ST. TAMMANY PARISH, LA.— The governing board of St. Tammany Parish Library is meeting one August evening in the squint-inducing fluorescence of council chambers. The agenda includes the summer reading program, the latest financial reports, and whether a young adult novel about two teenagers seeking to break a world record for kissing should remain on shelves. There has been a public complaint.
“We’ll move on now to the statement of concern regarding the title Two Boys Kissing,” says Rebecca Taylor, board president of the library, which is in southeastern Louisiana. “As a reminder, your public comment must directly relate to this agenda item.”
Someone asks: “Are we going to become California, where laws are coming into place to legalize pedophilia?”
A self-identified veteran says: “If the book was about two men kissing and featured all adult characters, it would be just as compelling, and I would stand behind it wholeheartedly. But as the book stands, featuring minors and sexual acts, I believe the book should be restricted.”
Another speaker argues: “One can’t judge a whole book by cutting and pasting, and that’s what’s being done with the challenged books.”
The parish has become a flashpoint in the censorship battle sweeping the country. Between August 2022 and this November, 172 titles have been challenged at the library, 160 of them — including Two Boys Kissing—following complaints from local resident Connie Phillips, who claims the books expose children to pornography and pedophilia and confuse readers about gender identity.
“We’re the capital of the United States when it comes to censorship,” says St. Tammany resident Jeremy JF Thompson.
Thompson is the cofounder of Queer Northshore, which started in 2022 as a social group in the Republican-controlled parish. The group’s aim is “building an LGBTQ+ community in a part of Louisiana where there wasn’t one,” according to its website. But after Phillips’ book challenges began later in 2022, Queer Northshore shifted gears. Thompson and others organized the St. Tammany Library Alliance, which now sends a hefty roster of individuals to meetings whenever challenges arise. A half dozen or so people from the group spoke in favor of keeping Two Boys Kissing on the shelf at the August board meeting, according to Kristen Luchsinger, a member of the alliance.
“We’re nice,” says Luchsinger. The group sometimes brings water, ice cream and signs to support the library. And even book banners “get an ice cream.”
But that’s not to say the fight over book bans has been a spunky playground debate grounded in mutual respect and liberal niceties. Someone burned down a “Ban Hate, Not Books” yard sign, Luchsinger says. And Phillips is currently facing misdemeanor battery charges after she allegedly grabbed a library supporter’s phone and warned them not to “fuck with me.”
Phillips did not respond to requests for comment.
“I suspect this is all a reaction to the fact that the United States is becoming less white, less Christian and less straight over time,” says Mel Manuel, Queer Northshore’s other cofounder.
The general debate about banning books is, of course, not new. Titles ranging from James Joyce’s Ulysses to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses have been persistently targeted. And within the past quarter-century, the U.S. religious Right has challenged everything from Harry Potter (portrays witchcraft) to the picture book And Tango Makes Three (depicts penguin homosexuality).
But what is happening now is unique, says Tasslyn Magnusson, coauthor of the PEN America report “Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor,” which documents more than 3,000 book bans in U.S. public school classrooms and libraries during the 2022-23 school year — most of them written by or about women, people of color and LGBTQ authors.
In the past year, right-wing groups began targeting hundreds of books at once — a tactic designed to overwhelm librarians, who must produce reports on each. For each complaint in St. Tammany, library policy has been to pull the book from circulation and refer it to an internal committee for review — a time-consuming process.
“It has now become a full-blown, full-time experience of censorship everywhere,” Magnusson says. “They say their goal is just to get rid of pornographic books, but in no place has it ever stopped there. … Then, there begins to be a dialogue about, ‘Well, what are librarians doing in schools anyways? Why do we have a library?’”
In the whirlwind of book challenges nationwide, St. Tammany stands out for the sheer volume of complaints.
In response, Manuel says, the St. Tammany Library Alliance uses diverse strategies and tactics to challenge the bans. They encourage organizers to research books, create shareable infographics, organize group meetings, reach out to local political leaders, attend meetings and make petitions.
It seems to be paying off. Public comment at library board meetings increasingly tilts in support of the challenged books, and the alliance has helped fight off several proposed bans.
Back at the committee meeting, library director Kelly LaRocca shares the findings of the internal review. Two Boys Kissing, she reports, portrays “the joy and despair of being a teen, especially a gay teen.” Once public comment ends, the board votes to keep the title on the shelf.
About two months later, in October — with 150 challenged books waiting for internal review and limited library capacity to assess them — the St. Tammany Library announced a policy change: It would no longer pull challenged books from circulation while the books await review. That decision effectively thwarts the key right-wing strategy of using cumbersome processes as a backdoor means of banning books. Still, with new challenges surely ahead and book-banning laws continuing to spread nationwide, the alliance knows they’re in for a long fight.
“We are very consciously and meticulously trying to make our community visible, and I think that’s definitely upset some people,” Manuel says. “They want us to be quiet so we can ignore each other, but we’re not going to be quiet.”
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Katie Jane Fernelius is a journalist and radio producer based in New Orleans.