Crawford County officials, residents debate LGBTQ books in library children's section
Last year, a display of LGBTQ-themed books appeared at the Crawford County Library System Main Library in Van Buren.
Not long after, a group called the River Valley City Elders called on members to join together and speak against the display at a county quorum court meeting. Their newsletter called them “radical sexual ideological picture books,” saying they could prematurely sexualize children.
The night of the meeting, group member Dr. Jeff Hamby spoke out against books acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people, including titles like “Bye Bye, Binary" and "Uncle Bobby’s Wedding."
“Is teaching a child that they may be queer or homosexual or a drag queen the best use of our limited tax resources? And not just to have these LGBTQ children's books in our county-funded library, but to proudly display them during queer history month," he said. "Every child that enters and sees that display must think this behavior is approved and accepted by society.”
Hamby’s wife Tammi had previously written to the quorum court in November, saying parents should have more control over books in the library which she said equated LGBTQ lifestyles with heterosexual ones. Now, Tammi Hamby leads the board of the Crawford County Library System.
Then-Library Director Deidre Gryzmala presented a compromise at a January meeting, Hamby’s first as chair. Gryzmala created an age-restricted “social section” in the library, comprised of about 240 books with topics ranging from sex education and transgender kids to death, divorce and world religions.
“They are a separated collection in the catalog,” she told board members. “They were moved to the adult section. And if there are any books we missed, just alert the staff and we can get them switched over.”
Gryzmala said in purchasing books for the library, she looks at sources like the Library of Congress, The New York Times and lists of award winners.
Board member Kaelin Schaper said those metrics weren't enough, and that Crawford County should have more control over collection development.
“At the end of the day, all of these people that are saying ‘Hey, this is a good book,’ that's not Crawford County.”
In response, a group of advocates began speaking out against the new policies in library board meetings. Sarah Ramirez makes TikTok videos poking fun at chair Tammi Hamby and the other board members, some of which have millions of views.
At a meeting at a Fort Smith bakery with other friends who opposed the book relocation policies, she described the exasperation she felt when using the social section.
“Even if you are just standing in front of that shelf people are going to know, 'Oh, that’s a liberal,'” she said.
At the Crawford County Library's branches, a child must be 11 to be in the library without an adult, and 18 to get their own library card. Under a new Arkansas law, parents will now be able to see their children's book checkout history.
Before a board meeting in February, Library Director Deidre Gryzmala resigned with a more than $40,000 severance package. She was replaced by Eva White, the system's former director, on a temporary basis.
Throughout the spring, library board meetings featured several specific book challenges. In March, Crawford County resident Rebecka Virden challenged a book called “My Family, Your Family” in an attempt to get it put back in the general children's collection.
“It goes through all types of families a person could encounter, be they traditional, same-sex, single families, large families, small families, mixed race," she said. "And the thing that makes them families is love.”
One page of the book has the words “his family” and “her family” alongside illustrations of a child standing next to two women or two men. The book was successfully relocated, but board member Kaelin Schaper explained his reasons for voting to keep it in a separate section.
“It's defining family for young children as potentially homosexual families,” he said.
Virden is a plaintiff in an upcoming lawsuit challenging the book relocation policies at the Crawford County Library. The lawsuit is being headed by attorney Brian Meadors, who successfully sued the nearby Cedarville School District which had removed Harry Potter books from their shelves. In court, Meadors says he plans to argue removing the books violated students' First Amendment right to access information.
“It is not the librarian's job to filter particular kinds of information to children,” he said. “It’s the librarian's job to make available to the children a wide range of literature, as long as it is age-appropriate.”
Lawsuit plaintiff Samantha Rowlett successfully used one of her challenges to get a book called “Llama Glamarama” put back with the other children's books.
“As time goes on, he has a big secret,” Rowlett said, referring to the titular llama, Larry. “His secret is that he likes to dance. He keeps it a secret because he is afraid of what others might think.”
Board member Amanda Stevens explained why she voted against relocating the book, saying it was about “social justice.”
“As an adult reading that book, I know what that book is trying to push,” she said. “And you're right, you have the freedom to let your child read that book if you want to.”
One of the books relocated and named in the lawsuit is a children’s picture book called “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding.” The book is about a niece who attends the wedding of her two gay uncles. Attorney for the plaintiffs Brian Meadors says the book is age-appropriate, and wouldn’t be contentious if it featured a heterosexual wedding.
“Where the conflation of age-appropriate and harmful to children comes in is when people say, 'I disagree with these two particular people being in love, so I am going to stop the child from getting that.' And that's a content restriction,” he said.
Challenges at the library continued through May, with plaintiff Rebecka Virden speaking out on a book called “Like Me” about a child with a physical disability. She argued it shouldn’t be kept out of the children’s section.
“Because we don’t want our kids to know about other kids that have disabilities? That's shameful," she said. "If that's who we are as a community, that's shameful.”
Board Chair Tammi Hamby then interrupted Virden, asking fellow board members for a motion to adjourn.
Before stepping down due to a conflict of interest, Crawford County had been represented by Gentry Wahlmeier, who declined an interview request.
In an email to Meadors, Wahlmeier said state lawmakers will have to look at a “balancing test” between protecting children and freedom of speech.