Copies of banned books from various states and school systems from around the country are seen at the U.S. Capitol in March 2023 in Washington, D.C. Several states have enacted laws aimed at giving parents control over or banning explicit sexual materials from classrooms. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)
COVINGTON — National conservative activists have descended on St. Tammany Parish, an epicenter for the national fight over LGBTQ+ library books, expanding the fight to yet another venue.
The group, led by Jonathan Koeppel, who alleged he was fired from his teaching job in St. Tammany parish for supporting conservative causes, and John Amanchukwu, a pastor heavily involved in conservative causes, read excerpts from books they labeled as “sexually explicit, pornographic, pedophilic, groomer books” at a St. Tammany School Board meeting Thursday night.
The activists, both affiliated with Turning Point USA, an influential national conservative organization based in Arizona, said they want the books removed from the library.
Most of the books the group targets have LGBTQ+ themes, several of which contain no reference to sexual conduct. In this context, the terms “pedophilic” and “groomer” are anti-LGBTQ+ dog-whistles. The term “groomer” usually refers to behaviors sexual predators use to coerce potential victims. Some conservative activists have used the term to suggest LGBTQ+ people are using books to “groom” children into becoming LGBTQ+, something that there is no evidence to support.
“I don’t care if you’re gay, if you’re an adult, this is America,” Koeppel said. “We’re talking about little kids.”
“Why is this the most gay generation? Why is 20% gay? Well, they’re being groomed and they’re being taught to be gay,” Koeppel added.
Counter-protestors pushed back on that idea.
Mel Manuel, a congressional candidate who is trans and nonbinary, said they were raised Southern Baptist with no access to any books or media containing LGBTQ+ themes but is still transgender.
“The movement nationwide to erase queer, Black and brown voices from public spaces, is the last desperate attempt of a dying breed,” Manuel said.
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No action regarding library materials was on the board’s agenda. The protest was staged during the general comment period, when members of the public are permitted to state their views on any topic.
After the meeting, Koeppel said in an interview a board member told him that an agenda item related to the books challenged will be before the board in November, but declined to name the member.
At least one school board member is known to be sympathetic with Koeppel’s cause.
Michelle Hirstius submitted a complaint to Attorney General Jeff Landry’s “Protecting Minors” tip line, which he set up to receive information about librarians, teachers and other school and library personnel.
While Koeppel has not yet filed any formal challenges to books in school libraries, he said he plans to do so.
In St. Tammany Parish, when a book is challenged by an employee or a resident within its school district, schools convene a five-person committee to review the material and submit a recommendation on whether the book should remain in the library.
If the complainant is unhappy with the decision, they could opt to appeal the decision to the school board. The superintendent would then convene a seven-person panel to do the same. The recommendation of this committee would then be voted on by the school board.
Because each group has several weeks to conduct this process, and because the books challenged are allegedly in several school libraries, it is unlikely it will be completed in time for it to be voted on at the next board meeting.
The Turning Point activists were joined by many conservatives who have been heavily involved in the fight to remove materials they find objectionable from parish libraries, as well as some students and parents.
Haylee Renaud, 17, is vice president of a local Turning Point teen organization. Renaud is homeschooled.
“Being a Christian, I realized that a lot of the hyper-sexualization of today comes from a lot of the literature that we expect children to read,” Renaud said in an interview. “Lot of modern literature, it is what it is, but stuff like this that is not inherently essential to children’s education shouldn’t mention anything with, like, orgasms or having sex with your friends.”
Also present at the meeting were anti-censorship activists, many of them wearing T-shirts for the St. Tammany Library Alliance.
“I thought about coming here tonight and asking you to recognize my humanity and the humanity of the 13,000 LGBTQ kids who live in St. Tammany Parish,” Manuel, a former St. Tammany public school teacher, said. ““Frankly, I’m getting tired of begging for basic human dignity.”
Others also pushed back on the idea that the parish is solely conservative.
“People will say this is a conservative community, whatever that means, but the fact of the matter is, most people really are opposed to book banning. And when you get into book banning, you’re going down a very dangerous slippery slope,” Joan Simon said.
Koeppel circulated a handout listing the following books as his target:
- “Yolo” by Lauren Myracle
- “What Girls Are Made of” by Elana Arnold
- “Lily and Dunkin” by Donna Gephart
- Too Bright to See by Kyle Lukoff
- “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore
The handout also listed but then crossed out in marker, “No Girls Allowed: Tales of Daring Women Dressed as Men for Love, Freedom and Adventure” by Susan Hughes, a book about women in history who disguised themselves as men.
Koeppel said he came up with the list by keyword searching books in the library for “transgender,” “sex” and other terms.
The board will next meet on Nov. 9.
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