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Michigan town library defunded over LGBTQ books loses vote again, may close

library sign
The public library in Jamestown Township was defunded for a second time Tuesday by residents unhappy with LGBTQ-themed books on the young adults shelves. (Bridge photo by Ron French)
  • Residents angry at LGBTQ-themed books voted to defund a west Michigan library on Tuesday 
  • Private donations helped keep the  library doors open when it was defunded for the first time last summer
  • Public and school libraries around Michigan are receiving criticism for including books that conservatives charge ‘groom’ children

Nov. 30: After LGBT book spat, Michigan family gives $100K to library they haven’t seen

A small-town library in west Michigan that drew national attention when it was defunded in a fight over LGBTQ-themed books has lost a second attempt at public funding Tuesday.

Library officials said they are now left to contemplate when they would have to close its doors.

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An operating millage for the Patmos Library, in Ottawa County’s Jamestown Township, failed Tuesday by a vote of 56 percent to 44 percent. The loss guts the finances of the library, which relies on taxpayer funds for 85 percent of its budget.

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Library Board President Larry Walton told Bridge Michigan last week that if the millage vote failed, the library would likely have to immediately shrink its hours of operation. Even with cost-saving measures, the library will run out of money and will close by the fall of 2024.

Walton could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.

The fight in Jamestown Township is similar to protests this fall at some other Michigan public and school libraries. High-profile battles have been fought in Iron Mountain and Hillsdale, and recently in Dearborn Public Schools, with conservative parent and political groups expressing disgust that books with LGBTQ themes are allowed to remain on library shelves.

Patmos is believed to be the first Michigan public library to lose taxpayer support because of a controversy about LGBTQ books.

Jamestown Township drew national attention in August when voters  essentially defunded their own library. The focus centered on a handful of graphic novels on the young adult shelves that had LGBTQ themes, including some with descriptions of sexual acts. In that election, voters defeated the library operating millage request, 62 percent to 37 percent.

One of the books, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” is the story of the author’s coming of age as nonbinary, and includes illustrations of sex acts. Several other books targeted by residents, including “Kiss Number 8” and “Spinning,” are stories of teens in same-sex relationships, but do not include illustrations of sex acts.

The library refused to remove the books, but did move “Gender Queer” behind the counter, so patrons would have to request it.

After Bridge Michigan first wrote about the millage rejection, a GoFundMe campaign raised more than $270,000 from donors from as far away as Australia to keep the library open, capped off by romance novelist Nora Roberts donating $50,000. Those one-time donations extended the time the library can stay operating without tax support for about a year, but can’t sustain the library indefinitely, Walton said last week.

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The Patmos Library has a display of books by romance novelist Nora Roberts, who recently donated $50,000 to help keep the doors open. (Bridge photo by Ron French)

A vote yes committee spent more than $12,000 to drum up support for the library, with slick flyers and a Grand Rapids public relations firm coordinating a text message campaign.

Still, the millage vote lost handily on Tuesday, and three library board candidates endorsed by a vote no campaign were elected.

Dean Smith, the chair of the township planning commission and treasurer of the vote no campaign, told Bridge last week he wanted library board members with “a more Judeo-Christian mindset,” and he’d prefer there be no LGBTQ-themed books accessible to children or young adults.

The composition of the library board, which had recently voted to keep the controversial books in its collection, will now be split 3-3 between members who want the books to be available, and members who would like to see them  removed or have access restricted.

Debbie Mikula, executive director of the Michigan Library Association, said Wednesday she was “disheartened” by the vote. “They’re going to have to weigh a lot of options about what is next for them, and that’s up to them locally.”

Walton said the current plan is for the library to try again to win an operating millage in August 2024, just months before Walton said the library is expected to run out of money.

The community of 10,000 is conservative, even for a county that is considered one of the most conservative in Michigan, favoring former President Donald Trump by a margin of 76-21 percent in 2020. 

Some residents express concern that exposure to LGBTQ-themed books, particularly those that are detailed in their descriptions or illustrations of sex acts, could “groom” children to be gay.

Jamestown resident Amanda Ensing, an organizer of a Facebook group fighting against the books, told Bridge in August that library staff “are trying to groom our children to believe that it’s OK to have these sinful desires … It’s not a political issue, it’s a Biblical issue.”

But Salem Sousley, who identified as nonbinary and lives near the library, said it’s important for young people trying to understand their sexuality to see characters in books going through the same struggles.

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“So many kids are struggling in silence, especially in areas like this,” Sousley told Bridge in August. “Having access to resources and materials of people who are sharing your experiences is literally life-saving.”

Patmos Library Director Amber McLain resigned this spring over the demand from some residents to remove books, telling Bridge she had been harassed online and accused of indoctrinating children. Interim director Matthew Lawrence resigned later for similar reasons.

The library is searching for a new director — a search complicated by the library’s uncertain future.

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