Pride display removed from library in Athens, Tennessee

Staff Photo / The E.G. Fisher Public Library in Athens, Tenn., is shown in this 2003 photo.
Staff Photo / The E.G. Fisher Public Library in Athens, Tenn., is shown in this 2003 photo.

The LGBTQ+ Pride Month display at the library in Athens, Tennessee, was taken down the day it was put up following calls by the town's mayor and vice mayor demanding its removal.

Athens Mayor Steven Sherlin and Vice Mayor Larry Eaton called for the display to be taken down right after it went up at the first of the month — June is federally recognized across the U.S. as LGBTQ+ Pride Month.

The display contained several books, including "Queer Heroes" and "Ready When You Are," and the appearance and removal triggered opponents and supporters to turn out for a City Council meeting this week.

One man addressing the board promised to file an ethics complaint over the elected officials' conduct, but as of Thursday afternoon, no complaint had been filed, according to city officials.

Although the display was removed, those books are still listed in the E.G. Fisher Public Library's catalog and remain available for checkout.

At the opening of Tuesday's meeting, Sherlin told those in attendance he made the request as a private citizen, not as mayor or a member of the City Council, which provides funding to the library.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga-area librarian continues to 'push back' after cancellation of inclusive Mother's Day lesson)

"The Athens City Council, nor to my knowledge any council member, contacted any employee of the E.G. Fisher Library or staff member about the display," Sherlin said. "Any concerns regarding the display from any member of this council were directed through the proper channels in a lawful and ethical manner."

Sherlin was guided by his faith to seek the removal, he said.

"Speaking for myself — solely for myself — the display at the E.G. Fisher Library was designed to advance a social agenda that as a professing Christian I believe should not be supported by my tax dollars and certainly should not be advanced toward children," Sherlin told those at Tuesday's meeting. "Libraries exist as a source of knowledge, and knowledge requires the free exchange of ideas, not the advancement of one agenda or one religion or one idea over another. We seem to have come to the point in this country where sincere religious beliefs must be subordinated to groupthink and the cult of identity politics."

Two-and-a-half hours later, when the last of more than two dozen speakers had stepped away from the podium, Vice Mayor Larry Eaton asked for time to explain his opposition to the display, and he read excerpts from one of the books on sexuality from the library that described various sex acts in detail.

The language and subject matter are inappropriate for children, Eaton said.

"I don't hate anyone, but if you want to call me a bigot for standing up for the kids, then I'm Mr. Bigot," Eaton said. "I do not hate anyone in here. This ... is not something that should have been on display next to the children where they were reading children's books. This is one of the reasons why I personally stood up. If that is wrong, so be it, I'll be wrong."


A local voice for Pride

Michael Coffee, representing McMinn County's LGBTQ+ Caucus, called the action to take down the display bigoted. He told council members about his experience as someone who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, when gay role models were rare and the conversation about sexuality was more taboo.

He said he spent years developing a positive image and personal acceptance of himself with no references for what he should be.

"It wouldn't be until I went to college that I would get to see me represented, and it so happens it was in my college library," he said. "Two of the library staff were gay and had stocked a section with major publications on gay topics. I learned who I was as a gay man from books in my library."

Coffee drew a parallel in McMinn County.

"Pulling down the Pride display at the taxpayer-funded library robs young people looking for positive examples of a chance to see themselves represented in their daily life," he said. "Seeing a pride flag or seeing examples of queer history and culture allows that young person an opportunity to feel included, valued and important and gives them a sense of belonging."


Ethics complaint

After the first handful of speakers addressed council members voicing support and objections to the display, a member of the Athens Historic Preservation Commission spoke to the propriety of the mayor's and vice mayor's requests.

Will Houston described himself as a former city employee and current member of the historic commission.

Houston said despite Sherlin's appeal to the library being painted as coming from a private citizen, the fact he is mayor makes a difference.

"In my opinion, your council is not allowed to make private requests of boards or organizations you give money to," Houston said. "You all hold the purse strings. Any request you make of them comes with an implied 'or else.' Do what I'm asking, 'or else' you don't have my vote on an increase in funding. Do what I'm asking, 'or else' you don't have my vote to get any funding at all.

"I believe members of this council acted unethically by privately requesting that the library display be removed," Houston said. "I believe members of this council used their position and authority, hidden away from the public eye, to get the library to do something they wanted the library to do. Even without an explicit threat to funding, I believe this is unethical behavior."

Houston said he wanted to submit an ethics complaint and to ask for an investigation, citing city policy stating, "an official may not use or attempt to use his position to secure any privilege for himself or others."

Sherlin told Houston to fill out an official complaint form to submit to the city.

As of Thursday, Houston had not yet filed the complaint, according to City Recorder Leslie McKee.


Removed as directed

Library Director Peyton Eastman issued an emailed statement on behalf of the library and said the city's mayor and vice mayor couldn't be ignored.

"Library displays are created to briefly accent portions of the library collection that may be of interest to some patrons. As stated in E.G. Fisher Public Library's Collection Development Policy, 'Materials available in the library present a diversity of viewpoints, enabling citizens to make informed choices necessary in a democracy,'" the statement said. "The library's acquisition and display of these items does not constitute the endorsement of their content but rather makes available its expression.

(READ MORE: McMinn County school board bans Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Holocaust)

"The display was located in the rear of the library and was not within either the children or teen spaces," the statement said. "The display was not a children's display and contained no materials from the juvenile collection. Vice Mayor Larry Eaton and Mayor Steve Sherlin directed that the display be removed on the day it was placed in the library. Given E.G. Fisher Public Library's significant funding from the city of Athens, the library could not ignore this request from our city's leaders."

According to Eastman, the removal request was made directly to one of the McMinn County Library Board members, who in turn passed along the order to take the display down.

McMinn County Library Board Chairman Tyler S. Forrest did not respond to an email sent Thursday seeking comment.


'Maus'

McMinn County is no stranger to the national push by conservative groups to suppress certain topics in literature.

In January 2022, the McMinn County school board voted to remove the Pulitzer-prize-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," from its eighth-grade curriculum, triggering a firestorm that drew national and international attention.

Officials cited obscenities and nudity and the specter of suicide in Spiegelman's book that tells the story of the Holocaust with Nazis as cats and Jews as mice. They upheld their stance a month later, opting not to take up another discussion on the matter.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

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