By: Robert Fernandez
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 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.