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Librarian says she was fired for pushing back on book ban attempts

GILLETTE, Wyo. — A former library director from Wyoming is out of a job, and she said it’s because she pushed back against book bans.

According to the American Library Association, 2023 was a record year for attempts to get certain books removed from library shelves across the country. Many of the books are written by or about LGBTQ+ individuals or people of color. In Gillette, Wyoming, the Campbell County Public Library System (CCPLS) saw a surge in the challenge of books.

Terri Lesley worked for the library in Campbell County for 27 years, 11 of which were as the library’s executive director. After the library made a Facebook post with book suggestions for Pride Month in July 2021, a wave of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments resulted in a push to remove certain titles from the shelves.

Lesley said the 2021 post resulted in an unexpected series of events.

“It was anger. It was public meetings, people speaking about the books,” said Lesley from her Gillette home. “It’s pretty shocking because you work in a library, you’re helping people, and they love you, and they all thank you, and I think it’s almost magic with how they connect you with what they need and want, and then all of the sudden, out of nowhere, you have people mad at you and on the attack.”

In the months that followed that initial Pride post, 57 challenges were submitted against 29 titles — that was up from zero book challenges the year before the controversy began. Many of the books were based on sex education for teens or about LGBTQ+ topics.

Credit: Anne Herbst, Jaleesa Irizarry

The controversy led to monthly meetings with the Campbell County Public Library System Board of Trustees, which turned into hours of complaints and individuals questioning Lesley’s actions. She said a group of people organized to target her and the library because of the LGBTQ+ books.

“It was like, every other minute they called it pornographic and that she was exposing children to pornography and obscenity,” said Iris Halpern, Lesley’s Denver-based attorney. “They’re trying to apply so much pressure to these librarians that, eventually, these libraries give up and pull the books, or they get terminated because they refuse to, but it’s a political process right now, right? It’s becoming highly politicized.”

During the first year of book challenges, the library board supported her decision to keep the sex education and LGBTQ+ books.

At first, the library board supported Lesley’s decision to keep sex education and LGBTQ+ books on the shelves. The following year, four new board members were appointed.

“And they had a different idea to what should be in the library,” Lesley explained.

In July 2023, the board voted to terminate Lesley at a public meeting. Lesley spoke just before the vote, knowing what was coming.

“For 25 years, this was my dream job and the last two years they have been pure hell,” she said at that meeting. “And I don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

A crowd of individuals roared and applauded for Lesley after her 2023 speech. She often said that the individuals against the books and her actions were a small part of the Gillette community.

“Makes me a little emotional, so it was great to have that support,” Lesley explained. “I could have never endured this attack unless I had supporters out there who believe in that First Amendment the way that I do, that understood the importance of it and it felt like this is a cause worth fighting for because people understand it in our community.”

Lesley has since filed a complaint against the library board with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her attorney said the board’s actions were not appropriate.

“I mean, it’s unlawful. I mean, it’s against the constitution — the problem is no one is thinking about the constitutionality of the actions that are being taken during these campaigns to suppress speech,” said Halpern, Lesley’s attorney. “It doesn’t matter if it’s constitutional or not, there’s going to be kind of fringe groups in the community that are going to target these librarians, people like Terri Lesley, until they finally cave in or get terminated regardless of whose rights are being trampled or what lives are being ruined in that process.”

Lesley is currently out of work. There are not many jobs available for a library director in a rural community. But she said what keeps her going is the support she continues to get from the community.

“I think we tried everything,” said Jenny Sorenson, a friend of Lesley’s who attended meetings to support her.

The pair met up at a local restaurant to reflect on the last two years.

“You actually did a lot of good,” Lesley replied to Sorenson. “I could have not gotten through without you guys. It’s been a life experience that’s for sure.”

Lesley said she does not regret her decision to stand up against the library board.

Her attorney said it could take up to two years for the EEOC to release a decision on the complaint. 9NEWS made multiple attempts to contact the board members but never received a response.

Lesley shared the list of titles that were challenged following the 2021 Pride month post:

  • Asking About Sex and Growing Up, by Joanna Cole
  • The Babysitters Coven, by Kate Williams
  • The Black Flamingo, by Dean Atta
  • Dating and Sex, by Andrew Smiler
  • Desmond is Amazing, by Desmond
  • Doing It! Let’s talk about sex, by Hannah Witton
  • The Gender Identity Workbook for Kids, by Kelly Storck
  • Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe
  • Heartstopper, by Alice Oseman
  • Heather has Two Mommies, by Leslea Newman
  • How Do You Make a Baby? by Anna Fiske
  • It’s Not the Stork! by Robie Harris
  • Jack (Not Jackie), by Erica Silverman
  • Jane Against the World, by Karen Blumenthal
  • Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison
  • Mary Wears What She Wants, by Keith Negley
  • Meena, by Ine Van Mol
  • Music from Another World, by Robin Talley
  • My Body My Choice, by Robin Stevenson
  • Period Power, by Nadya Okamoto
  • Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities, by G. Mady
  • A Quick & Easy Guide to Sex & Disability, by A. Andrews
  • Rainbow: A First Book of Pride, by Michael Genhart
  • Sex is a Funny Word, by Cory Silverberg
  • Sex Plus: Learning, loving and enjoying your body, by Laci Green
  • This Book is Gay, by Juno Dawson
  • Trans Mission – My Quest to a Beard, by A. Bertie
  • The V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex, by Amber Keyser
  • You Be You, by Jonathan Branfman

In Colorado, Democratic lawmakers attempted to push a bill that would limit who can challenge content in school or public libraries and would require unanimous approval from a school district committee before removing books. The bill failed in its committee hearing so it was shelved for the year.

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