Opinion: Campbell County officials abet bullies in battle of radicals v. librarians

A protester holds a sign on the front lawn of the Campbell County Library on July 14, 2021. The group of two-dozen protestors were gathered to object to the library’s promotion of LGBTQ content in the library’s collection. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile

Opinion by Kerry Drake, WyoFile

Bullies trying to ban books at the Campbell County Public Library are grabbing all the headlines, but only because authorities are taking their hysterical rants seriously.

This high-profile conflict is about as uncivil as it gets. The Gillette protesters aren’t content to force their beliefs on their neighbors by pulling five books from the shelves — titles designed to answer young adults’ questions about sex and sexuality. No, they also want to throw librarians in jail for violating the state’s child-sex laws.

Unconscionably, law enforcement hasn’t yet laughed them out of the room. When parents went to the sheriff’s department with their complaints instead of the library board, the case was referred to County Attorney Mitchell Damsky. He called the books in question “inappropriate for children and disgusting.”

With the approval of the Campbell County Commissioners, Damsky has asked a special prosecutor to decide if criminal charges are warranted.

I fear that if the special prosecutor fails to find a violation of Wyoming law, the puritanical mob will simply declare the book lenders witches and demand they be burned at the stake.

Or, better yet, why not just ban reading and education outright? That’s worked well enough for religious extremists in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Perhaps they could make Campbell County their own little Republic of Gilead.

More than any other member, Commissioner Del Shelstad has fanned the flames of this controversy by threatening to not only cut funding for the library, but close it.

How did this situation spin so out of control? It started, innocently enough, in June when the library displayed several books for “Pride Month,” a national celebration and show of support for the LGBTQ community.

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County commissioners spent an hour at their July 7 meeting listening to several people condemn the library for supposedly promoting pedophilia and smut, along with a host of other sins.

“What you’re looking at right here is the promotion of immorality and perversion,” said protester Hugh Bennett. “This is an assault on our morals, our ethics, our heritage and our belief in God.”

“Animals have sex. And that’s what we’re teaching our teenagers to do,” said Scott Clem, pastor of the Central Baptist Church and former Republican member of the Wyoming House. “We’re promoting the basest of base things in our society and marketing that to our children.”

Susan Sisti, pastor of the Open Door Church, was fired up about the Pride Month display but objected to many other things at the library. She railed against books that depict witchcraft and evil grandmothers, plus a Black Lives Matter section she claimed is “Marxist in nature.”

“I’ve never seen anything darker. If I were Satan, I would stack it with the books that are in [the teen room],” she said.

The dust might well have settled after this homophobic skirmish — at least until next year’s Pride Month — but Clem took to Facebook when he learned that a magic show the library planned to sponsor featured a transgender entertainer.

Soon messages flew back and forth demanding that the show be canceled. One of the people who responded was Shelstad. “Do we want this garbage in a county library? No!” the commissioner wrote. “How do we handle it from here? The Commissioners tell the appointed library board to cease this kind of support for any group. Period. Not the Governments [sic] place.”

The good news is neither the board nor Library Director Terri Lesley are backing down in the face of such ridiculous tactics. – Kerry Drake

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Protesters erroneously claimed the show was “highly sexually explicit” and even called the magician, Mikayla Oz, a pedophile who is “coming for our children.”

Change LGBTQ to Black, and that hateful screed would be nearly indistinguishable from former Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor’s scare tactics circa 1963.

In reality, Oz’s shows make no mention of her gender identity. The magician, who has performed hundreds of shows for family audiences throughout the Midwest, said she received several threats. So did the library’s staff.

For the first time in her career, Oz cancelled. “The biggest thing for me is that I don’t want any kid in Gillette, Wyoming, to ever feel like they don’t have a safe place to talk about issues they might be having in their own life,” she told Pink News. “… If there is a kid like that, maybe show them who they can talk to, and who maybe they can’t talk to.”

Commissioner Rusty Bell lamented how the ugly incident deprived the community of the diversity it desperately needs. “I think it’s an embarrassment that somebody should be intimidated or threatened to not come to our community,” he told WyoFile.

With one notch on their collective belt for scuttling the magic show, protesters were emboldened to keep going after the library. On the heels of “Banned Books Week,” 35 complaints were filed against 18 books in the 188,000-volume collection.

The five that Hugh and Susan Bennett took to the sheriff’s department were titled “This Book Is Gay,” “How Do You Make a Baby,” “Doing It,” “Sex Is a Funny Word” and “Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy.”

Hugh Bennett called the quintet “hard-core pornography to children” and said carrying the books was “felony behavior.” At a recent library board meeting he told members, “You’re fighting a losing battle and the longer you resist, the worse it’s gonna be.”

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“There’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room and it’s called socialism,” Ed Sisti, a Gillette pastor, told the library trustees. “It’s everywhere, and it’s in our library. It’s seeking to divide families. That’s been an old Nazi tactic for a long time.”

If there is an immense ape lurking about Gillette that’s prone to Nazi-like behavior, it believes in facism, not socialism. If the good Pastor Sisti wants to learn the difference, I suggest he visit his local library. (Spoiler alert, the Nazis were the ones burning books.)

The commissioners recently announced on Facebook that they will no longer hear public comments about the library. They may finally be weary of listening to absurd claims about pedophiles and Satan worshipping, but they should have shut down the outrageous threats to the library staff’s employment and freedom much earlier. The damage has already been inflicted.

The good news is neither the board nor Library Director Terri Lesley are backing down in the face of such ridiculous tactics. She reminded the public that the library is a “neutral place” with a mission “to provide diverse cultural opportunities for reading, learning and entertainment to all citizens of our community.”

Danika Ellis, a writer who is covering the Wyoming controversy for the website BookRiot.com, noted a silver lining she sees for Campbell County.

“The fact that they have received such intense backlash proves how vital these resources are: kids need to be able to access resources that can answer their questions about sex, puberty and growing up,” Ellis wrote. “Without age-appropriate books on hand, they’ll likely turn to Google, which has less accurate and less age-appropriate answers.”

That thought isn’t lost on County Attorney Damsky. “What 9-year-old kid today can’t access Pornhub or whatever they want, know what I mean?” he told the Gillette News-Record.

While I don’t expect any charges to be filed, those who have tried to intimidate library officials and the LGBTQ community will keep howling. It is a group united in self-righteous anger and the fear that the world is changing and they are losing control. Who better to bully than the purveyors of knowledge?

I’m sure the protesters believe they’ve made it harder for the library to put up future “Pride Month” displays, book LGBTQ performers or stock other sex education titles for teen readers.

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On the contrary, the staff and trustees of the Campbell County Public Library are likely more committed than ever to providing services to the entire community, not just a fringe group of extreme-right activists.

Parents have the right to decide what material is appropriate for their child. But no one has the right to make that decision for every other family. If these zealots are allowed to censor librarians and determine what information people can access in Gillette, rest assured their dangerous crusade won’t stop at the Campbell County line.

 

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.