A protester holds a sign on the front lawn of the Campbell County Library on July 14, 2021. The group of two-dozen protestors were gathered to object to the library’s promotion of LGBTQ content in the library’s collection. (Nick Reynolds/WyoFile)

Bullies trying to ban books at the Campbell County Public Library are grabbing all the headlines, but only because authorities are taking their hysterical rants seriously.

This high-profile conflict is about as uncivil as it gets. The Gillette protesters aren’t content to force their beliefs on their neighbors by pulling five books from the shelves — titles designed to answer young adults’ questions about sex and sexuality. No, they also want to throw librarians in jail for violating the state’s child-sex laws.

Opinion

Unconscionably, law enforcement hasn’t yet laughed them out of the room. When parents went to the sheriff’s department with their complaints instead of the library board, the case was referred to County Attorney Mitchell Damsky. He called the books in question “inappropriate for children and disgusting.” 

With the approval of the Campbell County Commissioners, Damsky has asked a special prosecutor to decide if criminal charges are warranted.

I fear that if the special prosecutor fails to find a violation of Wyoming law, the puritanical mob will simply declare the book lenders witches and demand they be burned at the stake.

Or, better yet, why not just ban reading and education outright? That’s worked well enough for religious extremists in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Perhaps they could make Campbell County their own little Republic of Gilead. 

More than any other member, Commissioner Del Shelstad has fanned the flames of this controversy by threatening to not only cut funding for the library, but close it.

How did this situation spin so out of control? It started, innocently enough, in June when the library displayed several books for “Pride Month,” a national celebration and show of support for the LGBTQ community.

County commissioners spent an hour at their July 7 meeting listening to several people condemn the library for supposedly promoting pedophilia and smut, along with a host of other sins. 

“What you’re looking at right here is the promotion of immorality and perversion,” said protester Hugh Bennett. “This is an assault on our morals, our ethics, our heritage and our belief in God.”

“Animals have sex. And that’s what we’re teaching our teenagers to do,” said Scott Clem, pastor of the Central Baptist Church and former Republican member of the Wyoming House. “We’re promoting the basest of base things in our society and marketing that to our children.”

Susan Sisti, pastor of the Open Door Church, was fired up about the Pride Month display but objected to many other things at the library. She railed against books that depict witchcraft and evil grandmothers, plus a Black Lives Matter section she claimed is “Marxist in nature.”

“I’ve never seen anything darker. If I were Satan, I would stack it with the books that are in [the teen room],” she said.

The dust might well have settled after this homophobic skirmish — at least until next year’s Pride Month — but Clem took to Facebook when he learned that a magic show the library planned to sponsor featured a transgender entertainer. 

Soon messages flew back and forth demanding that the show be cancelled. One of the people who responded was Shelstad. “Do we want this garbage in a county library? No!” the commissioner wrote. “How do we handle it from here? The Commissioners tell the appointed library board to cease this kind of support for any group. Period. Not the Governments [sic] place.”

The good news is neither the board nor Library Director Terri Lesley are backing down in the face of such ridiculous tactics.

Kerry drake

Protesters erroneously claimed the show was “highly sexually explicit” and even called the magician, Mikayla Oz, a pedophile who is “coming for our children.”

Change LGBTQ to Black, and that hateful screed would be nearly indistinguishable from former Birmingham Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor’s scare tactics circa 1963.

In reality, Oz’s shows make no mention of her gender identity. The magician, who has performed hundreds of shows for family audiences throughout the Midwest, said she received several threats. So did the library’s staff.

For the first time in her career, Oz cancelled. “The biggest thing for me is that I don’t want any kid in Gillette, Wyoming, to ever feel like they don’t have a safe place to talk about issues they might be having in their own life,” she told Pink News. “… If there is a kid like that, maybe show them who they can talk to, and who maybe they can’t talk to.”

Commissioner Rusty Bell lamented how the ugly incident deprived the community of the diversity it desperately needs. “I think it’s an embarrassment that somebody should be intimidated or threatened to not come to our community,” he told WyoFile.

With one notch on their collective belt for scuttling the magic show, protesters were emboldened to keep going after the library. On the heels of “Banned Books Week,” 35 complaints were filed against 18 books in the 188,000-volume collection. 

The five that Hugh and Susan Bennett took to the sheriff’s department were titled “This Book Is Gay,” “How Do You Make a Baby,” “Doing It,” “Sex Is a Funny Word” and “Dating and Sex: A Guide for the 21st Century Teen Boy.” 

Hugh Bennett called the quintet “hard-core pornography to children” and said carrying the books was “felony behavior.” At a recent library board meeting he told members, “You’re fighting a losing battle and the longer you resist, the worse it’s gonna be.”

“There’s an 800-pound gorilla in the room and it’s called socialism,” Ed Sisti, a Gillette pastor, told the library trustees. “It’s everywhere, and it’s in our library. It’s seeking to divide families. That’s been an old Nazi tactic for a long time.”

If there is an immense ape lurking about Gillette that’s prone to Nazi-like behavior, it believes in facism, not socialism. If the good Pastor Sisti wants to learn the difference, I suggest he visit his local library. (Spoiler alert, the Nazis were the ones burning books.)

The commissioners recently announced on Facebook that they will no longer hear public comments about the library. They may finally be weary of listening to absurd claims about pedophiles and Satan worshipping, but they should have shut down the outrageous threats to the library staff’s employment and freedom much earlier. The damage has already been inflicted.

The good news is neither the board nor Library Director Terri Lesley are backing down in the face of such ridiculous tactics. She reminded the public that the library is a “neutral place” with a mission “to provide diverse cultural opportunities for reading, learning and entertainment to all citizens of our community.”

Danika Ellis, a writer who is covering the Wyoming controversy for the website BookRiot.com, noted a silver lining she sees for Campbell County.

“The fact that they have received such intense backlash proves how vital these resources are: kids need to be able to access resources that can answer their questions about sex, puberty and growing up,” Ellis wrote. “Without age-appropriate books on hand, they’ll likely turn to Google, which has less accurate and less age-appropriate answers.”

That thought isn’t lost on County Attorney Damsky. “What 9-year-old kid today can’t access Pornhub or whatever they want, know what I mean?” he told the Gillette News-Record.

While I don’t expect any charges to be filed, those who have tried to intimidate library officials and the LGBTQ community will keep howling. It is a group united in self-righteous anger and the fear that the world is changing and they are losing control. Who better to bully than the purveyors of knowledge?

I’m sure the protesters believe they’ve made it harder for the library to put up future “Pride Month” displays, book LGBTQ performers or stock other sex education titles for teen readers. 

On the contrary, the staff and trustees of the Campbell County Public Library are likely more committed than ever to providing services to the entire community, not just a fringe group of extreme-right activists.

Parents have the right to decide what material is appropriate for their child. But no one has the right to make that decision for every other family. If these zealots are allowed to censor librarians and determine what information people can access in Gillette, rest assured their dangerous crusade won’t stop at the Campbell County line. 

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. I have a question for the author of this article. Why do you think that graphic descriptons of sexual acts are appropriate for children in any forum? Why do you think it is appropriate to use your position as a writer to bully anyone who does not agree with your opinions? This is not about freedom of speech it is about protecting children. I would hope that you would understand that any books in a librarys children’s section should be age appropriate. Children are not emotionally or physically ready for the acts described in these books. Books of this nature should be in an adult area of the library. I would hope anyone commenting would please read the books in question.

    1. I’m not the author but I would like to address your question. The average age that Americans have their first sexual experience is 15. I myself was this age when I became sexually active so many years ago. People who are having sex or considering having sex or curious about sex are entitled to factual health and safety information, regardless of the fact that most people will be below the age of majority when they begin to need the information.

  2. There is a difference between socialism and communism. People should go to the library and study up, or not. Could go on, but what for? Enough said.

      1. Democrats have blended the worst of both into their ideology.
        The ignorant arrogance and lack of introspection is really something.

  3. Nice job of diverting attention from the issue Kerry Drake. Good use of liberal buzz words. The word Nazi was introduced to this dialogue by D. G. Reardon, not us. He also suggested book burning and book banning by accusing us of same although none of us has done that. We’re trying to protect immature people from mature content, not ban books. It also be nice to see laws on the books today enforced. Nice to know when a liberal journalist has no sensible argument he can still be a player by resorting to name calling and personal attacks. You are all we’ve come to expect from the left biased media. – Hugh Bennett

    1. Who made you and you book banning crew the harbingers of what is or is not appropriate?

      Your beliefs are not the same as mine. For you to dictate to others what is “appropriate” for their kids is a gross over reach.

    2. Right, you don’t think books you don’t like should be banned, just that the government should throw people in jail for making those books available to the public.

  4. https://apnews.com/article/entertainment-lifestyle-business-wyoming-nonfiction-22b0a682cb5ba95de8eb3975d101228c

    Hard to ignore the similarities in the talking points. Some interesting things left out of this version. Damsky’s full quote was not included, but here it is:

    “‘Personally, as a parent, I find the material to be just inappropriate for children and disgusting. But as a lawyer I’m sworn to uphold the Constitution and that’s why we are dealing with it with a fine-toothed comb,’ Damsky said.”

    “‘It’s very challenging to imagine how a child who’s sexually immature, physically immature, if there’s any reasonable purpose for exposing them to sexual behavior that’s far beyond their physical and mental and emotional and intellectual abilities to understand,’ Hugh Bennett said.”

    Despite all the noise, this is the real issue. The protection of young children from such exploitation should be an issue everyone should agree on (except of course, radicals and their corporate media).

    1. Nope. The issue is very clearly and succinctly “Some people want the government to jail librarians for the mere existence of books that they personally don’t like” and “Some people want the government to dictate what books the community can or can not have free access to at a public library.”

      The only anti-american radicals in this conversation are those attempting to use the government to enforce and dictate specific sectarian religious practices through force of law and criminal penalty, which is brazenly and clearly unconstitutional.

    2. I feel the issues here are more nuanced them the left would care to admit. The books in question should never be removed or banned. But, like magazines in a book store, there should be some level of discretion in placement. You certainly should not have Curious George next to sexually explicit material.
      On the other hand I am an avid reader and spent a good portion of my childhood exploring public libraries. I found a great variety of subjects just wandering the stacks. I spent very little time in the children’s section once I discovered science fiction. On my next visit to the library I plan to wander and see how things are laid out. I’m guessing this all came about as a result of pride month. People need to see these marketing gimmicks for what they are. If young adults can be drawn to books rather than gadgets, I see that as a win. Perhaps they will discover the science fiction section or read a history book. Wouldn’t that be something?

    1. As compared to what is seen on social media? I’ve got a teenager and a 21 year old and I don’t see the issues. But, my kids don’t demonize or judge those who are different from them.

    2. That’s because it isn’t particularly relevant to the issue at hand. Books with content you don’t personally like in a public library is not only not a crime, it is the whole entire function of a public library. If you don’t like what you’re reading, you don’t have to read it. If you don’t want your kids to read certain books or watch certain movies, that’s your right as a parent. But you don’t get to use the government to swoop in and swat those books out of the hands of others and charge them with crimes just because you take personal issue with the contents.

    3. I would like my children exposed to all those books, please.

      The one where a girl wears pants is particularly worthy to me, as I sit here, being female, wearing pants.

  5. It should be no surprise because this is the new age republican way.

    You are free to think any way you want…. just so long it’s the same thinking as the rest of the far right fringe…

  6. “Pick your battles.” Is a theme that strikes true here. As a theatre student I was stunned when we met protest for performing ” the children’s hour” by Lillian Lelman. The local churches heard that lesbianism was part of the story and they about had kittens. We scheduled a command performance just for them so they could see the play was about distrust and manipulation destroying lives. How fitting in today’s fractured society. Back then it seemed melodramatic. Now it’s just another day. We also performed “inherit the wind”, also poignant in this time of disagreement and lines in the sand. Reading and performing these plays as a teen had a profound effect on my perspective. We need that exposure to thoughtful literature here in Wyoming. People need to ask themselves hard questions about their own points of view. It is too easy to be stubborn.

  7. All efforts at censorship are ultimately doomed to failure by the simple fact that the human brain is perpetually active and inquisitive. I can imagine the teens of Campbell County are now far more inclined to a library visit to see what all the fuss is about.

    1. In my day we had to find a midnight showing of Rocky Horror.
      This is much more convenient, although it lacks something.

  8. Some years ago I recall a movement in Campbell County to secede and join eastern Montana and the western corners of the Dakotas. Were that movement to reignite I would whole heartedly support it. The kooks up there are an embarrassment to the State.

    Spoiler Alert. In the near term Campbell County will no longer be a fiscal asset to the State. It won’t be able to support itself and will become a drain on Wyoming taxpayers to fix the monumental environmental problems the defunct energy companies have left.

  9. They’d better start censoring the Bible, else their kids might read the tale of Lot and his daughters….

  10. Ironically, this Quixotic crusade may do nothing but heighten awareness of what these Puritans are trying to ban. Can you say, “Streisand Effect?”

  11. Things are getting scary, right here in Wyoming!
    The supreme irony is that some of these folks who are so quick to use the word “Nazi” are actually employing—or threatening to use—some of the same tactics that made Nazism such a deadly scourge to the world.
    As usual, Mr. Drake is spot-on in his analysis of the situation. Wyoming is lucky to have him!

  12. Thank you for the common sense commentary!!! As a former resident of Gillette, I am not surprised, but still very frustrated and saddened by this. I fully support the librarians. These people and commissioners are the same bunch that was instrumental in no longer funding an organization (Through United Way type funds) that provided free birth control, pregnancy testing, etc. for fear they might mention the “A” word. Disgusting!

  13. The books in question are better role models than Clem, Sisti, and the Bennet’s.

    With the books, kids might actually learn something constructive. While the trifecta of failures (and their followers) are just teaching hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.

  14. How odd that these wannabe book banners are the same people who in other contexts are whining about loss of personal freedom and the choices they want to make (like refusing vaccines and mask requirements, for instance). They want to control what other people, including teenagers, can read. Next they will be demanding an end to teaching evolution in the Campbell County public schools and a requirement that persons who don’t go to church every week be prohibited from teaching in the public schools. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that Campbell County is too small to be an independent country and too large to be an insane asylum.

  15. The good news is that the ones who want to censor information about LGBTQ are helping to raise awareness about the Gay Pride movement. Being someone who considers myself to have Christian values of love, mercy, and justice, I do worry, however, about the effect this has on young people who are hearing from people who read the Bible much differently than I do.

  16. I agree with Kerry this time. Banning books is a bad idea for whatever reason. Parents should be aware of what their kids are reading, and let that be that. Past a certain age, kids pick their own materials and that is as it should be. If you did a good job, they will make good choices. Encourage them to read. The rest takes care of itself.

  17. I lived in Gillette for 28 years; This library facility and staff is one of the finest in the State. It breaks my heart to see hate and fear directed toward this wonderful place of learning. Encouraged the librarian and board have stood their ground! May the voices of reason prevail.

  18. There are many stories in the Hebrew Scriptures –aka “Old Testament”–that relate stories of sexual behavior that is considered immoral. Samson took a trimming for his lust but despite his sexual behavior David is greatly honored. To be consistant especially the clergy protestors should demand to have only the New Testament in the library. Oh, but Jesus told those about to stone to death an adulteress that “he who is without sin should throw the first stone”.