Rainbow Books and Barbed Wire on a hot pink background

Youth Speak Out for Libraries

“If we aren’t making ourselves be heard, others can use our silence to invent false and harmful narratives about us. We are the youth who are going to inherit this world.” – Will Jaster

In recent years Oregon has made real improvements to our school curriculum standards and to the range of resources that our libraries offer, particularly when it comes to the diverse experiences of people of color and queer people. Unfortunately, libraries and public schools have come under alarming attacks that are attempting to chip away at our democratic right to freedom of expression.

In response to these attacks, the Oregon State Legislature is currently considering Senate Bill 1583. If passed, this bill would protect student’s freedom of expression by banning discrimination in materials available in Oregon’s public schools based on the race, religion, ability, country of origin, sexuality, or gender of individuals featured. Tell Lawmakers: Students deserve safe & welcoming schools by submitting testimony today (Monday) in advance of its Tuesday hearing. If you want to provide oral testimony in person or virtually sign up here! Please note that oral testimony must be 2 minutes or less.

At the local level, community members in Brookings responded to one particular local attack by providing powerful testimony at Chetco Community Public Library Board meetings. Read on for an article from the most recent Southern Oregon Coast Pride newsletter by one young person about his perspective on local attacks and why others should get involved! Are you taking action like this in your community? Do you want to be? Register today to join these organizers and others at the Rural Caucus and Strategy Session on Saturday, April 6th in Woodburn to strategize together!

Southern Oregon Coast Pride Advocacy Spotlight

Will Jaster he/him

For almost two years now, an ongoing conflict has been progressing between Brooking’s local Chetco Community Public Library and a group of concerned citizens. The conflict revolves around this group of locals questioning the library’s selection of children’s books, and the inappropriate sexual content in them that is being peddled to child patrons. The only problem with this conflict is that there aren’t any books with inappropriate sexual content in the children’s section.

Chetco Community Public Library holds monthly board meetings that are open to the community. Here, the board can receive feedback regarding what the public likes about the library’s services, and what could be improved in the future. But over time, these meetings have devolved into a platform for people to demand the staff do something about the sexual content the library contains. During the meeting of August 2022, the two books that were brought up as examples of sexual content were Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and Robie H. Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal.

Currently, It’s Perfectly Normal was not brought up at the most recent November 2023 board meeting, but Gender Queer is still a hot topic for protestors after all this time. It’s gotten to the point where the opinions section of the local newspaper– the Curry Coastal Pilot– has published multiple letters to the editor in which people urge other citizens to take action against lewd content in the library.

I am a local resident of Brookings. I was raised here my whole life by parents who had been a part of this community for decades.

I have also been a witness to the situation with the library, and I consider the arguments made by these protestors to be a threat to the well-being of our community. This movement against the library is an active campaign of misinformation characterized by underhanded motives that will ultimately lead to the censorship of minority voices.

It’s no coincidence that the books being questioned were books discussing queer identities and sexual health. A common argument that is made about why these books should be removed is that they are too sexually explicit for such a young audience. To debunk this argument, let’s have a quick discussion about the two books protestors have used as examples in the past.

Gender Queer is commonly rated as an 18+ book on websites it can be purchased on, such as Amazon. Forums such as Common Sense Media, where parents post their own ratings for books, have multiple reviews made by parents suggesting youth be at least 16 years old to read Gender Queer. In Chetco Community Public Library, this item is located in the graphic novel section on the adult half of the premises.

It’s Perfectly Normal is classified as a children’s book, however it is an educational book on puberty and sexual health. A majority of online reviews for the book praise it for being a simple way to open the conversation regarding sex education with children that is appropriate for younger ages.

The illustrations of nudity in the book are also rather tame, with neutral poses meant to provide a visual aid of the human body as it goes through the stages of life. As for the illustrations of sexual acts in the book, they are far from being on the same level as the oftentimes violent and degrading portrayal of sex that is seen in pornography.

Despite this, those protesting are spreading misinformation to frame books like these as predatory. Some of the tactics that have been used are removing context from images, asserting vague credibility, and providing anonymous testimonies. Pages from Gender Queer are shown on papers, described as instructions for oral sex and child pornography. The context of these images being illustrations of Kobabe’s experience trying out sex as an adult with another adult is always disregarded. Speakers at the board meeting who are against these books claim to have education on these matters without detailing their credentials. They also mention studies in which professionals prove transitioning harms children, yet fail to cite neither the studies nor the professionals they got their facts from. There have been claims of letters written by a little girl and her mother, complaining to the library that a staff member interrogated the child about her sexuality during a pride book club meeting. According to a letter to the editor written by a Chetco Community Public Library board member, these letters were never signed, and the library was unable to meet the victims and confirm their claim.

Not only are these protestors attempting to censor the works available at the library, they are also actively censoring their own sources to strengthen their claims.

Then again, this group of protestors is claiming that what they are doing isn’t censorship. According to them, they don’t want to ban these books. They just want books like these to have a label placed on them to warn people they discuss sexuality, and they want them to be moved to a separate part of the library. But these suggestions make more questions than answers them. Would this label only apply to stories, or educational material as well? Would this label be used for media that also discusses heterosexuality, or would it only apply to queer attraction? What is the range of sexuality that the reach of this label would end at; exclusively sex, or nonphysical romance? How would people access these books if they are placed in a separate room, or behind the desk?

When the bigger picture of these suggestions is looked at, it’s easy to see how many loopholes this method has. It likens the discussion of sexuality and personal health to something shameful or raunchy. There is something inherently wrong about these subjects, and so any content that talks about it should be kept under lock and key. Segregating media like this from the shelves of libraries is just a convoluted form of censorship. One with a coat of paint that makes it look like a filtering process to protect kids from being exposed to traumatizing material.

But these protests aren’t protecting anyone. In fact, they are harming people. Another reason why I felt the need to speak on this is the lack of respect and human decency staff at the library are forced to endure at the hands of this group of protestors. During the November 2023 board meeting, the session was opened with the reminder that the library doesn’t have to open their meetings to the public. They only do it because they care about the community. And it saddens me that as thanks, the community responds by interrupting staff, yelling at them, and using thinly-veiled threats against them. Day after day, these individuals who serve the community are harassed, and accused of being predators who are grooming child patrons of the library. And all over what? A couple queer and sex education books being on the lower shelves due to the Dewey Decimal System categorization? This is the real attack that is happening against freedom of speech in this community.

If there is anything I could ask of readers, it is to involve yourself in your community. Especially if you are a youth. Youth are a part of their communities just as much as the adults are. And it is unfair that adults are forcing false narratives onto our lives.

We have a say in our communities, too.

And if people are going to spread false narratives about libraries harming the youth, we have the right to shed some light on who is actually harming us. If there aren’t any books about LGBTQ+ experiences, how will we have the words to describe who we are? If there aren’t any books about sexual health, how will we know how to keep ourselves safe from STDs, unwanted pregnancies, and rape? Information empowers us, and gives us the ability to better advocate for ourselves. Keeping us in the dark only gets us harmed, and makes it harder to end that cycle of harm.

This isn’t a moral fight like those demanding censorship claim it to be. This isn’t about protecting children from sexual content. It’s about restricting them from the freedom to discover who they are, even if that answer is the same person they were from the beginning.

If your library is facing a similar backlash and also open their board meetings to the public, I highly urge you to attend them, if possible.

You don’t have to speak up if you feel like you aren’t ready; even listening shows your presence. For those who want to speak up, I encourage you to do so. Use your bravery, and use your words.

Standing up for free speech is one of the most powerful things you can do to support the fight for equality. You aren’t just helping the LGBTQ+ community. By fighting for free speech, you are fighting for the freedom for any minority group to write about their experiences. If we aren’t making ourselves be heard, others can use our silence to invent false and harmful narratives about us.

We are the youth who are going to inherit this world. We deserve to be heard as we echo the words of our elders who fought this same fight before we even existed.

We are here, and we are queer. Get over It.

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