Library Commissioners concerned about national association’s new ‘Marxist lesbian’ president

State commission to consider leaving American Library Association in upcoming meeting

By: - June 22, 2023 7:11 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

The Montana State Library Commission will consider withdrawing from the American Library Association later this summer after a state commissioner raised concerns — splashed in right-wing media outlets — the president-elect is a “self-proclaimed Marxist.”

During the commission’s Thursday meeting, Commissioner Tom Burnett proposed  the group hold a special meeting in the next three weeks to consider sending a letter withdrawing from the national association.

Other board members agreed the commission should hold a conversation about possible next steps, with the state librarian saying she had similar concerns but wanted to be mindful of the potential impact of losing the affiliation.

Libraries have come into the culture war crosshairs in recent years with right-leaning conspiracies falsely claiming the public service is harming children and claiming LGBTQ+ titles at the library are “grooming.” Related legislation has been introduced across the country.

After public outcry this legislative session, lawmakers amended a bill addressing the distribution of “obscene material,” targeting books like “Gender Queer,” to remove application to public and school libraries. Last year, the Library Commission initially voted down a redesign of its logo in part because the rainbow motif resembled the Pride flag.

In the past year, right-wing media outlets zeroed in on a tweet from ALA President-elect Emily Drabinski in which she identified herself as a “Marxist lesbian.” Some considered the proclamation to be evidence of a false narrative they have pushed surrounding libraries and grooming children.

Burnett read the tweet he said was penned by Drabinski to the commission:

“I just cannot believe that a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world is president elect of ALA. I am so excited for what we will do together. Solidarity. And my mom is so proud. I love you mom.”

The tweet is currently available on Drabinski’s Twitter page, where her biography reads, in part: “The problem is profit. Collective power, public good. Internationalist. Unionist. Queer.”

Commissioner Tammy Hall said she would support holding a meeting on withdrawing.

“I find that very disturbing, very disturbing,” Hall said, with agreement from Commissioner Robyn Scribner. “I’d like to make that statement to them as soon as possible that this is not serving the purposes of what they need to be doing.”

Hall was vocal during discussions last year around the state library’s new logo, saying the rainbow design could “set off a firestorm,” even though she said she was not personally offended by it. The commission unanimously moved during Thursday’s meeting to end the contract with the public relations firm behind the logo given that its work was largely completed.

Commission Vice Chairperson Peggy Taylor said she would like to see the commission have a thoughtful discussion on the subject and give staff time to look into exactly what the state gets from the association as part of its membership. Newly instated Commissioner Carmen Cuthbertson agreed.

“I would like to know what membership entails for us — how much we pay for it and what we get from it,” Cuthbertson said. Cuthbertson was previously vocal as a member of the public in opposition to the library logo redesign and brought up similar points during Thursday’s meeting about the logo not being effective and costing more for color ink.

State Librarian Jennie Stapp said she also had concerns about Drabinski’s statements.

“I’ve had personal conversations with her about how I believe her comments are impacting libraries around the country and the relationship with the American Library Association to libraries, so I support the commission taking a stand,” Stapp said.

Stapp said she hoped commissioners could be open-minded about their response so as to not potentially lose access to the association’s resources that staff may rely upon.

Burnett said he had considered the possibility of losing valuable services, but said the commission’s obligations are to the U.S. and state constitutions, as well as state rules and statutes.

“If we are reliant upon a private organization for critical services, that is subsidiary to our … obligations, and we should not be shy of dismissing them,” Burnett said.

In an interview with WNYC in November, Drabinski discussed the “Marxist lesbian” tweet.

“It’s very much who I am and shapes a lot of how I think about social change and making a difference in the world,” she said. “But of course, I tweeted it into the middle of an extremely fractured society, one where we have the rise of an extremist right that has come for everything that I care about.”

She also told WNYC that she would push back against there being any concern shared among library professionals about grooming in public libraries.

“If your kid checks out something you don’t want them to read, that’s between you and your child and the way that you’re parenting,” she said. “And it just isn’t something that the state needs to be involved in.”

The ALA website says the president of the association is its “chief spokesperson” who works with the executive director to identify and promote library issues and is recognized as the organization’s leader.

Drabinski was elected in April 2022 and will take office this summer.

Commissioner Taylor said the state library typically pays dues to the association in late fall around November, with staff saying they believed it cost less than $10,000.

Stapp said she also wanted to ensure that staff could be present at the meeting, and that July would be tough to schedule given work travel and vacation time.

“There are a number of staff who rely on the American Library Association for services that I think it’s important for the commission to be aware of, and I want to make sure that we can schedule a time for those staff to participate in that kind of discussion,” she said.

Cuthbertson suggested that staff submit their comments in writing if they cannot attend.

“I don’t think it’s necessary for them to be present in person,” she said.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.