Visible or Not: Library Access for LGBTQ Youth
By: Lisa Rand
In June, the Internet becomes full of beautiful rainbow-filled book displays acknowledging Pride month and the fight for equality for LGBTQ individuals. It has me reflecting on what steps I take to support LGBTQ patrons throughout the year, and wondering what more I should be doing to help combat discrimination.
As a library worker in youth services, I am especially concerned with access and privacy for LGBTQ youth. Living in a small, conservative, rural-suburban community adds additional challenges. A 2019 report from the think tank Movement Advancement Project (MAP) highlights some of the challenges faced by LGBTQ youth in rural communities. The report affirms what a casual news reader knows to be true: public opinion in rural areas is generally less supportive of LGBTQ people. As library workers, wherever our institutions are located, we must strive to uphold equal access for all people. Some library workers might not feel that awareness of LGBTQ patrons is a priority because of identity invisibility. In conservative communities, to be out is not always safe.
I worry for teen patrons who might live in families that will reject them if their LGBTQ identity is discovered, and for youth who are questioning their identity and who do not have the support to handle the mental stress this can cause. The numbers of youth in this predicament might be small, but their lives and their mental health nonetheless are invaluable. For a young person who does not feel safe at home for any reason, when they enter the library I intend for them to feel safe.
What does this mean in terms of library services? In my experience, a positive difference can be made through staff behavior, attention to collection development, and programming that builds relationships with youth.
A foundation for a safe and welcoming library for anybody is staff that treats people equally, with an attitude of kindness and genuine welcome. There must be a commitment to respecting the privacy and protecting the intellectual freedom of all patrons, including youth. Youth need a space where they feel accepted, and the library can be that space.
Collection development is a key component to meeting the intellectual freedom needs of LGBTQ patrons. When possible, I order teen books in all genres that depict the diverse experiences of LGBTQ characters. On non-fiction shelves, health information and biographies of LGBTQ individuals have been important additions. In my library, anyone under 18 needs a parent/guardian signature to obtain a library card, with the reasoning that the adult will be responsible for materials and fines. In some cases, this means that teens browse LGBTQ materials when they are in the library, but do not check them out due to privacy concerns. When it comes to youth LGBTQ materials, I think circulation numbers do not at all reflect the need and usage.
In a rural area without public transportation, public library access for teens can be limited. We are fortunate that our local high school has a highly-skilled librarian to advocate for our youth. Many schools are not as lucky. Research demonstrates that censorship of materials increases in the absence of skilled school library staff. If our teens do not have access to LGBTQ materials in school libraries, our role in public libraries becomes even more crucial. Supporting our school library colleagues and advocating for improved transportation options can be pieces of advocating for library access.
Diverse collections mean our displays also can reflect diversity. When I surveyed my local library colleagues, a few respondents indicated a positive response to Pride displays in their libraries. Some teens are happy to see the library recognize Pride month and grateful for representation. In my own library, I have to admit mixed response to Pride displays. I had a display of books featuring LGBTQ parents, and after the first day I discovered my display had been removed, with the books reshelved. Based on past experience, I can guess that a patron did not want their child browsing the books and so hid them. It also is possible the books were read, left on a table, and reshelved by a volunteer who did not know they were on display. On the other hand, when I remade the display the books were checked out by patrons who were happy to find the titles. For teen books, I strive to have books with LGBTQ representation integrated into all types of displays.
While one piece of a safe space for LGBTQ youth is the possibility of anonymity, another piece is developing positive relationships. I try my best to cultivate a welcoming space where teens can be themselves. During library activities we observe a behavior code that requires respect for one another and courteous language. Someone can disagree with another person, but not in a way that is rude, unkind, or contributes to an unsafe environment. The goal is to create a space together where everyone can feel safe and comfortable to be themselves.
After spending time with teens over multiple social programs, some have shared their personal life in our conversations. This has shown me that they know I am a safe ally who will do my best to respect their privacy. While there is no one formula to follow, the GLBT Round Table of the American Library Association has many resources on their website, including the Open to All toolkit of practical advice and suggestions.
What is your library doing to support intellectual freedom for LGBTQ youth? What are your success stories?
Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.
I recently had a representative from a local organization that supports LGBTQ+ Youth come tour our library. I asked her to let me know what I could do to make our space more welcoming to all. She gave some great suggestions including book displays and small subtle indications that we are a safe place for LGBTQ+ youth like rainbow stickers in the teen area.
I have also just started having Pronoun buttons (we have a button maker) available at the door for all of our teen programs. This way anyone who wants to can wear a button and it gives that instant, as you walk into a program, sense that ALL are welcome.
I am still working on what more we can do but the small steps we have taken have been well received so far! Thank you for articles like this that give me more ideas and keep this important topic in the focus for me.
I love how the ALA is celebrating diversity and i love love love the Drag Queens story hours. Wish my library had it.