A small-town library shut down. Some say the culture wars closed it.
The public library in a small Iowa farming town has been embroiled in a monthslong controversy spurred by anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, attempts to censor books with progressive and LGBTQ themes and the alleged harassment of LGBTQ staff members.
The situation reached a tipping point last month when the library — a place referred to by some as the “heart of the community” — was forced to close for more than a week after its interim director resigned, saying he felt ostracized for being gay.
It’s indicative of an undercurrent of homophobia that exists in the town among a small portion of its 5,000 residents, according to more than a dozen current and former Vinton residents. Although not representative of the entire community, the controversy has divided it in recent months, racking up national headlines and leaving some LGBTQ residents feeling unsafe and unwelcome.
With efforts to censor LGBTQ books in many communities across the U.S., along with increased threats targeting Drag Queen Story Hour events, the situation in Vinton appears to be a microcosm of a nationwide trend. It also marks the arrival of a new battleground in the culture wars: public libraries.
“This in particular has really put a dark cloud over the community,” said Dan Engledow, a 42-year-old gay man who has lived in Vinton all his life. “There’s a small group of people who have caused lots of problems.”
Vinton now finds itself facing not only a dearth of library services, which many residents depend on, but also larger questions about how welcoming the community is toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
“Like any small, Midwestern community, it’s really not that open to a lot of the LGBTQ community,” said Molly Jennings, a former editor at The Vinton Eagle and Cedar Valley Times. “It’s the first time that I recall that it has been this blatant.”
‘Not what this town is about’
The library’s simmering culture clash dates back to late 2020, a few months after Janette McMahon, a woman with decades of experience as a library administrator, took over as director from Virginia Holsten, who retired after more than 30 years at the library, McMahon said.
“Change gets really hard when things have stayed the same a long time,” McMahon said.
In January 2021, she hired Colton Neely, who is gay, as the new children’s librarian. She called him “utterly fantastic” but said that after hiring him, the environment some patrons were creating at the library started to become less “comfortable.”
Within a few months after Neely was hired, McMahon said, a patron whom she did not name — though others familiar with the matter, including Neely, have identified this person as the pastor’s wife — checked out several children’s books and refused to return them for a prolonged period of time. One of them was written by first lady Jill Biden and another was by Vice President Kamala Harris (Harris visited the library in 2019 to read hers). “Sometimes People March,” a book about activism that was checked out, referenced the Black Lives Matter movement and the Pride flag.
Eventually, the books came back, but McMahon said some patrons had already started accusing her of having a liberal agenda.
“Gossip runs rampant in lots of places, but in small towns it tends to go very fast,” she said.
In April 2021, the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church in Vinton sent an email to a board member who has since resigned expressing concern that the library was biased toward “certain political positions and a certain political party,” according to a copy of the email shared with NBC News. The pastor, Stephen Preus, took issue with the same books and asked why the library had not chosen to instead display a biography of former President Donald Trump and a book by former Vice President Mike Pence. What Preus found even more concerning, according to his email, was what he called the library’s promotion of leftist ideologies, including “the LGBT agenda,” “transgenderism” and “Black Lives Matter Inc.”
Preus did not respond to a request for comment.
Eventually, McMahon said, the growing fervor in the town made her decide she couldn’t effectively run the library. She resigned in July 2021, after serving just over a year, and moved about an hour and a half away. She now leads a public library in Dewitt, Iowa.
With McMahon gone, Neely stepped into her shoes until the library’s board of trustees could hire a more permanent replacement. For months, Neely said, he operated the library from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. essentially by himself. All the while, he alleged, he dealt with both subtle and blatant homophobia from a handful of patrons.
One day, when he was wearing a bow tie, a patron told him to “dress down,” he recalled. “She said, ‘That’s not what this library is about; that’s not what this town is about.’”
Neely also alleged that longtime Vinton resident Brooke Kruckenberg made comments that Neely perceived as homophobic in front of him and her children while at the library. McMahon corroborated that she had heard Kruckenberg and other patrons refer to Neely as “the gay man” in what she perceived as a negative way and that Neely had been the target of what she characterized as microaggressions from Kruckenberg.
And while he was interim director, Neely said, the secretary and treasurer of the library board, Jennifer Kreutner, suggested the library obscure certain titles — including those covering LGBTQ topics — with book sleeves. Kreutner had previously objected to a summer reading challenge that had encouraged patrons to read books by people of color and LGBTQ authors, according to Neely, McMahon and another person familiar with the matter.
Kreutner’s suggestion to cover certain books with sleeves or move them elsewhere in the library was the topic of a heated library board meeting Tuesday night. During the meeting, another board member accused Kreutner of censorship, and several board members argued with Kreutner about some of her behaviors while on the board, according to an audio recording of the meeting shared with NBC News.
“I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest to represent people in the community that come forward with their views and concerns,” Kreutner said at the meeting. She then apologized after a board member accused her of only representing a conservative Christian viewpoint, though she added, “I represent the entire rural community, but most of them are conservative Christians.”
Neither Kruckenberg nor Kreutner responded to NBC News’ requests for comment.
Jimmy Kelly, chair of the library’s board of trustees, said the board was not officially made aware of any discrimination of Neely or other staff at the time of the alleged incidents. He also said in an interview before Tuesday’s board meeting that he had no prior knowledge of Kreutner’s alleged suggestion to obscure certain titles with book covers.
‘Something wasn’t right’
In November, the library board hired a new director. Renee Greenlee, a librarian with years of experience and a master’s degree in library and information science, was someone Neely thought “could fight this crowd back.”
“From the moment I shook her hand, I was like, ‘She’s the one to be in this position,’” Neely said.
Greenlee had worked for about three years as a library assistant at a public library in Marion, Iowa, where she helped facilitate Marion’s first LGBTQ Pride event, including a drag queen storytime event and a parade around the library. In January, shortly after taking the job in Vinton, she was selected from more than 1,300 librarians around the country by the American Library Association for the I Love My Librarian Award.
Neely said circumstances started to improve at the library after Greenlee took over, and he moved back into the children’s librarian position. Still, he struggled at times to attract families to his storytime events. He said he believes this was partly because parents seemed to disapprove of the fact that he is gay.
“Deep down, I felt like something wasn’t right,” he said.
At a library board meeting March 9, a motion was put on the agenda to establish gender-neutral bathrooms in the building. It passed unanimously, but at the meeting, Kruckenberg joined the chorus of residents claiming the library staff had a “liberal agenda.”
“I don’t believe the library is representing our town well with hiring a majority of staff who are openly a part of the LGBTQ community,” she wrote in a statement, which she then read at the meeting, according to attendees and meeting minutes. Neely and Joey Anderson, who were two of the library’s six employees at the time, are openly LGBTQ, Neely said.
Kruckenberg said she took issue with a “subtle, yet noticeable, display of the LGBTQ agenda,” taking form in the “choices of books on display, the cross-dressing of employees, Facebook posts and the question of non-gender bathrooms being considered.”
Greenlee left that March meeting “white as a ghost,” Neely said.
Anderson, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said in an email to NBC News that Greenlee pulled them into her office the day after the meeting to tell them what had happened. They called the experience “devastating.”
“It contributed to some pretty terrible dysphoria over the next several months,” they said.
According to meeting minutes, a prepared statement shared with NBC News and local news reports, Kruckenberg alleged at the March meeting that she had spoken to library members and parents in the community who had decided to step back from supporting the library, or stop coming completely, because of “staffing decisions” and the “liberal books that are on the shelves.” She said she wasn’t asking for any books to be banned or removed from the library, but instead for the books to be “balanced.”
“For every book on display with a topic of becoming a transgender,” Kruckenberg’s prepared statement said, “I would ask that there is a book on display that discusses how God created and designed people as either male or female from birth, for life.”
Kreutner, who takes the meeting minutes, recorded the March meeting, but she declined to produce the audio file for Greenlee and the city administrator when they asked her for it, board members said during Tuesday’s meeting. The board then spent $300 retaining a lawyer, who sent a letter to Kreutner telling her she was legally obligated to produce the file under public records laws, a copy of the letter shows. Kelly, the board chair, confirmed Kreutner eventually turned over the audio file.
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After the March board meeting, Greenlee compiled a seven-page response to Kruckenberg’s allegations that included a diversity audit of the children’s book collection. At an April 13 library board meeting, she presented her findings, which showed that of the nearly 5,800 children’s books and other materials in the library, only seven books had subject headings with the terms “LGBT,” “gay” or “transgender.” There were 31 books with Christian-related subject headings.
Greenlee also condemned Kruckenberg’s comments from the March meeting, video of the April meeting shows, saying they were “discriminatory” and “hurtful” and that she had instructed her staff to let her know if they felt unsafe, threatened or harassed.
“I very much wish that every community member could be happy with all aspects of the library, but I have been in libraries long enough to know that is not realistic,” she wrote in a public statement, which she read in full at the meeting.
Neely was sitting behind Kruckenberg and her family — whom several residents described as a powerful force in town. When Greenlee finished speaking, Neely said many of them started shaking their heads.
“They were just clearly not taking it,” he said.
By May 23, Greenlee called her staff into her office, according to Anderson, and tearfully told them she had put in her resignation letter and accepted a position at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. She said she would leave in early June.
“We’d be without a director, yet again, and still under attack by community members, leaders, and board members,” Anderson said in an email to NBC News.
Greenlee declined to comment on the record for this story.
The library board accepted Greenlee’s resignation and reappointed Neely as interim director at a June 8 board meeting. The meeting drew about 100 people, a crowd so big it had to be moved to City Hall, according to Neely and Kelly, the board chair, both of whom attended the meeting.
Molly Rach, a library assistant for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals who’s lived in Vinton with her husband for eight years, was one of many residents who spoke at the meeting to express disappointment in the situation, saying the community had “run out two highly qualified, highly credentialed library directors.”
“This library is indeed going to suffer, but not because of diverse books or staff members who identify as LGBTQIA+,” she said at the meeting, “but because you are going to have a hard time finding anyone who is willing to put up with being targeted by community members for simply doing their job.”
‘I’ve had it’
It was just a matter of weeks before Neely left, too.
“You could tell half the crowd was just like, ‘Ugh, you’re disgusting,’” he said of the June 8 meeting. “That was the board meeting where I was just like, ‘I’ve had it.’”
He penned a resignation letter to the library board on June 27, writing that despite his hard-earned qualifications, he felt reduced to just “the gay man of the library.”
“It hurts and I am disappointed,” he wrote.
Neely’s departure coincided with that of another staffer. The sudden exits forced the library to close for more than a week at the beginning of July, leaving residents who relied on the library, like Kelsey Ann Wiederin, a stay-at-home mom of three, in the lurch.
“They just closed their doors, and that was it,” she said.
Wiederin moved to Vinton from the nearby community of La Porte City about a year ago. She said Neely had a knack for interacting with her oldest child, who has a disability. Finding out he resigned earlier this summer was “heartbreaking,” she said.
The other staffer who left around the time of Neely’s departure was Connie Bennett, who confirmed to NBC News she was put on administrative leave. In an email to NBC News, Anderson accused Bennett of previously making what they perceived to be subtle transphobic remarks. During Tuesday’s board meeting, Kelly said an investigation into a staff member, whom he did not identify, had concluded, and that the staff member would be returning to work. He also said the board voted to refer the situation to the city’s Title VI coordinator for continued monitoring. Title VI is a provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination of protected classes in programs that receive federal funding.
When contacted by NBC News, Bennett would only confirm that she would be returning to work and referred additional questions to the city administrator, Chris Ward, who said in an email that any records regarding personal employee information are confidential unless that employee has been fired, demoted or decided to quit.
After learning that Bennett would return to work at the library, Anderson, who had been the only remaining staff member since Neely’s departure, resigned Tuesday.
The library building is now open for half of its usual hours, but only because seven of the nine board members were trained to help run the library, Kelly said. On Tuesday, the board selected a new director, though she likely won’t start for another month. The incoming director asked that her name not be published before she resigns from her current job.
Meanwhile, the library’s diminished capacity means reduced summer programs and less access to the building’s resources, such as free internet and office supplies for the low-income residents who need them.
Last week, Vinton resident Crystal Pladsen-Coder spoke at a City Council meeting, reading from a petition with more than 400 signatures that urged city leaders to “take a stand” and “lead the way as we reclaim our city.” As the controversy at the library unfolded, she also led an effort to place Pride signs on yards across Vinton in recent months. Shortly after she spoke, someone else used the public comment period to decry the dangers of “critical race” and “critical gender” theory.
Another resident said the words of “one person have been used to brand an entire community,” a sentiment many current and former residents of Vinton share.
“The people that are the loudest kind of get all the attention,” said Tracie Walker, a former Vinton resident who now lives close by.
Walker said she found herself disappointed as she followed the controversy over the past few months. She said she felt like Vinton residents have been lumped together with what she called a very small group of people who don’t represent everyone.
Walker raised her two sons, who are gay, in Vinton in a house near the library. One of her sons, Jordan, said he didn’t always know he was gay, but growing up in Vinton, what he knew for sure was that in some places, he felt comfortable, and in others, he didn’t.
One of the places he felt safe was the library. He was there all the time from fifth grade until about high school, when he said he started “working tirelessly to be passibly straight.”
After high school, Jordan, now 37, felt compelled to leave and eventually landed in Chicago, which he called the “perfect spot” for someone who missed the Midwest to live as his “true self.”
Like many moms, Tracie Walker said she had always hoped her sons would move back near their hometown and raise their families in the area. The past few months, however, have made her realize that dream may be a lost cause.
“I need to give up on that,” she said.