A months-long issue surrounding the public library in a tiny farming town in Iowa was sparked by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, efforts to ban books with progressive and LGBTQ themes, and the alleged harassment of LGBTQ staff members.
The issue reached a breaking point last month when the library, which some have described as the center of the community, was forced to close for more than a week after the resignation of its interim director, who said he had been shunned because he was gay.
According to more than a dozen present and past inhabitants of Vinton, it’s an indication of an undetected homophobia among a small percentage of the town’s 5,000 residents. Although it doesn’t reflect the entire community, the dispute has recently polarized it, costing national headlines, and making some LGBTQ residents feel unwelcome and dangerous.
The situation in Vinton seems to be a microcosm of a national trend, with attempts to restrict LGBTQ literature in many communities around the U.S. and growing threats against Drag Queen Story Hour events. Additionally, it heralds the entry of public libraries as an new battleground in the culture warfare.
Dan Engledow, a 42-year-old gay man who has lived in Vinton his entire life, claimed that this in particular has cast a very gloomy shadow on the town. A tiny number of individuals have raised numerous issues.
Vinton is currently confronted with issues such as a lack of library services, on which many residents rely, as well as more general concerns about how accepting the community is of queer and other LGBQ individuals.
According to Molly Jennings, a former editor at The Vinton Eagle and Cedar Valley Times, the LGBTQ community is not particularly welcome in this small Midwestern town. It has never been this obvious, as far as I can remember.
THIS TOWN IS NOT ABOUT THAT,
A few months after Janette McMahon, a lady with decades of experience as a library administrator, took over as director from Virginia Holsten, who had previously worked at the library, the library’s simmering culture conflict began, according to McMahon.
When things have been unchanged for a long time, McMahon remarked, change becomes extremely difficult.
She appointed gay Colton Neely as the new children’s librarian in January 2021. She praised him as being absolutely excellent but claimed that after he was hired, some library users started to make the space less welcoming.
Several months after Neely was employed, according to McMahon, a patron who she did not name but who has been identified as the pastor’s wife by those with knowledge of the situation, including Neely, checked out several children’s books and delayed returning them for an extended period of time. First lady Jill Biden wrote one of them, while vice president Kamala Harris wrote the other (Harris visited the library in 2019 to read hers). The Pride flag and the Black Lives Matter movement were mentioned in a book on activism called Sometimes People March.
The books were eventually returned, but McMahon claimed that some customers had already begun to accuse her of having a leftist agenda.
There are many places where gossip is rife, but she claimed that it moves particularly quickly in tiny towns.
According to a copy of the email sent to NBC News, the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Vinton expressed worry that the library was skewed toward particular political positions and a particular political party in an email to a board member who has since resigned in April 2021. The same books were criticized by the pastor, Stephen Preus, who questioned why the library hadn’t instead chosen to exhibit a book by former Vice President Mike Pence and a biography of former President Donald Trump. Preus’ email states that he viewed the library’s promotion of leftist ideals, such as the LGBT agenda, transgenderism, and Black Lives Matter Inc., to be even more alarming.
A request for comment from Preus went unanswered.
The town’s escalating zeal eventually led McMahon to conclude that she couldn’t effectively manage the library, she claimed. After serving a little more than a year, she resigned in July 2021 and relocated approximately an hour and a half away. She is currently in charge of a public library in Dewitt, Iowa.
Neely filled McMahon’s void until the library board of trustees could appoint a more long-term substitute. Neely claimed that for months, he virtually worked alone to run the library from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. He claimed that throughout the entire time, a small number of customers engaged in both covert and overt homophobia toward him.
He remembered one time a customer instructed him to dress down since he was wearing a bow tie. That’s not what this town is about, she replied, nor is it what this library is about.
Additionally, Neely said that longtime Vinton resident Brooke Kruckenberg made homophobic remarks in front of him and her kids at the library. McMahon confirmed that Neely had been the recipient of what she described as microaggressions from Kruckenberg and that she had overheard Kruckenberg and other customers refer to Neely as the gay man in a negative way that she perceived.
Additionally, Neely said that when he was serving as temporary director, Jennifer Kreutner, the library board’s secretary and treasurer, proposed that some books, such as those that address LGBTQ issues, be covered in book sleeves. According to Neely, McMahon, and another person with knowledge of the situation, Kreutner had previously objected to a summer reading challenge that had pushed patrons to read works by LGBTQ authors and people of color.
Tuesday night’s library board meeting became contentious over Kreutner’s recommendation to relocate or cover some volumes elsewhere in the library. According to an audio recording of the meeting provided to NBC News, Kreutner was criticized by other board members for some of her actions while serving on the board, and one board member accused Kreutner of censorship.
At the meeting, Kreutner stated, “I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest to represent people in the community who come forward with their ideas and concerns.” After a board member accused her of solely speaking for conservative Christians, she apologized, adding that she represented the entire rural community, the majority of whom are conservative Christians.
NBC News’ efforts for comment from Kruckenberg and Kreutner were not answered.
Jimmy Kelly, the chair of the library’s board of trustees, claimed that at the time of the alleged incidents, the board had not been formally informed of any prejudice against Neely or any other staff members. Additionally, he said in an interview conducted prior to Tuesday’s board meeting that he was unaware of Kreutner’s apparent offer to cover up some titles with book covers.
THERE WAS A PROBLEM.
The library board appointed a new director in November. Neely believed that Renee Greenlee, a librarian with years of expertise and a master’s degree in library and information science, could push back against this mob.
She is the one who should be in this position, I thought as soon as I shook her hand, Neely stated.
Greenlee had been employed as a library assistant at a public library in Marion, Iowa, for almost three years. There, she assisted in organizing Marion’s first LGBTQ Pride celebration, which included a procession around the library and a drag queen storytime. She won the I Love My Librarian Award in January, not long after starting her employment in Vinton, placing selected out of more than 1,300 librarians nationwide.
Neely claimed that after Greenlee took charge, things at the library began to get better, and he reclaimed the post of children’s librarian. However, he occasionally found it difficult to draw families to his storytime sessions. He claimed that he thought this was in part due to the fact that his parents appeared to be against his being gay.
I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right, he remarked.
A motion to install gender-neutral restrooms in the structure was placed on the agenda of the library board meeting on March 9. Although it was overwhelmingly approved, Kruckenberg joined the chorus of locals who complained that the library employees had liberal agendas.
She penned a statement, which she subsequently read at the meeting, stating, “I don’t believe the library is portraying our town well by recruiting a majority of staff who are openly a member of the LGBTQ community,” according to participants and the meeting minutes. When the library had six staff, two of them, Neely and Joey Anderson, were openly LGBTQ, according to Neely.
Kruckenberg claimed she objected to a subtly apparent presentation of the LGBTQ agenda, manifesting itself in the selection of books on display, the staff’ cross-dressing, Facebook posts, and the debate over non-gender bathrooms.
According to Neely, Greenlee departed that March encounter looking ghostly white.
In an email to NBC News, Anderson, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, claimed that Greenlee summoned them to her office the day following the meeting to inform them of what had transpired. They described the incident as heartbreaking.
They claimed that it caused some extremely bad dysphoria over the following few months.
According to meeting minutes, a prepared statement provided to NBC News, and local news reports, Kruckenberg claimed during the March meeting that she had spoken to parents and library patrons in the neighborhood who had made the decision to reduce or discontinue their support for the library due to staffing decisions and the liberal books that are available on the shelves. She said that she was only requesting that the books be balanced rather than that any particular publications be prohibited or taken out of the library.
According to Kruckenberg’s prepared statement, I would request that there be a book on display that addresses how God created and designed humans as either male or female from birth, for life, for every book on exhibit with a topic of becoming a transsexual.
Board members stated during the meeting on Tuesday that Kreutner, who takes the minutes, recorded the meeting in March but declined to give Greenlee and the city administrator the audio file when they requested it. The board then paid $300 to hire a lawyer, who, according to a copy of the letter, wrote to Kreutner to demand that she disclose the file as required by public records rules. The board’s chair Kelly verified that Kreutner eventually handed over the audio file.
Greenlee put together a seven-page response to Kruckenberg’s accusations following the board meeting in March, which included a diversity audit of the library’s children’s book collection. She presented her research at a library board meeting on April 13 and revealed that only seven of the nearly 5,800 children’s books and other materials in the collection had subject headings that included the terms LGBT, gay, or transgender. There were 31 books with subject titles relating to Christianity.
video of the April meeting reveals that Greenlee also denounced Kruckenberg’s remarks from the March meeting, calling them offensive and racist. She added that she had told her workers to notify her if they felt intimidated, harassed, or endangered.
She said in a public statement that she read aloud at the meeting, “I very much want that every member of the community could be pleased with all parts of the library, but I have been in libraries long enough to know it is not practical.”
Neely was seated behind Kruckenberg and her family, whom locals referred to as a strong figure in the community. Neely reported that many of them began shaking their heads as soon as Greenlee finished speaking.
Simply put, he stated, they weren’t taking it.
According to Anderson, on May 23, Greenlee invited her staff into her office and sobbedly informed them that she had submitted her letter of resignation and accepted a position with the Cedar Rapids Public Library. She promised to go in early June.
We would be without a director once more and still be the target of criticism from the locals, authorities, and board members, Anderson wrote in an email to NBC News.
Greenlee declined to make an on-the-record statement for this article.
At a board meeting on June 8, the library board accepted Greenlee’s resignation and reappointed Neely as interim director. According to Neely and Kelly, the board chair, who both attended the meeting, there were approximately 100 attendees, a large enough number that the meeting had to be moved to City Hall.
One of many residents who spoke at the meeting to express disappointment in the situation was Molly Rach, a library assistant for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who has lived in Vinton with her husband for eight years. She claimed that the community had run out of two highly qualified, highly credentialed library directors.
This library will suffer, she remarked at the meeting, but not because of diverse books or staff members who identify as LGBTQIA, but rather because it will be difficult to find anyone who is ready to put up with being harassed by people of the community for carrying out their duties.
It was just a matter of weeks until Neely departed as well.
He spoke of the meeting on June 8 as being one where “you could tell half the crowd was just like, Ugh, youre horrible.” I had had enough during that particular board meeting.
On June 27, he sent a letter of resignation to the library board, stating that despite his arduous education and experience, he felt diminished to the role of the gay man of the library.
He wrote, “It hurts and I’m disappointed.”
Neely left the company at the same time as another employee. At the start of July, the sudden departures prompted the library to close for more than a week, leaving those who relied on it, like stay-at-home mother of three Kelsey Ann Wiederin, stranded.
She claimed that all they did was shut their doors.
Wiederin relocated to Vinton about a year ago from the nearby town of La Porte City. She claimed that Neely had a natural ability to connect with her oldest kid, who is disabled. It broke her heart to learn that he had quit earlier this summer.
Connie Bennett, another employee who departed at the same time as Neely, said NBC News she had been placed on administrative leave. Anderson claimed Bennett had previously made what they thought to be subtly transphobic comments in an email to NBC News. At the board meeting on Tuesday, Kelly announced that an inquiry into a staff member—whom he did not name—had been completed and that the employee would be going back to work. He added that the board decided to send the matter to the city’s Title VI coordinator for ongoing supervision. Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids the treatment of members of protected classes differently in programs that receive government money.
When contacted by NBC News, Bennett would only confirm her return to work and referred further inquiries to the city administrator, Chris Ward, who stated in an email that any records pertaining to private employee information are private unless the employee has been fired, demoted, or made the decision to resign.
Anderson, the sole employee left since Neelys’ resignation, resigned on Tuesday after finding out Bennett will resume his employment at the library.
According to Kelly, the library building is currently open for barely half of its typical hours because seven of the nine board members have received training in library management. The board chose a new director on Tuesday, but she probably won’t start until the following month. Before leaving her current position, the new director requested that her name not be made public.
For the low-income citizens who want office supplies and free internet, the library’s lessened capacity means fewer summer programming and less access to the building’s services.
Crystal Pladsen-Coder, a resident of Vinton, read from an petition at a Community Council meeting last week, urging officials to take a stance and show the way as we recover our city. The petition had more than 400 signatures. She led the charge in recent months to put Pride signs on yards all across Vinton as the situation at the library developed. After she finished, another person utilized the time for public comments to warn against the risks of critical race and critical gender theory.
Many present and previous inhabitants of Vinton agree with the statement made by another citizen that “the remarks of one person have been used to tarnish an entire community.”
The loudest individuals receive all of the attention, according to Tracie Walker, a former resident of Vinton who now resides nearby.
Walker claimed that as she watched the debate over the previous few months, she felt let down. She claimed that she believed Vinton residents had been grouped with what she called a very small group of individuals who did not speak for everyone.
Walker brought up her two gay sons in Vinton in a home close to the library. Jordan, one of her boys, claimed he wasn’t always aware of being gay, but while growing up in Vinton, he was certain that some locations made him feel at ease and others didn’t.
The library was one of the locations where he felt secure. From the fifth grade until about high school, when he claimed to have spent all of his time trying to be passably straight, he went there constantly.
Jordan, now 37, felt forced to leave after high school and eventually made his way to Chicago, which he described as the ideal place for someone who missed the Midwest to live as themselves.
Like many mothers, Tracie Walker admitted that she had always hoped that her sons would settle back in the neighborhood of their childhood homes and start families there. But over the last six months, she’s come to believe that dream might be a lost cause.
She said, “I need to give up on that.”