Librarians threatened with jail if they stock LGBTQ+ books in North Dakota

Library books

Librarians in the US state of North Dakota could face jail for stocking books containing depictions of sexual or gender identity – which is considered “sexually explicit” under legislation currently under consideration by state lawmakers. 

On Tuesday (17 January), the Republican-dominated state House Judiciary Committee heard arguments about the proposal which critics say is “steeped in discrimination”. No vote was taken.

The proposal suggests charging offenders with a class B misdemeanour, with a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,500 (approximately £1,200) fine for librarians who refuse to remove books deemed offensive. 

It also specifies 10 things that library books cannot visually depict, including “sexual intercourse,” “sexual preference” and “sexual perversion” — although none of those terms are defined.

The proposal doesn’t apply to books that have “serious artistic significance” or “materials used in science courses”.

House majority leader, Mike Lefor, introduced the bill and argued that public libraries currently contain books that have “disturbing and disgusting” content, including ones that describe virginity as a silly label and say that gender is fluid.

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He went on to claim that children’s exposure to this content has been associated with addiction, poor self-esteem, devalued intimacy, increasing divorce rates, unprotected sex among young people and poor well-being. He offered no evidence to support these suggestions.

A row of books on a shelf
A school library. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Cody Schuler, an advocacy manager at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, spoke against the bill: “Nearly 50 years ago, the [US] Supreme Court set the high constitutional bar that defines obscenity.

“Obscenity is a narrow, well-defined category of unprotected speech that excludes any work with serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. 

“Few, if any, books have been deemed obscene, and the standard for restraining a library’s ability to distribute a book are even more stringent.”

Opponents of the bill also pointed out that the definition of pornography is subjective. 

Christine Kujawa, a library director at Bismarck Veterans Memorial Public Library, said that among the books stocked there was one with two hamsters on the cover. At the end of the book, the hamsters get married, and they are both male.

“It’s a cute book,” Kujawa said — but it would be considered pornography under the bill.

She added that it never occurred to her that she’d have to consider facing criminal charges for keeping books on the shelves. 

A librarian gestures with her hands as speaks before a board meeting about threats and harassment she's received because conservatives are angry over the library's LGBTQ+ books collections
A librarian said she’s received threats and harassment because of an ongoing row about LGBTQ+ books at Patmos Library in Jamestown Township, Michigan. (TikTok/@inclusiveottawacounty)

Attacks on libraries in the US 

According to a report released last year, almost half of books banned in US schools in the past year contained LGBTQ+ themes or characters. 

Maia Kobabe’s memoir Gender Queer, about growing up as non-binary and asexual, was the most-banned book, having been targeted by 41 school districts between July 2021 and June 2022.

Several libraries in the US have been targeted with hate for stocking LGBTQ+ books. 

Last year, a woman protesting against queer books in a library told people they would go to hell for supporting them.