Libraries stand firm in support of GLBT books

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by Steve Zalusky

With Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) issues in the spotlight and often stormy debate swirling about such topics as transgender bathrooms and the civil rights of government contractors, libraries are not only providing books that provide a GLBT perspective, but are also protecting books from censorship.

The American Library Association (ALA), and hundreds of libraries will celebrate June 2016 as GLBT Book Month™, a nationwide celebration of the authors and books that reflect the GLBT experience.

The celebration is consistent with ALA’s commitment to diversity, inclusiveness, and mutual respect for all human beings, as well as recognizing the significant contributions of GLBT authors, with the Stonewall Book Awards, the first and longest-enduring award for GLBT literature, as well as its Office for Intellectual Freedom’s response to the threat of censorship.

“We are pleased to continue our celebration of GLBT Book Month,” said ALA President Sari Feldman. “Libraries play a vital role in connecting people with information and resources, and librarians serve a critical need by making the works of authors and publishers of GLBT books available to the public. It is important that these voices be heard, and libraries not only provide a safe space for consumers of GLBT fiction and non-fiction, but a safe place on the shelves for authors serving a critical need in our society.”

In addition to providing materials, libraries are also a safe space for GLBT students. A study published in the Journal of Research on Libraries & Young Adults examined how school librarians created bully-free zones and collected GLBT and anti-bullying materials, collaborating with guidance counselors and teachers and suggesting particular books for students.

"Libraries are about everyone,” said ALA Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) Chair Peter Coyl.  “We can create a welcoming environment for all by having a diverse collection of materials of varying viewpoints.  It is important for our users to be able to find books that match their lives and their experiences.  GLBT Book Month is not just about celebrating authors and writers who are GLBT, but about showcasing to our community that GLBT customers and families are welcomed and wanted in the Library."

In 2015, the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom recorded 275 challenges to books, with the list including books with GLBT content.

They included “I Am Jazz, by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, a picture book based on the life of a transgender girl that faced a number of challenges, among them a proposed reading of the book in Wisconsin that led to threats of a federal lawsuit.

“Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” by Alison Bechdel, which received the 2007 Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Stonewall Book Award, was challenged as recommended reading for incoming freshmen at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, because some students objected to the novel’s “depictions of lesbian sexuality, arguing that the book is borderline pornographic and they shouldn’t have been asked to read it.” It was also challenged at the College of Charleston, prompting state lawmakers to threaten defunding the summer reading program. Both the college and the University of Utah stood by the book, which relates the story of a lesbian coming to terms with her own sexuality and discovering that her distant father is gay.

Challenges involving GLBT books have even been accompanied by anti-gay slurs, such as when Wasilla, Alaska’s public library transferred its entire young adult non-fiction to the adult stacks in reponse to a complaint about James Dawson’s sex education book, “This Book Is Gay.” A number of Wasilla residents attacked the book at a city council meeting, accompanying their attacks with such remarks as “they didn’t want ‘gay books’ or books about gay people in the library at all.” During debates on the issue, the library director was called a pedophile.

Other books with GLBT themes have been staunchly defended by librarians in the face of challenges.

“My Princess Boy,” by Cheryl Kilodavis, faced a protest by patrons at the Hood County Library in Granbury, Texas. Some parents who objected to its existence in the children’s section even thought copies of the book should be burned. The author based her book on the experiences of her son, who likes to wear dresses and tiaras, even when involved in so-called “boy” activities, such as climbing trees. The book was defended by the county’s Library Advisory Board, as well as by the attorney general. The book remained on the shelves.

The library director, Courtney Kincaid, told a local television station, "Lesbians and gays are in this community, and they deserve to have some items in this collection.”  Kincaid is just one example of librarians standing up to threats against GLBT materials in their libraries.

Kincaid, who was one of the recipients of the 2015 I Love My Librarian Award, “stood up against attempted censorship with amazing intelligence and grace,” said her nominator for the award, Jennifer Kochis. “The way that she has handled this situation has been completely professional, even though faced with those that would have her discredited and would have her ban books. She is truly inspiring.”

By standing up against censorship, Kochis said, “This has allowed books to remain in our library which I personally can use to teach my own children the importance of tolerance and inclusion.”

More books are being published featuring LGBT content, said Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in an interview for KERA News, public media for North Texas.

“We see an increase in the number of teen books where there are relationships with same-sex couples as they’re starting to discover their first crushes,” she said in the interview. “We’re also seeing a really great new trend in transgender material or gender-neutral material, gender non-conforming material, where for instance, ‘My Princess Boy,’ where the main character is a boy that likes to wear dresses.”

She emphasized, “It’s important not only for the kids who identify with these books to see themselves in books, but it’s so important for everybody else to realize that this is part of our world,” Pekoll says.

Originally established in the early 1990s by The Publishing Triangle as National Lesbian and Gay Book Month, this occasion is an opportunity for book lovers and libraries with the very best in GLBT literature. 

GLBT Book Month™ is an initiative of the American Library Association, and is coordinated through its Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table