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‘My Heart Sank’: In Maine, a Challenge to a Book, and to a Town’s Self-Image

Inside the Blue Hill Public Library, which faced backlash over a decision to carry a book that suggests gender dysphoria is a “diagnostic craze” fueled by adolescent confusion, in Blue Hill, Maine, Nov. 10, 2023. (Tristan Spinski/The New York Times)
Inside the Blue Hill Public Library, which faced backlash over a decision to carry a book that suggests gender dysphoria is a “diagnostic craze” fueled by adolescent confusion, in Blue Hill, Maine, Nov. 10, 2023. (Tristan Spinski/The New York Times)

BLUE HILL, Maine — Rich Boulet, the director of the Blue Hill Public Library, was working in his office when a regular patron stopped by to ask how to donate a book to the library. “You just hand it over,” Boulet said.

The book was “Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters,” by journalist Abigail Shrier. The book posits that gender dysphoria is a “diagnostic craze” fueled by adolescent confusion, social media and peer influence, and that teenagers are too young to undergo potentially irreversible gender transition surgery.

Many transgender people and their advocates say the book is harmful to trans youth, and some have tried to suppress its distribution.

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“If I’m being totally honest, my heart sank when I saw it,” Boulet recalled.

Founded in 1796, the library has a $7.9 million endowment in a coastal enclave popular among affluent summer residents. Blue Hill delivered a 35-point victory for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race. The communities around it are a blend of liberal, conservative and none-of-your-business, all of which helped its library resist political proxy battles like those roiling the nation’s libraries.

But in mid-2021, the Blue Hill library and its leadership were tested in a way none of them anticipated.

“Irreversible Damage” did not reflect Boulet’s personal views, nor those of his staff. But because “I want the library to be there for everybody, not just people who share my voting record,” Boulet said he gave the book the same consideration he would any other and concluded it should be on the shelves.

“I felt like it filled a hole in our collection of a lot of materials on that subject matter,” he said. His staff supported the decision.

Less than a week after the book went on display, the parent of a transgender adult told Boulet that she found it harmful.

“She and I have known each other for years, and we talked about it calmly,” he recalled. The patron filled out a reconsideration request, asking that the book be kept “under the desk,” available only by request.

The library’s collections committee voted unanimously to keep the book in circulation. “But I knew it wasn’t over,” Boulet said.

Residents who objected to the book confronted him, library staffers and board members in the grocery store, post office and the library itself.

“They would say, ‘I can’t believe that the library is allowing this,’” said John Diamond, the library board president. “My feeling was, ‘I can’t believe the library would not allow it, based on its position on free access to information.’”

The harshest criticism was reserved for Boulet. One patron told him that if a trans youth checked out the book and died by suicide, “that’s on you,” Boulet recalled. Critical Facebook posts and negative Google reviews poured in.

Boulet defended the decision on the library’s Facebook page, which only fanned the discord. Painfully, Boulet knew many of the negative commenters.

Boulet appealed to the American Library Association for a public letter of support, which it offers to libraries undergoing censorship efforts. “They ghosted me,” he said.

Asked about the letter, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said Boulet’s request had generated internal debate and delay.

“Our position on the book is, it should remain in the collection; it is beneath us to adopt the tools of the censors,” she said in an interview. “We need to support intellectual freedom in all its aspects, in order to claim that high ground.” Months after Boulet requested the letter, Caldwell-Stone saw him at a conference and apologized.

Boulet wrote an open letter in the local newspaper stressing that the library welcomes everyone, “not just your or my slice of the community.”

“The presence of an item in the library is not an endorsement of the ideas contained therein,” he added.

A friend of Boulet’s, a high school teacher, posted a response on social media and sent it to the library board.

“The ‘All Lives Matter’ stance the Blue Hill library is taking is biased, harmful and manipulative hate speech,” it read. Irate, Boulet confronted the teacher in person, and the two are no longer friends.

And then, by the end of 2021, the furor quieted, and the book remained.

Before the controversy, “I hadn’t really given intellectual freedom as much thought as I should have,” Boulet said. His conclusion, he said, is that “intellectual freedom or the freedom of speech isn’t there just to protect ideas that we like.”

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