The Queering of the Public Library

General Interest, GLBTQ

By: Robert Fernandez

JamesinLibrary2.jpg
The Pride Library at The University of Western Ontario and its founder, James Miller. Photo CC 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recently in The American Conservative, long-time conservative writer and pundit Rod Dreher wrote about “Queering the Public Library.” Dreher, a resident of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, complained about the materials and programming offered by the Free Library of Philadelphia. At issue were those books and programs related to library’s Pride Month Celebration, including “information on bullying, safety, and coming out,” “biographies of important LGBTQIA+ figures in the community,” and two programs: a singer/songwriter celebrating diversity and a drag show. Dreher wrote:

What on earth is a public library doing staging a drag show, including one for teenagers? The Free Library […] welcomes all Philadelphians, except parents and others who would rather not have to deal with drag queens in the library, or who would rather just go to the library without being propagandized for a social movement.

Dreher is full of complaints about what the public library offers to others, but mentions nothing about what it offers to people like him. The public library has much to offer religious and political conservatives: plentiful Christian-oriented fiction and non-fiction books, resources and study space for home-schooled religious children, and countless copies of the latest book by every conservative pundit imaginable. The complaint is not that services, materials, and programming for these communities are insufficient; Dreher will only be satisfied when these are denied to others. Dreher writes that he wants a library that “welcomes all Philadelphians,” but for that to be true, his vision of the library would include the communities he targets for complaint. He does not want a library that welcomes LGBTQ communities; for him to feel “welcome,” he demands their absence and their silence.

At ALA this year, Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson series of young adult novels, received a Stonewall Book Award, awarded for “exceptional merit relating to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender experience.” In his acceptance speech, Riordan, a self-described “old cis straight white male,” discussed why he includes LGBTQ characters and issues in his work:

People all over the political spectrum often ask me, “Why can’t you just stay silent on these issues? Just don’t include LGBTQ material and everybody will be happy.” This assumes that silence is the natural neutral position. But silence is not neutral. It’s an active choice. Silence is great when you are listening. Silence is not so great when you are using it to ignore or exclude.

It is clear that Dreher is among those who view the silence of the LGBTQ community as “the natural neutral position.”

Dreher has written extensively about what he calls “The Benedict Option.” Saint Benedict of Nursia, the namesake of the Benedictines, founded a series of monasteries in a desire for a contemplative, holy life far from the decadence of 6th century Rome. Likewise, Dreher advocates that Christians form their own exclusive communities and largely remove themselves from the decadence of modernity because it is “dissolving authentic Christianity.”

A critique of Dreher’s book on the subject in The Atlantic notes that Dreher “has not wrestled with how to live side by side with people unlike him.” Emma Green writes:

At times, it seems like the goal of the Benedict option is just as much about getting away from gay people as it is affirming the tenets of Christianity. The book seems to suggest that mere proximity to people with alternative beliefs about sexuality, and specifically LGBT people, is a threat to Christian children and families. […]  And yet, Dreher begrudges a similar fear in people unlike him, including LGBT people who have long wanted to live freely in public—something that was largely impossible when conservative Christians dominated mainstream American life.

Dreher is free to live however he wants and to believe whatever he wants about LGBTQ communities, but he is not free to impose a Benedict option on them and demand they retreat from the secular world and its public institutions. A colleague of mine noted that Dreher doesn’t seem to “get” the idea of a public library being an institution that is open to all members of the community it serves, instead of one that caters to some and not others.

Our profession and its commitment to intellectual freedom demands the access to information for everyone in the community. We must serve the needs of the LGBTQ community regardless of our own personal religious or political beliefs, just as we must serve the needs of religious and political conservatives like Dreher regardless of our own personal religious and political beliefs. Otherwise, the Free Library of Philadelphia is not one that “welcomes all Philadelphians” in its commitment to service, inclusivity, and intellectual freedom; it is one that demands silence and absence from Philadelphians.

 


Robert FernandezRobert Fernandez is an academic librarian and is a member of the Florida Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee. A member of the Board of Directors of Wikimedia District of Columbia, he has been active on Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects since 2004 and is part of efforts to get more librarians to participate on Wikipedia. Find him on Twitter @wikigamaliel.

8 comments

  • Thank you for this article! I have often found that religious conservatives will feign acceptance and tolerance of those different from them as long as those people keep their differences hidden. Unfortunately, it seems like Dreher is also asking for institutions – not just people – to keep these differences from being celebrated or even acknowledged. I find it unfortunate that Dreher thinks because the library offers services for members of the LGBTQ+ community it ostracizes others. That is not the case at all. The fundamental mission of American libraries is to be open to and enhance the lives of all users regardless of religion, political affiliation, race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc. What good are libraries doing if they remain silent – or worse – ignore certain segments of the population? As a librarian, I recognize that intellectual freedom is at the core of everything that we do, and it is not something we can sacrifice for those “who would rather not have to deal” with people different from them. I applaud the Free Library of Philadelphia and all libraries who celebrated Pride month in June.

  • Silence is indeed an active choice, as Rick Riordan maintains. It is a choice libraries make all the time as critical to the unflinching support of intellectual freedom. I tell new employees at my public library during their orientation that our highest goal when someone seeks information from us on a controversial topic is that they leave with the information that they seek and they have no idea where we stand on the issue. To take a public position on any controversial issue other than intellectual freedom is to inhibit people’s willingness to seek information from us and therefore a violation of the most fundamental tenet of the Library Bill of Rights. We must be unwilling to judge anyone who comes to us on the ideas they hold or any other characteristic. Beyond that, whenever there is a fray, public libraries need to stay out of it.

  • When was the last time that the Free Library of Philadelphia held an event to celebrate, share, and explain Christianity inviting teenagers and everyone to participate and making it fun? They have done one obviously for Gay Pride. Perhaps they have done one to help explain Islam? Black Lives Matter? Do they or most public libraries do special programming that brings to light “the old guard”? I rarely see it being as promoted as LGBTQIA items.

    I love the quote from Rick Riordan, “But silence is not neutral. It’s an active choice. Silence is great when you are listening. Silence is not so great when you are using it to ignore or exclude.” This is exactly what is happening in public schools that ban the teaching of God. We have been told that by not talking about God, teachers are being neutral, but in reality, as Rick says, it is being used to ignore and exclude people of faith. It is promoting a position that there is no God and those who believe there is should be silenced and hidden away, much like you suggested Christians do – although really, it was only one – Rod Dreher – who’s writing led you to this conclusion which you applied it to an entire demographic.

  • Thank you for writing this piece. Inclusion is a difficult concept to understand for some people. I hope librarians keep protecting the values of access to information for everyone.

  • Thank you for writing this! It puts into words why offering LGBTQ programming makes public libraries more inclusive. Did you mean to say “Dreher writes that he wants a library that “welcomes all Philadelphians,” but for that to be true, his vision of the library would exclude the communities he targets for complaint.” ?

  • I do not believe libraries were intended to promote sexual preferences or choices. The DSM used to consider homosexuality as a mental illness. We are in a sad place when we feel the library needs to support “sexual” behavior.

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