LGBTQ librarians are trying to keep vital books accessible to queer youth, despite bans

Queer librarians
Among the LGBTQ librarians dedicated to keeping materials accessible to all include, from left, Jenna Ingham, Roy Kinsey, Gabby Womack and Kathleen Breitenbach. (Illustration by Aisha Yousaf; photos courtesy of subjects)

When Chicago branch librarian Roy Kinsey was a teen, he says, "I remember coming to the library and flipping through books and looking up 'gay,' looking up 'bisexual.' I was so hungry. I was looking for characters, people living my story."

Ditto for Gabby Womack, an academic librarian in the Boston area who was raised in a conservative Florida community. She didn't find representation in stories until she was an adult, which prompted a welcome realization: "Are you saying I'm worthy of love?"

Similarly, Jordan (who asked that his last name not be used), growing up in a conservative Appalachian family, was in high school by the time he read a book containing a gay character: The Perks of Being a Wallflower, from a school librarian who kept a secret stash of titles "she knew kids needed, but could not be displayed." Now a middle school librarian in South Carolina, Jordan realizes if he'd had access to queer-themed books at a younger age, "that could've changed how I viewed the world — and viewed myself."

Such early experiences, of searching for but not finding themselves in the stacks, motivate many of the queer librarians currently fighting on the frontlines of America's culture wars — pushing back against book bans to keep materials accessible, and to create safe, supportive spaces for LGBTQ youth.

It's something that's become harder and harder to do. According to the American Library Association (ALA), which began tracking such data over 20 years ago, 2022 brought the highest number of attempted book bans, or challenges, to date: 1,269 cases — a near doubling of the 729 reported in 2021 — of a record 2,571 titles, a 38% increase from the 1,858 titles targeted in 2021. Of the challenges, 58% targeted materials in schools, while 41% focused on public libraries.

And more than ever before — in 90% of cases, in fact — challenges come in the form of long lists compiled by organized censorship groups; 40% involved 100 or more books, whereas prior to 2021, most library challenges involved a single book.

What's being targeted? Mainly books written by or about LGBTQ people and people of color. Of the top 13 banned or challenged books of 2022, seven — including young adult titles Gender Queer: A Memoir, All Boys Aren't Blue and Flamer — were LGBTQ-themed.

Adding to the pressure on librarians, though, has been the passage of laws in at least seven states, including Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri, targeting librarians directly, imposing imprisonment and huge fines for providing "harmful" books to children, reports the Washington Post.

FILE - Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents on Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City. With legislators in Florida barring even the mention of being gay in classrooms and similar restrictions being considered in other states, books with LGBTQ+ themes remain the most likely targets of bans or attempted bans at public schools and libraries around the country, according to a new report Monday, April 24, 2023. Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir “Gender Queer,” was the most “challenged” book of 2022, the second consecutive year it has topped the list. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe, pictured here with other LGBTQ-themed titles, is currently the No. 1 most-challenged book in America. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

"During the pandemic, it was like, 'librarians are everything! Educators are great!' And suddenly, everyone hates us. I'm seeing fellow librarians losing their jobs just for an LGBTQ display," laments Womack.

"If you go to a library and see what the librarians are doing, it's hard to imagine anyone being against it," ALA president-elect Emily Drabinski, who is queer, tells Yahoo Life. "We build collections that allow people to find themselves on the shelves."

Still, there has been a growing climate of censorship across the country, from New Jersey, where an attempt to ban six LGBTQ books at a local library was recently reversed, to Texas, where Gov. Abbott just signed a bill condoning the removal of books from shelves. It's why queer librarians and allies are seen by many as heroes right now.

"They call me the 'town hero,' which is adorable, but it shouldn't have to be that way," says Jenna Ingham, a branch librarian in a "not very diverse" New Jersey town of her supportive library and town officials.

"I grew up a queer teen on the fringes, and didn't feel like the world was made for me," Ingham tells Yahoo Life. "The goal is to be there for the teens, to make them feel seen, to make them feel valid." Because, Ingham adds, "When you see yourself reflected back at you in the book, you feel like there is a place for you."

She's made it her business to not only keep materials accessible and to create Pride displays, but to foster a safe space for LGBTQ youth and to be out, offering herself as a supporter and confidante.

"I had a teen tell me I was the only adult in their life that respects their pronouns," Ingham shares. "I recently had a trans teen come out to me. I had only just met them, but after 25 minutes of conversation they felt comfortable. I believe I was the first person they said it out loud to."

Sometimes, she says, "My existence as an out queer adult is kind of all they need."

'So much more than buildings that house books'

"I've been a big out librarian for like 15 years," says Kathleen Breitenbach, the teen librarian in Hamilton Township, N.J., who serves on the national Rainbow Book List Committee, and whose resource guide, LGBTQIA+ Books for Children and Teens, is about to be released in its second edition. "I wear a lot of stuff to indicate I am being purposely, visibly queer, so they are like, 'Ah, I can talk to that person.'"

Since Breitenbach, who uses they/them pronouns, began in the field, the number of possible Rainbow Book List titles has skyrocketed, from about 150 to around 700. "It's just exploded and gone more mainstream with the big publishers … so that's been really great," they say.

But then came the book challenges, which "were relatively flat for a number of years, but in 2021, just took off. And that, combined with all of the other issues for queer people in the U.S., and especially queer youth, trans youth, "has gotten frightening," they say. While there have been no formal challenges in their public library, the local school district has had several, mostly concerning queer memoirs. "So that, with the other stuff, is really pushing a message of, 'We don't want to show that queer lives exist.'"

When school-library challenges occur, Breitenbach is notified and steps in to speak out and get supports, like the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom, in place. Because access to these books, they reiterate, is everything.

"It's letting them know that they're not alone, that there's nothing wrong with them," they say. "It's so important for the queer kids, but also for the non-queer kids, to see, 'Oh this exists. They're normal, not three-headed dragons.'"

Adds Hal Patnott, the Rainbow Services Librarian for Oak Park district in Illinois, "Access is very much at the root of what my goals are — and not just access to books that reflect who you are, which can be lifesaving, but also to space where LGBTQ youth can experience joy … while feeling safe and affirmed. Libraries are so much more than buildings that house books." As a trans person who grew up "in a very conservative community," Patnott adds, "being an out queer role model means a lot to me."

As it does for Kinsey, in a nearby branch, pointing out that Illinois recently outlawed book bans.

"Chicago is not having it at all," he says, adding that the city declared its entire library system a Book Sanctuary in 2022. At his branch, Kinsey, also a rapper — and conscious of his importance as a Black man in the library field, "usually dominated by white women" — hosts an open mic series, and is dedicated to being out, including how he decorates his desk, with rainbows and James Baldwin quotes.

"This is what Pride means," he says. "People have fought for us to be visible — and not just for June."

A major development towards that goal has been the Brooklyn Public Library's Books Unbanned initiative, which invites individuals ages 13 to 21 to apply for a free BPL eCard, granting access to the entire eBook collection, including the many banned titles.

"We hear from a lot of queer teens, and especially trans and nonbinary teens, that books they want to read — Gender Queer comes up a lot — either have been pulled from the school or public library … or maybe was never ordered in the first place," Leigh Hurwitz, coordinator of BPL's school outreach services tells Yahoo Life. "Or maybe they do have Gender Queer in the library but they are 13 and tried to borrow it and staff members, against policy, have prevented the teen from borrowing the book — or it's been hidden on the shelf, or they're afraid to bring it to the front desk."

Since the April 2022 launch of the program — since replicated in Seattle — the library has given out over 6,500 eCards, to people in every state plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, used for over 100,000 checkouts.

The initiative aims to "give teens tools to be able to advocate for themselves," says Hurwitz, adding, "There is more privacy when you're reading an eBook … because nobody can see the cover. That's a safety concern not only at school, but at home, and it gives [teens] the chance to read what might otherwise be monitored by parents."

The power of allies

Bolstering the work of branch and school librarians is that of their supporters — social media influencers, pro-library alliances and straight librarian allies.

"I want to provide parents or educators a platform, so they can skim my feed to find something," says Forrest Evans, an Atlanta-based digital media specialist who shares LGBTQ titles on Instagram as Favorite Librarian and discusses them on her podcast. In Georgia, bills have targeted library professionals, and, she says, "What I provide combats that effortlessly and beautifully while uplifting queer authors and illustrators."

On the ground in Louisiana's St. Tammany Parish, meanwhile, the two founders of LGBTQ group Queer Northshore sprang into action when the Pride display at a local library was challenged, explain Jeremy Thompson and Mel Manuel. Together, they formed the St. Tammany Parish Library Alliance, active at library board meetings to protect Pride displays and LGBTQ books, many of which have been taken out of circulation.

It's not been an easy fight, Manuel tells Yahoo Life. Librarians have largely been warned to not engage. Plus, "We just found out that after a year of supporting our St. Tammy Parish library systems," says Manuel, who is funneling pro-library efforts into a run for Congress, "not a single branch has chosen to support us and celebrate Pride with us."

But the efforts are particularly vital in such rural and conservative communities — like in Donnelly, Iowa, population 134, where the library, until very recently, hosted a monthly LGBTQ book club for teens. Led by a student, it drew a dedicated crew of six, which was "big," library director Sherry Scheline tells Yahoo Life of what served as the only LGBTQ safe space around.

"One night, there was a horrible snowstorm, and they got off the bus and showed up two hours early, because they were afraid if they went home they wouldn't be able to go back out, and they didn't want to miss book club," says Scheline.

"Small-town librarians, especially since COVID, have had to step up … especially for the LGBTQ community," she says. "Every library should be a place for refuge, whether large or small. But especially in a small community, it's the only place that is the great equalizer."

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