Finding Your Identity at the Library

Do you know someone struggling with their identity? Find out how the library can make all the difference.

At one time or another, all of us have experienced trials and tribulations trying to figure out our fit with society. Still, for some, it’s more of a challenge than it is for others since history has embedded everything from stereotypes, to teasing, to outright cruelty and violence into the experiences that shape our personalities. However hard as it may be, those in the LGBTQ+ community are coming out in droves. In part, thanks to public libraries and their staff.

Being Out at the Library

Ten years ago, Shawn Vaillancourt shared in American Libraries that,

Those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ+) — especially youth — are still targets of bullying, harassment, violence, and discrimination. Because of that fact, this group can benefit from libraries in two distinct ways: through the access to information that libraries offer and the sense of community that library programs can foster.

Could this have been stated any more succinctly?

As we face new and often divisive politics in our neighborhoods and throughout the country, we can at least agree that we’re fighting a battle over identity concerns that have yet to be won. And for many LGBTQ+ people, public and public academic libraries might seem like the only safe space. So thank goodness we have them!

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Teens Struggling With Acceptance and Coming Out

In the past few decades, many libraries have added spaces where teens can hang out — with other teens and adult employees who willingly listen to their concerns, whether LGBTQ+-related or not. Some young adults in the throes of “questioning” aren’t sure. In the library’s teen spaces, that’s OK. They can expect to be heard and understood there but never mocked or ridiculed.

“The experience of questioning sexuality is different for everyone, but can be influenced by the environment in which they live, family and friends they interact with, and the overall community they are a part of,” according to educational psychologist Dorothy Espelage. She further states that:

An affirming and accepting community may respond differently than a more conservative community, but even within those communities, teens may find more accepting people to lean on… It’s just hard for some heteronormative families who fear that (because their child is) a gender or sexual minority today, life is going to be hard.

Furthermore, a 2019 Research in Adolescence article reveals that 2.5% of the teen LGBTQ+ population self-identified as “questioning.” It also points out that, to understand the development and lived experiences of SGM (sexual and gender minority) people over time and across multiple identities, the data must be correct and accessible.

They also should help leaders stress the cultural value of dynamic and intersecting identities since doing so is critical to improving the quality of life for diverse people.

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LGBTQ+ Librarians as Role Models

In May 2021, when efforts to ban books on LGBTQ+ topics from school libraries were growing politically, Two Grooms on a Cake: The Story of America’s First Gay Wedding hit bookshelves across the country, including many in libraries.

This children’s story about Michael McConnell’s 1971 same-sex marriage was upheld as legal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. Still, McConnell is more than just a book character. In fact, as a librarian, he was essential in transforming libraries into the welcoming places for LGBTQ+ kids and teens he so wanted when he was young.

Leaders like McConnell have influenced everyone from kids to fellow library staff, whether they realize it or not. Many of today’s librarians who came of age in the early 21st century still remember him as an exemplar.

Coming Out Stories

You might wonder: what is a coming-out story? Since our society continues to assume that being cisgender and heterosexual is the norm, many LGBTQ+ people don’t come out just once. Instead, it becomes an ongoing process for determining whether or not to tell new people about who you are and what you want to become. Of course, it’s OK if you don’t want to come out at all — or maybe a little, or not yet.

For instance, a 2021 blog article by “Joel N.” of the Free Library of Philadelphia captures his feelings from one and a half decades of working as an LGBTQIA librarian. He recalls that, before 2020, someone could get fired for being queer or trans in Pennsylvania and many other states.

He also mentions that, in 2010, “out” queer adults would stare into a confessional camera and tell potentially queer and questioning youth that their lives would, eventually, get better. I believed in it, and know my own life became better as I got to be out and find other queer people to build a family.”

In recent years, more coming out stories from teens and librarians alike have appeared in podcasts, anthologies, fictional stories, and more. Their topics range from tragic, to comical, to uplifting and encouraging. If you or others you know are interested in reading coming-out stories with a multicultural and global flair and are looking forward to Coming Out Day on October 11, 2022, read here for some well-considered recommendations.

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What Is Coming Out Day and How Can I Learn More?

Each year, October 22 marks the 1987 National March on Washington anniversary of supporting Lesbian and Gay Rights. The earliest coming out theme, in 1999, was “Come Out To Congress.” This year, it’s “Born to Shine.”

Coming Out Day celebrates those who have already come out and helps those who prefer to keep their identity under wraps. It also encourages those considering coming out and feeling they might be ready for it. Fortunately, there are resources to help.

For example, The Trevor Project connects LGBTQ+ questioners to counselors, and the CDC works with other LGBTQ+ health concerns. But these are only some of many resources. And there are recommendations for adults to help them become allies for LGBTQ+ teens — which makes for a well-informed and enlightening read.