“Shocked and hurt” is how Alicia Frederick says she felt when she learned about a new book purchased by Halifax Public Libraries.
The library currently owns two copies of the book by Abigail Shrier, called Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. As of this writing, 21 people have it on hold. The book’s description on the library website says:
Unsuspecting parents are awakening to find their daughters in thrall to hip trans YouTube stars and “gender-affirming” educators.
Using the type of language you may recognize from other moral panics — like the teen oral sex “epidemic,” ritual satanic abuse, and gang violence — the book blurb continues:
Today whole groups of female friends in colleges, high schools, and even middle schools across the country are coming out as “transgender.” These are girls who had never experienced any discomfort in their biological sex until they heard a coming-out story from a speaker at a school assembly or discovered the internet community of trans “influencers.”
Frederick, a self-described “Mama Bear” to a trans child, said in an interview, “It doesn’t make sense to me why they would put that on the shelves, considering how much support they try to give to the trans and LGBTQ community.”
On March 17, Nicole Nascimento, another mother of a trans child, expressed concern about the book in a Facebook post, and linked to a letter* written by Elm Klemic, who had addressed it to the Ottawa Public Library, asking that library to not include the book in its collection.
At the time, the title was on order by the Halifax Library. Nascimento slightly repurposed the letter of the Halifax Library, and said that 200 people signed the letter before she forwarded it on. (Disclosure: I am a former Halifax Public Libraries board chair, but have not been involved with the library since 2013.)
The letter says that the book “has the potential to cause great harm.” It cites statistics on the high levels of harassment and violence trans youth report, as well as the alarming percentage of those who have made at least one suicide attempt. The letter continues:
We know that family and community support along with gender-affirming care significantly reduces the rates of depression and suicide among transgender youth, and books like Irreversible Damage help perpetuate stigma, violence and harassment towards trans youth.
Now that the library has put the book into circulation, Nascimento said in a message to the Examiner that she was “concerned.” She wrote, “It surprises me that our library would carry a book that would risk the lives of trans youth simply for the sake of intellectual freedom. It is incredibly irresponsible, especially given the fact that the book in question has little to no scientific ground to stand on.”
Earlier this week, Mila McKay launched a new online petition calling on the library to remove the book from its collection. The petition says, “Transgender Identity is not a choice, a Craze, or a Fad” and that the inclusion of the book in the library’s collection has “increased ease of access to parents and other adults who work with youth who may believe the hateful messages in the book and subsequently act in ways that endanger trans children.”
In an emailed statement, library communications officer Kasia Morrison said, “We have reached out to the petition creators and have invited a conversation about our decision to include [the book] in our collection,” but that the library would not make anyone “available for an interview at this time.”
McKay, a trans/non-binary anti-poverty activist and sociology student at Mount Saint Vincent University, said in an interview she was “very angry” about the library’s decision. She does not think the book should be censored — but that removal from the library collection does not constitute censorship. It “isn’t stopping [Shrier] from selling her book or publishing her book… There are all kinds of books [Halifax Public Libraries] don’t shelve. They don’t buy just any book. So why this book?”
How does the Halifax Public Library system decide what books to acquire? The guidelines are set out in the library’s Collection Development Policy.
The policy’s “vision” section reads:
Free access to information and ideas is a democratic right of every citizen. Public libraries ensure this right by providing the public with opportunities to participate fully in a changing society through access to a wide range of humanity’s thoughts, ideas, information and expressions of the creative imagination.
In its “collection development statement,” the library says it recognizes that it will sometimes hold books that will upset people:
The library attempts to make available, the widest diversity of views and expressions, including those which may be regarded as unorthodox or unpopular with the majority. To accomplish this, the library will purchase controversial materials in order to ensure public access to all sides of an issue.
The library offers the following “general criteria for selection,” but notes that “no criteria are absolute:”
- Opportunity to widen horizons, stimulate imagination and reflection, and enlarge experiences;
- Meets the international, national and local needs and interests of the community in a timely manner;
- Subject, style and formats suitable for intended audience and use;
- Competency and reputation of the author and/or publisher;
- Enduring value as a classic;
- Popular demand, both existing and anticipated;
- Canadian content;
- Presentation of all sides of controversial issues, where possible;
- Balancing special group interests with general demand;
- Represent challenging, though extreme or minority, points of view in order to provide insight into human and social conditions;
- Relevance to existing collections;
- Within space and budgetary limitations.
The notions of democratic rights, freedom to read, and neutrality have been core to the development of public libraries for decades.
In 1949, UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, published a manifesto called “The Public Library: A Living Force for Popular Public Education.” The manifesto outlines eight aims for public libraries, one of which is “to maintain freedom of expression and a constructively critical attitude towards all public issues.” The library, it says, “should not tell people what to think, but it should help them decide what to think about.”
Libraries regularly face challenges to the materials they stock, and if you go to any library branch during Freedom to Read Week in February, you are likely to see displays of these materials.
The Canadian Federation of Library Associations compiles an annual list of all items challenged.
People bring all kinds of different concerns about materials to their libraries. The 2018-2019 CFLA report (the most recent available) includes the following:
The patron who challenged Addicted, by Elle Kennedy requested it be removed due to graphic description of sexual activities, low quality plot, and vulgarness.
The patron who challenged Boy Undone, DVD was concerned that it contained explicit LGBTQIA content.
The patron who challenged Canada in Decay, by Ricardo Duchesne requested that the item be labelled warning of far right and anti-immigrant ideology.
Most of the items in the report don’t specify which libraries they came from, but Halifax Public Library system is mentioned specifically once:” HPL cancelled ongoing movie event due to anti-police brutality films.” (This is presumably in reference to the Radical Imagination Film Series screening cancelled after the library itself insisted police had to be in attendance.)
Sometimes, libraries respond to these complaints: Books are reassigned to different sections. Ratings on DVDs are changed. And the previous year’s report does mention five items removed from libraries following complaints. The reasons included racism, insensitivity, and inaccuracy.
In its “Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries,” The Canadian Federation of Library Associations says libraries “have a core responsibility to safeguard and foster free expression and the right to safe and welcoming places and conditions.”
These two ideas, of course—free expression and self and welcoming spaces—do not always align with each other.
The statement also says the following:
The Canadian Federation of Library Associations affirms that all persons in Canada have a fundamental right, subject only to the Constitution and the law, to have access to the full range of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, and to express their thoughts publicly. Only the courts may abridge free expression rights in Canada.
The Canadian Federation of Library Associations affirms further that libraries have a core responsibility to support, defend and promote the universal principles of intellectual freedom and privacy …
Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and facilitate access to constitutionally protected expressions of knowledge, imagination, ideas, and opinion, including those which some individuals and groups consider unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, in accordance with their mandates and professional values and standards, libraries provide, defend and promote equitable access to the widest possible variety of expressive content and resist calls for censorship and the adoption of systems that deny or restrict access to resources.
I have been told (but have not been able to confirm) that Halifax Public Libraries received two requests to purchase Irreversible Damage, and that it was not staff who sought out the book, which is published by Regnery Publishing. Regnery’s top-selling titles include books by Ted Cruz, Rush Limbaugh, Donald Trump, Chuck Norris, and Newt Gingrich. It also offers titles like, The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism.
The library holds some of these books in its collection as well.
Mila McKay’s petition is addressed to Dave MacNeil, the library’s manager of collections and access. McKay emailed MacNeil with concerns, and shared screenshots of his reply on her Twitter feed. (The library confirmed that the screenshots are accurate.)
In his reply, MacNeil takes a legalistic approach to the question of whether the library should own Irreversible Damage. He refers to the CFLA’s statement on intellectual freedoms, and adds the following:
“While the author’s arguments and the research methods are questionable, and there is understandable concern that the advice provided in this book is not trans-affirming, the content does not constitute hate speech in the Canadian legal context.
“Supporting a collection that reflects a wide range of perspectives, including books that express views many of us take objection to, is the foundation of a public library and foundational to a democratic society.”
The letter goes on to say that people should form their own opinions, after having been exposed to a diverse array of voices. MacNeil also offered to arrange a Zoom meeting, and says conversations like these help “identify ways the Library can support community voices beyond our collection.”
“The way to help the trans community is to listen to the trans community and remove it from the system,” said Sam (who asked that we not use their last name). A library studies graduate student at Dalhousie’s School of Information Management, Sam, who is trans, said in an interview that Irreversible Damage “is a major source of misinformation, and as librarians I’ve been taught it’s our duty—it’s part of our job—to keep misinformation from circulating in communities. And we do a disservice to ourselves and the community by allowing a book with misinformation to circulate. Would the library circulate a book about flat earth?”
(Halifax Public Libraries do have several books on the subject of flat earth theories, but they are critical of them.)
Like McKay, Sam, who is about to start an internship at Dal’s Killam Library, said they are not interested in trying to censor the book more broadly. They just don’t want it in the public library’s collection, and they don’t think the free speech argument is strong enough.
“I understand the concerns about free speech,” Sam said. “But libraries can’t take a neutral stance, because taking a neutral stance means you are siding with the oppressors. If the library is safe for transphobia, it’s not safe for trans people. Full stop. And I don’t believe it violates the mandate of free speech for libraries to pick and choose” the books they add to their collections.
McKay agrees. “I don’t believe the library should be a place of neutrality, and it should stand up to hate speech,” she said. “I would like that book removed because I genuinely think it’s dangerous—which is a complicated thing to talk about when it comes to books. I’m not talking about censoring books. She can promote her book. She can continue to promote herself. It wouldn’t be silencing her. This isn’t a freedom of expression issue. This is an issue about a very dangerous narrative that can confuse parents by giving them unscientific information, and because of that, it can endanger the lives of trans youth.”
That’s Cynthia Sweeney’s concern too. Sweeney, “the parent of a trans kiddo,” said in an interview, “The problem is we see a lot of parents and caregivers looking for guidance and sadly it’s often the misinformation that rises to the top.” Sweeney is the CEO of Simply Good Form, a company that offers gender inclusivity training to organizations, and a volunteer with Pflag Halifax, which describes itself as “a local LGBTQ2S support, resource & education network helping people navigate sexual orientation, gender identity & gender expression issues.”
When Irreversible Damage was under consideration for purchase, Sweeney met with library representatives. (She did not give their names, but said another parent of a trans youth attended as well.) Although she is upset about the book, she was also understanding of the library’s decision. Rather than working to get the book removed from shelves, she wants to focus on “educating people on the right information.”
The library staff she met with were “fantastic” she said. “They gave us a lot of time. We talked about the importance of having positive, inclusive events going on that focus on transgender youth, and we requested if you are going to have a book like this that is clearly disputed … that you make sure you have good resources nearby that show parents where they can go locally for resources and to support their youth.”
Alicia Frederick said she can’t imagine what it’s like for trans kids who don’t have their parents’ or caregivers’ support. She said her son has “great support, wonderful friends, and the school itself is pretty good.” But at the same time, “It’s been a rough go … My child has faced physical and mental abuse at school, and death threats are a dime a dozen.”
She said when trans kids come out, it’s important for them to know they can count on their parents. “As a parent, you’re supposed to be a pillar of strength for your child.” Frederick’s worry is that parents needing information on trans teens will pick up a book that makes it seem like their experiences are not valid.
“A lot of parents react in not always the best way, and they are going to read this book and think they are doing the right thing by not believing their child, and denying their child,” she said.
Frederick said the MacNeil, the collections manager, was “rationalizing [the book’s purchase] from a legal perspective and not a human perspective … We’re not talking about a difference of opinion. We’re not talking about everyone’s opinions about pineapple on pizza … I just want it off the shelf. I’m not asking them to set it on fire.”
Asked what they would like to see from the library, Sam said, “I’d like the library to remove the book from circulation at a minimum, but what I’d want in an ideal world would be for the library to talk about better transparency and reviewing the [collections development] policy. Because the fact that this book made it to this point at all speaks to larger policy problems. Most of the science in the book has been debunked. Even if it wasn’t transphobic, the fact that it has so much misinformation is a point of concern.”
* as originally published, this article misstated the original author of the letter.
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