by Romy Ellenbogen Tampa Bay Times
The yearly LGBTQ Pride Month display in the Citrus County library went largely unnoticed until 2021.
But last year, the small array of LGBTQ-themed books surrounded by rainbow hearts and signs saying “love is love” became a point of contention that has expanded into a larger partisan battle, pushed by the fringes of the conservative movement, over censorship and children’s education.
Last month, the library’s advisory board was inundated with candidates trying to replace five of the nine sitting board members. It was the first time the board had seen such massive interest, with some candidates applying under the incorrect presumption that the board controls the content on the library shelves.
While none of the more than three dozen challengers were appointed, the surge of interest echoes a nationwide trend of previously uncontroversial boards becoming targets for conservative activists. They have directed focus on nonpartisan school boards, government advisory boards and other small elected offices amid concerns over “gender ideology” and the rights of parents.
That push for control has spread to libraries and the books they hold.
“Libraries are not for promotion of political or sexual agendas,” said Margaret Hampton, one of the residents who tried to get a seat on the advisory board. “They are publicly funded and they’re for educational purposes.”
Support for LGBTQ people has grown over the past decade in America, and many people believe that LGBTQ people deserve a legal right to marry, receive equal job opportunities and adopt children. Those ideas are favored by about 70 percent or more of the population, according to Gallup polling.
Hampton, a writer who has lived in Citrus for more than two decades, said while she said she hadn’t read the books included in the local Pride display, she worried that children could be “indoctrinated.”
Though the display hadn’t been for children in the children’s section, she said by having the display out at all, children could see it.
Neighbor against neighbor
Last summer, the Pride display caught the eye of a new resident named John Labriola.
Months earlier, Labriola had been fired from his job in Miami-Dade County government for writing an inflammatory piece that referred to the “abominations” of gay marriage and “transgenderism.” He declined to attend anti-discrimination training, according to the Miami Herald.
When he saw the shelves, he told county officials any display on homosexuality or transgender identity should focus on “the dangers of those lifestyles” — an increasingly scarce opinion among Americans as they support equal rights for gay people, such as same-sex marriage, in overwhelming numbers.
Labriola worked to mobilize residents, putting out petitions and writing blog posts on his page, the Citrus Crusader.
At a recent county commission meeting, Labriola said he was a representative of MassResistance, recognized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
Despite comments from library director Eric Head that the library wanted to represent the diverse community — and promises that the library wouldn’t set up a Pride display this year during a “cooling off period” — Labriola and others set their sights on the library advisory board.
Some opponents of the display took issue with Republican county commissioners who voted to keep the existing members.
Commissioner Holly Davis, a Republican, faced accusations of being a leftist — a jab she said misrepresents the issue.
“We have a candle,” Davis said to the crowd gathered. “We have this tiny little flickering candle in our library system for the folks who are LGBTQ in this community. You called a five-alarm fire.”
After the head of the county Chamber of Commerce, Josh Wooten, also a Republican, said at a county commission meeting that the issue was being overblown, some community members suggested a boycott of the Chamber and affiliated businesses.
In Citrus, as across the country, conservatives unwilling to adopt their party’s more fringe elements are increasingly having their Republican credentials called into question.
This isn’t the first time Citrus’ library has become the center of controversy in this deeply Republican county. In 2019, residents cried out when the library wanted to expand digital access to The New York Times. Residents were outraged at the proposition of supporting “fake news,” and the effort failed.
While the fight over the Pride display predates Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill, nicknamed the “don’t say gay” bill by opponents, those against the display saw the bill as validation.
Labriola alluded to the idea of the library’s material being challenged under the law, though the law only mentions classroom instruction from school personnel and third parties.
“All across the country parents and citizens are mobilizing against the rampant LGBT indoctrination of children,” he said. “And Florida has been leading the way.”
Stephen Russell, a professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin, said “the notion of indoctrination is just not developmentally grounded,” and that gender and sexuality are not acquired by suggestion.
Citrus’ situation isn’t an anomaly — and isn’t new
No one has so far challenged the Citrus library to remove any books from its shelves, said Head, the library director. But communities across Florida and the country have seen a rise in conservatives challenging books in school and now public libraries related to sex, sexuality, gender, examinations of race and other content they see as inappropriate.
“I think library directors around the state are concerned,” Head said.
In Pinellas County, for instance, some residents are asking for books with LGBTQ themes to be shelved where children cannot access them on their own.
In 2005, a Pride display in Hillsborough County led to a law banning county government from acknowledging or promoting LGBTQ Pride events. That law was overturned in 2013.
Patrick Sweeney, the political director of library advocacy group EveryLibrary, said the subject matter challenged most in libraries contains LGBTQ themes.
And though such attitudes are not new, the people challenging content have become “more ravenous” in recent years, Sweeney said, attributing some of it to QAnon conspiracy theories.
Remote learning may have opened the window for parents to question their children’s education, said Stacie Brensilver Berman, a professor of social studies at New York University. Now, parents may feel emboldened to push back on what they perceive as inappropriate — with urgency.
For now, the Citrus library board remains the same.
But library board member Neale Brennan doubts the fight is coming to an end — and worries a push for book bans could come next.
“I think they see Citrus County as a vulnerable little place,” she said.
On Labriola’s blog, after the vote, he shared the date of yet another meeting — one where library policies will be reviewed — gearing up residents for yet another board meeting, another fight, one full year after the Pride displays went up and went away.
Correction: This story has been updated to note that John Labriola had written about the “abominations” of gay marriage and “transgenderism.” It has also been updated to reflect that MassResistance goes by one word.