LGBT Pride Month Brings Extra Challenges for Librarians

Over the last two years, challenges of LGBT books, displays, and programming have risen. During June, library staff handle even more challenges and complaints than usual.

In many places around the country, June brings celebratory parades and an increased show of rainbow flags, not to mention rainbow bagels, rainbow jewelry, and rainbow-covered clothing.

In libraries, however, LGBT Pride month often means dealing with more challenges. While staff try to spotlight books with LGBT characters and themes, as well as those written by authors in the LGBT community, they have been facing more opposition from patrons and superiors during the last two years.

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (ALA OIF) has noticed a few trends since 2016. Half or more of the most-challenged books on the annual list are there because of LGBT characters or themes. This year, according to OIF director James LaRue, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, a book about vice president Mike Pence's pet bunny marrying another male bunny, is getting extra attention from critics. Not only have challenge numbers risen around LGBT issues, more and more often, patrons' complaints are going beyond books. Less than halfway through June, the OIF had heard of challenges to four LGBT displays and two Drag Queen Story Hours.

“We noticed that probably as a trend that started about a year and a half ago—books are still a primary things that are challenged, but there’s a big swing toward exhibits, speakers, [and] displays. And again the theme has been very much LGBT stuff.”

Library administrators and self-censorship

The third trend noted by LaRue is self-censorship. In some cases, displays and programming aren't happening because library superiors are trying to avoid controversy and complaints.

“It seems like the tendency is lots and lots of staff members are saying, ‘It’s important we do this, it’s important that we talk about it,’" says LaRue. "And increasingly, more and more shy administrators say, ‘Gee, we’re going to get some push back on this, let’s find a way not to do it.’” An LGBT theme becomes a summer theme instead, and staff objections are ignored. This kind of self-censorship, or any censorship, goes against the basics tenets of librarianship. More conversation is better than less, says LaRue, and librarians must maintain their role despite increased opposition in certain cases. That doesn't and shouldn't mean situations get acrimonious.

“It’s important that we stand up, that we demonstrate courage within our communities for the values that define us as librarians,” he says. “But it’s also the case that we don’t have to be strident about it. We’re not doing this to irritate people. We’re doing this to celebrate human diversity.”

When it comes to non-book challenges, librarians may not know how to respond. A plan and a policy is usually in place for titles, but what should they do when a patron or organization demands a display taken down or program cancelled?

“We suggest that the [book] reconsideration tool is already the best practice for responding to challenges,” says LaRue, meaning use that same policy for any challenge from the initial form to taking the complaint to a committee, the director or school administrator's decision, and a possible appeal to the board. “That’s very sturdy and it makes sure everything stays transparent. People can ask questions. And instead of just reacting to pressure from groups, you’re having a thoughtful interpretation of your policies.”

Librarians and library staff should also contact OIF by emailing or going to the website's page to report challenges. From there, the OIF staff can offer a range of possible responses to assist. First, they look at a policy to see if it has been followed. If needed, they also help coach staff on how to have these conversations with their supervisors about policy and censorship and the importance of representation. They can help library staff organize support for board meetings and social media campaigns, as well as writing their own letters to the editor or to the board or library director on behalf of the ALA.

Finally, says LaRue, “I’m not above picking up the phone and calling the director and saying, ‘What’s up? What’s going on?’”

Fighting these trends in June, and year round, is important, but according to LaRue, the most essential part of the process begins with the youngest patrons. “The single most important things we do is invest in early literacy,” says LaRue. “That means you come to this public place where everybody treats you well. You are read stories about lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds.”

It makes an impact that lasts a lifetime.

“What we’ve learned from that early exposure to human story is that A) it builds your brain, right? You have a better vocabulary....You grow up smarter being exposed to all that language,” he says. “But the other thing we’ve learned is that you become more empathetic. The more exposure you have to story, the kinder a person you become, the easier it is to understand what somebody else is going through. It increases empathy.” As people get older, that investment in a range of human stories when they were younger means, “We become better people. We build stronger communities. People are healthier and happier—and more tolerant.”

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Librarianship is often referred to as a field with a duty to start conversations and to bring about uncomfortable points and provide information for pushed against topics: that comes with the caveat that both sides of the topic are open to conversation. It is completely conceivable that a community or parents would push back against a drag queen story time because it's seen as promotion and acceptance of a lifestyle they don't agree with. This all is in line with the "libraries as unbiased" movement that props librarians up as advocates for a certain set of beliefs but neglects to acknowledge the other side of bias: that librarians can also believe in a non-left wing agenda and use their position to advocate for those standards. Libraries should be a reflection of what their community needs, not what the librarians in their library /think/ their community needs. LGBTQ+ activism is a big step in a lot of places, and if early literacy is the most important act of libraries, it certainly should be more important than an agenda.

Posted : Jun 20, 2018 01:35


*"non-neutral librarianship" movement

Posted : Jun 21, 2018 11:47


"Librarianship is often referred to as a field with a duty to start conversations and to bring about uncomfortable points and provide information for pushed against topic" Funny, I've never heard of librarianship referred to that way by anyone but librarians who want to piggyback their own political agendas onto their libraries' real missions.

Posted : Jun 25, 2018 10:30


(!!!) Yes!

Posted : Jun 26, 2018 01:48


Can you please put up the statistics that show GLBTQIA+ challenges are rising from year to year? I thought overall book challenges were way down from where they were a decade ago, and ALA's statistics from 1990-2000 and 2000-to-2010 show a decrease in the number of challenges over homosexuality. The most recent ALA challenge infographics do not contain raw numbers, alas. Please provide backup to your assertion.

Posted : Jun 16, 2018 12:08

Kevin A. Lewis

Maybe if the gay community would stop playing Alphabet Monopoly with this ridiculous acronym it would be easier for people to take them seriously. Sounds like a picky thing to complain about, but even San Francisco news anchors have given up trying to use LGBTQ+ Whatever in a coherent sentence, and it just over as twee, self-involved, and narcissistic. Just say "gay"-it pretty much covers everybody in the category. There's about 347 non-gay sub-varietals we could conceivably demand an acronym for (quite a number of which I wouldn't be seen walking down the street with) and life just isn't long enough. Having to stop, face Benares and burn incense before every obscure gender shrine on the road is expensive, tedious, and hard on the camels...

Posted : Jun 19, 2018 11:17



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