Appeasement Doesn’t Work

Policies, Programming

By: James LaRue, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom Director

A local drag queen contacted his library. He had been reading about drag queen story times and wanted to give back to his community. Would the library be interested?

A few youth staff visited with the man, and found him genuine. The staff talked it over with library administration, and went to visit a drag queen story time at a nearby university town. Judging by the over 200 laughing and mesmerized children, the program was a great success.

So the library decided to give it a try. They announced the program through all the usual channels. One of those channels was Facebook. Then, in a matter of days, a group of mothers in the area declared themselves outraged. They made eleven phone calls to the director, who had only been on the job and in the community for a few months. In all of the calls, the moms expressed their strong disapproval of the program, which they viewed as the promotion of sexual deviance, and thus inappropriate for preschool and elementary school students.

In one of the calls, the director felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise. A mom mentioned casually that she knew where the director lived. In the moment it was hard to tell if that was small town friendliness or almost-threat.

Sorry Event CancelledUncertain, flustered, the director decided that maybe her town “wasn’t ready” yet for a drag queen story time. She called the performer, and explained that the program would be cancelled.

Then she and I had a chance to talk about it.

First, let me note that administration can be a very stressful and isolated life. The director was smart and sincere. Like most of the librarians I meet, she was deeply committed to doing the right thing. But eleven calls about anything in the public sector can feel like a tidal wave. It’s easier to listen to people who are speaking than those who are silent. She didn’t want to damage the reputation of the library.

But second, I think what she learned, and what I have seen repeatedly in my career, is that appeasement doesn’t work.

I asked the director, “Do you feel that you won over the folks who called you? Are they now library supporters?” The answer was no. In fact, they watched the library far more closely. They were now convinced of two things. First, the director could not be trusted. Clearly, she didn’t know her job. Second, but the good news was, she could be bullied into doing the right thing.

But appeasement affected at least two other constituents, too. The first attempt by the town’s queer community to connect with the library ended in betrayal. It’s easier to lose trust than to earn it.

A second casualty was the trust of staff. They had diligently explored the option, and gotten approval to proceed. But at the first sign of controversy, their director abruptly undid their work. That trust, too, is hard to get back.

What should the director have done instead?

  • Thank the callers for their concern.
  • Refer them to policies adopted by the board guaranteeing a broad offering of programs in response to current events and community interest.
  • Remind them that library programs are voluntary. The programs were clearly advertised, and had in fact proved popular elsewhere.
  • Invite them to propose their own programs. Say that the library belongs to the whole community, and of course not everyone would find each program of interest.

Such a course does not guarantee that a program will be successful. It might even spawn protests — but see our “Responding to and Preparing for Controversial Speakers Q & A.” More importantly, however, it establishes that the institution knows its job, and walks the talk. That may not win over the eleven moms, but it does establish a foundation for respect. Moreover, it builds trust with the many subcommunities of a town — which could have been homeschoolers, single adults, Mexican-Americans, chess players, etc. It also sends a clear and supportive message to staff.

Some of the lessons we learn in our professional career are painful. And to all of you have made a decision you regret, I say: Welcome to the club. The best response is to learn from those decisions. The takeaway here: our policies articulate our values. Let’s not throw them away just because someone yells at us. Let’s live them.

 


Jamie LaRueJamie LaRue is the Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, and the Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. Author of The New Inquisition: Understanding and Managing Intellectual Freedom Challenges, he has given countless keynotes, webinars, and workshops on intellectual freedom, advocacy, building community engagement, and other topics. Prior to his work for OIF, Jamie was a public library director for many years in Douglas County, Colorado. Find him on Twitter @jaslar.

9 comments

  • Thank you for the reply. It may be a stylistic preference, but it has a different connotation. Although it’s difficult at times I firmly believe we need to show respect to everyone. Thanks again.

  • i respectfully disagree 🙂 obviously, i do not know them or their intentions, but i strongly presume that the persons calling to complain to the library admin had little to no respect to the value of the drag queen, the library as a public gathering space, or (and this one, especially) the LGBTQ+ members of the community who would have benefited most from the program. Instead of simply not going to the program, they thought that they could use their privilege to keep the program away from every single person in that community. That, to me, suggests an enormous amount of disrespect on their part. i’m not suggesting that we should therefore treat them as less than persons (which, again, they likely felt re: the drag queen), only that we don’t have to treat them as persons whose behavior is in any way respectable.

  • Couple of questions are raised by this story; has/did the library ever allow an outsider to offer a story time in the past ? In many libraries, story times are planned / presented by trained library staff that have an MLS degree. The Director could offer a denial based on procedural grounds rather than on any particular characteristics of the presenter. Secondly you mention the “trust of the staff’, unless an investigations or poll of the staff was conducted one cannot truly be sure that statement is true.

  • You wrote “A mom mentioned casually that she knew where the director lived.” My response to that woman would not have been to quote policy. I would have challenged her with the question, “What do you mean by that? Why are you saying that you know where I live?” I would force her to either make her veiled threat explicit or back off. Those who oppose us don’t hesitate to try to intimidate us. We need to make it clear that we’re on to them and that we won’t tolerate it.

  • I have been asking friends in the transgender community what they think of drag queen story times and I’ve gotten mixed responses. Some have said that it is good to let kids know it is OK to not conform to gender stereotypes. A more common response in my unscientific sample is that people who are transgender are not doing drag but struggle against that stereotype. They say that the drag image fuels support for bathroom bills. Some have wondered what effect the program might have on a young child who is transgender. At its annual conference, my state library association had a lunch with a drag performer program about which a librarian who is transgender asked, is this supposed to be about who I am?

    This leads me to ask in the context of the blog post, what if eleven transgender individuals called to say a program like this is hurtful to our very marginalized minority? If you wouldn’t think of putting on a blackface minstrel show, why is this OK? Would it still be appeasement to cancel?

    Of course, in the ideal situation, the library would have contacted local transgender organizations in advance and perhaps involved them in planning in order to avoid these concerns.

  • Thank you Carolyn Caywood. I have also wondered about the stereotype. Does the storytime have to be billed as “Drag Queen?” why not “Transgender” or something else less flashy. In this country right now transgender people must feel very unsafe. My library is going to have their first transgender storytime leader this year and we live in a very liberal community, but not everyone is liberal. It will be interesting to see what happens.

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