Self-Censorship as Self-Preservation
Advocating for and ensuring access to diverse books and resources was one of the main reasons I decided to become a librarian. But, as a new librarian in a huge new city, I’ve become more unsure of myself and have found myself self-censoring.
Moving to Houston, Texas, from Indiana to start a job as a librarian was maybe the scariest thing I’ve ever done, with the possible exception of deciding to go back to school after nine years of working retail to pursue a career in librarianship. I didn’t know anyone in Houston and had gleaned relatively little useful information online.
But, one month out of library school, I was both terrified and excited to start on this new adventure. I even started making up a little song set to the tune of the Pokemon theme song: “I’m gonna be a librarian dun dun dun dun-dun dun.” I didn’t get very far with the song, but I was really excited.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got to Houston and started at my position. I received some information during my interview and some I’d found online, but there were still a lot of unanswered questions. And, being a queer woman with social anxiety, I opted to lay low until I figured out how things worked and what was socially acceptable.
One of my biggest fears in becoming a librarian, particularly a youth services librarian, was that once people knew I was queer, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me or want children near me. Or worse, that someone would follow me after work and hurt me. I wasn’t sure if this was a logical fear, but I do know that it’s still dangerous to be queer in this country. According to their mid-year report on LGBTQ and HIV-affected hate violence, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (2017) noted a higher number of hate violence related homicides in just the first eight months of 2017 than in any other year in their 20-year history.
Which is all to say that in the last seven months, I’ve often felt vulnerable and alone and unsure of whether it’s okay for me to bring books with LGBTQ representation in them to story time. If someone would be able to tell that I’m gay and complain. If anyone would support me and stand up for me if that happened.
For all my talk of how important it is for LGBTQ youth to see themselves in books and the people around them, for them to see themselves at story time and on display, I’m scared. I’m careful when selecting books to read at story time, omitting any with overt LGBTQ content, just in case. Reading the somewhat ambiguous Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian without comment to one class has been the height of my bravery.
There are a lot of people who are scared and who are in positions within our society that put them more at risk. Those people need support. We need to support the people of our communities who are in positions of less privilege by ensuring unrestricted access to diverse resources and the relative safety of privacy.
We also need to support our colleagues who are in positions of less privilege so they can carry out this work. We can do this by listening to people from marginalized communities, amplifying their voices, reassuring them that you stand with them, and acknowledging that many of our society’s institutions continue and/or further this marginalization.
When you’re one person, alone and unsure, feeling like it’s taken every bit of bravery you have just to be where you are now, it’s easy to want to be cautious, to censor yourself in order to protect yourself. But it helps to know that there are others standing with you.
So please, if you’re able, find ways to support your colleagues. Ask your colleagues how you can support them. Start or continue conversations about the social power structures replicated within libraries and who this is affecting and how.
I’m not sure what a solution would look like, but if we can start a dialogue and work together, that will be a step in the right direction.
Kristin McWilliams is a youth services librarian/assistant branch manager at Houston Public Library. She started in June 2017 after completing her MLS at Indiana University. While studying at Indiana University, she worked as co-coordinator of the LGBTQ+ Culture Center Library on campus, center supervisor with IU Residential Programs & Services Libraries, and as a public service assistant and reference blog editor at IU’s Herman B Wells Library. As a queer woman, she has a particular interest in LGBTQ+ materials and serving LGBTQ+ youth. Find her on Twitter @writteninblue.
We’ve got your back! I’m way up north in a liberal oasis but understand completely. I did the same thing in my first professional job for the better part of 5 years. It sucked personally but also prevented me from doing more for my marginalized patrons. It might be worth a frank conversation with your manager. I know that is easier said than done but getting their support and giving them a heads up in advance might make you feel more empowered.
There are lots of ways to be a good role model; I think this is a wonderful example of making yourself vulnerable for a greater cause (and is really brave, by the way). It takes serious guts to say your scared. The truth is, as you put it, our friends in the LGBTQ community do not feel safe. I am sure many, many people–many of them great librarians–would not want the kind of spotlight you’re trying to deal with. Good luck to you as you maneuver your way through a tough situation. I think your conscientious approach and desire to be an advocate for queer teens has wonderful potential!