Representatives from around 40 activist groups – coming together as the newly formed United Front for Open Libraries – gathered outside the Central Library in Causeway Bay on Sunday to protest the removal of LGBTQ-themed children’s books from library shelves.

Brian Leung Siu-fai, chief operating officer of LGBTQ rights group BigLove Alliance, said the Front has requested that the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) give a detailed explanation of its decision, and restore the affected books to their original status.

“We are shocked by the LCSD’s decision. The LCSD said they removed the books because of readers’ complaints, but we know the people responsible are just one anti-gay rights group,” Leung said.

Brian Leung Ray Chan United Front for Open Libraries
Brian Leung (second from left), Ray Chan (centre). Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Last week, the LCSD confirmed that a number of 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.

However, the LCSD acknowledged in a statement that the books did not “encourage or criticise same-sex marriage or advocate homosexuality,” and did not involve inappropriate messages, which was why they were still able to remain part of the public libraries’ overall collection.

“They already concluded the books were neutral… So why put the books in closed stacks at all?” Leung said. “Their decision is inconsistent and makes no sense.”

Ray Chan, Hong Kong’s first openly gay lawmaker, said the LCSD’s decision was a form of differential treatment, and said it would send a harmful message to parents and children that the LGBTQ community should be kept out of sight.

United Front for Open Libraries
United Front for Open Libraries. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

“This is definitely a form of differential treatment, which is based on the discrimination of sexual minorities and their families,” Chan said.

“When people go to the library, most of them will browse the shelves and borrow books that catch their eye. Not many will first find out the name of a book, and then go and request it… To me, the objective effect of ‘closed stacks’ is similar to removing the books entirely,” he added.

Formation of United Front

The United Front for Open Libraries was formed last Wednesday as multiple groups voiced concerns over the LCSD’s decision, and includes various LGBTQ rights groups as well as representatives from the cultural and publishing sectors.

Affected LGBTQ library children's books
The affected library books. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Leung said that members of the Front have tried to borrow the relevant children’s books from public libraries. In one instance, it took the librarian 30 minutes to retrieve one of the books. The librarian also said the book required parental guidance and asked, “Are you sure you want to borrow this?”

Other groups in attendance included Amnesty International Hong Kong, LGBTQ rights group Nutong Xueshe, and the Student Christian Movement of Hong Kong.

Olivia Yeung, a representative from the Concern Group for Children’s Books, said she was worried that the LCSD’s decision would set an example for the removal of other library books, possibly based on political grounds. The Concern Group was newly formed in the past week.

Olivia Yeung Concern Group for Children's Books
Olivia Yeung. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Yeung said she and her four-year-old child had previously read the award-winning book And Tango Makes Three, one of the titles affected by the LCSD’s decision.

“The book is really heartwarming and true-to-life. If you don’t read it through coloured lenses, you will find that it’s a story about love,” Yeung said.

‘Established mechanisms’

In a statement to HKFP, the LCSD said on Monday that the decision was made after the books were reviewed in a “professional and objective manner in accordance with established mechanisms.”

“We shall study the content of the petition submitted by the group in detail… We shall keep an open mind on the opinions and suggestions of the public and different groups on library books and related services,” the statement read.

Hong Kong central Library
Hong Kong Central Library. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The protest took place outside the Central Library in Causeway Bay, the largest public library in Hong Kong, where the first floor is dedicated to children’s books.

Mr. Kwok, a father of two who visited the children’s section with his family on Sunday, said he thought the LCSD’s decision was “normal.” He said he would allow his children to read books with LGBTQ themes but only under parental supervision.

“Children may not understand. Maybe they won’t ask questions and just absorb whatever message the book sends,” Kwok told HKFP. “After all, these topics do not have a lot of popular appeal.”

Additional reporting: Jennifer Creery.

Holmes Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. He covers local news with a focus on law, politics, and social movements. He studied law and literature at the University of Hong Kong.