The Real Reason North Dakota Is Going After Books and Librarians
By Taylor Brorby, author of
“Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land”
Last fall, I was the keynote speaker at the North Dakota Library Association’s annual conference. The theme was “Libraries: The Place For Everyone.” There were rainbow flags, paper-link chains and multicolor glitter scattered across tables. It was the safest I have ever felt back home as an out, gay man. When I was a young person, libraries were where I went to find stories that made me feel I could fit in, not only in North Dakota, but in the wider world. But two pieces of legislation that may soon be signed into law in North Dakota would make it possible to restrict libraries and, in some cases, to imprison librarians.
House Bill 1205 would prohibit public libraries from keeping and lending “books that contain explicit sexual material.” The bill’s definition of explicit material could include “pictorial, three-dimensional, or visual” depictions of anything from sex scenes in movies to educational materials meant to teach teenagers about puberty. As the bill states, libraries have until Jan. 1, 2024 to create a procedure “for the development of a book collection that is appropriate for the age and maturity levels of the individuals who may access the materials, and which is suitable for, and consistent with, the purpose of the library.” Currently, the bill contains no explanation of what “the purpose of the library” means or how to determine “appropriate” age and maturity.
The more far-reaching Senate Bill 2360 prohibits organizations open to minors from displaying “objectionable materials,” whether image or text, including visuals or descriptions of “nude or partially denuded human figures posed or presented in a manner to exploit sex, lust or perversion.” The bill defines “nude or partially denuded human figures” as “less than completely and opaquely covered human genitals, pubic regions, female breasts or a female breast, if the breast or breasts are exposed below a point immediately above the top of the areola, or human buttocks; and includes human male genitals in a discernibly turgid state even if completely and opaquely covered.”
By that definition, a photograph or even a written description of the Venus de Milo could — depending on the eye of the beholder — be out of bounds. It’s not just a matter of interpretation, though: Senate Bill 2360 would make it possible to charge offending librarians with a class B misdemeanor, punishable with up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $1,500.
With these bills, North Dakota stands to become a model for other towns, cities and states to censor not only their libraries, but also their citizens.
Growing up in the closet in North Dakota in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I found sanctuary in libraries that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I ate breakfast every morning in Bismarck High School, combing the stacks and reading books by authors like James Baldwin, Truman Capote and Willa Cather. When some of the school’s football players circulated a petition to have the one openly gay boy in my class change in the girls’ locker room, I went deeper into the library shelves, tried to keep quiet and hide who I was.
The summer after graduating from college, when I was outed by my aunt, and my home was no longer a safe space, I searched the stacks of the Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library for stories of gay people disowned by family members to help me find my own way to stable ground. During those evenings, I would settle into a plush armchair with a pile of books and magazines and read. I read authors like Kent Haruf and Amy Tan and Mary Karr. I would listen to classical music CDs to try and calm myself. I was free to roam, peruse, and free to be myself, at least privately.
North Dakota is a part of a growing national trend. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 of last year, the American Library Association recorded 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources. There were 1,651 book titles targeted, up from 1,597 in 2021. According to PEN America, 41 percent of books banned throughout the 2021-22 school year contained L.G.B.T.Q. themes, protagonists or prominent secondary characters. Bills similar to North Dakota’s have also been introduced or passed into law in states like West Virginia, Texas, Mississippi, Montana, Iowa, Wyoming, Missouri and Indiana.
Under Missouri’s new law banning the provision of “explicit sexual material” to students, school districts removed works about Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo; comics, such as “Batman” and “X-Men”; visual depictions of Shakespeare’s works; and “Maus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust.
But let’s be honest: It’s not the Venus de Milo these laws are going to come for first. It’s books with L.G.B.T.Q. stories, or books by L.G.B.T.Q. authors — the kind of books that have provided so many queer young people with a lifeline when they needed it most. I don’t know where I would have ended up if I couldn’t read my way out of despair. My heart breaks to think of all the kids now who won’t have that option.
Libraries should be places where everyone is welcomed, no matter who they are, and where everyone can find themselves reflected in the stories on the shelves. Laws like these make that a lot less likely.
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Jana Cunningham, University of Utah College of Humanities
firstname.lastname@example.org | 801-213-0866
Missy Weeks, Tanner Humanities Center
Published February 24, 2023