Upset over LGBTQ books, a Michigan town defunds its library in tax vote
- A west Michigan public library may close after residents voted to defund it Tuesday
- Voters are upset about LGBT-themed graphic novels in the library
- Residents and library officials are now at a stalemate about what happens next
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JAMESTOWN TOWNSHIP—What started as a fight over an LGBTQ-themed graphic novel may end with the closure of a west Michigan public library.
Voters in Jamestown Township, a politically conservative community in Ottawa County, rejected renewal Tuesday of a millage that would support the Patmos Library. That vote guts the library’s operating budget in 2023 — 84 percent of the library’s $245,000 budget comes from property taxes collected through a millage.
Without a millage, the library is likely to run out of money sometime late next year, said Larry Walton, library board president.
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“I wasn’t expecting anything like this,” Walton told Bridge Michigan Tuesday. “The library is the center of the community. For individuals to be short sighted to close that down over opposing LGBTQ is very disappointing.”
There have been protests at other Michigan public libraries and at school board meetings about books with LGBTQ themes. But Tuesday may be the first time a community voted, in effect, to close its library rather than have it remain open with books some consider to be “indoctrinating” children.
Voters on Tuesday rejected the millage renewal by a 25-point margin — 62 percent to 37 percent — on the same day voters approved millages for road improvements and the fire department.
Ten years earlier, a library millage at a slightly lower rate was approved by 37 percentage points.
For the average home with a market value of $250,000, the new millage, if approved, would have increased taxes about $24.
Debbie Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, said Wednesday there were about 40 public library millages on ballots across the state Tuesday, and all but a handful passed. No others that failed appeared to be due to cultural issues like with the Patmos millage, she said.
The difference, according to voters who spoke to Bridge Tuesday: Books in the adult and young adult section of the Patmos Library that depict, in some cases in detail, same-sex relationships.
Earlier this year, a parent raised concerns about the graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” located in the adult graphic novel section. The book tells the story of the author’s coming of age as nonbinary, and includes illustrations of sex acts.
As many as 50 people attended several library board meetings this spring, meetings that typically draw only a handful of residents. At those meetings, residents demanded the book be pulled from the shelves. The library board moved the book behind the counter, where children couldn’t happen upon it by accident.
Complaints were filed about several other books, including “Spinning,” a graphic novel about a teen girl and her attraction to other girls, and “Kiss Number 8,” a graphic novel with similar themes. Those books remain on the shelves of the young adult (high-school age) graphic novels section.
Library Director Amber McLain resigned this spring, telling Bridge she had been harassed online and accused of indoctrinating children. Interim director Matthew Lawrence resigned later.
When the Patmos staff and elected board of directors declined to remove the books from the library’s collection, some upset residents organized an effort to defeat the library’s millage renewal.
The group, called Jamestown Conservatives, passed out flyers at the town’s Memorial Day parade that referenced “Gender Queer: a Memoir,” a Pride Month display at the library and a director who, in the group’s words, “promoted the LGBTQ ideology.”
“Pray that we can make changes and make the Patmos Library a safe and neutral place for our children,” the flyer said.
Yard signs urging residents to vote no on the library millage popped up along Riley Street, Jamestown’s main drag. One sign was directly across the street from the library, and another was conspicuously in the lawn of a library board member. That board member could not be reached for comment.
One resident posted a large, homemade sign that said, “50 percent increase to GROOM our kids? Vote NO on Library!”
Salem Sousley, who identifies as nonbinary and lives close by, said when they see the sign “it turns my stomach.”
Having books young adults can access on LGBT themes “is incredibly important,” Sousley said. “When I was growing up in Jenison (in Ottawa County), the language of who I was as a nonbinary person didn’t exist yet. When I read ‘Gender Queer,’ it was the first time I ever saw myself represented in a book.
“So many kids are struggling in silence, especially in areas like this,” Sousley said. “Having access to resources and materials of people who are sharing your experiences is literally life-saving.”
Jamestown Township, population just under 10,000, is politically conservative even for conservative Ottawa County. The township voted for Donald Trump for president by a margin of 76-21 percent in 2020. About 92 percent of residents are white, and the median income of $81,000 is 37 percent higher than that of the state median household income of $59,000.
The village of Jamestown, which is within the township, has streets of well-maintained homes and sidewalks shaded by large trees, with construction of new subdivisions nearby. There is an ice cream shop at the main intersection, just across a parking lot from the township library.
The library is built to resemble a train depot, commemorating the interurban trolley that ran from Holland to Grand Rapids a century earlier. Inside the library on Tuesday, staffers helped patrons check out books and find materials. A young mother laughed as her son played with hand puppets. Someone had brought a box of zucchini, with a sign for patrons to help themselves.
The main display inside the library was of “never out of print classics,” including the Bible and Ayn Rand's “The Fountainhead.”
One of the township’s three voting precincts Tuesday was in the community room of the library. Most of the people who spoke to Bridge outside the library said they voted to defund the facility.
“We don’t need to see those books out front,” said Sarah Johnson. “We’re all for the library. I use it. We want to make a statement that we want some say in the books (chosen to be in the collection).”
Steve Wiltz said he voted no because of “some of the materials that are in here I don’t agree with.”
Amanda Ensing, one of the organizers of the Jamestown Conservatives group, emerged from the library Tuesday wearing an “I voted” sticker. “They are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires,” Ensing said of library officials. “It’s not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.”
Walton, the library board president, had been optimistic that the millage would pass when he spoke to Bridge Michigan on election day.
On Tuesday afternoon as votes were still being cast, Walton said that if the millage was defeated, the library would continue to receive tax funds from the old millage through the first quarter of 2023. After those funds dry up and the library’s fund reserves of about $325,000 are depleted, “we would close,” he said.
Walton estimated that closure would be in fall 2023, barring a second millage renewal attempt approved by voters before then.
Most people who said they voted to defund the library Tuesday, said they didn’t believe it would close.
But without tax funds, the library doesn’t bring in enough in grants, fines and community room rentals to keep its doors open.
With a library closure, that community room where residents voted Tuesday would be unavailable, Walton said, so would the mobile wifi hotspots used by residents who lack wifi in their homes.
“There are community members who sit in the parking lot to use our wifi,” said Marcia Frobish, who serves on the library board. “The library is a lot more than books.”
The library has 67,000 books, videos and other items in its collection, of which about 90 have an LGBTQ theme, library officials said.
Ensing, who helped organize the no campaign, said she hoped the millage rejection would be a “wake-up call” that would encourage library officials to remove books from shelves that community members find objectionable.
If that’s done, “they can ask for a millage again,” she said.
But Walton didn’t appear ready to compromise Tuesday. He said he didn’t believe the library needed a wake-up call and shouldn’t remove books.
“A wake-up call to what? To take LGBTQ books off the shelf and then they will give us money? What do you call that? Ransom?
“We stand behind the fact that our community is made up of a very diverse group of individuals, and we as a library cater to the diversity of our community,” he said.
Walton could not be reached Wednesday.
Mikula of the library association said the Patmos Library could still get a millage on the November ballot, if ballot language is given to the Ottawa County clerk’s office by Aug. 16.
But after having just lost by 25 points, turning around public sentiment in less than three months might be difficult without concessions by the library, which Mikula said is difficult because public libraries must follow its “collection development policies. If patrons have challenged (books) and the library board has made a decision to keep them, then … the First Amendment protects the process.”
It’s a difficult position for the library, Mikula acknowledged. “It's hard to look at being threatened with the closure of your library because they won’t remove LGBT materials.”
Frobish, the board member, said she doesn’t want to remove materials from the library, but didn’t know what the board would do. “We’re in uncharted territory,” she said.
A millage ballot effort in 2023 would be difficult because there are no elections scheduled for that year, which would force the library to pick up the cost of holding a millage vote, Mikula said.
The library board will talk about its financial outlook at its next meeting on Monday.
“I love my country, and I believe what is happening is going against the First Amendment,” said Lawrence, the former director. “The people who need the library the most can’t vote because they are children.”
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