Ridgeland, Mississippi mayor Gene McGee is withholding $110,000 from the library system until all “homosexual materials” are removed. He stated that these books “went against his Christian beliefs” and will not be funding the library until they are removed, specifically naming The Queer Bible as a title that needs to pulled from shelves.
Tonja Johnson, executive director for the Madison County Library System, told McGee that the library is not a religious institution: “I explained that we are a public library and we serve the entire community. I told him our collection reflects the diversity of our community.”
McGee told Johnson that “the library can serve whoever we wanted, but that he only serves the great Lord above.” He also claimed to be “just responding to complaints by citizens about the material being displayed in the library.”
The mayor did not attend the library board meeting that was about the current collection. When asked if the mayor had the legal right to override the city’s contract with the library system, counsel for the library board Bob Sanders replied, “Uh, no.”
Johnson noted that this was “taxpayer money that was already approved by the board of aldermen,” included in the 2021-2022 city budget.
When asked directly if he had the authority to deny the library funding, the mayor responded that he didn’t know: “That’s a legal question. I don’t know that I do or do not. But right now we’re holding the money. I’ll ask my attorney to address that.”
The library has received other challenges to LGBTQ materials recently, including to a an LGBTQ picture book named Granddad’s Camper. These complaints were not done through the library’s formal system, though, and Johnson speculates that they may have then been brought directly to the mayor instead of filing a formal challenge.
The money being withheld is approximately 5% of the library system’s annual budget, which is used for purchasing books and other materials, running community programs, as well as salaries for staff — and Johnson says that losing this funding could result in job losses.
McGee is currently serving his ninth term as mayor, and in 2021, he ran unopposed. In 2020, he signed off on a plan for a new $10 million city hall, and in 2021, he pproved a 5% increase in budget to all city employees, including the largest increase to his own salary.
In the accomplishments page on his website, he lists eight different initiatives under Police, including creating an “Adopt-A-Cop Program” in elementary schools. He also signed a proclamation for a National Law Enforcement Appreciation Week in 2021. The library is not listed anywhere on that page.
Johnson explains why it’s crucial for her as a library to stand up against anti-LGTBQ censorship:
“I think it’s important to understand that LGBTQ+ books and materials are not just for the LGBT community. Those books are for all of us: whether we can see ourselves reflected in those materials or so that we can develop understanding, empathy and respect for someone else.”
This advancement of human understanding, Johnson said, is the job of a librarian. “We all live in this world together,” she said. “We sit next to people in church, we work with people, we live next door to people, our children go to school with children who don’t look like us and don’t have the same experiences. If we’re going to be together, we have to at least understand each other’s stories.”