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Hong Kong equality watchdog questions removal of LGBTQ-themed library books as backlash grows

The Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) has questioned the Hong Kong Public Libraries’ decision to remove children’s books with LGBTQ themes from public view, calling it an unnecessary move that may place “new limits on children’s access to books.”

In a statement to HKFP, the EOC said that the removal of the books may be unnecessary, given that seven of the titles concerned were considered “neutral in nature” by the public libraries themselves.

Equal Opportunities Commission

Equal Opportunities Commission. Photo: inmediahk.net.

On Tuesday, the Leisure and Culture Services Department (LCSD) confirmed that ten titles – all children’s books that touch on LGBTQ themes – were moved to “closed stacks,” a storage area where books can only be accessed upon request. It was done following a months-long petition by the anti-gay rights group Family School Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance Concern Group.

The EOC said that any policy on the acquisition and access of library books should be based on “sound reasons and solid evidence,” adding that a diverse collection should be maintained for public access.

“We hope to see the message of respect and inclusion being promoted via as many channels as possible, including libraries,” it said.

Backlash from activist groups

Brian Leung Siu-fai, the chief operating officer of LGBTQ rights group BigLove Alliance, said that a meeting between various activists groups was held on Wednesday evening, and a joint petition was in the works.

Brian Leung LegCo AIDS BigLove Alliance

BigLove Alliance COO Brian Leung speaking at LegCo. Photo: Youtube screenshot.

He said he was expecting multiple groups – including groups not exclusively dedicated to LGBTQ rights – to come together for a petition event on Sunday, with details to be announced later.

In an online statement published Tuesday, the Alliance called the LCSD’s decision an act of appeasement.

Reggie Ho, the CEO of another LGBTQ rights group Pink Alliance, told HKFP that the LCSD’s decision went against the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto: “The right of society at large to have access to knowledge, information and research should not be restricted because of protests from people who want to impose their beliefs on others,” Ho said.

Hong Kong central Library

Hong Kong Central Library. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In response to HKFP enquiries, the LCSD has refused to disclose statistics on the closed stacks at public libraries, and offered no further information on the Collection Development Meeting, a committee of professional librarians who was responsible for the decision of removing the books.

‘Nothing wrong or shameful’

One of the affected titles was Introducing Teddy, a 2016 children’s book written by Jessica Walton and illustrated by Dougal MacPherson. On the author’s website, the book was described as telling “a story about a teddy bear who finally tells her friends that she is a girl teddy, not a boy teddy. Teddy’s friends respond with love, care and respect.”

Introducing teddy lgbtq children's books

Introducing Teddy and other affected children’s books.

Walton and MacPherson told HKFP that they were saddened to hear their book was removed from shelves, and hoped that “parents and teachers make a point of asking for these books that have been hidden away.”

The author and illustrator said that libraries should be places where everyone can go to feel safe and welcome: “What message do we send children if books about some people are hidden away like they are something wrong or shameful?”

Dougal MacPherson Jessica Walton

Dougal MacPherson and Jessica Walton. Photo: The Little Bookroom, via Twitter.

“There is nothing wrong or shameful about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. In 2018, we should be proud to be part of a diverse, accepting society… There will always be people in our society who don’t accept anyone different to them, but we must not allow those people to dictate what books we put on the shelves and read to our children,” they said.

The removal of the children’s books have also drawn reactions from local artists and writers, with one artist creating a 30-page illustrated book in response to the incident. The artist, publishing online under the name Ah Lei, called the work The Adventure of the Prohibited Books.

In the story, the young protagonist was unable to read certain library books after they were locked away. His grandmother consoled him by saying, “They can stop you from reading certain books, but they cannot take away your desire to experience the world.”

‘We love all kinds of books’

In another Facebook post, the European Union Office in Hong Kong and Macao wrote about their booth at this year’s Hong Kong Book Fair, while attaching photos of three of the affected children’s books.

“This year’s theme is love and at the EU we love all kinds of books,” the post read.

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Hong Kong equality watchdog questions removal of LGBTQ-themed library books as backlash grows