21 November 2007

The Question of Space

Image from the Loyola University, Chicago's Advocate website

Lately, I've noticed an increased number of LGBTQ and 'non-gender-conforming' young people in our libraries here in B-more. Last week a couple of kids were even vogueing in the hallway leading to the African American Department of the Central Library downtown (I mentioned this to a friend who asked 'where was the music?' The answer was 'in their own heads'). Perhaps I don't mind a pose or two at the library, but when one of them dropped to the floor to do a few moves, I had to step in and remind them they were not in a club.

Libraries have always been safe spaces. We always complain about the parents to drop their children off and expect us to baby sit for them, but it seems to come with the territory. We too would rather have them with us in our buildings than out on the streets. The first branch I worked at on joining the library, on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and North, was and remains a veritable oasis in a sea of dispair, with both drug trade and drug treatment, and working girls literally around the corner from the building. Well lit, with security and helpful, non-judgemental staff, the library is probably one of the few places young people and others can go and feel truly free.

I remember, too, years ago, seeing a young man on the main floor, very furtively reading a copy of one of E. Lynn Harris' early novels. He would read a few paragraphs, then look up to see if anyone was watching him, trying to see what he was reading. My heart went out to him. Who knows what his life was like that he felt he had to worry about others seeing him reading that particular author.

Many of the young people I see now are rather 'obvious' in the expression of their sexual orientation. Many of the girls are very 'butch', and they guys are rather 'fey' in style and attitude (I'm sure a number of others who are often called 'straight acting' are, in fact, Family as well). They use our computers for research, play games, or to go on Facebook and My Space (and in some cases, I'm sure, try to get around our filters to access hook-up sites as well) -- just like the straight kids. Also like their straight counterparts, the library is a place to meet and socialize with their friends. So long as they are relatively quiet and non-disruptive, we leave them alone.

There are very few places for 'queer youth' to meet and relax with each other here. They are not supposed to be in bars or clubs, our Community Center has a few youth programs, mainly on Saturdays, and -- sorry to be stereotypical -- but I somehow doubt the young people I saw vogueing would be interested in going to a rec center or gym, unless they had dance classes there, and even then might be concerned about taunts from the more sports-oriented young people there.

So, again, it falls to us, the local library, to be the default community center for these young people -- and others, not that I'm complaining (much). I'm very glad we're here, and that they're here and not on the streets, in the parks, or whereever.It may even be possible that we are some of the few adults these young people come in contact with who are not judging them, or asking them to conform or 'straighten up.' Also, too, since there are a number of gays and lesbians in the profession, we might be one of the few places where they see 'out' gay men and women 'live' and in a professional capacity. Again, we're happy to provide them with our services. But I wonder if we should be doing more for them -- and as a gay man I'm haunted by thinking about what if anything I personally can do for them, to let them know that "I'm one too" without being seen as trying to take advantage of them.

Libraries say we are community centers by default, and really don't want to be in the business of raising other people's kids. But....well...in many cases that's exactly what we're doing/what we are. Perhaps its time for us to think of ourselves that way, and actually attempt to provide more services to our young charges while they're hanging out in our buildings.


BronzeBuckaroo said...

You have a beautiful heart, Mr. Reggie.

That part about the young man's visible discomfort over being discovered that he might be caught reading a Harris' book was heart wrenching and familiar to me.

Anyway, I understand your concern of not wanting to look as if you are overstepping your bounds with one of the youths.

Bernie said...

Back before the big chain bookstores took over all of America, I remember finding solace in an independent bookstore that carried In The Life and Brother to Brother. Even so, I was nervous about looking at them in public.

Are there speakers who might appeal to these young people you could invite to speak or read? Films that could be shown or dramatic groups that present to serve an intellectual purpose but with the prerequisite cultural sensitivity?

WhozHe said...

I like Bernie's ideas. Growing up the library was the one place I found comfort and freedom to explore through books a side of myself that I did not understand. Thanks for being there.

John Powers said...

In the face of all the world's problems we should always ask what more we can do. But there's also good reasons for humility, so we focus on what we do locally in our daily lives.

You've hit on an essential insight on libraries as safe spaces. Your reminding the dancing kids that the library isn't a club does more good than you might expect. You say to them this library must be a safe place :-)

The cultural context that kids compose their lives is different from what we experienced. They require space both literally and figuratively. So your concentration on creating a safe space is wise.

Mr. Jones said...

Great post. Very heartwarming and well written, too.