Library Leaders Share Advice to be a "Rainbow Ally," Manage Continued Attacks on LGBTQIA+ Community

Amid continued attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community, an ALA Annual panel of library leaders offered advice on how to create an inclusive and safe space for staff and patrons, as well as handle angry patrons or threats to the library and staff.

Throughout June, libraries’ attempts to celebrate Pride month were disrupted across the country. Displays were damaged, LGBTQIA+ books checked out and staff told the books would not be returned, and library staff harassed and even threatened.  In one incident, members of the Proud Boys showed up and disrupted a Drag Queen Story Hour event.

Pride Month may be over, but attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community, authors, and books continue. It is something that library leaders and staff will be dealing with for the foreseeable future.

At the June 26 panel at ALA Annual “Library Leaders: How to be a Rainbow Ally,” panelists Allison L. Scanlan, director of the Pinson (AL) Public Library, Deb Sica, deputy county librarian of Alameda County (CA) Library, and Sherre L. Harrington, director of the library at Berry College in Georgia and chair of ALA’s social responsibilities round table, offered advice on creating an inclusive space for staff and patrons and handling vitriol, protests, and threats.

Here are some tips summarized from the panel and subsequent audience Q&A:

How do you handle angry patrons? Do you have de-escalation strategies?

  •  First, make sure staff knows that leadership has their back and that they do not have to handle situations on their own. They can seek the support and assistance of a fellow staff member or their administrator.
  • Scanlan said that as hard as it is, the first step she takes is to “steady and steel herself” and then calmly listen to what the person is saying before explaining why the library is promoting or sharing certain content, using facts and statistics with sources.
  •  Patrons also must know that there is no place for mistreating staff. “My staff is not here to be berated. Full stop,” said Scanlan.
  • Sica offered two techniques:

                        ACT: Affirm, Counter, Transform. “This can happen across any desk in any place in any library,” Sica said. There are three steps to the conversation: Affirming, even if it’s vitriol, you are affirming what you’re hearing; Counter, you are embedding some counter ideas into that conversation patiently and slowly; Transform: The intended impact of the first two steps, transforming the discussion in that moment in time.

                        Take a moment, breathe in deeply, gather yourself, and then go out there and deal with it. “Knowing if you’re in your head, you’re in your heart, you’re in your spirit, or you’re in your body—those four areas—before you engage with this person, that is going to ground you to be able to do this work in a way that is undeniably sane and a lot less confrontational,” Sica said. That should keep things safer, as well.

How can you be a “Rainbow Ally”?

  • Give staff the opportunity to share their pronouns.
  • Take gender out of the equation wherever possible, including on library cards.
  • Create displays that represent all people, reminding staff to check to see that everyone is indeed represented.
  • As new staff comes on, make the culture and expectations of your library space clear.
  • Reach out to local community organizations that are doing this work full-time. Invite those organizations in or go to them. Build the bridges.
  • Harrington suggested that while it may be difficult and is a personal choice, if the library leader is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and comfortable sharing that, they should. If they are not a member of the community, Harrington said, they can still reflect that their library is a safe place for LGBTQIA+ staff and patrons with their word choice and simple acts like hanging signs that say that everyone is welcome or finding a way to show which staff members have been through safe space training.

What is the most inclusive terminology that will not insult or offend anyone?
The panel’s consensus was to go with LGBTQIA+. While many people in the community use the word queer to describe themselves, some in an older generation connect trauma to the word and members of the LGBTQIA+ community don’t believe the reclaimed word is appropriate for people outside of the community to use.

What do you do when something happens?
Seven members of the Proud Boys disrupted the San Lorenzo Library’s Drag Queen Story Hour midway through the event on June 11. The branch is part of the Alameda County system, and during the panel, Sica shared the way staff handled the situation at the time and what has happened since.

First, staff got the performer out of the space to safety. Next, they removed the families. Then they called the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office. There was no security at the event, a conscious choice Sica said the library system makes knowing how having officers present impacts staff of color. Members of the Sherriff’s department arrived and asked the Proud Boys to leave. Once they did, the families and performer were returned to complete the story time.

“The resilience in carrying on was part of the closure in that experience,” said Sica.

In the aftermath, the library offered on-demand counseling and therapy for staff. It has reached out to the families that were affected and supported the performer and who doesn’t want to return to the space. That meeting room, for performer, families, and staff, is now a place of trauma. Library leaders must remember that.

Staff from other branches in the system reached out and showed up with signs of support. Some even swapped locations so that impacted San Lorenzo staff could go work at a different branch for a day. Don’t forget the “power of connection within the system,” Sica said.

The library system is now working on building a new relationship with the county sheriff’s office. It is teaching the department about what the library is about, what is acceptable and not acceptable in the space; and trying to find a new way to work together. Sica expects this process to play out over the next few years.

When something like this happens, Sica said, administrators must know that it will take time for staff—particularly those who are members of the community that was attacked—to process the trauma and return to form as an employee.

“Be as human and as vulnerable as you can in this moment,” said Sica. “It takes a lot from a leader to be vulnerable. I cried with my staff when this happened; I shamelessly did that, and others felt they could do the same.”

Finally, Sica relayed this story from a parent who was at the event. The Proud Boys were yelling that the people there were sick, groomers, and pedophiles. One wore a shirt with an AK-47 on it that said “Kill your local pedophile,” according to Sica. After the event, a child who was there said to their mother, “I don’t know why they said we were sick, we were wearing masks and they’re not.”

“Keeping the perspective of child’s eyes and how they’re reading it also helps build the spirit up,” said Sica.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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