and the Library Bill of Rights,” and “serve the total community by providing free and open access to the ideas and information available on all subjects,” the piece points out some important statistics: “LGBTQ youth have higher rates of mental health challenges and risk of suicide, which research shows is driven by social isolation and exclusion. Considering that 86 percent of LGBTQ youth report harassment and bullying at school, and that suicide is the leading cause of death among Utah youths ages 10–17, it becomes clear that displays of LGBTQ materials that promote education, awareness and respectful dialogue can help support positive health outcomes for our youths and our community.”

It’s not only the WCLS community that can learn from this situation, noted Cummings—ULA can use this as an opportunity to improve communication with its stakeholders as well. “It's made us realize that there is this need out there, that we can't take it for granted that every librarian in the state has a policy in place to deal with challenges,” she noted, and that ULA should “have those values firmly rooted so we know how to address them when they happen."

In addition, she said, she hopes that library workers like those at WCLS know that ULA is available to support them and listen to their concerns. “I'm not unhappy at all that they reached out to the press,” Cummings told LJ. “I'm glad that the story is out there and it's a chance to raise awareness,” but she would have liked the opportunity to help Treasure and his coworkers from the beginning. “We would have validated his concerns,” she said. “We would have let him know that he's not wrong."

Tucker and WCLS are reportedly moving ahead on drafting the needed policy, reported Ammon on August 20. “I've been informed that our library system will be forming a committee to create new policies about displays—in which they will be working closely with state librarians experienced with the library Bill of Rights and upholding intellectual freedom,” he told LJ. “I hope that we will have good news to share regarding new displays soon. While I have not been assured yet that any LGBTQ displays will not be censored in the future, I'm confident that with new policies in place we will be able to negotiate their return.”

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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