Facing investigation by New York State human rights officials, the Smithtown library board is scheduled Thursday night to vote on rescinding a decision made earlier this week to remove Pride Month displays from the library system's children's rooms.
Library officials scheduled a 6:30 p.m. emergency meeting and posted the new resolution on the library website Thursday as they faced condemnation from library associations, LGBTQ advocates and Gov. Kathy Hochul.
In a release Thursday, Hochul said she had directed the New York State Division of Human rights to investigate the board's removal of LGBTQ displays.
"Public places are prohibited by law from engaging in discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity," Hochul said. "Everyone — and particularly our state's young people — deserves to feel welcome at the library. For many LGBTQ+ kids, libraries are a place of refuge and information where they can be welcomed and affirmed for who they are. We will not tolerate a 'Don't Say Gay' philosophy taking root in our state."
Smithtown library board's new resolution calls for the Pride displays, which consisted of dozens of books about LGBTQ families and history, to be "re-established through the date of July 15, to be removed afterward at the supervisory Librarian's discretion."
Those books included a history of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and picture books like "Pink is for Boys" and "Pride Puppy." Trustee Marie Gergenti, who told Newsday she made the initial proposal for their removal, said she was responding to community complaints.
Library board members had approved removal by a 4-2 vote Tuesday night. Library director Robert Lusak, who is not a voting board member, told Newsday that Pride displays had remained in other areas of the system's four libraries.
Gergenti, elected to the library board last October with the backing of Long Island Loud Majority — labeled an antigovernment group by the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center — told Newsday that she had received “complaints about the displays for Pride Month. … Now we have two sides complaining. … It’s ridiculous — we’re a nice town.”
Gergenti won her board seat by a wide margin with 1,451 votes, the third-highest total in a seven-candidate race for three seats. Previously, she was a frequent speaker at Smithtown school board meetings, where she successfully fought for restriction of learning content she found offensive.
In August, after she and her husband said the Smithtown school district was using a learning platform biased against conservative viewpoints and favorable to the Black Lives Matter movement, district leaders restricted some of the content.
In an email Wednesday night, Smithtown library board president Brianna Baker-Stines called the removal a "reminder of the hatred and bigotry that has been festering in the Town of Smithtown, driven by those with a political agenda that runs counter to the role of the Library."
Other library trustees declined to comment or could not be reached.
Lusak said that after the library board's Tuesday vote, he wrote a memo to the heads of the system’s four buildings directing them to “remove all Pride displays from all of our Children’s Rooms.” A copy of the memo, apparently leaked, circulated on social media, and the library later posted the board resolution on its website in a message from board trustees: "Motion to remove all Pride Displays, in addition to removing all books of the same subject on display, from all Children's sections in all Smithtown Library buildings."
The resolution passed after "lengthy discussion," according to the message, but by late Thursday morning the library had not posted minutes from that meeting.
Hochul, in a tweet late Wednesday afternoon, wrote: " … Our public spaces should be accepting our young people — not rejecting them. To LGBTQ+ New Yorkers: We stand with you, we support you, & you are welcome here."
She was joined by the New York Library Association, which, in a statement, called the Smithtown library board's move "a direct violation of NYLA’s commitment to intellectual freedom and the freedom to read that libraries are entrusted to uphold."
Lusak said the displays had been up since June 1 and had been scheduled to remain through the end of the month. He said he had gotten “a handful of complaints” about the displays, which remain in teen and adult areas of the library. The library routinely offers themed displays coinciding with holidays and cultural events.
Suffolk Cooperative Library System director Kevin Verbesey said in an email that Smithtown’s board was the only library system in the county to “ban any specific kinds of displays from any specific locations in their library.”
He declined to comment specifically about the board’s vote, but said that in general, the best boards “keep to a policy setting and financial oversight role and allow their professional staff to develop the collections, programming, and services that best meets the community's needs.”
Nassau Library System director Caroline Ashby said in an email that "we're not aware of any Nassau library boards considering similar action."
The Smithtown library system operates independently of the town and local school districts.
The board's mission statement says it is mandated by the community "to promote knowledge, understanding, and wisdom by making available to the community it is chartered to serve the best possible resources, personnel, and facilities requisite for modern library services."
On Thursday, some residents of Smithtown said they supported the library board's move.
"Let the children be children without confusing them," said Robert D'Addario of Commack, who is retired from the aerospace industry. The Pride display "forces a discussion about homosexuality with an age group where it's not appropriate to be talking about sex at all," he said, and reflected what he said was a nationwide "agenda … There are flags all over the place, parades — It's being forced on us at this point."
But LGBTQ leaders, family members and some prominent Long Islanders criticized the removal of the displays.
Novelist Jodi Picoult, a Nesconset native, said in a tweet that she was "disgusted by the trustees who voted for this. Libraries are for all, & representation matters."
Picoult once worked in the library's reference section, she said.
In a statement, Jennifer Fowler, president of the Public Library Directors Association of Suffolk County, said the group "believes that this action discriminates against library patrons and employees who are part of the LGBTQIA+ communities. These communities have equal rights to find materials they want on public library shelves and materials highlighted in library displays. Public libraries are meant to support each individual’s freedom to choose what they want to read without anyone (including library boards) censoring books or restricting the patron’s right to select materials they want to read."
Amanda Babine, executive director of Equality New York, an advocacy group for LGBTQI New Yorkers and their families, said in an interview that the board’s decision was “despicable” and amounted to an “erasure of LGBTQ people and their families.”
David Kilmnick, president of the LGBT Network of Long Island, called the Smithtown library board’s decision “an act of hate” that set a dangerous precedent.
His organization had been planning to launch in late summer a leadership institute for people interested in joining local government and school boards, he said. They now plan to launch at a virtual community hall Monday night, and they will expand their focus to include library boards, Kilmnick said.
Jay Fried, the Smithtown father of a transgender teen son, also criticized the move.
“It’s Pride Month, and we’re just looking for kids to feel some level of acceptance or feel where they’re not invisible,” he said. “The library is a place where you’re supposed to be represented no matter who you are.”