BOISE – In Idaho, political leaders and activists in recent years have pushed for restrictions on library books, citing images of nudity and descriptions of sex acts as content considered harmful to minors. But complaints from public library patrons reveal another motivation behind the push to restrict books.
Treasure Valley residents in roughly the past year have asked their public libraries to remove, or restrict access to, books for a variety of reasons, including nudity, bestiality and themes considered “anti-police.” A common reason, though, was to shield children from books that mention diverse forms of sexuality, gender and identity, according to the complaints, which the Statesman obtained through public records requests.
Gina Nuzum, a mother of five from Meridian, last year asked the Meridian Library District to remove from the children’s section a book called “My Body is Growing” because it promotes what she called a gay and lesbian “agenda.”
“They really want to normalize that, and I am not on board,” Nuzum said by phone. “This type of content really needs to be, absolutely, labeled and sectioned and not just available for all kids. We’re protecting their innocence. We’re protecting moral values.”
Cole LeFavour, Idaho’s first openly gay lawmaker who previously served in both the House and Senate, rebuked the notion that libraries should restrict material based on an individual’s beliefs about LGBTQ+ lifestyles.
“Libraries struggle with all kinds of people objecting to material for all kinds of reasons,” LeFavour said . “To maintain access for everybody, they’ve had very strong policies and practices around the material in the library and defend people’s right to read books that they want to read.”
Patrons file complaints over LGBTQ+ books
Public libraries in Meridian, Nampa, Caldwell and Ada County received a dozen book reconsideration requests from July 2022 to July 2023. The requests asked library officials to consider removing or relocating material in their collections.
Half of the complaints mentioned objections to LGBTQ+ content in children’s books. A Caldwell resident, for example, asked the library there to remove three books – “Sex is a Funny Word,” “It’s Perfectly Normal” and “Puberty is Gross But Also Really Awesome” – in part because they “normalize” gay, lesbian and transgender lifestyles.
All three books remain in circulation at the Caldwell Public Library. In Meridian, on the other hand, library officials took action on three of eight books that attracted complaints.
Meridian Library District patron Riqui Peterson also filed a complaint about “Sex is a Funny Word” as well as “Flamer” and “Wait, What?” The latter “covers essential topics for preteens and young teens about their changing bodies and feelings,” according to a description on Amazon.
Peterson complained that the book includes depictions of masturbation and doesn’t include distinct definitions for men or women.
“I believe that there is potential for confusion and introducing topics that young audiences aren’t ready for,” Peterson wrote. Peterson did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Nick Grove, director of the Meridian Library District, said library officials “found no merit” in Peterson’s argument to remove “Wait, What?” or “Flamer,” a book about a boy with romantic feelings for another boy at his summer camp.
“The work is intended for a teen audience and is based off the author’s real life experience struggling with sexuality and acceptance as a teenager,” Grove said by email.
Library officials agreed to relocate “Sex is a Funny Word,” from the children’s section to the parent and teacher section, “which we felt was an appropriate compromise,” Grove said. They also removed “My Body is Growing,” but not to appease Nuzum’s objections to the book’s LGBTQ+ content.
“We did not take any of those comments into consideration when reviewing the material,” Grove said of the book, which is an English translation of a German work. “It was verbose and overly complicated for the 4- to 8-year-old audience it was written for. We removed the book from our collection because of multiple grammatical errors and overall layout.”
Politics drives fear of trans people, former lawmaker says
Nuzum said she’s not opposed to parents who want to expose their children to LGBTQ+ content being able to access it. But she wants the library “to be a safe place” where material is “properly labeled” as containing that kind of content.
“Not that we’re allergic, but if you’re allergic to something, you want that on the label, right?” Nuzum said. “You need to know that’s in there, and similar story with books, especially when books have such an influence on a child’s mind.”
LeFavour, who is gender nonconforming and uses they/them pronouns, said negative perceptions of gay and transgender people are especially harmful for young people, who often are silent about their identity. LeFavour blames politicians for driving those negative perceptions.
Just this year, the Republican-dominated Idaho Legislature passed laws banning gender-affirming care for transgender minors and barring transgender students from using restrooms that align with their gender identities. Another bill, which Idaho Gov. Brad Little vetoed, would have created civil penalties for librarians who allow minors to access “harmful” material.
By definition, “harmful” included depictions of homosexuality.
“Some kinds of politicians feel they need to have someone to scare their voters about, someone to say they’re going to save their voters from, and I’ve seen that come around again and again,” LeFavour said. “At one point, most people didn’t realize they knew gay people, and it was easy to say that about gay people. Now the focus is probably more on transgender people because not everybody knows that they know a transgender person.”
As for attempts to censor library material, LeFavour said, public policies should maintain access to books that reflect a range of values and beliefs.
“The beauty of libraries is that a person doesn’t have to check out a book if they don’t want to, they don’t have to let their children check out books if they don’t want to,” they said.