Adrianne Peterson, the manager of the Rancho Peñasquitos branch of the San Diego Public Library, was actually a little embarrassed by the modest size of her Pride Month display in June. Between staff vacations and organizing workshops for graduating high school students, it fell through the cracks and fell short of what she had hoped to offer.

Yet the kiosk across from the till, marked by a rainbow Progress Pride flag, was enough to push the suburban library onto the front lines of the nation’s culture wars.

Ms. Peterson, who has run the library branch since 2012 and has highlighted books for Pride Month for the better part of a decade, was surprised when she read an email last month from two neighborhood residents. They informed her that they had checked out almost all the books on the Pride display and would not return them unless the library permanently removed what they considered “inappropriate content.”

“It was just like, ‘Oh, curveball,'” Ms. Peterson said. “I started asking, ‘Oh, have I misunderstood our community?’

Soon, she would get her answer: stacks of Amazon boxes containing new copies of the books the protesters had checked out began arriving at the library after the San Diego Union-Tribune. reported on the protest. About 180 people, mostly San Diegans, gave more than $15,000 to the library system, which after a city match will provide more than $30,000 toward more LGBTQ-themed materials and programming, including an expansion of the system’s already popular drag queen story hours.

In an ever-divided nation, Americans are waging battles in ways big and small, right down to turning their library cards into weapons of protest.

Right-wing activists challenged the recognition of June as Pride Month and sought to remove LGBTQ-affirming textbooks from schools and picture books from libraries. In Republican-led states, those in office have used their power to change policy and ban materials opposed by conservatives.

But even in California and other Democrat-led states, demonstrations against Pride events and LGBTQ-themed books have exploded in recent weeks.

In North Hollywood, a neighborhood within the liberal stronghold of Los Angeles, a Pride flag was burned at an elementary school and dueling protests days later over a Pride assembly devolved into riots outside the campus. In Temecula, not far from San Diego, the conservative majority of the school board twice rejected elementary school materials which discuss Harvey Milk, the slain gay rights leader, and LGBTQ history before agreeing to acquire them after Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened to fine the school district $1.5 million for not complying with state standards.

And in China, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, Tony Thurmond, was ousted by a school board Thursday after criticizing a conservative proposal that would notify parents if a student requests to use a name or pronoun that doesn’t match their birth certificate.

In San Diego, supporters of LGBTQ rights quickly hit back at opponents. The city councilwoman who represents Rancho Peñasquitos, Marni von Wilpert, condemned the library protest against Pride books and asked the community to help restore the display.

Like many Southern California suburbs, Rancho Peñasquitos, in the northeast part of San Diego, was once solidly Republican territory. But the community has become more liberal over the years, attracting a diverse range of residents with its highly rated schools and views of the Pacific Ocean. Mrs. von Wilpert is the first Democrat to represent the district.

The political change reflects changes in San Diego in general. Long known as a military town with religious roots that date back to the first Spanish mission in California, the city favored Republicans for most of its history. But like other parts of the state, San Diego has grown more diverse after decades of immigration and the establishment of a booming biotech sector.

The city has also embraced the LGBTQ community; in 2020, voters elected Todd Gloria as San Diego’s first openly gay mayor, and sent Toni Atkins to the State Legislature, where she became the first lesbian to serve as the leader of each house. Both are Democrats.

Ms. von Wilpert grew up in Rancho Peñasquitos and in 2020 won a closely fought race to represent her home district, where Democrats now have a plurality of registered voters and there are almost as many independents as Republicans. Ms. von Wilpert, who is a member of the LGBTQ community, said she appreciated how quickly her neighbors rallied to support the library.

“Suburban, formerly conservative communities still don’t buy into this culture war idea that we can’t have love and tolerance and acceptance,” she said. “That was amazing.”

Conservative groups nationwide have pushed to ban books that discuss LGBTQ issues from libraries and schools, saying parents should be able to control what their children are taught.

The San Diego residents who sent the email to the Rancho Peñasquitos Library, Amy M. Vance and Martha Martin, did not respond to requests for comment. City officials said they have not heard from the library patrons since.

The text of their email was identical to a template posted online by a right-wing group called CatholicVote, which has an office in Indiana and is not affiliated with the Catholic Church. The group promoted a “Hide the Pride” campaign that encourages supporters to check out or move books that feature LGBTQ characters and families. Organizers described such material as pornographic and obscene and said it should not be available to young library patrons.

“The library has to use its discretion in how it’s going to make certain content available to people who have very different beliefs about whether that’s appropriate for children,” said Brian Burch, the president of CatholicVote.

Among the books on the group’s target list is “Julián Is a Mermaid,” a picture book about a little boy whose grandmother takes him to a mermaid parade at Coney Island, and “Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dress,” another picture book about a boy who loves to use his imagination and wear an orange dress to school. Both were controlled by the protesters in San Diego.

Mr Burch said his group does not encourage supporters to break the law. But, he said, if you decide to keep a book indefinitely, “that’s perfectly fine.”

The mission of public libraries is to provide access to any kind of information, even if it is offensive to some, said Misty Jones, the director of the San Diego Public Library. The San Diego Library system also does not restrict children from materials that have adult content, according to its library card form.

Librarians say it has become more difficult to maintain open access as book challenges have exploded in the past two years.

Last year, 2,571 unique titles faced censorship attempts — a 38 percent increase over 2021 and a record high, according to the American Library Association. The ALA also documented 1,269 requests to censor library books or materials, the highest number since the association began collecting data more than two decades ago.

In Greenville, SC, library board members sought to ban two dozen titles this year, although they finally dropped that effort in favor of rules that limit books on gender identity to adult sections. Last year, a Michigan city defunded its library after librarians refused to remove LGBTQ-themed books.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who serves as director of the association’s intellectual freedom office, said the protesters in San Diego and elsewhere have benefited from relaxed policies aimed at making books more accessible to patrons who cannot afford large fines.

In the San Diego Public Library system, cardholders receive five renewals for materials as long as no one else has requested them. Then, once a book is delayed, library patrons have two more months to return it before it is considered lost, at which point they will be billed for it.

“Things meant to broaden access have been weaponized to engage in censorship,” Ms Caldwell-Stone said.

At the Rancho Peñasquitos Library, the Pride display has since been refilled. As for the books checked out last month?

They were just sent back.

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