In the 2019 Netflix special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby asked: ‘Where are the quiet gays supposed to go?’
How about your local library? Libraries are typically thought of as stuffy institutions with irritable, cardigan-wearing librarians shushing anyone who speaks above a whisper. This might not be the ideal location for a Pride parade – but you’ll find that many of our own personal Prides are held in between the quiet stacks.
We as a community had to fight against discrimination and censorship to take our rightful place on the shelves.
For LGBT History Month 2020, I’m taking a look at how LGBT people have been silenced in the library, and how we as a community had to fight against discrimination and censorship to take our rightful place on the shelves.
First of all, why is it important that LGBT books are readily available?
Knowledge is a precious thing, and in LGBT studies we have suffered far more losses than we have gained. In Nazi Berlin, purges were carried out in gay bars as well as libraries and research institutes, most notably and devastatingly in the case of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. Created by Magnus Hirschfeld, who coined the term ‘transsexualism’, the Institut welcomed trans people as both researchers and clients, pioneered the first gender reassignment surgeries, and worked on vital research about the trans community.
Knowledge is a precious thing, and in LGBT studies we have suffered far more losses than we have gained.
In one of the biggest tragedies of the library world, the Institut and its collections were seized and publicly burned in 1933. Thousands of books, articles, and research notes that could have brought recognition and visibility to trans people across the world were destroyed, and to this day we are still struggling to rebuild that priceless collection of research.
Without having books and research papers on LGBT history and identities publicly available, we and future generations risk remaining uninspired, unempowered, and uneducated on LGBT topics. And while in 2020 a cis gay man or lesbian can find themselves in the library easily (though the situation could be vastly improved), a trans person or an LGBT person of colour will still have a much harder time finding their stories. Identities under the bi and ace umbrellas, meanwhile, are often routinely excluded in LGBT displays, due to a lack of understanding of LGBT identities from library staff.
How do we go about finding our stories?
The first book featuring an LGBT character I ever checked out of a library was Carol (or The Price of Salt) by Patricia Highsmith. I was living a relatively happy life, accepted by my friends and family as a newly-out lesbian, but I still felt crushingly lonely. Books had always been my greatest friends and I was determined to find new ones I could relate to. As always, when in doubt, I headed to the library. Carol and several other titles were sitting in an LGBT History Month display. I took half of them home that day and ended up with a passion for LGBT literature, a library science degree, and some LGBT friends who weren’t books.
I was lucky – my public library was well funded, and I lived in a time and place where a library could display books with LGBT characters without too much backlash. Our stories have never been easier to reach than they are now, but historically LGBT books have been censored, removed from, or not even considered for, library collections. They’ve classified LGBT people as ‘abnormalities’ or ‘neurological disorders’, and generally been shoved to the back of the shelf like we were shoved into the closet.
So how did we ever find the books we needed to empower ourselves as LGBT individuals? While novels and poetry can usually be found through specific displays or word of mouth, for non-fiction resources you’ll need to consult a library catalogue. The Dewey Decimal system is a library classification created by Melvil Dewey in 1876. It is the most popular classification system in the world, particularly in Britain. The DDS decides where a book will be placed on the shelf, and it reveals a lot about what early librarians thought of the subjects they were cataloguing.
In 1932, a reader looking for material on LGBT identities would have found themselves at either 132: Mental Derangements, or 159.9734746: Sexual Inversion.
In 1932, a reader looking for material on LGBT identities would have found themselves at either 132: Mental Derangements, or 159.9734746: Sexual Inversion. In 1965, we were moved to 616.85834: Neurological Disorders. By 1989 we were ‘Social Problems’ (363.49 – still widely used). Today you can still find us in the 300s – more specifically in the 306s, under ‘Sexual Relations’:
- 306.76: Sexual orientation, Asexuality
- 306.764: Heterosexuality
- 306.765: Bisexuality
- 306.766: Homosexuality
- 306.7662: Male homosexuality (gay men)
- 306.7663: Lesbianism
- 306.768: Transgenderism and Transsexualism
- 306.7685: Intersexuality
LGBT librarians and library users have long since highlighted that this system is inadequate for categorising the varied and dynamic LGBT community. They have been instrumental in making sure we have been classified properly in collections, and have taken part in campaigns, focus groups, and protests such as ‘library kiss-ins’ so that, nowadays, no one who is questioning their sexuality or gender identity needs to make the terrifying trip down to classification 132.
The demand for inclusive storytelling increases year by year.
In fact, many libraries are now abandoning Dewey because it is an outdated system that oversimplifies complex issues like gender, sexuality and race. We are also now more likely to see libraries actively promoting books on LGBT subjects, especially during events like LGBT History Month, as the demand for inclusive storytelling increases year by year.
What more can we do to improve the situation for all readers?
It is heartening to think about LGBT people finding comfort in the same stories throughout history – a woman studying the poems of Sappho in Alexandria, a university student poring over Oscar Wilde by candlelight, a lonely teenager reading Carol in an armchair. These people beat the odds to find the stories that represent them. We shouldn’t forget that many people in the past never found their own stories, and that many people today are still searching.
We shouldn’t forget that many people in the past never found their own stories, and that many people today are still searching.
For LGBT History Month 2020 the theme is ‘Poetry, Prose, and Plays’. Visit your local library this month and see what’s available there – not only for you, but for the entire community. Are there trans narratives on the shelves? Are there books celebrating LGBT people of colour? Are there resources on safer sex and asexuality? If you see gaps in the collection, ask your library what you can do to help fill them. LGBT books are out there, waiting to be read – so let’s make them accessible to everyone, and especially to those lonely teenagers.