Protesters disrupt San Diego library’s Pride exhibit by checking out nearly all the books

A person sits at a table behind a stack of books reading one titled "Gender Queer"
Two protesters have checked out nearly all the books in a Pride display at the Rancho Peñasquitos Library in San Diego.
(Courtesy of City of San Diego)

Two protesters offended by a Pride exhibit at a San Diego public library have checked out nearly all the books in the display and vowed to keep them until the library eliminates what they call “inappropriate content” for children.

The anti-gay protest is the latest example of a growing national backlash against Pride exhibits, which experts say has been fueled by debates over how schools and healthcare systems should handle transgender minors.

The protest targeting the Rancho Peñasquitos Library ratchets up the usual backlash San Diego library branches experience when they create Pride exhibits or host events like drag queen story times, said head librarian Misty Jones.


“It’s gotten progressively worse in the last five years,” Jones said Wednesday. “This is definitely a new one for us.”

The protesters, Peñasquitos residents Ann Vance and Martha Martin, said libraries are open, public spaces for children that should be free of references to gender identity and how adults experience sexual attraction.

“Minor children have the right to belong to a community that respects their innocence and allows families to have conversations about sex and sexual attraction privately, and only when parents deem it appropriate,” Vance and Martin wrote in a June 15 email to Jones after checking out the books in the Pride display.

Jones said in a June 21 email response that the Pride display was appropriate because public libraries serve as inclusive spaces for communities that promote intellectual freedom, access to information and diverse perspectives.

“Displays such as the one at Rancho Peñasquitos send a powerful message that LGBTQ+ patrons and their allies are respected members of our community,” Jones wrote. “They also serve to encourage conversations and dispel misconceptions and stereotypes that often surround the LGBTQ+ community.”

Jones said the display should not be viewed as the library endorsing one group over another.


“Pride displays are much like other displays that recognize other cultures, holidays or causes so that we can recognize the experiences of others and have a more inclusive and equitable society,” she said. “We are proud of our position in encouraging members of our community to learn, grow and celebrate our differences.”

The email from Vance and Martin said they have no problem with libraries helping children explore ideas, but not controversial or divisive ones.

“It’s time for the American public libraries to once again be a respectful space for young children to freely explore great ideas that unite and inspire us all, rather than places where controversial and divisive new ideological movements are given free rein to promote their theories and policy positions about sexuality to children without the consent or notification of parents,” they wrote.

Leaders of the local LGBTQ+ community said the protest is disappointing and frustrating.

“It seems like these two women were trying to hide LGBT people away,” said Jen Labarbera, director of education and outreach for San Diego Pride. “We’ve fought many years to prevent that. There’s nothing wrong with being LGBT.”

In the current climate of increasing backlash and violence against the LGBTQ+ community, Labarbera said it’s especially important to have Pride displays and to keep the community highly visible.

Human Rights Campaign issued a national state of emergency for queer and transgender Americans this spring. At some Target stores, customers knocked over Pride displays in protest and confronted workers.


Nicole Murray Ramirez, a longtime local LGBTQ+ rights activist, said everyone should be concerned about this attempt at censorship.

“What makes America great is our diversity, and that Pride display was a reminder of that diversity,” he said. “Sooner or later, their children will meet LGBT people. So they are going to be exposed eventually.”

Mike Van Meter, a pastor at Foothills Christian Church in El Cajon, said he sympathizes with the sentiment that prompted the protest.

“I think a lot of parents see what seems like a targeting of kids — impressionable kids of certain ages,” he said. “It seems to undermine the traditional view of the family.”

Van Meter said many young people spend after-school hours in libraries without parental supervision, making what they see there a sensitive subject.

“Somebody needs to stand up for these kids,” he said. “Pushing these hyper-sexualized issues on them is wrong.”


Jones said she understands some of the concerns raised by the protesters.

“I completely understand that parents make the decisions for their children,” she said. “But what if the children are LGBT and the parents don’t accept them?”

Jones also stressed that the Pride display was not in or near the children’s area. It was in the front of the branch near the new books area, she said.

San Diego City Councilmember Marni von Wilpert, whose district includes Rancho Peñasquitos, said she is working with nonprofit and civic groups to raise enough money to quickly replace the 14 books the protesters checked out.

They include “The New Queer Conscience” by Adam Eli, “Rainbow Parade” by Emily Neilson, “Gay Rights” by Tina Kafka, “Goldenboy” by Michael Nava, “Wild Things” by Karin Kallmaker and “Pride: An Inspirational History of the LGBTQ+ Movement” by Stella Caldwell.

The total replacement costs would be just over $235, according to the library.

“I’m frankly shocked by this because eliminating LGBTQ content from libraries is what you might expect in Mississippi, but never here in San Diego,” von Wilpert said. “Denying others the right to read LGBTQ-affirming books is just another way of telling LGBTQ people they don’t belong — and that’s dead wrong. Everyone has the right to read what they want, but absolutely no one has the right to keep others from reading books that reflect their experiences and backgrounds.”

Jones said no immediate action is being taken against the protesters because the books are not yet due back at the branch. The city library system also gives patrons five automatic renewals, unless someone else has requested the book they have out.


If the protesters don’t return the books after five renewals, the matter will be forwarded to the collections division, Jones said.

The city library system allows each patron to check out as many as 50 books at one time.