GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — For the last four months, people have been protesting the presence of sexual education and LGBTQ books in the children’s and teen sections of the Campbell County Public Library.
It’s reflective of a larger national trend. Across the country, people have attended public meetings to protest against inappropriate books, critical race theory and mask mandates.
In Campbell County, the movement against the books is being led by the Wyoming chapter of MassResistance, a national group headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts, that prides itself on “pro-family activism.”
The local chapter was formed in July. Since then, the group has worked to get its message out to the community that the library is actively corrupting the youth with its books, the Gillette News Record reports.
“It’s been hard on the library staff,” said library director Terri Lesley. “It’s been a long time, and I’m very proud of them for how well they’re doing, how well they’re holding up. It’s not easy to be in the middle of a big controversy.”
MassResistance’s goal is to protect “the traditional family, school children, and the moral foundation of society.” It believes in marriage between a man and a woman and that people are not born homosexual.
Library board member Charlie Anderson said MassResistance’s message has “hit a nerve that people in our community and other communities respond to.”
“It does feel like this group’s pretty well organized,” Lesley said.
Local resident and MassResistance member Hugh Bennett said the situation at the library “is a symptom” of a much larger problem.
“The rot within our society goes much, much deeper,” he said.
What is MassResistance?
MassResistance was founded in 1995 as Parents’ Rights Coalition. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2004, the group changed its name to the Article 8 Alliance and worked to have the court’s ruling voided and to stop then Gov. Mitt Romney from implementing the ruling.
In 2006, the group adopted the name MassResistance.
According to its website, battles the group is helping fight across the country include drag queen story hours, critical race theory, “graphic sex education” in schools and sex change operations on children.
This summer, MassResistance found its way to Wyoming.
In June, a Facebook post promoting the library’s teen LGBTQ collection was made. This led to residents showing up to the county commission meeting, upset that the library was promoting the LGBTQ lifestyle to young people.
“(It) was just a slap in the face to people who don’t want their children exposed to this nonsense of gender identity,” Bennett said.
If that is where the fire started, then gasoline was poured on the fire when the news came out that a transgender magician, Mikayla Oz, had been scheduled to perform a magic show at the library. She later canceled the performance because of safety concerns.
In response to the library situation, some local residents reached out to MassResistance. Arthur Schaper, organization director of MassResistance, said Campbell County residents contacted the group in the second week of July, and “we helped them organize and grow.”
Since then, the group has been “very robust,” Schaper said, with 150 members and counting.
They were out at the Campbell County Fair this summer. In September, the chapter bought a dozen billboards in Gillette, warning about “inappropriate youth books” and “LGBT indoctrination” at the library.
Local members of MassResistance have been showing up to county commission meetings and library board meetings for the past four months, holding up signs and making public comment. They’ve called for library director Terri Lesley to resign or be fired, and for the library board to step down or be removed by the commissioners.
It has led to the county commission not accepting any public comment at its meetings. And the library board, which has historically conducted its meetings with little to no audience, now meets in front of packed rooms.
Schaper said MassResistance is different from most conservative organizations in its approach. Many groups talk about the decline of morals and constitutional liberties, but they don’t organize and take action, Schaper said. As a result, nothing changes.
MassResistance goes beyond just informing the public, Schaper said.
“We’re committed to stopping it, to doing more than showing up and expressing our disapproval. We want this thing to stop,” he said.
MassResistance is “confrontational” and “in your face,” and it gets results, Schaper said. Examples of the results include getting sexual education curricula removed from school districts and getting school board members off their boards.
“There is something seriously wrong with any group of people that wants to say that type of material is appropriate,” Schaper said. “We’re not hateful, it’s about protecting children.”
Bennett said he and other MassResistance members have been called haters and bigots, two names that they take offense to. Bennett said their mission is not one of hate, but “to protect children from being recruited and sexualized at an early age.”
A national movement
It’s part of a broader movement across the country, where people are speaking up about certain books in school libraries and public libraries. It started with parents and has made its way to the levels of state government.
One of the highest profile cases took place in Fairfax County, Virginia, where a mother confronted her local school board over two books, “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” that were in the school’s library. Those two books were taken off the shelves.
In September, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 60% more challenges than in September of 2020. Situations similar to the one in Campbell County have been going on in Missouri, Ohio, Utah, Kansas, Iowa and Maine, just to name a few.
The ALA wrote in a blog post that these protesters tend to follow a specific blueprint. They “launched their challenges by ambushing board meetings” and reading “provocative excerpts … to fire up followers, foment fear … and generate viral clicks.”
In some states, the fight has made its way to the governor’s office.
In early November, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott wrote a letter to the executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards, saying parents have the right to shield their children from obscene content in schools and that public schools shouldn’t have “pornographic or obscene material.”
On Wednesday, Abbott wrote another letter, directing the Texas Education Agency to “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography” to minors and to refer cases for prosecution.
Also on Wednesday, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster asked his state’s Department of Education to investigate possible obscene and pornographic material in schools after parents filed a petition to remove an LGBTQ graphic novel, “Gender Queer,” from a school library for depicting sexually explicit material.
“If school personnel had performed even a cursory review in this particular instance, it would have revealed that the book contains sexually explicit and pornographic depictions, which easily meet or exceed the statutory definition of obscenity,” he wrote in a letter.
Law enforcement has gotten involved locally. In October, Hugh Bennett and his wife Susan filed a criminal complaint with the Sheriff’s Office, alleging the library director and library board were committing a crime by distributing obscene material.
It was forwarded to the Campbell County Attorney’s Office, which assigned it to Weston County Attorney Michael Stulken. Stulken ultimately decided not to pursue criminal charges against the library.
“My office’s position is that the State of Wyoming could not meet its burden based upon this statute,” Stulken wrote in a letter explaining his decision. “As a matter of fact, reviewing the statute as a whole, the State of Wyoming may not have even probable cause to institute criminal proceedings under this statute.”
A post to MassResistance’s website called Stulken’s decision “disappointing” and said his was delivered in a “rambling, somewhat incoherent letter.”
“Obviously, this is disappointing and outrageous but unfortunately not surprising, given the horrible RINOS and leftists who are running things even in Wyoming,” the post reads. “Our activists see this as just a speed bump. The Wyoming MassResistance parents in Campbell County are moving forward in this battle!”
Hugh Bennett said he doesn’t believe Stulken put much effort into the case.
“It seemed to me like he spent most of his time figuring out how not to prosecute,” he said. “From his statement, it’s clear he did nothing to pursue the case.”
Where is this coming from?
Lesley said she’s not sure why people across the country are all of a sudden so energized against the contents of libraries and schools.
“I know that sometimes things just start taking hold, and it becomes a movement, and other people start jumping on board,” Lesley said. “But why? I really don’t know.”
Schaper said he’s worked with activists around the country, and he believes there’s a clear reason for this wave.
“The level of awareness has grown exponentially because of the classroom being brought back to the home,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the schools, and with children having to do their schoolwork remotely from home, “parents were finally able to see with their own eyes what their kids were learning,” Schaper said.
“I think it directly ties to the politics of the stolen election,” Bennett said, referring to the 2020 presidential election that many Republicans believe was won by Donald Trump despite overwhelming proof to the contrary. “People are so frustrated, and they’re looking at their elected leaders and finding them to be less than expected in almost every way.”
Anderson said he thinks people are speaking out because they miss how things used to be.
“I really think it’s because they’re dissatisfied with social change,” he said.
The country has made a lot of progress in terms of civil rights, women’s rights and minorities’ rights in the last 50 years, he said.
“We’re evolving into a far more open society, and with much more freedom and less restrictions,” he said. “This makes some people very, very uncomfortable.”
In Campbell County, 55 formal challenges have been submitted by 17 different people, covering 29 unique books, Lesley said.
Library staff have reviewed 18 of those books and decided to move two of them. “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe, and “A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex and Disability,” by A. Andrews, have been moved from the teen section into the adult graphic novel section.
“This Book Is Gay,” by Juno Dawson, had been challenged by several people, including some county commissioners, for its description of sexual acts and its presence in the teen section.
The library staff decided the book should remain in the teen section, and Commissioner Colleen Faber appealed the decision before the library board. The board voted to keep the book on the teen shelf.
“Moving it, for all practical purposes, is another form of censorship, because it puts it in a place where it won’t be found,” Lesley said.
Four more books will be appealed at the library board’s November meeting, and Lesley said another three are on the docket for December’s meeting.
Historically, Campbell County has leaned heavily Republican, a fact not lost on the MassResistance folks who have pointed out Trump’s margin of victory in the county as a way to show the community, as a whole, is on their side.
Lesley believes the opposite is true.
“It’s a small group of people who are energetic and louder than everybody else,” Lesley said.
Bennett disagrees. He said the people who have been showing up to meetings in support of keeping the library books on the shelves are “a very, very small weak percentage who’s managed to scream at the top of their lungs and get attention.”
“We’ve seen at the meetings, when they try to organize enough people to make it seem like everybody is queer or homosexual or transgender or lesbian or whatever else craziness they’ve cooked up in the last two or three years, they’re so dramatic,” he said.
He estimated this group makes up 5% of the community, while “the other 95% think there’s a difference between boys and girls, and that society should have families.”
Lesley said the situation has been hard on her staff.
“It’s not easy to be in the middle of a big controversy, and I think that the librarians are used to being well loved in the community, so having some people out there that are mad has been hard,” she said.
Anderson, who has lived in Gillette for almost 50 years, has seen his fair share of public outcry and uproar and residents who felt strongly about certain issues. But this library deal is unprecedented.
“Just the unrelenting presence and anger that people are showing is kind of a new thing,” he said. “The intensity of the anger is really surprising to me.”
Anderson said he believes the group has had a “shift in messaging” over time, and Lesley agreed, saying the message has “evolved” from removing the books completely to moving them to a different section of the library. They’re not sure what the reason was for the change.
“I don’t know, maybe they thought they would be more successful right off the bat,” Anderson said.
Bennett said it’s inaccurate to say this debate is going on between one side who loves the library and one side who hates the library.
“We have an excellent library,” Bennett said. “But it’s got a little bit of rot in its administration, and our elected leaders seem incapable and incompetent to enforce the mores and the morals of a vast majority of our community.”
Anderson said he’s been called names, and Lesley said she and some of her staff have received angry emails and letters, some from out of state.
“To see the library attacked like this, to see the commissioners attacked like this, is really sad,” Anderson said. “It’s like they don’t see the good things this community has been able to create over the years.”
Lesley said she’s also received a lot of support, which has helped balance out the calls for her resignation.
“I get the fact that these people have very strongly held beliefs, and I get the impression that their beliefs have no compromise in them,” Anderson said. “We’ll have to see how that plays out.”
The group shows no signs of slowing down. Instead, it’s spreading.
Schaper said there are MassResistance activists in Rhode Island who want to file a criminal complaint using the Bennetts’ approach as a blueprint. And residents in Laramie County have reached out to Schaper about starting a chapter of MassResistance there.
America is engaged in a culture war, Schaper said, and it’s people like Lesley and the library board who are the enemy. This year was the tipping point for a lot of people nationwide, Bennett said.
“I believe it’s the beginning of a pushback that will not end for years,” he said.
Anderson said this pushback is a result of people feeling that their way of life is being threatened, and they won’t go down without a fight.
“They’re striking out,” he said. “They feel like they’ve been pushed into a corner and they don’t like the way the world is going.”