Libraries are a Queer Issue, or, LGBT Politics Beyond Marriage

Remember all those nationwide rallies last month against Prop 8? I didn’t go to the Philadelphia one because I was at a rally to save the Kingsessing branch of the Free Library from closing. That pretty much sums up my political priorities these days. But this isn’t a case of libraries trumping queer issues or local politics trumping national issues or anything silly like that; rather, I see the fight to save 11 branches of the Philadelphia Free Library from permanent closure as exactly the kind of intersectional issue I’d like to see included in a broader sense of what constitutes “LGBT politics,” which is all too often overshadowed by gay marriage.*

So how are libraries a queer issue? Well, first of all, libraries are everyone’s issue; they are public spaces, dedicated to providing services for the public good. Libraries are about social justice. They are about the redistribution of access to education, to knowledge, to technology. Libraries spread the wealth. And so because my vision of queer politics is one that relies on a broad commitment to social justice, this issue obviously fits the bill. But that’s just the most basic connection. There are lots of specific reasons why LGBT activists should care about libraries and should fight to keep them when they are, like a fifth of the library branches in Philadelphia, threatened with destruction.

Libraries provide essential resources to queer/trans youth. Where can kids turn to for information about sexuality, for varied representations of queerness, for information about trans identities and politics, for perspectives that challenge the Ken Zuckers of the world, for stories about people like them, for resources to share with their families, and for a sense of support (especially if their families and/or peers aren’t accepting)? There are two obvious, crucial sources: the Internet and print media like books, magazines, and zines. Where can you get this stuff for free? The library! (Yes, in some libraries, even the zines!) This kind of access, not only to information, but to plain old affirmation and support, is so crucial, especially for kids who don’t have Internet access at home and who can’t afford to just go out and buy new books all the time. Internet access is now a huge part of what libraries provide, and the economic disparity in Internet access ensures that some LGBT kids, by virtue of various privileges, will have a much easier time finding this kind of vital information than other LGBT kids–and that’s exactly the kind of disparity that makes libraries especially essential in low-income communities, and makes their closure much more devastating for those communities than it would be in a wealthier area.

Libraries are real alternatives to “abstinence-only education.” Libraries are places where you can find free access to books and other resources that give real, comprehensive sex education, which in schools tends to be lacking for everyone but is often especially unhelpful for queer kids. My public high school was better than most in that it actually discussed contraception and STI prevention, for example, but there was definitely no mention of any acts besides heterosexual intercourse, and no talk at all of consent or communication or (god forbid!) pleasure. The real sex ed that’s available to teens just isn’t taught in schools, but you can find it in books (at the library!) or at internet resources like Go Ask Alice or Scarleteen (which a good young adult librarian can tell you about!)

Libraries are safe public spaces. Having a safe place to go is, of course, good for everyone. But I think it’s especially important for any group, like LGBT people, who are at risk of being targeted for violence. I don’t mean necessarily to propose the library as an escape from immediate threats, but rather more broadly, as a place where you can be in the public sphere without having to endure as much of the constant, low-level stress that comes from knowing you’re a target for violence when out in public. Granted, I can’t speak for everyone. I wouldn’t presume that everyone feels safe in a library. But one point I hear again and again from community members speaking out about the role of the libraries here in Philadelphia is that these spaces are often the only public spaces in some particularly rough neighborhoods that are widely regarded as generally safe from violence (as compared to, say, parks and rec centers), and I would venture to say that even if libraries aren’t perfect, they’re still pretty damn good compared to other public spaces, and good public space is worth fighting to keep and improve.

And by the way, as a safe public space that’s heated in the winter, air-conditioned in the summer, doesn’t cost a dime to sit in, and isn’t culturally marked as an upper- or middle-class kind of environment (like, say, a Starbucks might be), the library’s the perfect place to host LGBT community and activist meetings that aren’t necessarily organized by or weighted towards white, middle-class queers.

Libraries help people find employment. As sources of free Internet access, hosts to free programs training people in computer skills and resume-writing, and sources of information about educational opportunities, libraries are absolutely essential in helping people find jobs, change jobs, or pursue further education, especially in low-income communities. If that doesn’t sound like an LGBT issue at first, remember the unevenness with with LGBT people are legally protected from employment discrimination throughout the country, and how especially damaging that discrimination can be during economic times like this. Of course, we need these legal protections (trans-inclusive ENDA, anyone?) and that, too, is a major LGBT political issue, but if we’re to be able to fight for that, we kind of need to pay the rent and feed ourselves and our families, and for that we need jobs.

Libraries build political consciousness. My own experience is really what makes me so passionate about this. My mother is a librarian, and so when I was a kid, I used to spend a whole lot of time at the library. The library was the first place in my small and fairly conservative hometown where I really learned anything about the existence of queer communities or about the history of struggles for queer civil rights. Now, this was also a predominantly white and predominantly middle-class town, and the collection of LGBT books in the library definitely skewed more towards talking about white gays and lesbians than anyone else, so this wasn’t a radical-queer utopia or anything. But still, the library had books about things that, in my middle school, were absolutely unmentioned and unmentionable. There were whole books talking about these identities and histories that nobody around me talked about. I have fabulously pro-queer parents, but nonetheless, queerness didn’t really come up in conversation until I brought it up much later, and they didn’t really tell me any stories of the political history they lived through or anything like that until I asked them about it–and where do you think I learned that those questions could even be asked?

My entire adolescent education in the history of feminism also came exclusively from the public library. I think you absolutely cannot underestimate just how different that kind of education–the kind where you walk through aisles and find entire fields of knowledge you can claim for yourself and for your own liberation–is from the kind you get in school, especially when school is so alienating for so many kids, and especially when school is such an unequal experience depending on race, social class, and location. And again, here I cannot speak for everyone; that was my own experience with reading, and I can’t presume that an institution is going to be a liberatory force for everyone. But I owe a lot to the library, and over the past two months, I’ve been hearing a whole lot of other people say the same thing.

So If you don’t live in Philly, you may ask: what’s with this whole library rant, anyway? Other people have written much better accounts than I can here, and you should go read them, but in short: the city is broke, like everyone these days, and so Mayor Nutter told the library that the system needed to cut $8 million from their $40 million budget. So faced with this demand, Siobhan Reardon, the director of the Free Library, decided to permanently close 11 of the city’s 54 branch libraries. Reardon’s agenda here is dangerous and wrong. Her plans leave some neighborhoods with fully staffed, functioning libraries while other neighborhoods (all low-income neighborhoods, which should surprise no one) are left with no libraries at all–and remember, this is in a city where many of the schools don’t have libraries of their own. And no, these are not typically neighborhoods that have a Barnes and Noble you can browse in. Bottom line: Reardon thinks that a “strong system” is one that has a beautiful modern building downtown but leaves entire neighborhoods with no free access to books at all.

People here are rightfully pissed. There have been multiple protests at endangered branches, protests at the Central branch, protests at City Hall. The town hall meetings held at each endangered branch were raucous, angry affairs where citizens rightly called both the mayor and Siobhan Reardon to task for their “solution” to the city’s budget crisis. (You can watch them all online!) There’s now a lawsuit being filed against the mayor, seeking an injunction against closing the libraries under a statute in the city charter that prohibits the mayor from closing or abandoning a publicly owned building without the approval of City Council. I was at some of the hearings this morning, and the room was packed with library supporters. Then a whole lot of protesters headed over to where the mayor gave a press conference announcing the latest plans for the library buildings and was met with very loud opposition (much louder than is shown on that news clip I link to!) I’m proud of how sustained this activism has been, and I hope that Siobhan Reardon is enjoying her welcome to the good old City of Brotherly Love just as much as Sarah Palin enjoyed hers.

That press conference I mentioned, by the way, was held to announce a pretty odious plan that I hope will come back to bite this administration in the ass: now, instead of selling off the library buildings, the city is going to hold onto them, privatize them, and turn them into “knowledge centers” that have public access to computers and, supposedly, some books. This looks like the city’s compromising, but it’s bullshit and nobody should fall for it; first of all, this is clearly intended to undercut the lawsuit by keeping the library buildings technically open, just not as libraries per se, and in any case, they haven’t even secured funding for all 11 branches–oh, excuse me, “knowledge centers.” Second, these “knowledge centers” would be funded by “community partnerships,” which the mayor was intentionally vague about but consist of wealthy individuals, foundations, and corporations providing the money to pay for the staffing and operation of the “knowledge centers.” This is dangerous. It’s the privatization of a public service; these pseudo-libraries would be kept open not as part of a city agency, held accountable to the citizens, but as private enterprises, subject to closure according to the whims of their private funders. And what the hell is a “knowledge center,” anyway? All the mayor would say is that they would provide public computers and free Internet access, which is of course one of the many essential services the libraries provide. He claims that books would also be there, but first of all, I don’t believe a word of that because the library system has been diverting books from the 11 branches for several weeks now, and second of all, I can’t imagine that these fake libraries would have the capacity to actually allow patrons to check books out without access to the proprietary software that real libraries use to do this. Interlibrary loan is definitely out of the question. And there wouldn’t necessarily be librarians there, which makes a huge difference; contrary to popular belief, librarians do more than just stack books on shelves.

This is an insecure, second-class pseudo-library system being peddled to some of the most disadvantaged communities in Philadelphia, while the city’s wealthiest, most privileged residents get to keep their full library services. This is a vision of real libraries as a luxury, available only to the wealthy. And above all, it’s a vision of public services as private commodities. We have to fight this trend.

Libraries are vital for everyone, but I think they are vital in some really unique ways for LGBT people, and especially LGBT people in low-income communities. If these new, replacement “knowledge centers” are privately owned and not held to the standards of the ALA, what’s to stop them from, say, censoring the material that provides teens with the kind of sex education they can’t get in schools? If there are no actual librarians on staff, who can direct queer or trans youth to resources they’re looking for? Ultimately, though, this isn’t only about what libraries do for LGBT people. It’s about the need to build alliances and understand that there is no such thing as a purely “queer issue” that’s not also some other kind of issue at the same time. I’m writing this because I want to add to queer visibility in the discourse surrounding the library issue, but also because I want to see the preservation and expansion of public services somewhere higher up on the Homosexual Agenda ™ than it has been, well, ever. It may not be the sexiest-sounding cause, but it’s absolutely necessary. With all the talk in the wake of Prop 8 about the failures of mainstream LGBT organizations to “reach out” to minority communities, I say these groups need to do far more than “reach out” with a few nice, diverse ads. The powerful organizations in LGBT politics need to realize what plenty of queers already know: we are already in every community, and our political struggle has to be for all of us.

Also, hi again- I’m back! My first semester of grad school, while amazing, left me a bit too overwhelmed to blog, but now I’m nicely recovered thanks to some excellent holiday gluttony, and I’m really happy to be back. I promise to put aside some time from schoolwork to blog next semester, even if it does mean I might uncontrollably quote Judith Butler from time to time.

*For the record, I pretty much agree with Aviva on same-sex marriage. Prop 8 is reprehensible, mean-spirited, sets an incredibly dangerous precedent, and should be overturned, and if marriage is legal for any couples, it should be legal for all. But I would much rather see the rights and privileges associated with marriage available to ALL people, married or not, and I would much rather see more of the money and energy of national LGBT-rights legislative efforts directed towards issues like stopping hate crimes and police violence, passing a trans-inclusive ENDA, ending abstinence-only education… you get the idea.

4 Responses to “Libraries are a Queer Issue, or, LGBT Politics Beyond Marriage”

  1. 1 Sheena
    31 December 2008 at 7:20 pm

    thank you, as a library worker, I try to explain this to everyone.

  2. 2 Jen
    1 January 2009 at 6:57 pm

    Excellent blog post. Beyond nodding from across the Atlantic that’s all I have to say, sorry!…

  3. 20 January 2009 at 1:23 am

    Wow, this is so amazing. Thank you so much for this eloquent and spirited defense. Generations of queers found their first representation of queer life in the library stacks, by using the card catalog to furtively find books. We can’t take that for granted, even today, and we should be aware that our shelves can open worlds of access and activism for queer kids of ALL ages.

    As to the Philly situation, grrr. Let’s also not forget the inherent classism in the “knowledge centers” proposal: well, you know. THOSE PEOPLE don’t care about reading, books, magazines, newspapers, or library services, they only want to get on the Internet!!!

    Keep up the fight! 🙂

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