I mean…I stand by the fact that G.I. Joe was always gay. Those boots. Those uniforms. The shaved head. Those pictures of him wearing panties on his Instagram. The evidence was there people, we need to acknowledge it and move forward. On a separate but unrelated note I’ve now been working for a Public Library for close to two years now and it is without doubt one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me. I’m surrounded by people who care about me, everyday I have a sense of purpose and direction, and it’s largely because of all this positivity that I’ve begun to seek professional help for my depression. However, despite all of this there remains one fixture of my life that remains in some form of stasis and that is my desire to provide some kind of gift to the LGBTQ community of my home-town.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to justify the purchases of books in my library, and not just because of the space issue. I’m arriving at a condition in life when I’ve come to the pathetic and despairing realization that I’m never going to read all of the books that I’ve ever bought, not because I’ve suddenly contracted a terminal illness, but because every time I think how I’m about to have completed every book in my library, another author that I appreciate will publish another book, or else the library will put out the latest batch of purchases which might include a book about the making of 2001: A Space Odyssey or else the presence of dictatorships in the plays of William Shakespeare. There’s just no way to keep up with the near constant generation of content by all the writers, poets, video-game designers, directors, musicians, biographers, and playwrights that are constantly generating new and increasingly dynamic art. And now that I’ve elected to make libraries a significant facet of my existence that only means more books to read.
The most recent addition to my personal library managed to combine both of these delightful problems.
I have the habit of simply spending hour after hour searching through the endless labyrinth that is book recommendations on GoodReads. It’s cute sometimes watching the algorithm try its best to figure me out, but after just a few books it gives up offering me lists rather than individual books. Because of this I have to rely on my own initiative and so I simply typed in LGBTQ into the search bar and looked through the results. Shit you not, cannot lie, the tenth book in the queue was Out Behind the Desk: Workplace Issues for LGBTQ Librarians.
Spring isn’t the right word, I fucking leapt to my library’s home web-page to submit an ILL request, and not long after the book finally arrived I decided to hit “fuck-it” and just purchase it on Amazon. I’ll admit some part of me wanted it simply to show off to my other Queer co-workers, but if I can defend myself against the barbs of my reader’s judgement, I really and truly wanted to read the book because, since I started working for the Library, I wanted to learn more and more about how Queer people tend to operate in it.
Out Behind the Desk is a collection of essays, all of them personal, about being gay, being a lesbian, being Trans, being bisexual, or just being queer and working in a library. These essays are attempts to understand how the library can be queered by the sheer presence of LGBTQ people, but far more often than not the testimonies of this book are about navigating the social and political sentiments of coworkers and patrons. In one of the later essays, Pride and Paranoia @ Your Library, Maria T. Accardi relates a personal narrative that, when I read it, I recognized it because it’s a moment I’ve lived at least twice in my tenure at my own library. She says,
In my library, we have a display area on which the collection development librarian, exhibits books from our collection. […]. I scoured our catalog for books on my chosen topic. I traveled through the stacks with a book cart and removed books from the shelves, and I also ordered some books I thought we should have in our collection but did not. I arranged the books on the display shelves in a manner I found aesthetically pleasing, and I created a colorful sign to announce the display was active, while working my shifts at the reference desk, I watched patrons walk by the display, and I would hold my breath. I would see people stop and look at the books, and read the sign, and pick up the books, and page through them and read the back covers, and my heart would pound. I braced myself for complaints. I rehearsed conversations in my head, defending the contents of the library display. (205)
Beside this passage in my paperback copy of the book is a simple sentence: “My Life.” This isn’t coyness on my part, I live this moment almost every day at the library, and especially during the month of June I can sympathize with the paranoia and feeling that one must be ready for critics. Accardi continues her point, explaining her anticipationand paranoia.
So why was this display so fraught with anxiety for me? It was a display in honor of GLBT Pride Month. (205).
Cue the dramatic pipe organ music, and the crusty Old British guy in the arm chair holding the red-leather-bound book as he looks up and growls, “THE GAYS.” I believe a lightning strike is supposed to follow this, and the sounds of horses screaming. There’s also sometimes a lavish musical number culminating in the all Men’s dance troupe of Dallas and I just realized that that in itself, might be construed as, well, kinda gay.
It might not make much sense to the reader who doesn’t work in a library, or a school for that matter, but broaching the topic, or even just drawing attention to the LGBTQ community is not just fraught with consequence, it can be, to quote the immortal Shakespeare, “a goddamn mine field.” I think that quote came from Twelfth Night, or maybe Othello.
Because many libraries are usually public institutions, and therefore an extension of the government or at least communal and civic spaces, they are subject to whims and sentiments of the patrons that patronize them. That’s all just a way of saying that libraries are ultimately subject to the court of public opinion, and unfortunately the public has a tendency to be freaked out by anything and everything gay.
Except of course for Ru Paul, that man’s a national treasure.
Or Laverne Cox, she’s radiant.
Looking at this paranoia as a reader however I identified with Accardi, not just because I’ve set up numerous displays during my tenure as a Reference Associate at my library, but because I’m a queer Reference Associate at my library. Setting displays to celebrate the Queer community is not anything like a display for Mental Health Awareness month, or a display to commemorate the life and career of Tobias Wolfe, it’s far more personal. And Accardi briefly notes that in her essay:
A rejection of a display of GLBT books is not just a rejection of an expression and diversity—it is a rejection of me, as a person, the actual fact of my existence. (206).
Having conversations about identity politics is often the stuff of nightmares largely because there is always the anticipation that one person is going to find the other person ridiculous for their integrity. If someone becomes passionate rather quickly about something, at least in my experience, the tone of the room changes dramatically, and what was supposed to be a sweet bridal shower for Carol has become a conversation about how Jill Stein could have beaten Donald Trump in the general election, meanwhile the rest of us are desperately trying to determine the exact radius of the earth on our iPhones because we’d rather be literally anywhere else. It’s easy to shut down and try to pretend that a person’s passion is something ridiculous but ultimately that does someone a disservice. Accardi’sargument is a valid one, because ultimately a complaint about a display in a library is not just about the actual display, it’s about the idea that that display represents. Ultimately a library display isn’t just a display, it’s a combination of resources about an intellectual or cultural concept, and when that display is about the lives, careers, and history of Queer people asking or demanding the library to take it down because it offends you is tantamount to saying you’d rather not have to acknowledge the existence of queer people, or else you’re a shit-head who doesn’t want to admit queer people even exist.
The reader may be wondering however what the real relevance is to themselves. I’m not queer so why should I care if a library has to take down a display celebrating Pride month? What do I care if one or two people complain and force a library to take down a display I didn’t even notice or care about? What’s the real problem with that?
The problem dear reader is exactly what Accardi pointed out and what Nicola Price suggests in their contribution to Out Behind the Desk, Taking the Homosexual Highroad. Price writes about working in a government library and therefore having to be silent about their own political opinions. They write:
Spending five days a week in the closet makes it harder to express my true self when I’m with friends or in the comfort of my own home, because a semi closeted life begins to feel normal, and therefore somewhat comfortable. (240.)
There were lots of moments while reading this collection that I found myself quietly nodding, or else boldly underlining passage after passage because the words were either thoughts I recognized, or sentences that I have said aloud. Being a queer man in a public library in East Texas can be difficult because I have to navigate how “out” I actually am. I go to work everyday wearing a large, round, noticeable rainbow button on my lanyard. It was supposed to be a small button to go between my “Tiny Rick” and my “Platform 9 3/4” pins, but when it arrived in the mail I discovered it was massive. It’s there, on my chest, like a great, big, wonderful, fabulous target. I’m sure people see it and they notice it, and while I’ve yet to have anyone comment on it directly it’s my subtle means of being “out.”
But there are moments in which I have to “tone it down.” Recently a patron approached the Reference Desk to complain about two books in our “new book section.” One was about a book about President Trump, and the other was about a book I had only just finished reading entitled David Bowie Made me Gay. He had much to say about the Donald Trump book but when he got to David Bowie he just made a sound in throat like a low wretch and shook his head. I wanted so desperately to say something, make a quip about a boyfriend I didn’t actually have, or come-out right then and there and observe his reaction taking some kind of solace in his further disgust. But that isn’t my job, and so I politely informed the patron that there is an official “challenge” form that we have in case patrons find materials “questionable.” He grumbled away leaving me to question whether or not I had caved or missed my chance to “fight the power.”
My job, my life, it seems is a constant struggle to determine how “out” I should actuallybe, and how I am supposed to balance my personal and professional queer self. And Out Behind the Desk only gave me more questions to ask.
In The Secret Life of Bis: On Not Quite Being Out and Not Quite Fitting In, BWS Johnson asks a few questions near the end of their essay, and they’re questions worth asking.
In appealing to the mainstream, are we burying too much of our values? In doing so, are we missing a service opportunity? Do we have to add the Lambda to our out of the scope collection? (120).
They continue this point noting:
While I’m on that, does anyone else feel that sinking stomach when we come to the realization that our place on the shelves is between deviates and the masochists? […]
I suppose the inevitable anti-conclusion I’m coming to is this: the further I get from my own narrative, the closer I come to saying that there is much work to be done collectively. The harder the writing gets, I find myself able to make fewer statements. As the sands of our history shift with rulings like Lawrence v. Texas and actions like the Vermont Legislature’s, and we’re delighted by pictures of gay couples getting hitched, what are we doing in parallel within the field? How are we building our house? How is it that we can best continue, including those on the down low, as well as those that are out and proud? Where do we go from here? (120).
These are all questions that I ask everyday when I go to work, and when I find myself away from the reference desk with a spare moment to think. I’m often working on some new catalog of items that haven’t been touched in decades and that occupies my time,but over and over again I’m thinking about what I could be doing for the queer patrons at the library. I think about the projects I would like to work on, questioning myself immediately about whether they would attract any actual people, or whether or not they would and be shut down because of one random person’s complaint.
This is all just a way of saying that often my experience as a library employee is wondering how “out” I’m supposed to be, how “out” I’m allowed to be. And while this probably speaks more to my own perceptions, the very existence of Out Behind the Desk reveals that I am not the only library employee or librarian who has this problem.
By now the reader may have their challenge ready, or perhaps I’m being pessimistic. Perhaps the reader may see where I’m coming from and for once actually not have a criticism or complaint.
Libraries matter because they aren’t necessarily “safe spaces,” but they are a unique structure and place where ideas and opinions and records can be collected for the culture’s that build and fill them. Libraries are about storing and providing access to information, and therefore when libraries cannot provide materials to Queer individuals in society for fear of repercussions then they are actively being subverted by a portion of humanity that would rather have it so that Queer people didn’t exist in the first place. It might just be a display of biographies about famous drag queens, or lesbian singers, or famous Trans political activists, but when librarians have to worry about whether or not such a display should go up in the first place then there is a problem.
Libraries are always going to inspire emotions, conflicts, and heated debates about what constitutes “questionable material,” but a library should be one of the spaces where that conversation takes place. If a patron doesn’t wish to check out a book, read it, and enterinto the conversation about the history and culture of the Queer community they can always walk past the display and pick up the newest Danielle Steel novel and go about their life. But the freedom to pick up a book by Kate Bernstein or Allison Bechdel or Tom of Finland should still be an option.
And as queer librarians and queer library employees there’s more than just paranoia and discomfort at stake. Not fighting to ensure that queer people have such resources, have such access, and have such programs at their disposal is more than just validating one’s existence.
Libraries are ultimately places and spaces where people can come and acquire information, hopefully, without fear. But before I spend too much time waxing philosophical I should remind the reader why this is personal for me.
Libraries have saved my life because my library has in many ways always been my life. I fell in love with libraries as a kid, spending hours just reading all the books I could get my hand on, spending time with my Mom in the library, and now that I’ve grown and become an employee there I’ve flourished, finding people and librarians who love what they do and who want to make the library a better place. At the end of the day I serve a largely straight population, but if I can make sure that there’s always a copy of Fun Home or Me Talk Pretty One Day then it’s my library too.
Queer people have as much to give a library as any other person in our society, and like everyone who walks through the front doors of such a place looking for a book, a queer person enters that space hoping to find something, some resource that reminds them that they are not alone.
Out Behind the Desk can at times be a dry academic affair, but the strength of the book is the honesty of the writers who go to work everyday because they love books, because they love hosting programs, because they love shelving, because they love compiling and archiving data. And of course there’s some solace in knowing that I’m not the only person who’s discovered a shelf desecrated and left a mess literally minutes after I spent a good half hour straightening everything.
All quotes cited from Out Behind the Desk were taken from the paperback Library Juice Press Edition.
If the reader is at all interested in more literature about being Queer in the library I’ve provided a link to a few articles below. Please enjoy:
I’ve written a lot here, but I really want this to come across and I’ll write it plainly, I simply love being gay. I love being queer. I love love love love LOVE my sexuality, and my gender identity, and that I work in a place that loves and accepts me for who I am. I hate that it took so long to get where I am, to get to my level of comfort, or at least closure with my sexuality, but now that I’m here no one is going to force me back into the closet. I’m a fabulous gay library employee, and I’m not going anywhere.