In late July, the board of the Campbell County Public Library system in Wyoming voted 4 to 1 to terminate Terri Lesley, its longtime director.
For two years, the library board, with the assistance of conservative community members, had been trying to get Lesley to remove books they alleged were sexually inappropriate for minors. But Lesley refused — for fear of getting sued and her strong belief that a diverse collection of books is integral to a successful library.
“I believe the community is harmed by not having access to a wide variety of information,” Lesley said.
Lesley is adamant that LGBTQ-themed books belong in the library — even if certain parents don’t want their children reading them. She was also worried about being sued for violating the First Amendment which prohibits government-sanctioned censorship.
“They’ve manufactured this crisis,” she told HuffPost, speaking about the board in the aftermath of her dismissal. “Their claims have no substance and lack any credible support.”
The Campbell County Library Board has not responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Lesley had been an employee of the library system for 27 years, including 11 years as director. According to members of the community in the town of 30,000, she was widely beloved; at the special meeting in which she was dismissed, hundreds of people showed up to support her. So how did she get removed from such a critical position?
The challenges to Lesley’s oversight of the library followed a strategic track: Conservative activists, often supported by Republican legislators, have launched an all-out war against LGBTQ+ people. Under the guise of parental rights, they have pushed to remove books from schools and censor educators — and along the way, public libraries have also come under attack ― the latest front in culture war that is attempting to remove the existence of LGBTQ people and their experiences from public life, via tools like laws that dictate what teachers can say about gender identity and prohibiting transgender kids from playing sports at school.
In the spring of 2021, community members came to the library to complain about alleged sexual content in books in the teen and kid section, targeting titles like, “How Do You Make a Baby” by Anna Fiske, and “Doing It” by Hannah Witton. That June, a teen volunteer wrote a Pride Month blog post for the library celebrating LGBTQ authors, and some people living in Gillette pushed back, including a local official who said it was “harmful” to the community. And when the library hired Mikayla Oz, a children’s magician who happened to be transgender, for an event a month later, all hell broke loose.
“The magician was simply a well-renowned magician who was hired for a summer program,” said a long-time library staffer, who requested to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisal. “[Her] gender identity was irrelevant. But that was the match that lit the tinder box.”
Oz received violent threats online and over the phone after her gender identity was posted on social media, according to The Associated Press. The threats prompted Oz to cancel her show; the library also posted on its Facebook page that Oz’s performance wouldn’t go on as planned because of safety concerns for staff and attendees.
From there, it spiraled into a familiar refrain among conservative culture warriors: The library, supposedly, was providing inappropriate materials to children ― and the librarians were the ones to blame.
In October 2021, supporters and critics of the library gathered at a board meeting to voice their concerns.
The critics alleged that the library was providing sexually explicit and abusive material to minors. One woman said during public comment that her personal survey of the teen section indicated that 60% of the books were “witchcraft,” while another said that the library had become an “indoctrination center.”
According to the Gillette News Record, community members challenged 29 books in 2021 and 2022, including “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, and “This Book Is Gay” by Juno Dawson ― all of which have been frequently targeted by right-wingers around the country. No books ended up being removed from the library entirely, but two, including Kobabe’s memoir were moved to the adult section. The other 26 stayed in their respective sections. (Evison’s novel was already in the adult section.)
In October 2022, the library board voted to cut ties with the American Library Association, the large and influential organization that promotes libraries, and the Wyoming Library Association, its state branch. Among other resources, the ALA provides guidance on collection development policy — how the library fills its shelves — as well as professional ethics and standards. Among those standards is a firm opposition to book censorship in schools and libraries: A November 2021 statement from the ALA specifically condemned “censorship of books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender, or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous or persons of color,” calling efforts to remove books on these topics “acts of censorship and intimidation.”
“Libraries manifest the promises of the First Amendment by making available the widest possible range of viewpoints, opinions, and ideas, so that every person has the opportunity to freely read and consider information and ideas regardless of their content or the viewpoint of the author,” that statement said.
According to Wyoming Public Media, after two years of chaotic library board meetings and input from the Liberty Council, a Florida-based right-wing organization, the library adopted a new collection development policy in June. The new policy no longer mentions the Freedom to Read or the Library Bill of Rights, ALA’s anti-censorship policies, but it does have a new section on removing “sexually explicit” material in order to protect children.
“The ALA is a self-proclaimed socialist Marxist, activist group, and they’ve said this over and over, so this has absolutely nothing to do with targeting LGBTQ ideology or anyone’s lifestyles, which is the ALA narrative,” library board member Charles Butler told Wyoming Public Media about the new standards.
“This is about making the library more responsible for protecting children from sexually explicit material until they are mentally and develop [mentally] mature enough to understand the ramifications and consequences of sex and different lifestyles,” Butler said.
Satisfied with the new policy, board members began asking Lesley to remove books they said were “egregious” and violated the new policy.
Lesley wouldn’t budge. “Public libraries are for everyone,” she said. “Our collection should serve all citizens of the community.”
But board members were dead set on removing books.
“I think they should go through and find the egregious stuff, they know what it is, they put it there,” said board member Sage Bear in response to Lesley’s concerns at the regular board meeting in late July.
Lesley was fired a few days later, after refusing to resign.
“They’ve done their best to steamroll me,” Lesley said about the library board. “They’ve seen me more as a pawn in this bigger game. It feels like they have a political agenda.”
Large swaths of the community were unhappy with Lesley’s removal.
“I’ve worked here for a long time, and it felt like it was a respected and well-funded institution,” the anonymous staff librarian said. “Sure, we’re a red community in a red state, but a lot of the people who have real roots here are angry that the library has been attacked.”
Lesley’s firing is a harbinger of what could come next, as versions of her story are replicated around the country.
The uproar about books in Gillette is a familiar refrain among conservatives who have made anti-LGBTQ rhetoric a core part of their ideology. Following increased restrictions on schools and curriculum requirements, conservatives have increasingly set their sights on books, smearing any of them that deal with LGBTQ topics as sexually explicit or harmful to teenagers and kids. In Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and more, both public and school libraries have come under increasing attack by those on the right.
“It started under the banner of protecting children,” Jenny Sorenson, a teacher and library patron who lives in Gillette, told HuffPost. “Then it culminated in a library director being terminated because she felt uncomfortable removing books from the library.”
“They position the library and librarians as ‘groomers’ who want to ‘force woke agendas,’” Sorenson said.
The treatment of the library and the firing of Lesley could have far-reaching repercussions that could affect the library system for years to come. Public libraries, which provide free access to information but also services like internet connection to underserved communities, have for several years been attacked as part of a broader effort to dismantle public institutions, including by privatizing and monetizing these kinds of public services.
Now, the individual workers who keep the doors open have to account for the personal cost of investing their careers in these institutions.
“I think you’re going to see people leaving librarianship as a career,” the anonymous staff librarian said. “They want to serve the public, but the amount of stress this is putting on staff just can’t be understated.”
“The actions of the board have affected me personally. They took away my means of supporting myself and took away my career of 27 years,” Lesley said. “But I think this is a case worth fighting for. I believe in what public libraries do and the services they provide to all people.”