Staff Columnist

Marion library Pride event stirs debate

The Marion Public Library in Marion, Iowa, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
The Marion Public Library in Marion, Iowa, on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Marion’s Public Library has been taking some flak in recent days. You’d think they were installing a roundabout in the book deposit lane. Not the case.

Instead, our library is hosting “Pride in Action” on Saturday in its public meeting space, an event intended to celebrate and support the local LGBTQ community. It’s Pride Month, after all.

An all-ages “drag queen story time” is planned, as well as a resource fair featuring several local organizations, including Foundation 2, the Area Substance Abuse Council, Waypoint Services, the Sexual Health Alliance of Linn & Johnson County and a group called Mom’s Hugging. Who could have a problem with hugging moms?

Local teenagers and their parents led efforts to plan the event, with support from state Rep. Liz Bennett and others.

“I think it’s a really thoughtfully put together event,” said Bennett, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids and a member of the LGBTQ community. She recalls what it was like being a teen in the 1990s.

“I knew that these spaces, which were few and far between in the 1990s, were really important. Just being able to go somewhere and feel accepted … I believe is something that’s lifesaving for people,” Bennett told me this past week.

And yet, not everyone is OK with this. There have been emails, phone calls and social media skirmishes.

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“I’ve gotten a lot on both sides, actually. I’m keeping score,” said Hollie Trenary, Marion’s library director. But supporters are pulling ahead, she said.

“We’ve had a lot more people reaching out telling us how much they appreciate us creating a safe space,” Trenary said. “At the end of the day, we’re a public library and this is public space. We have a process and a policy we use to review programs and events. And we’re treating this like any other event that happens in our space.

“The first person who called said, ‘I have a script and I’m going to send it out to 500 people,’” said Trenary, who actually has heard from about 50 people.

Judging from what I’ve seen on social media, including a spirited debate on a Facebook group called “The Marion, IA Activist,” the script is about what you’d expect. Some people are angry the event is happening in a taxpayer-funded facility. Others are outraged it’s happening at all. It’s immoral and bad for children who might attend, some critics say. Don’t get them started on drag queens.

Others, to their credit, are pushing back. Many noting, simply, if you don’t like it, don’t attend.

Trenary isn’t interested in picking sides in the endless culture war. But she is interested in providing public space on an equitable basis for an array of groups, events and programs. It’s at the core of what public libraries do and what they stand for in a free society.

She’s tried to explain that to critics.

“This conversation for me has been good. To me this is exactly why you have events like this, to start a conversation. And to make sure everybody learns,” Trenary said.

Trenary doesn’t want to pick sides, but I will.

The tiresome, threadbare criticisms being leveled at this event are the same ones we’ve heard over and over again as LGBTQ Iowans have demanded and won civil rights protections, marriage equality and other remarkable victories. Each time, the merchants of fear insist it will be bad for families, bad for children, bad for marriage and bad for Iowa. Civilization will be brought to the brink.

Just one drag queen story hour might topple it. OK, maybe not.

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Truth is, LGBTQ Iowans aren’t going back into the shadows. They’ve fought hard for a place in the public square — and the public library — with the rest of us, on equal footing. And it’s in that sunshine where we discovered these fellow Iowans are our family, friends and neighbors. The fear merchants are dead wrong. We saw it with our own eyes.

The good news is, as this Marion saga illustrates, the legions of outrage are shrinking in size and clout, if not volume. And more people who know better are pushing back. That’s progress. And there’s a remarkable amount of it to be proud of this month, with big challenges still ahead. Our state Legislature and governor just took swift, spiteful action to curtail the rights of transgender Iowans. Fear dies hard.

“The fact that some of these comments were so nasty shows how important it is these kids are doing this,” Bennett said. “Having something at the library can only bring more understanding hopefully and lead to better relations between people in Marion. That’s my hope.”

Here’s to hope, and pride.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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