When a Town Rallies Around Censorship: Dispatches From The Culture War Frontline

Photo by Markus Spiske via Pexels

I know I’m in for an interesting night when an older woman breaks off from a prayer circle as I approach the line waiting to get into the Town Council meeting, and I see it’s my former landlord. Imagine every stereotype fed to you through basic cable reality shows about well-to-do Southern ladies, right down to the dyed blond hair, and you’ll see her.

“Paul!” she says, faux-surprised. “Good to see you—” Her eyes drop to my tee shirt—PROTECT TRANS KIDS, it says. Her eyes slide to the kids I’m standing next to, holding protest signs. One reads THOSE WHO BAN BOOKS ARE NEVER ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY.

My former landlord’s eyes slide back to me. In the same tone I can imagine her saying, “Bless your heart.” She repeats, instead, “Good to see you,” and retreats.

One of the kids studies the group. “One of them told me I’m going to hell,” they say.

Welcome to small town culture wars, folks.

Conservative groups erupting over supposedly “pornographic” books in public and school libraries is nothing new in 2023—in Florida, it’s almost a cottage industry. But it goes beyond Florida and the deep South. Virginia’s a purple state, and I reside in a small red dot in the middle of blue Northern Virginia. Our crazy doesn’t have the flare of Florida and the human-version of Bluto that is Florida’s current governor—but we do have a state legislator who tried to sue a Barnes & Noble because it sold Gender Queer: A Memoir and A Court of Mist and Fury without parental consent (the judge dismissed the case because it was blatantly unconstitutional).

The think-pieces and the reports have taken a birds-eye view—even the writers being targeted send dispatches from far away, and you can read in their tones the utter bafflement. I don’t offer any insights or answers, but I think it’s important to see what it looks like on the ground.

The Issue

In December of 2022, a small group of religious folks took issue with the books available at the town library. They sent in requests for reconsideration. This process took time, but the books were determined not to be objectionable.

The group dug in. Organizing, they crafted a list of nearly 200 YA and middle-grade books they found objectionable and targeted the library with reconsideration requests, spiraling into the hundreds. The only things the books have in common is that they either:

A) have to do with LGBTQA+ relationships in some form (including just a secondary character in one novel who’s bi);

B) deal in some fashion with people of color.

Next, the group targeted the library’s annual budget. Spoiler alert: a Town Council member was unabashedly supportive of them.

And that brings us to this otherwise pleasant May evening and the Town Council public hearing about said budget.

The Frontline Is Everywhere

Every age group descended for this budget meeting. The line to get into the meeting stretched across a side street, into the post office parking lot.

I tried to figure out who was pro or against banning. You really couldn’t go by age or skin color here. My former landlord’s prayer circle looked like a corporate brochure photo on diversity.

The two kids next to me were upperclassmen in high school, but attended home school. Sisters. As the evening wore on, they wondered aloud how church on Sunday was going to go.

Sure, you had the creepy middle-aged man who’d apparently decided to skip shaving before donning an emerald suit (with vest!)—he kept hectoring them about the library advocating using drugs while clutching an oxidized medallion. (I intercepted that motherfucker, given how he was looming like Count Orlof, and he ran off to start a new prayer circle with college boys in polo shirts.)

However, on the other hand, you had enough old woman supporting the library to fill a firehall bingo night. Once I got inside, a woman my age who identified herself as a strict Catholic (and, in my town, that includes those ignoring Vatican II) and home schooler railed against any budget cuts, arguing that to remove books or to lower budgets would ultimately lead to a lack of resources she relied upon, or tossing out books she preferred. 

These Are Not Bright People, And Things Got Out Of Hand

It was clear before the meeting that these people hadn’t read the books on the list or visited the library. They saw the news stories and decided to jump on the wagon train. Why, though? It was evident that they hadn’t thought of this shit before.

They’d never read Adam Silvera’s They Both Die At The End, for example, where the queer themes are incidental to the overall story of friendship and making each moment count. Speaker after speaker railed over Judy Blume’s Forever, which is fairly steamy—until someone pointed out that this 1975 novel had been in circulation for decades.

More often, speaker after speaker just called books “pornographic”—dudebros wanting to join the party, unable to articulate a single clear example of “pornography” beyond it being “gross.” I almost got kicked out twice because I couldn’t stop laughing at them, particularly when one had a popped-fucking-collar. Traditional housewives clutched invisible pearls. It gave everything an air of meaninglessness—these people didn’t really care; they just wanted to control something.

What We Lack In Knowledge, We Make Up For With Passion

Ignorance is bliss, and it’s fuel. While in line, folks streamed the meeting on their phones, and it sounded like two-to-one for cutting the library’s funding. I was told by a tiny older lady that “the bastards” filled up the sign-up sheets to speak ahead of everyone else, tipped off by the supportive council member.

The folks for the library, who quote explicit passages from the Bible when at the lectern, couldn’t match the steady onslaught of bland denunciations. Selling one’s daughter into slavery can’t quite compete with a legion of sentient Kohls mannequins calling the librarians disgusting again and again and again.

The Backlash Is Real, And It’s Fantastic

Still, the people who supported the library turned out in force—part of the reason why the line was so long was because the pro-people had descended, and they weren’t leaving until they’d had their say. It took me ninety-minutes to get into the actual meeting room, and I stood in the back. Here, the lines of demarcation were clearer, with many wearing pro-library slogans and pins or shirts similar to mine.

And they didn’t move. At one point, the Council called recess and admonished the crowd to “go stretch.” It was clear they hoped folks would go home. Some of the anti-library people did, but none of the pro-did.

When the recess ended, the litany continued—for every three vague anti-library speaker, there was one who could quote chapter and verse of why the library should exist as it had, often with examples and rebuttals of what some previous speaker had said.

It Was All Pre-Determined, Anyway

But, it was all decided beforehand—this was just the public comment portion of the program. The Town Council voted to parcel the budget out, one quarter at a time, instead of just giving the library its budget in one lump like usual. They urged the library to “find their way through this situation”—a not-so-subtle hint that they could decide to revoke the rest of the money.

So what is the solution? If you came into this hoping I’d have one, I don’t. I can mock these idiots, but that doesn’t change their idiocy, nor do I think “being understanding” (as I sometimes find lily-white liberals arguing) is going to help the situation. These are people who never paid attention to the fact that Forever came out when Gerald Ford became president, but now that they know, by gum, they’re gonna protect these pure-as-driven-snow children. You’re not convincing them otherwise. Sorry.

But that doesn’t mean laying down, either. The people who organized the pro-library forces are still going strong as of this writing—organizing fundraising drives and sit-ins, planning upcoming elections. If nothing else, it’s bringing more attention to the library’s services. They’re digging in for the long haul.

Because it is a culture war, and war’s don’t necessarily have a stop date or a timeout. It’s a war of attrition, and if you don’t know what that word means, go to your local library and find out. While you still can, anyway.

Get Forever by Judy Blume at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe at Bookshop or Amazon

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