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Blaze Set at Library Targets GLBT Books



Chicago police are investigating a fire set June 13 that destroyed 100 books from the LGBT section of Lakeview’s John Merlo Branch Library, 644 W. Belmont.

Around noon, the library’s staff was notified of what Chicago Public Library spokesperson Maggie Killackey described as a “very small” fire. Staff put out the blaze before the fire department arrived. Police are investigating the crime as arson instead of a hate crime.

When asked by Windy City Times why detectives were not treating the incident as a hate crime, Chicago Police Department’s Sgt. Eugene Mullins responded, “Hate crime involves motive, and we don’t know the motive until we have an offender.”

However, some community activists say the intention was quite clear. Gay Liberation Network’s Andy Thayer, although not surprised by the police’s response, feels the motivation behind the crime is obvious.

The crime has concerned the community, but many are not surprised by its timing. The local LGBT community has made recent headlines in its fight against the ultra-conservative Illinois Family Institute’s ( IFI’s ) attempt to get an anti-gay marriage referendum on the November ballot. Gay Games VII, to be held in Chicago July 15-22, has been met with controversy from conservatives, who have attacked the event’s sponsors. Many expect protests during the Games’ July 16 rowing competition in Crystal Lake. The Gay Games’ request to hold the event in the far northern suburb sparked heated debate before the park district board, which narrowly gave a nod of approval. In addition, June is Pride month, and the annual Pride Parade is just days away.

“We’ve got book burnings at John Merlo and book-banning in the northern suburbs,” Thayer said, referring to the IFI’s recent failed attempt to ban nine books the right-wing group deemed profane at an Arlington Heights school district. The group has said it will continue to review the reading lists of other schools. ( GLN planned to hold a demonstration at the library June 20. )

“It is first and foremost an arson, but one has to ask why these particular books during this particular month,” said Gerber/Hart Library’s president, Karen Sendziak, who added that Gerber/Hart is very sad to hear that a section of LGBT culture has been eliminated.

Historically, LGBT literature has often come under attack. Some activists have expressed that the arson is a haunting reminder of the burning of gay books in Nazi Germany.

According to Mullins, there were no witnesses, and nobody is in custody at this time.

Approximately 100 books were destroyed in the fire, the majority of them from the GLBT section, according to Killackey. Police report that 30 books were damaged.

Books from the African-American history collection were also destroyed in the fire.

“We are currently cataloging the books that were damaged and we will replace all of them,” Killackey said. The North Side branch houses more than 1,000 books in its gay and lesbian section.

According to Killackey, this is the first incident of its kind to the branch’s gay and lesbian section. “The collection has been very popular, and to my knowledge, there has been no other problems,” she said.

She added that the library has been flooded with calls of questions and concerns from the LGBT community.

The building was evacuated, but the branch remained open.


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