All Over the Map | September 2016

Checking Out Equality

By Liz Massey, September 2016 Issue.

Lesbian author Rita Mae Brown proclaimed that “When I got my library card, that’s when my life began,” and I can totally relate to what she’s talking about.

Walking out of the Cedar Roe Library in Johnson County, Kansas, at age 6 with my first library card (which looked like a mini-credit card) was one of the highlights of my first decade of life. That was followed by the temporary tragedy of misplacing my library card later that year and mistakenly thinking I’d never be allowed back in … I cried bitter book-hungry tears and pleaded with my mother to help me find it. It felt like the ultimate redemption when we did.

Books I checked out through the public and school libraries became the lens through which I came to see the world around me.

In grade school, I fueled my travel dreams with the “Enchantment Across America” series of state and regional guides, and devoured novels filled with descriptions of space exploration and time travel. When I was older, my journeys became more personal, and the books I checked out focused on psychology, self-help, spirituality and music.

Given this tendency of mine to map my internal landscape with the aid of library books, perhaps it should come as no surprise that it was in the stacks of the cavernous library at the Midwestern university I attended where I first encountered the LGBTQ community I would soon join as a member.

Before I marched in a parade or a protest, before I even ventured out to a bar to pick up a local gay paper, I read books that introduced me to the fascinating, colorful people who made up the LGBTQ community, and taught me that we had both a past and hope for a better future. I also had access at that library to contemporary publications such as Boston’s Gay Community News, which gave me an idea of how much infrastructure and support some queer communities had been able to build for themselves, even in the midst of the AIDS-saturated 1980s.

It was these early experiences, combined with a five-year stint working in public libraries after I graduated from college, that helped me understand the power of libraries to create a just, democratic society.

In a country that has lost most of its noncommercial public gathering spaces, libraries stand out as a place where people from all walks of life can coexist peacefully. A major component of libraries being able to do this heroic job is the people who work there, and the training in information evaluation that they receive; as journalist Linton Weeks asserts, “In the nonstop tsunami of global information, librarians provide us with floaties and teach us to swim.”

While I think many LGBTQ persons have had experiences similar to mine at their local library, and while surveys indicate that public libraries enjoy broad support by most Americans, it’s never a bad idea for our community to be a little more intentional in bolstering its alliance with librarians. There are a number of reasons why openly embracing libraries could benefit our equality movement; here are just a few of them:

• Public libraries defend books on LGBTQ topics.
The American Library Association catalogs challenges to library books each year during Banned Book Week, and three or four of its “top 10” most challenged books of the year inevitably have a gay, trans or queer theme.

• Public libraries offer accurate, supportive information for LGBTQ youth.
In some communities, the library may be the only place a teen can read about safer sex, or have a safe place to explore Internet sites aimed at gay or trans young people.

• Public libraries preserve queer history through archival collections.
Archives can house books, memorabilia and other items that document our movement’s history, and can guard against the actions of those who would try to erase or misrepresent our activities.

• Public libraries promote diverse points of view and learning through dialog.
Through their book and periodical collections, litbraries provide access to non-mainstream thinking. They also place social change movements such as ours on a par with “traditionalists” when they host events designed to promote conversations from all viewpoints.

• Public libraries encourage participation over consumption.
Many libraries offer programs on how to create blogs, build a wiki, promote a podcast, or become part of the hands-on Maker movement. All these activities can promote a bias toward action and critical thought that is quite useful for LGBTQ advocates.

As civil liberties lawyer Alan Dershowitz has said, “A library is a place where you learn what teachers were afraid to teach you.” The real advantage of partnering with America’s libraries is that they and our equality movement are both on a mission of positive subversion. We both want to change the world for the better, in ways that are totally wholesome, as well as totally dangerous to the status quo.