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“Why Would You Want To Encourage Gay People?”: LGBTQ+ Representation In Libraries

Librarians hear all kinds of responses to LGBTQ+ materials in the collection, especially any time they are on display to celebrate Pride Week or Pride Month. Some of the most memorable responses consist of barely-veiled hostility toward the LGBT community in general. “Why would you want to encourage gay people?” “Do you think parents are okay with this?”

Then there are the infinitely more rewarding positive responses. “I’m always searching for positive representation for people like me, and I find it here.” “No one knows I’m gay, but I can take refuge here.” “I wish these collections existed when I was young and questioning.” “I’m afraid to come out to my parents, but I can read stories with gay characters while I’m here.” The public library should be a refuge for all kinds of people. Sadly, there are many stories from members of marginalized groups of feeling safer at the library than elsewhere in their communities.

Earlier this month, a coworker arranged a couple of Pride Month displays of LGBT fiction and nonfiction. The second I saw that display I offered to contribute some graphic novels and started putting together an ever-growing list of LGBT characters in my library’s graphic novel collection. Then, last Sunday at about 2:00 a.m., Omar Mateen attacked Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49* people and wounding 53 [*Edit: this number has been updated, as the earlier figure of 50 included the shooter]. In the words of an openly bisexual friend who nonetheless uses a twitter pseudonym:

Putting together book lists and displays about different identities is not an act of courage – or at least, it shouldn’t be. Within the South Carolina Library Association, conference programs with a focus on programming and collections for marginalized groups consistently draw attentive, passionate professionals who want their libraries to serve as refuges, learning centers, and safe spaces for everyone in their communities. Those librarians are not courageous, but they are looking out for their patrons and spreading the word among colleagues about what works, whether it’s a gay prom or policies for combating prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination.

By the way, while we’re on the topic of marginalized communities, the value of seeing oneself in comics should be crystal clear and absolutely supported by nerds. The platonic ideal of nerd origin stories is usually some variation of, “I got into X interest at a time when my life was difficult / I felt alone and X spoke to me / I didn’t understand myself but X was within my control.” Anyone who has found their fondness for comics turning into a rather involved hobby (ahem) should be the first to identify with the need for diversity in storytelling and storytellers. For example, anyone who cheers Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Peter Parker for being a humorous underdog teenager struggling to balance urban and superpowered life should be giving Sana Amanat, Stephen Wacker, G. Willow Wilson, and Adrian Alphona’s Kamala Khan a standing ovation.

thor volume 1: goddess of thunderThis transitive empathy goes beyond LGBT stories into any kind of representation, and highlights moments of hypocrisy, too. Walk with people through comics shelves, whether in a library or comics shop or convention booth, and chat up other comics nerds who can talk at length about favorite writers, artists, and characters. Somehow, the sight of a female Thor or black Captain America sets off some people’s need to comment on the inappropriateness of “force-feeding” diversity to audiences. “Why did they have to replace Thor with a woman? Why can’t they use an original character?” Point out that Thor Odinson is present in those issues, and that “Lady Thor’s” alter ego is an established Marvel character, then get dismissed for proving their conception wrong. Why not at least read the comic first?

Last February, I made a book display of comics featuring black protagonists, including Sam Wilson as Captain America. I would check on the display and find that comic on more than one occasion flipped over, moved away, or covered by another book. No one ever voiced a complaint with library staff about it, but clearly someone had a strong opinion about “the real Captain.” From that point on, I made sure to keep that display as populated as possible with Sam Wilson comics, whether as Cap or Falcon. Would the silent objector dismiss the comic’s inclusion of Steve Rogers as quickly as the anti-Thor fanboy who dismissed Thor Odinson’s presence? Inclusion is not erasure. Like any good literature, comics can serve as escapes, lessons, challenges, meditations, mirrors, and comforts. Here are three such examples:

Exhibit A: the massive amount of LGBT-inclusive webcomics putting out the sort of content that only trickles to market in print.
Exhibit B: the X-Men and their enduring appeal as a group of marginalized freaks.
Exhibit C: Dean Trippe’s Something Terrible, about the life-saving quality of escapism for someone who felt silenced and self-destructive as a result of sexual violence during childhood.

While the history of LGBT representation in comics is full of compromises and hurdles, it has also only gotten better, stronger, and more populated with time. Dive in at your local library or, if the collection needs help, say so and offer some suggestions for the sake of the next reader who visits. Believe me, they’re looking.