Smithtown library board restores Pride displays in kids’ reading rooms

Facing investigation by New York State human rights officials and withering public criticism from librarians, LGBTQ advocates and others, the Smithtown library board on Thursday restored Pride Month displays in its children’s reading rooms.

The 4-2 vote reversed a decision by the board at its Tuesday meeting to remove the displays, which included picture books like “Pink is for Boys” and “Pride Puppy,” and a history of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Displays in adult and teen areas of the library were not removed and the books from the children’s display remain in the library collection, library director Robert Lusak told Newsday.

Trustees also adopted a statement, read by president Brianna Baker-Stines, saying that the board “recognizes that our earlier decision was made without the time, care and due diligence that deserves a decision of this type and that it was the wrong decision.”

Trustee Marie Gergenti, who made the initial motion to remove the children’s room displays, told Newsday earlier this week she was responding to complaints by community members, but ended a phone interview without elaborating on the complaints.

Gergenti and trustee Theresa Grisafi opposed the measure to restore the displays at Thursday’s meeting, which was conducted over Zoom and had 1,000 attendees. Trustees Marilyn Lo Presti and Thomas Maher had voted to remove the displays earlier in the week, but on Thursday, Lo Presti said she was abstaining to seek “guidance from members of the LGBT community.”

Maher reversed his initial vote for removal and explained he’d made his first vote because there had not yet been an “appropriate policy” in place.

“I always have and always will support LGBTQ rights, even though it may not seem that way at the moment,” he said.

Following Thursday’s vote, David Kilmnick, president of the LGBT Network of Long Island, said in an interview that members of his organization were “ecstatic” but determined to promote library board candidates to challenge Gergenti and other board members who supported removal of the displays.

“They woke us up and we’re going to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Kilmnick said.

Earlier Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a release that she had directed the New York State Division of Human rights to investigate the removal.

“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.”

A spokesperson for Hochul said in an email that “an entity can be fined and ordered to cease discriminatory policies if the DHR finds, after an investigation and public hearing, that they have violated the law.”

Some residents of Smithtown, a staunchly conservative town, said Thursday that they had supported removal.

“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 described as a nationwide “agenda. … there are flags all over the place, parades — It’s being forced on us at this point.”

Jerry Prinz, a barber, said Thursday in his shop in a Route 111 shopping center, that matters of gender and sexuality should be “up to the parents to talk to their children about.” Books like those included in the library Pride displays “end up confusing the children completely,” he said, though he said he had not actually seen the displays.

But supporters of the display from Smithown and farther afield said the Pride displays should never have been removed. They included the novelist and Nesconset native Jodie Picoult, who tweeted that she was “disgusted” by the board members who voted for the displays’ removal.

Jennifer Fowler, president of the Public Library Directors Association of Suffolk County, said her group “believes that this action discriminates against library patrons and employees who are part of the LGBTQIA communities.” The New York Library Association and the Suffolk County Library Association, which represents library staff, issued their own statements opposing the removals.

In remarks at Thursday night’s meeting, Gergenti said the reaction in recent days was overblown and misdirected. “The doxxing, the depravity that I experienced, I can’t even tell you,” said Gergenti, a familiar conservative voice at Smithtown school board meetings who was elected library trustee last fall.

Gergenti never advocated for removal of any books from the library, she said, and was only concerned with children’s welfare. “All children need to be accepted,” she said, “not just a specific, particular group.”

Grisafi, in her own remarks at the meeting, also lamented that people had been “called hateful and ignorant and bigots.” Removal of books about LGBTQ people from the children’s rooms had “nothing to do with anybody’s personal feeling toward Pride,” she said, but was “about presenting age-appropriate material to the young patrons of the library.”

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