After LGBTQ library fight, a Michigan town tries something new: compromise
- A west Michigan library’s battle over LGBTQ-themed books goes to voters again in November
- After more than a year of vitriol, a compromise may help the library reclaim taxpayer support
- The library is currently staying open through donations from as far away as Australia
JAMESTOWN — Something unusual happened Monday evening at the monthly meeting of the Patmos Library Board. After an invitation for public comment, no one stood up to speak.
This small community in Ottawa County gained international attention last year when it twice voted to defund its library in a fight over LGBTQ-themed books. Donors from as far away as Australia, including romance novelist Nora Roberts, rushed to contribute to keep the doors open.
Since the spring of 2022, the train depot-themed library has been the epicenter of a rancorous fight over free speech and parental rights. Dozens of community members routinely showed up to meetings to take turns at a microphone, some labeling their neighbors with terms like “groomer” and “Nazi.”
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Slowly, the number of speakers at the monthly meetings who stood to claim that liberals are indoctrinating kids, or that conservatives hate gay people, has dwindled, said several people who attend regularly. Monday was the first time in at least 18 months that there was silence. Yard signs that last year urged residents to vote against the library millage to “protect our children” are gone, and board members — evenly split on the book issue a year ago — are now working together to try once again to win taxpayer funding in a special election Nov. 7.
The community has called a truce in the culture wars, by doing something neither side appeared willing to do a year ago:
None of the books that sparked the furor — including the graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir” — have been removed, but all books are getting labels pasted to their inside covers that give readers a brief overview of the genre and subject matter. The labels will be copied from book descriptions from the Library of Congress or book-selling websites like Amazon. The labels won’t include anything written by the staff or the library board.
While not offering warnings, those descriptions could provide clues to parents about content some may find objectionable for their children. For example, part of the description of “Gender Queer” on Amazon reads that the book is an “intensely cathartic autobiography” charting the author’s “journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears.”
The process of adding labels to the library’s 90,000-volume collection could take years, staff members told Bridge. “Gender Queer” does not yet have a label.
Another compromise: last year’s 10-year millage request that included a tax rate increase has been pared back to a three-year millage with no rate increase. If passed, homeowners would pay 0.419 per $1,000 of taxable value. A home with a taxable value of $200,000, for example, would pay $83.80 annually toward support of the library.
Last fall, current Board President Kathy Van Zandbergen displayed a “vote no” sign in her lawn on the outskirts of Jamestown village. On Tuesday, she wrote to Bridge Michigan in an email that the board now has a “common goal and focus.”
“We have a shared commitment to listen to our community and to ensure the library remains open and accessible for all,” Van Zandbergen wrote.
Culture war turns culture truce
The book battle began in Jamestown village and its surrounding Jamestown Township in the spring of 2022 over three books shelved in the library’s young adult graphic novel section. “Gender Queer: A Memoir” includes drawings that depict sex acts. That book has since been moved behind the circulation desk, where patrons wishing to check it out must request it.
Two other books involved in the original controversy, “Spinning” and “Kiss Number 8,” tell the stories of young women coming to terms with their sexuality but do not include sexually explicit illustrations.
Dean Smith, chair of Jamestown Township planning board and treasurer of last year’s “vote no” campaign, said he’s unaware of any organized effort to urge residents to vote no this November.
“I have the checkbook (for the “vote no” campaign), and there’s $3.36 in it,” Smith said.
Until contacted by a Bridge reporter, Smith wasn’t aware that a new library millage was on the ballot in November.
Smith said he considers some of the controversial books in the Patmos Library to be “pornography,” but said he thought the two sides had done a good job finding a compromise.
After an election last November, three of the six members on the library board are now residents who had expressed concern about the sexual content of some books meant for children or teens. “That makes people feel their views are represented,” Smith said. “And those members, once they got on the board, learned what is legal and not legal” about removing or restricting books in a public library, Smith said.
The labeling system is “a way to placate the no votes” while also being “common sense” to give young readers and their parents more information about books they are checking out, Smith said.
In August 2022, the library’s millage vote lost by 25 points; three months later, it lost by 12 points.
“I think things have died down over there,” Smith said. “To what extent those compromises have calmed the waters will be seen on election day.”
The library millage vote will be the only question on the Nov. 6 ballot. At Monday’s meeting, board members tweaked the wording of a flier promoting the millage that will be mailed out to residents and approved a bookmark urging residents to vote yes.
About 84 percent of the library’s $250,000 budget comes from township property taxes. The library has managed to stay open by using about $300,000 that was raised through GoFundMe campaigns, but is still expected to run out of money in the fall of 2024.
Without the millage, the library will be hobbled even earlier. Patmos is part of the Lakeland Library Cooperative, which provides services to local public libraries in west Michigan.
The cooperative sent a termination letter to Patmos, saying that the library will be cut off from services March 31 unless it has taxpayer support. The library would be cut off from the electronic system used to check books in and out, as well as statewide book loan services.
While Patmos librarians could revert to checking out books with library cards, “it would cripple the library,” said Lakeland Director Carol Dawe.
Flying below the radar
One sign of hope can be seen in Derby Tavern, located between Jamestown village and Hudsonville, where owners Tracie and Andy Wierda said the vitriol surrounding the library has lessened in recent months.
The Wierdas donated $100,000 to the library to help keep the doors open after voters defeated the millage for a second time last November. After the donation, the couple received a lot of criticism from residents. One of the couple’s other businesses, Western Michigan Fleet Parts, an auto parts supplier for trucks and trailers, lost $400,000 in sales from customers who stopped doing business with them because of the donation. “We had one company that wouldn’t let our salesman walk in their door,” Andy Wierda told Bridge.
Politics suddenly came with the meals at Derby Tavern. Some longtime customers stopped coming to the restaurant in the wake of the donation, Tracie Wierda said, while the restaurant served some first-time customers who asked to speak to the owners to thank them for helping save the library.
“I wasn’t expecting the amount of adult bullying online, honestly,” Tracie Wierda said. “I’d get to comment 187 and I’d think, ‘I can’t read anymore.’”
The couple said that they hear few comments about the library anymore. One possible reason, Tracie Wierda said, is that the political energy has moved to the Ottawa County Commissioners where the Ottawa Impact conservative majority are in a long-running battle with the county’s health director.
Several people who spoke to Bridge didn’t want their names used and were hesitant to comment for this story, because they didn’t want to stir up emotions before the November vote.
In a polarized environment, compromise could be viewed skeptically.
“I, and the board of trustees, unanimously support the millage,” Van Zandbergen wrote. “It is essential to ensuring that Patmos can continue to serve our community.”
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