Events in Wasilla, Alaska in late October, 1996 are looking more and more like some things that have gone on in Loudoun County, only the most recent of which was the unsuccessful attempt by anti-gay activists to have the children’s book And Tango Makes Three removed from our public elementary school libraries.
The Reverend Howard Bess, an evangelical Baptist minister in the nearby Alaska town of Palmer, reports that his book Pastor, I am Gay was one of the targets of a campaign by then-Mayor Sarah Palin’s church and other “conservatives.” According to a report by ABC news (video embedded below), “around the time that Palin became Mayor, [her church, the Wasilla Assembly of God] and other conservative Christians began focusing on certain books available in local bookstores and the town library.” It was during this time that Bess was told by the town librarian that “several copies of Pastor, I Am Gay had disappeared from the library shelves” that year.
The widely reported questioning of the Wasilla town librarian by the new Mayor is not in dispute.
According to the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman newspaper, Emmons did not mince words when Palin asked her “how I would deal with her saying a book can’t be in the library” on Oct. 28, 1996, in a week when the mayor had asked department heads for letters of resignation.
“She asked me if I would object to censorship, and I replied ‘Yup’,” Emmons told a reporter. “And I told her it would not be just me. This was a constitutional question, and the American Civil Liberties Union would get involved, too.”
We know from our experiences in Loudoun that perceived attempts to tell people what they may and may not read don’t go over well, not even in unabashedly “conservative” communities. There was an immediate negative response by the Loudoun public to the attempted removal of Tango, and by the Wasilla public to Palin’s firing of the unbending town librarian (she was reinstated the next day).
Earlier censorship attempts in Loudoun – back when our demographics were considerably less diverse and progressive – were met with equally fierce resistance. You can read the entire sordid history of the Dick Black library board (that’s how he got his start in Loudoun politics) – the board’s removal of the American Library Association anti-censorship and Freedom to Read language from library policy, and the subsequent attempt to require content filtering on all public library computers – on the Mainstream Loudoun website. The requirement for content filters on public computers, for both children and adults, was ruled unconstitutional by a federal court and reversed. The filtering software in question, rather than blocking pornographic sites as claimed, blocks access to many medical, informational and advocacy sites – such as this one. Its purpose, as with all censorship, is to deny access to ideas.
There are still a few in the Loudoun community who don’t quite grasp the concept of public schools and public libraries, but they have become far fewer and much more marginalized. In recent iterations, they have tried to advance the silly argument that their tax dollars shouldn’t be used to purchase material with which they disagree. That was the tack used by some in the recent Tango kerfuffle, and was also tried by former Eagle Forum head Lori Waters in her first term as Supervisor. Waters’ initial stated intent was to have the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, at the time still dominated by social “conservatives,” use the mechanism of funding to micromanage the selection process in our public libraries. She suggested at one point that county librarians be required to provide the BoS with a list of proposed acquisitions for approval. After other supervisors and citizens objected to her suggestion that our librarians need to be monitored lest they purchase “obscene” material, her argument shifted; since people were free to purchase “R-rated” materials from private businesses if they wished, it was not necessary for them to be available in our public libraries. But as we see from the targeting of local bookstores by the Wasilla Assembly of God, those who object to “certain” books don’t really care about how those books are funded; they simply want to make them unavailable to anyone, anywhere. Apart from objections to books and other media, we have seen other so-called “decency” campaigns in Loudoun, with groups like “Concerned Women for America” pressuring local businesses to discontinue carrying this or that product that offends them. As I recall, they were last seen picketing Target for displaying some sort of underwear.
Lori Waters’ failed attempt to use executive power to control the contents of our public libraries was essentially the same as Palin’s. Waters can also claim, as does the McCain-Palin campaign, that “no specific books were ever banned.” Waters can also say that her statements and inquiries were only “hypothetical,” and that she, as Supervisor, “has never asked anyone to ban a book, period.” That description of the charge is no more accurate than is the false list of banned books currently circulating on the internet. That false list, along with the carefully chosen words of the campaign statement, are designed to direct attention away from this unfortunate central fact: There are people who find the expression of ideas with which they disagree intolerable, so much so that they will lie, steal, destroy property and abuse whatever power they may have in order to silence those ideas.
Paul Stuart, the reporter for the Frontiersman who covered this story back in 1996 now says the librarian told him that Sarah Palin did ask her to remove specific books: “‘Mary Ellen [Emmons] told me that Palin asked her directly to remove these books from the shelves,’ Stuart said. ‘She refused.'” He also says that one of the books was Pastor, I am Gay. The librarian is refusing to comment, so this claim can’t be corroborated. Sarah Palin insists that her questions were only “rhetorical.” Again, this can’t be corroborated.
UPDATE @8:48PM from the New York Times:
But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.
“Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”
“I’m still proud of Sarah,” she added, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”
The only thing we can say with assurance is this: When librarians say no to book removal, it does indeed render the removal of books hypothetical and rhetorical.
Here’s a brief review of Pastor, I am Gay. Hopefully, the high profile exposure of the attempt to censor it in Wasilla will have the same outcome as did the attempt in Loudoun to remove Tango: Many, many more people will become aware of the book and read it.
A Baptist minister challenges Christian churches to re-examine their ideas and prejudices and to look at gays and lesbians as the human beings they are, as diverse a group as any others. He looks at the scriptures long used to justify the judgment and discrimination the churches use against these people, and then suggest ways in which the church and its members can begin to right some of the wrongs done in its name. This book should be read by all who call themselves Christians.
It’s not hard to understand why the pastor of the Wasilla Assembly of God wanted this particular book done away with; it eliminates his exclusivity claim, that to be “Christian” means to be anti-gay. Conservative Christians who present evidence to the contrary are like kryptonite to these folks. That’s why Loudoun’s little band of censors were so outraged by the student play Offsides; not only was it gay-affirming, but the young playwright conceived it explicitly from a Christian perspective.
In fact, this controversial “pray away the gay” pastor sounds very much like our own authoritarian obsessive Michael Farris did when he was explaining his uncharitable reaction to Soulforce last spring. In a recent sermon reportedly attended by Palin, this pastor (also shown in the video below) says that “homosexuals want the law of the land to justify their sickness” because of a “guilty conscience.” You can certainly see why he and Farris, etc., can’t tolerate actual Christian gay people and their pastors running about, testifying to the opposite. Poor guy. However, I’m looking forward to hearing more about what Sarah Palin thinks about this. Does she share this astonishingly self-centered belief?
Saying that she “doesn’t know” whether people choose to be gay is an answer to this question on par with the statement that no books were actually banned in Wasilla. It’s not good enough.