This Texas Community Library Provides ‘Queer Rural Resistance’ to Book Bans

Thousands of books have been banned since HB 900 was signed into law last year, but Carabiner Collections aims to combat the censorship.

Illustration of hands holding a book in front of colorful shelves
Launched last year, Carabiner Collections aims to share stories of queer lives in the U.S. South. Cage Rivera/Rewire News Group illustration

When Jenna Turpin started graduate school at Texas A&M University in 2022, they went straight to the library to check out Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir. The book had come out in 2019, but it made national headlines throughout 2021 and 2022 after 56 school districts across the country—including Keller Independent School District in Texas—banned it from classrooms and libraries, making it one of the nation’s “most challenged and most frequently banned books,” according to PEN America.

In Texas, Gender Queer’s fate was not unique: The American Library Association reported that Texas bans three times more books than any other state, and almost half those are by LGBTQ+ authors. The state targeted 2,571 titles in 2022, followed by a whopping 4,240 titles in 2023—amounting to a 65 percent increase year over year. Practically speaking, representation of many queer kids’ existence is being continually erased from public view in conservatives’ larger effort to restrict free speech and LGBTQ+ rights.

Turpin isn’t a professional librarian, but that didn’t stop them from dreaming up a do-it-yourself solution to the ongoing problem of censorship in Texas schools with the help of their fellow grad classmates and Carabiner Collections co-founders Jordan Anderson and Soleil Gignac.

‘This is our form of queer rural resistance’

Last year, the trio took a roadtrip to Turpin’s home state of California and visited the Lavender Library, a volunteer-run community library and archive in Sacramento that is open daily and hosts everything from open mic nights, craft markets, and book clubs and more, according to the website. They were instantly inspired to create a similar community in Texas.

“I walked around [that space] and was like, ‘This is allowed?’” said Anderson, who was born and raised in Texas. “It was very shocking. And we decided, why can’t we do that here?”

A few months later, Carabiner Collections—a resource that Turpin calls “our form of queer rural resistance”—was born.

Here’s how it works: Carabiner Collections currently operates from three book “lockers” in Texas’ Brazos Valley, plus a booth in downtown Bryan’s Main Street, which pops up during the town’s First Fridays. To borrow a book, you can request it on the Carabiner Collection website, select your pickup location, and visit the locker. Books can be returned to lockers, too.

It’s the kind of thing queer Southerners are used to—the homegrown magic of making do.

“The thought kind of popped into our head in June 2023,” Anderson said. “We got our first books around November, and then we got our nonprofit status in January. So between January and now, we’ve gotten almost 450 books.”

It’s a growing collection that contains everything from fiction and memoir to self-help guides and children’s picture books. Taken together, it’s a vital resource for a community that has been increasingly denied the right to tell its own stories of queer life in the U.S. South and elsewhere. Long term, the trio dreams of running a bookmobile, so that their collection can be more easily shared and transported.

A wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation

Texas’ book bans are largely the consequence of HB 900, or the Restricting Explicit and Adult-Designated Educational Resource (READER) Act. Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law in June 2023 and it took effect in September, but attempts to implement it have been mired in confusion.

Last July, a group of Texas booksellers filed a lawsuit challenging the ban, claiming that it violated their freedom of speech. The challenge was successful: In April, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the portion of the bill that forced private book vendors to assign ratings to all books and reading materials based on depictions or references to sex, and to subsequently remove anything with the rating of “sexually explicit.” Other portions of the bill still stand.

The READER Act is not the only legislation that Texas’ marginalized groups are contending with. SB 17, which was also signed into law in June 2023 and took effect on January 1, bans public universities from engaging in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and activities putting serious limitations on schools like Texas A&M. The school’s Pride Center, for example, was renamed the Student Life Center and subsequently de-rainbowed. (A&M’s Queer Empowerment Council is working to fill in the gaps, like taking over hosting duties of the queer-centric Lavender Graduation and the Coming Out Monologues.) Carabiner Collections isn’t affiliated with A&M, but its nonprofit status prevents it from “engaging in any political activity,” according to the IRS.

Turpin and Anderson were careful to point out this limitation during our interview, but it remains a painful irony that in the midst of ongoing politicization of the queer existence, Carabiner Collections—a decidedly queer library—is barred from participating in “politics.” You could say they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, but it hasn’t stopped them from serving their community.

Other similar book-centered programs have popped up across the country, and yet censorship remains a powerful force in erasing positive representations of queer selfhood.

“Censorship takes a huge toll on mental health,” Turpin said. “You can go out and find these things on the internet, but if you aren’t seeing them in your community, in physical books, and you’re seeing them taken off the shelves, that sends the message that you aren’t normal and that who you are isn’t right.”

In the shadow of ‘Closet Station’

Even though more queer people live in the South than in any other region, political and cultural hurdles remain in the path to LGBTQ+ equality.

College Station is a case in point: Branded “Closet Station” in the late aughts, the play on words made light of what some perceived as an unsafe environment for queer students.

“When I first moved here, in 2007, [Texas A&M] was one of the top five ‘most hateful toward LGBTQ+ people’ schools in the U.S.,” Pamela Edens, Pride 100’s vice president of communications, said. (In 2013, the closest year I could find to Edens’ 2007 marker, the Princeton Review ranked Texas A&M No. 11 on its “LGBT-unfriendly” list.)

College Station has become friendlier toward the LGBTQ+ community since then, but legislative attacks on visibility and bodily autonomy persist. On the flip side, groups like Pride 100—which gathers queer community members and allies in the Bryan/College Station area three times a year to raise money for LGBTQ+ nonprofits—support the work of organizations like Carabiner Collections.

“My partner has two young children, and I am helping to raise them,” said Pride 100 President Adrian Capetillo. “I wanted to make sure that they had a community—a community where they felt safe and they saw other people and other families like ours.”

Though Carabiner Collections has yet to win Pride 100’s coveted $10,000 prize (voted on and awarded tri-annually but its members, each of whom donate $100), they have received a $2,000 grant from the Fund for Trans Generations, a philanthropic organization that supports trans-led organizing, and also get a monthly kick-back via donations from the local flag company Flags for Good. A GoFundMe campaign rounds out this scrappy financing strategy.

It’s the kind of thing queer Southerners are used to—the homegrown magic of making do. It’s also what gives Turpin, Anderson, and Gignac reason to be optimistic about Carabiner Collections’ future, despite Texas’ ongoing attempts to ban books. Ultimately, queer people have always been an integral part of the South, and this group is committed to making sure they have a future here.

“I think just the fact that we exist is a sign of hope,” Turpin said. “I know the background of it is bleak, and maybe the reason we started it could be seen as a little sad, but I feel better even just living here, doing this. It’s like this physical demonstration that gay people are everywhere, even in the places you don’t expect us to be.”

Anderson nodded in agreement. “I’m a Southerner through and through,” she said. “I would never leave the South. I love it here. This is my home.”