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Library staff felt 'threatened' after GOP candidate complained about Pride Month display

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Kerrigan Trautsch

Kerrigan Trautsch, 18, of Eastman, was working as a page at the Prairie du Chien Memorial Library when Derrick Van Orden, a GOP candidate currently running unopposed for Wisconsin's 3rd Congressional District, came in and challenged the children's Pride Month display. She said she felt unsafe to return to work after the incident.

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN — Staff at the Prairie du Chien Memorial Library said they felt threatened and intimidated after Republican congressional candidate Derrick Van Orden complained about displays celebrating Pride Month.

Van Orden, who recently moved to Prairie du Chien, visited the library June 17 and began to “aggressively” question the pride display in the library’s children’s section, a staff member said in an interview last Tuesday, adding that Van Orden eventually obtained a library card and checked out all but one book from the display.

“It was chaos,” said Kerrigan Trautsch, 18, of Eastman, who works as a page at the library. She spoke to the Tribune on behalf of her colleagues. She is a member of the LGBTQ community and was 17 at the time of the incident.

Van Orden is running for a second time to represent Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, a must-watch race in the upcoming midterm election as Republicans look to take back the House. He’s currently the only registered Republican in the race after longtime Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, announced he would retire.

Derrick Van Orden

Van Orden

The Tribune asked Van Orden for an interview, but instead a spokesman sent a statement.

“I unequivocally support equal rights for all Americans. This of course includes our fellow citizens who are members of the LGBTQ+ community. It is 2021 and this should not have to be stated but there are people who continue to divide us as Americans for political purposes. I will not allow them to further degrade the relationships we have as citizens,” Van Orden said in the statement.

‘I don’t feel safe at work anymore’

Each June, the Prairie du Chien Memorial Library library sets up a series of displays and programs for Pride Month, a celebration of the LGBTQ community. It sat among other displays, including one for Dairy Month, celebrated in June as well.

The displays included colorful posters and a mix of both fiction and non-fiction books on diversity, inclusivity and the LGBTQ community. The children’s display was placed on a small section of a table with rainbow paper lining it, and the library hosted a pride-themed chalk art event on the sidewalk in front of its building later that month.

But toward the middle of June, the staff began to receive some pushback from the community, a city of about 5,500 people in rural Crawford County. Emails, calls and in-person complaints about the displays had put them on high alert.

On June 17, Kerrigan was in a back room with a coworker when she began to hear “words being exchanged” out front between a man and another colleague.

“I started to realize that his voice was starting to raise. So I walked out there to one of my coworkers and I started to realize that this is not a good situation,” she said.

At the time, Kerrigan did not know that the man was Van Orden or that he was a congressional candidate.

She described Van Orden as angry, and said he used words such as “disgusting,” adding that the books offended him and that taxpayers should not have to see the selection of books. He said the information in the books — many of them fictional picture books for children — was “incorrect,” Kerrigan recalled.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo

He was specifically upset with the 2018 book “A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo,” which is a parody of a book written by former Vice President Mike Pence’s wife and daughter about his real-life pet rabbit. The fictional bestseller is a picture book that aims to combat Pence’s anti-LGBTQ views by detailing the same-sex romance between Marlon Bundo and another rabbit.

The Tribune obtained the statement of concern that Van Orden filed with the library, where he said the book was “historically inaccurate” and called for it to be removed from the shelf.

“The book is historically inaccurate in claiming that same-sex marriage was illegal in the U.S. when the story was written. The book claims Mike Pence was VP (2017) prior to the Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). This book is a clear attempt to paint Republicans as being not inclusive,” Van Orden wrote.

He further wrote that the effect of the book was “skewing young people to think that Republicans are not inclusive. This book is not informational, it is propaganda.”

The book in question has received pushback in recent years, and was in 2019’s top 10 challenged books, a list compiled each year by the American Library Association.

“His voice was loud, he was aggressive, he had his finger jabbing into (the book) constantly,” Kerrigan said, describing the situation as “very uncomfortable, threatening.”

After getting a superior involved, Kerrigan stayed nearby, suggesting books for Van Orden from the adult section about the LGBTQ community and diversity.

“I had said that if I may speak to try to help, and he kept saying: ‘Hush, you don’t have a voice. You don’t have a voice,’” Kerrigan said.

Kerrigan said Van Orden repeatedly “demanded” to know who set up the displays in the library so he could “teach them a lesson.”

“I was the one who put up those displays,” she said. She was afraid to say this at the time because of his demeanor. “He was full on shouting at this point and he kept aggressively shoving the books around.”

Van Orden then got a library card and checked out every book from the children’s LGBTQ display, aside from one that a patron was already reading, Kerrigan said.

Prairie du Chien Memorial Library

The Prairie du Chien Memorial Library, located at 125 S. Wacouta Ave.

“We can’t really tell him that he can’t check them all out. We were very fearful that they would not return, that they would be damaged when they got back,” Kerrigan said. All of the books were returned unharmed within a week, she said.

While he had the books, the children’s display “sat empty,” she said.

Kerrigan recently graduated from River Ridge High School. She describes herself as a fervent advocate for the LGBTQ community. She said she rarely backs down from confrontation. But she said she went home after work that day angry and crying.

“When I got home I told my parents: ‘I don’t feel safe at work anymore,’” she said.

“It was very upsetting to have a kid who is never scared — she always says, ‘They’re not going to scare me, they’re just being a bully, whatever.’ For her to say, ‘I don’t feel safe at work,’” said Kerrigan’s mom, Rita Trautsch, “that was very scary.”

Kerrigan said her fear was heightened because the library’s staff is almost all women.

“I was terrified that he would be outside, that there would be a collection of people outside waiting for me, waiting for anyone else,” she said. “We were terrified.”

More outrage

Van Orden was not the only one to complain about the displays, and the library board at its July 27 meeting heard from more members of the public.

One of the speakers was a local pastor, Andy Doll, who preaches at Bible Baptist Church in Prairie du Chien, a church that Van Orden has attended.

In his own statement of concern, Doll wrote that he objected promoting “the LBGTQ (sic) agenda on the adults, but especially the children of our community. These sexual displays have kept my family from visiting the library.”

Doll further wrote that the displays and books promoted and pushed “the homosexual agenda, which is sinful and deviant and harmful to those who participate in it,” and that kids “should not have these topics shoved down their throats,” calling it a “political agenda and a sexual reorientation program.”

The meeting put a spotlight on the broader anti-LGBTQ rhetoric circulating in the community, which Kerrigan said was “disheartening.”

“It was extremely stressful,” she said. “Having to listen to all these people in the community who I have taught through writing classes, I’ve checked out their books, I have had fun with them, I have guided them — to be told that I am a disgrace, that I am disgusting. ... I checked their books out yesterday but today they want to put me on a stake.”

At the meeting, Rita wore a shirt that read “If your parents aren’t accepting of your identity, I’m your mom now.”

The director of the Southwest Wisconsin Library System read a statement at the July meeting, highlighting the library’s legal obligation to serve a broad, diverse base of patrons and to foster a space for intellectual freedom. Library staff sent the Tribune a copy of its “Freedom to Read” policy, which underscores reading as a form of civil liberty.

A new voice

The incident with Van Orden was alarming for the staff in general. But after they found out he was a political candidate running for federal office, it had bigger meaning.

“That enraged me even more. I immediately was fueled up to do more, to do more advocacy in my community,” said Kerrigan, who found out he was a candidate just before her 18th birthday.

Kerrigan and her family reached out to a number of different advocacy groups that helped her set up a meeting with Rep. Kind, who defeated Van Orden in the 2020 election by a small margin.

“He said, ‘Just know that you have support, what you’re doing is right,’” Kerrigan remembered. “I said thanks, thanks, thanks — but that’s not what we need.

“I said: ‘I appreciate your words but I don’t need them right now. I need actions instead of words,’” she said. During her meeting with Kind she advocated for policies on adoption rights for LGBTQ couples, allowing gay men to donate blood, making it easier to change your gender identity on government IDs and on more protections for transgender workers.

LGBTQ book backlash

Kerrigan Trautsch, an 18-year-old page at the Prairie du Chien Memorial Library, points to books with stickers indicating they have LGBTQ storylines. The library has received recent pushback on the books, and some patrons have turned the books around or hidden them, prompting new security cameras.

Since these incidents, the library has continued to experience backlash for its collection of LGBTQ books. More cameras have been put up around the shelves where individuals have been flipping or hiding books with LGBTQ stickers on them.

But Kerrigan emphasized that there has been some good to come out of it, too.

“These voices are very loud in disagreement, however we do have a lot of support,” she said. “Just because there’s a few bad eggs in the coop doesn’t mean that everyone’s bad. And we do realize that these people can learn hopefully, and grow. That’s the point of a library. This is a safe place you can learn anything and everything that you want.”

She said these incidents reinforce the need for pride displays, and that the library plans on buying more LGBTQ books and continuing its displays in the future.

The incidents have prompted the library to consider starting advocacy groups for different ages, too, like the one Kerrigan started at River Ridge High School. The school has a student population of about 200, making the roughly 60 members of the group a proud accomplishment for both Kerrigan and Rita, who is an adviser. The group hopes to bring more LGBTQ books into the school library as part of its work.

Kerrigan will attend the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse in the fall, and plans to work at another library while in school.

As for Van Orden, Kerrigan said the library never received an apology from the candidate.

“This just means that he as a politician has to do a lot more learning. Not maybe so much about the laws that follow the LGBTQ community, but the actual people that may or may not be voting for him,” Kerrigan said.

“If he cannot handle the new generation of voters coming in by telling them to shush, that we don’t have a voice,” she said. “I want him to know: I can vote now.”

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