COLCHESTER — Sean Gillespe, a Colchester resident, called a request by First Selectman Andreas Bisbikos for the removal of a biography of drag performer RuPaul from the children’s section of the public library a “self-inflicted PR crisis.”
“Right or wrong, optics matter,” he told the Board of Selectmen at a meeting on Thursday. Gillespe said that relatives from around the country were calling him and asking what was going on in Colchester.
Those comments were echoed by several members of the public and the Board of Selectmen, after an uproar sparked by a parent’s concern about “sexually provocative images” in the book “Who is RuPaul?” by Nico Medina.
About 30 members of the public offered comments at the meeting, the majority disagreeing with Bisbikos’ handling of the complaint, although several spoke in support of his decision to call for the book’s removal.
The biography is part of the “Who Is/Who Was?” series that includes biographies of influential people such as Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Thomas Jefferson, J.K. Rowling and others.
At the meeting, Bisbikos said that the book had not been removed from the library, but only “temporarily removed from circulation … until an age appropriate location could be identified.” and was available for anyone who wanted to see it.
Bisbikos said that his decision to have the book taken from the children’s section was purely out of concern about a “sexually provocative image” and had nothing to do with sexual orientation or “social issues.”
“None of the other pride books were pulled. If this image was found in a book about George Washington in the children’s section, there would’ve been an identical response,” said Bisbikos.
Bisbikos also reiterated his call for a review of all books in the children’s section of the library.
“Protecting our children is important. It is imperative that we review to see if there are any other books that may contain sexually suggestive imagery and whether to consider placing them in a more age-appropriate location. Our kids matter,” said Bisbikos.
But on Thursday night, other members of the Board of Selectmen spoke in opposition to the idea of reviewing books in the children’s section of the library, noting that the effort would require library staff to review nearly 26,000 books, and would require an estimated 450 hours of work for each member of the library staff.
“That is the most arbitrary thing that I’ve ever heard of being asked of a public library,” said Selectwoman Rosemary Coyle.
“I think that’s a gross misuse of taxpayer funds,” added Selectman Jason LaChapelle. “That’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Coyle told Bisbikos that he should have come to the Board of Selectman with his concerns about the book, and that he should have followed the procedure outlined in the library policies for making complaints about library material.
“You don’t have unilateral decision making in Colchester,” said Coyle. “We are a board of selectmen and we make decisions together.”
Coyle said that his failure to follow procedures put Colchester in a negative light, which she felt could deter both businesses and individuals from moving to Colchester.
Selectman Denise Turner said that Bisbikos’ decision to post about the incident on Facebook had caused the issue to escalate.
“I don’t know why you always feel the need to go directly to Facebook when you do these things. Had you come to the board and discussed it instead of putting it on Facebook, maybe we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said Turner.
LaChapelle questioned who should be responsible for creating an “age-appropriate” section for the book and deciding what books go into that section.
“This is encroaching on very slippery slope territory that I don’t think we want to be involved in,” said LaChapelle.
Selectman Debbie Bates said library protocol needed to be followed, and that she believed that the responsibility lay with parents to redirect their child’s attention away from books that they did not want their children to read.
Two of the selectmen also brought up that Bisbikos had been present at the library on Friday, and asked why they had not heard about the complaint until the following Monday. Bisbikos did not respond to the question.
On Thursday, Bisbikos agreed to withdraw his request for a review of children’s holdings in the library, but said that if parents had concerns about any other books, those books would also be reviewed.
“A safe space”
Parents who supported Bisbikos said they didn’t want their children seeing material that they felt was inappropriate, and they felt the library should be a “safe space.”
“I don’t want my four-year-old walking around and seeing that,” said parent Erin Howes. “There’s a children’s section for a reason … Andreas is not saying we’re censoring our reading material at all. He’s not pulling books, he’s not banning books, but I do believe that there needs to be specific sections.”
Another parent, who praised Bisbikos for removing the book from the children’s section said she had an adopted child who was in therapy after being “exposed” to “sexual images” at a young age.
“I don’t think you’re censoring anything, because people are still available to get the book. We’re just simply protecting [the children],” she said.
And while several town residents echoed Gillespe’s concerns about the town’s image, one resident had a different view.
“It did not make us look bad,” said resident John Thomas. “Our country saw this, yes. But the country saw a man standing up for the children of the town.”
Multiple residents said they disagreed with Bisbikos’ way of handling the complaint, criticizing him for bypassing the official processes and allowing the concerns of one resident to remove the book from a public library. Several said they considered Bisbikos’ actions as “overreach.”
“If you didn’t realize you are overstepping your bounds, that’s troubling to say the least,” said resident Susan Banning.
According to library policy, a member of the public must file a formal complaint using a form provided by the public library. After the complaint is filed, the book will be removed from circulation for a review by library staff. But in this instance, Bisbikos called for the book to be removed from the shelf before any formal complaint had been filed.
Library Director Kate Byroade told CT Examiner that the First Selectman later requested a blank form from her, and then returned it to her completed within a few hours of making the request. She said that, as a town department, this was an acceptable way for the complaint to be made.
Library policy calls for librarians to review and research a book after receiving a formal complaint, a process that can take several weeks and results in a two-page response.
Byroade told CT Examiner that the biography has not been checked out since its arrival in the library in February 2022.
CT Examiner obtained a copy of the formal complaint filed on June 29. According to the complaint, the parent had been looking at books for his children when he found the book “Who is RuPaul?” He wrote that the book “displayed women in lewdly scantily dressed outfits while at least one figure was positioned in a vulgar manner with legs wide open.”
“I have serious concerns about sexually explicit images made easily available to young children,” the parent wrote in complaint.
The image in question was a drawing of female dancers spelling out “VIVA.” The drawing was part of an advertisement for M.A.C Cosmetics, a company represented by RuPaul.
The parent also wrote that he had spoken to other parents in the town who had similar concerns. He requested that the library move the book to “a more age-appropriate location in the library.”
The complainant did not return messages from CT Examiner requesting further comment.
Residents at the meeting questioned the “explicitness” of the material, saying that more explicit content could be found on television or the internet, or in other products meant to be child-friendly.
“Little Mermaid and Barbie dolls have more inappropriate clothing,” said resident Jennifer Cox.
Other residents said they felt it was critical for children to be exposed to a wide variety of viewpoints and literature.
“I think it’s important to recognize … that children have many diverse ideas, diverse backgrounds amongst themselves. And they’re also discovering their own identities, and having access to different reading material that … they can often relate to is really important,” said resident Michelle Gilman.
Parent Naomi Niemann Gostkiewicz said that having books like these available was important to her child, who she identified as gender non-conforming.
“Representation matters, and that book provided representation for my family and my child. Having that book taken off the shelf meant my child didn’t have access to that book,” said Niemann Gostkiewicz.
Although Bisbikos reiterated multiple times during the meeting that he was not “censoring” or “banning” books, a few residents pointed to what they called the larger implications of “censorship” or “overreach” by a government official.
“Censorship and book-banning by the government and/or those in a position of power is a conspicuous and anti-democratic abuse of power and an act of control over people and their thoughts,” said resident MJ Lawton. “Libraries are safe havens for our community members in which they can learn, open their minds and be free to read and think about whatever they choose.”
Lawton told CT Examiner said that most of the people speaking against the actions of the first selectman were part of a group of local Colchester residents calling themselves the Banned Books Brigade, of which she is a co-founder. She said that the group numbers 192 members, all either current or former residents of Colchester.
In comments to CT Examiner, Lawton linked the book’s removal to a larger series of events since Bisbikos took office, including the reversal of a declaration declaring racism a public health crisis and an incident of racial slurs being yelled at a high school basketball game, that she felt showed a broader sentiment of “intolerance.”
“We want our town to reflect … the kindness and the welcome that a lot of us feel for other people,” said Lawton. “And the way that this is rolling out, that’s not the case.”