Mayor withholds $110,000 from libraries until “homosexual materials” removed

A library in Madison County, Mississippi. – Photo: Madison County Library System, via Instagram.

Gene McGee, the mayor of Ridgeland, Mississippi, is withholding $110,000 of funding from the Madison County Library System until librarians remove “homosexual materials” from library bookshelves.

Tonja Johnson, the executive director for the Madison County Library System, told the Mississippi Free Press that she first reached out to McGee after failing to receive the city of Ridgeland’s first quarterly payment of 2022.

The county operates five different libraries across the county, including the Elise E. Jurgens branch in Ridgeland, and each city or town contributes money for maintaining and operating the library system.

But McGee reportedly told Johnson that Ridgeland would not be contributing its portion of funding as long as the library maintains copies of books containing LGBTQ content that he considers offensive to his Christian beliefs.

Johnson tried to explain that the library system, as a public entity, was not a religious institution, adding that the library is meant to serve the entire community and that its collection of books “reflects the diversity of our community.” But McGee rejected that argument.

“He told me that the library can serve whoever we wanted, but that he only serves the great Lord above,” Johnson said.

Based on her conversation with the mayor, Johnson said McGee primarily objects to books that touch on LGBTQ identities or themes, or stories that contain queer representation — even if a character’s LGBTQ identity is only briefly mentioned or alluded to, and not central to the book’s plot.

For example, the mayor specifically demanded the removal of The Queer Bible, a series of essays about queer icons such as David Bowie, George Michael, and Susan Sontag, written by LGBTQ figures including Elton John, Munroe Bergdorf, and Tan France.

Another book that has been flagged frequently by social conservatives is Grandad’s Camper, a children’s book — written by nonbinary author Harry Woodgate — about a young girl who learns about her deceased grandfather, who was in a same-sex relationship, by taking a road trip with her surviving grandfather.

Johnson says she believes McGee’s demand is inspired by a political movement currently sweeping the country, heartily embraced by social conservatives, that is seeking to erase all mentions of homosexuality or transgender issues, often by banning books with LGBTQ content from school or local public libraries.

Parents and activists who challenge such books frequently argue that any mention of LGBTQ topics are “inappropriate” for children or that the books are seeking to “groom” children or “recruit” them into homosexuality.

For example, the Ridgeland library has previously received complaints from parents or community members about Grandad’s Camper due to its incidental LGBTQ subject matter, with some demanding that the illustrated children’s book either be reclassified as an “adult” novel and removed from children’s section of the library, or banned from the library altogether.

But those complaints did not go through the library’s formal system for having a book reviewed for age-appropriate content or potential removal, and, because there was no follow up, the book has remained on library shelves.

The trend is not simply limited to Madison County or the state of Mississippi, however. School systems in Virginia and Texas have yanked some LGBTQ books from shelves, with some school board members even proposing that such books be burned.

Wyoming prosecutors have been pressured to charge librarians with violating “obscenity” laws and potentially jail them, just for keeping LGBTQ books in their collections. 

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott is currently involved in a crusade to purge LGBTQ books or books that speak about sex or sexuality from school libraries, claiming that such works are “pornographic,” while a proposed bill in Oklahoma would empower parents to censor books with “sexual” content — although critics of the measure question whether the definition of what constitutes “sexual” content will be expanded or interpreted in an overly broad manner to justify banning any and all LGBTQ-related books or books by LGBTQ authors.

Library shelves – Photo: Madison County Library System, via Instagram.

The money McGee is attempting to withhold from the Jurgens Library in Ridgeland was appropriated by the board of alderman as part of the city budget. The amount represents roughly 5% of the annual budget of the Madison County Library System, and goes toward purchasing materials to supporting programs hosted by the library to paying library staff. And if the funding is not restored, it is likely the entire library system — not just Ridgeland’s branch — will be forced to make cutbacks.

“It would definitely impact services,” Johnson told the Mississippi Free Press. “I can tell you that there’s a potential for staff members to lose their positions if the board is not able to move funding from something else to keep those positions open.”

On Tuesday evening, the Ridgeland Library’s board met to discuss the mayor’s action, and voted unanimously to bring the issue to the board of aldermen before pursuing legal remedies.

When asked if the mayor had the legal authority to unilaterally override the contract with the library system, Bob Sanders, counsel for the board, replied: “Uh, no.” Some other critics of the mayor even contend that his action is unconstitutional.

Speaking with the Free Press, McGee said he was withholding the money from the library because of citizen complaints about “sexual” content. When pressed, he refused to answer a question concerning whether it was fair to classify works containing incidental LGBTQ content or characters as “sexual” or inappropriate for children.

Despite his insistence on withholding the money from the library system, McGee admitted he didn’t know if he actually has the authority to do that, saying it remains an ongoing “legal question.”

He also refused to answer a question about how the board could possibly have responded to community members’ objections to LGBTQ books — the very justification he cites for his action — if people have not filed formal requests to reclassify the books or yank them from circulation.

Woodgate, the author of the much-reviled Grandad’s Camper, said that censorship of LGBTQ or LGBTQ-adjacent works has become commonplace.

“It is saddening that we’re still seeing LGBTQ+ titles featured on banned book lists, and I think this not only represents the extent to which such prejudices remain under-examined and under-challenged by so many of our institutions and elected officials, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of children and children’s literature,” they told the Free Press.

“To suggest that limiting access to diverse literature will somehow prevent or dissuade queer children from being queer is simply preposterous, let alone deeply, thoroughly cruel,” Woodgate said. “I firmly believe in the power of books and libraries to change lives so am incredibly thankful for all that they do and anyone who champions and defends them.”

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