CRANSTON, R.I. — To Edward Garcia, the Independent Women’s Network was like any other group looking to book an event at the William Hall Library. Theater groups, condo associations, financial planners and the like have rented the auditorium for their meetings.
And then on Friday, as the calls and emails came in, and Garcia, the director for the Cranston Public Library, realized that the event on Monday and its guest speaker had thrust them into a First Amendment controversy — right at the start of Banned Books Week.
The Rhode Island chapter of the Independent Women’s Network, a national right-wing organization that also operates with the Independent Women’s Forum and the Independent Women’s Voice, was hosting a “gender ideology in schools” panel discussion, featuring Chris Elston, a Canadian anti-trans activist, as a guest speaker.
On Sunday, Elston was among a handful of people protesting outside Boston Children’s Hospital, opposing the services the hospital provides for transgender patients. Wearing a black sign that defined “dad” as “a human male who protects his kids from gender ideology,” Elston stood on Longwood Avenue in Boston and shouted: “There is no such thing as a transgender child.”
On Monday evening, about 300 people showed up to protest the right-wing group at the library in Cranston’s Edgewood neighborhood, and multiple police officers were stationed outside. The library, which is usually open until 8 p.m., closed early, at 5 p.m. Police screened attendees and checked bags. An hour after the 6 p.m. event started, only about 30 guests were seated in the auditorium, which usually holds about 100 people.
Nicole Solas, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum’s Education Freedom Center, told the Globe she invited Elston to speak at the event, which she titled, “What your kids learn about gender in school.” Elston, who is nicknamed “Billboard Chris,” would talk about the “medicalization” of children, Solas said, while she planned to talk about education.
“My message is to educate how gender ideology is taught in public schools, and how it’s harmful the way it’s taught in schools and in medicine, because people are being abused and suffering,” Solas told the Globe on Monday before the event. “I don’t think people understand that it starts with indoctrination.”
Solas drew attention last year, when she and her husband filed hundreds of requests in South Kingstown for curriculum information as well as other materials such as “past and present lesson plans that incorporate or promote the ideologies of antiracism, gender theory, transgenderism and critical race theory.”
On Monday, she defended her event in Cranston, which she said was intended to bring new members to the Rhode Island chapter of her organization, which has about five or six people. “It’s not hate speech to be exposing medical abuse of children. This is what we believe, Chris and I, that this is greatest child abuse scandal in history,” Solas said.
When library patrons and the general public found out about the event, they called for protests.
“The library is a trusted public institution that disseminates information; people are going to assume the information from these speakers is true. Our public libraries cannot be in the business of legitimizing hateful, false speech,” Ethan Huckle of TGI Network of RI said in a statement.
Garcia said there have been about 200 events held throughout the Cranston library system, but none of them had reached this kind of furor.
Public libraries don’t have to allow outside use, but if they do, they can’t pick and choose which groups can use the space, Garcia said. When allowing a group to book space at the library, the library doesn’t endorse or sponsor the group or vet the guest speakers.
“The library has a longstanding policy of allowing public use of the space. Any cultural, educational, civic group can use our meeting space, and it doesn’t matter what the opinions of the group are,” Garcia said.
After discussions all weekend with the city’s legal counsel and the library’s board of trustees, the library decided there was a First Amendment issue at stake. And so they allowed the event to take place.
Anti-trans and anti-CRT activists such as Elston and Solas have called for banning books such as “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe. The Cranston library system has several copies of this book, Garcia said. While there haven’t been any formal challenges to any materials, some people have questioned why the libraries celebrate Pride Month, and earlier this year some children’s books on gender identity were defaced, he said.
“We know the library has really focused on building inclusive collectives and inclusive spaces and inclusive programming, and that will continue,” he told the Globe. “We deeply understand where everyone is coming from.”
In response to this article, Solas told the Globe that she has not called for “banning” books, but has called for “not including a book in a school library collection.” She defined “banning” a book as “government action to prohibit the publishing and distribution of material.”
According to the First Amendment Encyclopedia by the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee University, “Book banning, a form of censorship, occurs when private individuals, government officials, or organizations remove books from libraries, school reading lists, or bookstore shelves because they object to their content, ideas, or themes.”
In October 2021, Solas said she filed a police report about “Gender Queer” being available at North Kingstown High School, alleging that it was pornographic. “The ALA has a selection criteria on its website for school libraries to select books that are age appropriate. Gender Queer is rated 18 and up for readers,” she told the Globe Monday night. “It’s an adult book.”
The book is not marketed to a YA audience, but earned an Alex Award from the American Library Association for having “special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.” While it is recommended for readers age “18 and up” on Amazon, it is rated “16+” by Common Sense Media and for readers age “15 years” by Barnes & Noble.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island agreed with the library director’s decision to hold the event.
Garcia’s statement on the decision, posted on the Cranston Library website, “properly notes that serious First Amendment concerns would be raised by denying an individual or organization the ability to use library meeting space solely because of the content of their views,” said ACLU-RI executive director Steven Brown.
“Taking such an action would also seem to run counter to a library’s basic mission, and would be especially troubling at a time when libraries themselves are facing concerted efforts by outside groups to censor certain books — including books on this very subject — based on their content,” Brown said. “The message of this group deserves condemnation, but silencing their speech is, ultimately, a dangerous and counter-productive way to respond.”
Solas objected to the ACLU statement, even though it supported her right to hold the event. “The ACLU said they support free speech but condemn my message,” she told the Globe. “They never reached out to me for comment.”
Outside, the Reverend Donnie Anderson, an activist who speaks frequently on gender issues, criticized the library and said it should offer children “a safe space.”
“My friends, there is a limit to free speech,” she said. “These are people who are recruiting people to believe not only that people like me are phony or don’t exist or are mentally ill, but they are recruiting people to be part of legislative efforts to make it more difficult for our children to realize who they are or be who they are. And the result of that is going to be that children are going to die.”
Inside, Solas shared her point of view on inclusive curricula in schools.
“Schools are planting seeds in children’s heads to lead them to (gender identity) surgery if they are brainwashed enough,” Solas told the 30 or so people inside the auditorium.
Elston railed against the media and called the trans movement and the organizations that support transgender individuals “a cult.”
“There is no right way to be a boy or girl, but kids who are gender-nonconforming are told they are trans,” he said. “People say that I am trying to erase transgender people existence. I say there is no such thing as a transgender child. There are boys, there are girls, and that’s it.”
He later posted video of his speech on Twitter.
“… just like the previous 200,000 years of our existence on this earth. That doesn’t mean there aren’t children who are struggling with gender distress.— Billboard Chris 🇨🇦🇺🇸 (@BillboardChris) September 20, 2022
“Gender dysphoria, it probably should be called sex dysphoria, is real, and we need to help these kids.”
“We are destroying kids lives for an experiment and we call it inclusion,” he added.
As the event ended at 8 p.m., the anti-trans attendees began to boo and yell at the librarian who came to tell them the building was closing for the night. Though everyone’s free speech was protected, with one group outside protesting and another group inside speaking, there was no common ground.
Elston gestured to the protesters outside. “These people out here don’t want us to talk,” he said.
This article has been updated to include a video from Chris Elston, a response from event organizer Nicole Solas, and more information about “Gender Queer: A Memoir.”