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Professor of Religion Mary Thurlkill (right) hosted a brown bag “Religion for Lunch” conversation on Feb. 1, 2022, to discuss Ridgeland (Miss.) Mayor Gene McGee’s demand that the local public library purge LGBTQ+ books or not receive the $110,000 in funding they are due. Several students, faculty and staff members attended the discussion, including Associate Religion Professor Fei Lan (left).  Photo by Grace Marion

Ridgeland Mayor’s Plan to Ban ‘Homosexual Materials’ from Library Inspires UM Religion Talk

OXFORD, Miss.—University of Mississippi student Sara Giray doesn’t remember reading about any gay couples in books growing up, but she remembers years of school-required readings that centered around heterosexual couples—in everything from Marie Lu’s “Legend,” to Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Her college hosted a brown bag “Religion for Lunch” conversation on Feb. 1, 2022, to discuss Ridgeland (Miss.) Mayor Gene McGee’s decision to refuse the Madison County Library System its funding unless the staff agrees to purge LGBTQ+ books from their shelves, a story the Mississippi Free Press originally reported.

“It’s unethical to just provide that portion,” Giray said at the event, explaining that it is only fair to show both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. “How are you supposed to identify yourself if you don’t ever see yourself?”

“If you don’t centralize other viewpoints—outside of heteronormative, societally acceptable sort-of viewpoints—you’re putting a lot of youth at risk of things like depression, suicide and so forth,” Giray said. 

Ethics in Representation

The lunch group discussed the theoretical: Would the situation be the same if the LGBTQ+ books were required readings in schools, the same way books with heterosexual characters are assigned now? 

Lynn Watkins, center, explained her concerns that Ridgeland (Miss.) Mayor Gene McGee sought the LGBTQ+ book purge “extra-procedurally,” without using the library’s formal process of challenging books. The library’s board wasn’t aware of McGee’s request to remove the books until after their funds were already in limbo.  Photo by Grace Marion

Professor of Teacher Education Ellen Foster agreed that LGBTQ+ representation was important, but pointed out that school curriculums are often subject to the will of the parents whose children attend the school. 

“Children should learn about LGBTQ issues; they should learn about being respectful,” Foster said. “That may be the only time they see themselves represented in their community is in the library.”

“It wouldn’t be taught because the parental voice would be the one that would speak through,” Foster said, explaining that the school board and teachers are subject to parental opinions on curriculum. 

“Where’s the line between parental right to control and the child’s right to learn?” Foster later questioned. 

A Librarian’s Perspective

Grandad's Camper book cover
Harry Woodgate, author of the children’s book “Grandad’s Camper,” one of the titles that sparked the complaints against Ridgeland Library’s collection, said that the story’s intent was to represent the full spectrum of LGBTQ+ individuals, especially queer elders, who are rarely depicted in fiction. Cover courtesy Simon & Schuster

Christina Torbert, university librarian for the religion section, participated in the discussion, providing the perspective of both a librarian and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. 

“Libraries, in general, do not pull books based on one or even a few people’s opinions,” Torbert said. “The library exists to get resources to whoever needs them.”

The University of Mississippi library doesn’t really deal in banning books, Torbert explained, reassuring participants that books would not be disappearing from J.D. Williams Library anytime soon.

 “What we do see is sometimes books with a controversial nature disappear out of the stacks,” she added.

Torbert explained that even in libraries where books are “banned,” they are rarely actually made unavailable to people visiting the libraries. “Libraries do remove books. Most times they make a big display that says ‘hey, look these books were banned,’ and they fly off the shelves,” Torbert said. 

Torbert and Foster both referenced the American Library Association’s annual list of books banned nationally each year. 

Other Questions

Lynn Wilkins, the University of Mississippi Life resources program manager, questioned Mayor Gene McGee’s decision to circumvent the formal process for book complaints. 

“There’s a procedure. The library has to see feedback, it goes up the chain, they consider in a formal manner all objections. What the mayor is describing is sort of extra-procedural,” Wilkins said. “… I’ve just heard people do this before, where they just hide behind ‘they,’ (and) ‘a lot of people are telling me.’ if it’s extra procedural, they don’t have to name those people.”

At the end of the session the group still had a few still-unanswered questions about the situation in Ridgeland: Had the mayor actually read these books? Is there a complete list of books he wants banned?  Why didn’t the mayor follow the formal complaints process?

Participants in a University of Mississippi “Religion for Lunch” conversation on Feb. 1, 2022, had unanswered questions about Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee’s book-banning attempt, including whether he had actually read the books he was targeting. He is pictured here. Photo courtesy City of Ridgeland

McGee has, so far, declined a substantive interview to answer those kinds of questions, although he spoke to the MFP’s Nick Judin’s briefly the morning after the story broke.

Sarah Piñón, University of Mississippi assistant director of cross cultural engagement and programing, and Jennifer Eastland, Department of Philosophy and Religion Operations coordinator, attended the lunch meeting as well. 

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