Madison-area librarians vs. the far right

Despite harassment, Madison-area librarians bring Pride events to LGBTQ+ youth.
Photo of an event at an outdoor shelter where two librarians in rainbow tutus sit at a long table with two drag queens.
At Stoughton Public Library’s “Let’s Talk about Drag” event, librarians Cynthia Schlegel (far left), and Mary Ostrander (far right) speak with Kaprina Mirage (center left), and SunShine Raynebow (center right) about the history of drag in order to dispel right-wing myths about the art. Photo courtesy of Stoughton Public Library.

Despite harassment, Madison-area librarians bring Pride events to LGBTQ+ youth.

This story was produced in partnership with Our Lives, Wisconsin’s source for LGBTQ news.

In June 2023, a pride event for Madison’s LGBTQ+ youth quietly took place at the central branch of the Madison Public Library (MPL). There were over 300 attendees—a huge showing, considering the library did not advertise the event. 

MPL was a promotional partner for the event, but even the event’s organizer, a local program that provides support for queer youth, kept the location secret. Attendees were required to RSVP and received the location via email just a week before the event took place. These precautions were in place to keep attendees and staff safe.   

A year earlier, the same pride event took place at the library successfully and without incident. Afterward, MPL posted photos on its Instagram page showing an event hall packed with attendees, joyful drag performances, and young people making art together. It wasn’t until six months later in December 2022 that far-right trolls flocked to the library’s social media accounts. They made comments that have become all-too familiar in stories of anti-drag and anti-trans harassment: “F c k n groooomers,” “This is child abuse!” and “STOP GROOMING OUR CHILDREN!” 

It turns out that the far-right Twitter account @LibsofTiktok posted a screenshot from MPL’s Instagram account showing two drag queens at the event. The person who runs @LibsofTikTok, Chaya Raichik, is known for targeting librarians who host drag-themed story times and similar events. 

“The majority of the comments that I looked at that were negative came from outside the state, and definitely outside Madison,” says Tana Elias, Digital Services and Marketing Manager at MPL. She says she isn’t sure why Raichik posted about the 2022 event six months after it happened. 

The flood of comments was hurtful and troubling, even if it came from posters outside Wisconsin. When it came time to prepare the 2023 pride event, the library faced a dilemma: how to provide queer-affirming programming while making sure library staff and patrons stay safe. Their solution was to not market the event at all and rely mostly on word-of-mouth. Despite that limitation, Elias says it was one of the biggest events of its kind that the library has hosted. 

Despite Madison’s reputation as a liberal stronghold, libraries in the Madison area have not escaped the wave of anti-drag and anti-LGBTQ+ harassment sweeping the country. Intellectual freedom is a core tenet of the library profession, which can make libraries a target for pushback. Inspired by the young people they serve, librarians are not backing down. 

A first-of-its kind Pride event in Stoughton

Librarians at Stoughton Public Library (SPL) faced a similar dilemma in the spring as they planned SPL’s first-ever pride festival, which took place in June 2023. The event was primarily organized by SPL teen services assistant Cynthia Schlegel and children’s librarian Mary Ostrander. 

“There’s a lot of queer youth that come into the library, and I work with them pretty closely,” Schlegel says. “Listening to their struggles, I’ve been hearing a lot about suicide and self-harm and just really wanted to present something. Our community has never done anything like this before.”  

Schlegel and Ostrander originally planned to include a drag story time at the event, a longtime goal of Ostrander’s. But when they learned a Stoughton bowling alley canceled a drag brunch after receiving pushback, the librarians worried that threats of violence could shut down their own event. 

“[Drag story time] is something that’s been done in a lot of other libraries and other organizations, but it’s also a huge flashpoint,” says Jim Ramsey, SPL director. “People have shown up armed to these events in the past. There have been confrontations and things have gotten really ugly.” 

So, they pivoted. Instead of a drag story time, SPL librarians planned for an informational panel called “Let’s Talk About Drag.” Schlegel and Ostrander would interview two drag queens, who would discuss the history of drag, dispel myths, and give a short performance. Despite pivoting away from drag story time, SPL still faced pushback. 

“The complaint was that we were exposing children to sexualized behavior or to sexualized images,” Ramsey says, which was a myth the “Let’s Talk About Drag” panel aimed to dispel. He says that the complaints by phone, email, and in person were mostly respectful, but the comments on social media—especially Facebook—were more defamatory. 

They were “what I would label harassment,” Ramsey says. “You know, calling us pedophiles, groomers, things like that. We eventually shut down the comments on our Facebook post because we just couldn’t moderate it all.” 

It’s worth noting that the City of Stoughton allows its departments to delete social media comments that it deems inappropriate, whereas the City of Madison’s social media policy states that its departments “cannot moderate content on its social media for vulgarity, profanity or even hate speech.” So, while the harassing comments on Madison Public Library’s social media accounts couldn’t be taken down in December, the comments on Stoughton Public Library’s pages could be. 

Ramsey notes that “there were no negative comments on Facebook that didn’t contain harassment. If there were respectful comments, those would’ve been left in place.” 

The bulk of the hateful discourse took place outside of SPL’s social media accounts, though. Someone in Wisconsin affiliated with Moms for Liberty, a far-right “parental rights” group that has been labeled extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, posted the flyer on her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Ramsey monitored the conversations to make sure no one threatened to commit violence at the event. 

“I was in contact with the local police department, just talking to them about the kind of comments we were receiving,” Ramsey says. But, he adds, “people who send these harassing comments seem to know where the line is in terms of actually threatening violence versus just suggesting that people who ‘sexualize’ children should meet a violent end.” 

In other words, folks who write these harassing comments online seem to know just how inflammatory to be without facing consequences. 

The people hardest hit by anti-LGBTQ harassment and debates are LGBTQ youth themselves. But the harassment does affect librarians, too, who are often the people reading and receiving harassing comments. For Schlegel and Ostrander, it was tough planning a pride event that they knew could be canceled for safety concerns. 

“There was a lot of mental and emotional work that went into the event,” Schlegel says. “We really wanted to do the event. We were both excited, but we were so tired. The mental and emotional issues drained both of us considerably.” 

Ultimately, Schlegel thought about it, and realized she has privileges she is willing to give up: “If people want to yell at me or be upset with me over this issue, I could handle that.” Better her than the teens she serves.

Ostrander, Stoughton’s children’s librarian, was disappointed to not move forward with the drag story time event. She calls drag story time her “Moby Dick,” the event she’s determined to hold at the library eventually. Ostrander says that after they pivoted away from drag story time, she “started feeling like a chicken.” Were they compromising their values by not offering the drag story time? Was it a concession to the far right? Ultimately, she and the other library staff agreed that holding an educational panel about drag is what Stoughton needed.

Why are libraries such a target of anti-LGBTQ harassment?

Right-wing harassment against libraries is nothing new. But why do libraries face more anti-LGBTQ hatred than other city departments? According to Elias, the reason is libraries’ tenet of intellectual freedom. 

“Our collection development policy clearly states that we offer books on a variety of opinions and viewpoints,” Madison Public Library’s Elias says. “We really feel that reading is a foundational skill that everybody needs, and that as part of a democracy we really need to have the freedom to hear a variety of opinions….If books are censored and you’re not allowed to hear about certain religions or certain ways of life or certain beliefs, then you can’t have a thoughtful, critical conversation about those things.” 

Knowing that libraries stand for intellectual freedom, some anti-LGBTQ groups test the limits of those freedoms, which can end in harm towards library employees and patrons. In April 2022, Madison Public Library hosted an event called Courage Calls to Courage, organized by the anti-trans group Women’s Liberation Radio Network Collective. The event was part of a weekend-long anti-trans conference.

According to Elias, the anti-trans group wanted to host their event at the library in hopes of receiving pushback and, therefore, media attention. “We’re 99.5% certain that was their strategy,” Elias says. 

Other anti-trans groups associated with the Women’s Liberation Front—which has made common cause with far-right groups seeking to divide and conquer the LGTBQ community—have adopted similar strategies at public libraries in Seattle, New York City, Toronto, and Vancouver. These libraries faced national media attention and attracted protesters. MPL wanted to avoid national media coverage, so library staff trod carefully to make sure they upheld library principles, supported the wellbeing of their employees, and avoided a media storm. Elias says they reached out to directors of affected libraries to better learn how to handle messaging, publicity, and pushback. Ultimately, the Courage Calls to Courage event adhered to MPL policies, and the group was allowed to rent library space. The event was not sponsored, endorsed, or advertised by the library. 

Responding to this anti-trans group took a personal toll on Elias. 

“I was the manager who had to sit in the room with the Courage Calls to Courage group to make sure that they were sticking to the plan that they had communicated to us,” Elias says. “You know that they’re sincere in their own beliefs, but it was so counter to my own beliefs. I was there as a professional, but it was really hard to be there as a person, particularly knowing that for some of the staff that I work with… it affects them directly and personally.” 

One of the hardest moments for Elias was discussing the event with MPL’s Pride Affinity Group, which she advises. This group of MPL staff formed in late 2021 during a rise of anti-trans legislation nationwide, and Elias asked for the group’s guidance in helping MPL staff feel safe during the event. 

“It was hard for me as a supervisor to ask that of them,” Elias says. “I know it was much harder for all of them to have that experience and to have management come to them with that.” 

Thanks to efforts by the Pride Affinity Group, MPL staff were not required to work at the central library on the day of the Courage Calls to Courage event. The group organized an alternate, trans-affirming event called TRANScend for the same day at the Sequoya library. The event featured drag queen story time, an art and resource fair, and a panel discussion with healthcare professionals. The Madison Area Transgender Association (MATA) and OutReach LGBT Community Center also responded to with counter-programming.

Elias said the library’s events drew about 110 attendees, while the Courage Calls to Courage event drew between 60 and 70 attendees. In the end, the Courage Calls to Courage event did not receive the media attention that Elias believes its organizers were seeking.  

Librarians continue their work in the face of harassment 

Organizing events that affirm LGBTQ+ youth continues to be a priority of Madison-area librarians. Stoughton Public Library’s June 2023 pride event drew 125 people and was a success. Schlegel and Ostrander are already planning next year’s pride event, though threats of harassment and violence continue to loom in the background. 

Ultimately, librarians know that their communities—especially teens—need events that affirm LGBTQ+ experiences. 

“I’ve had many teens come out to me because they can’t tell their parents. Or, I have had teens show up at a program who need band aids because they just cut themselves, you know, because they were depressed after school, they were made fun of. I’m hearing from teens that they’re afraid to tell their parents,” Schlegel says. “This [event] is something the kids really need. Somehow, they aren’t getting the message that there are supportive, safe folks in our community. And we need to let them know.”

Ostrander says this experience has encouraged her to speak up more for LGBTQ+ youth in her daily life. 

“I’ve always tried to be an activist in some way,” she says. “But this has encouraged me to do more, if anything, not less.” 

Ostrander says she now goes out of her way to give positive feedback on local events like drag story hours, because positive comments meant so much to her and Schlegel while they planned their own event. 

“I now know how many people [these events] mean so much to, who aren’t speaking up.” 

To folks facing harassment for planning LGBTQ+ events, Ostrander says: “You’re not alone. They just make you feel alone.”

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