Lehigh Valley’s public libraries have emerged as important institutions for LGBTQ

Editor’s Note: The following is part of a series on LGBTQ issues in the Lehigh Valley that coincides with Pride Month. lehighvalleylive.com and a Lafayette College journalism class collaborated on the series, which was made possible through a Journalism for Underheard Stories grant from the University of Wisconsin and Cortico’s Local Voices Network. Read more about the series here.

By Saide Singh

Public libraries are more than just book repositories.

These communal centers often exist as information powerhouses—determining what knowledge gets circulated and whose knowledge is worth knowing. The libraries that aim to provide material produced by and for marginalized communities can become welcoming and affirming spaces for all.

About 19% LGBTQ students in middle and high school have access to information about LGBTQ-related topics in their textbooks or other assigned readings, according to a 2019 GLSEN National School Climate Survey. It’s the most recent data available from the organization, which advocates for affirming learning environments for LGBTQ youth.

The limited access has thrust public libraries into the role of being one of the few places to access identity-affirming and celebratory resources not readily or explicitly available at homes or in schools. And in some cases, they’ve faced pushback from groups that feel the libraries shouldn’t make such resources available.

For some Lehigh Valley public libraries, the need to provide equitable access to LGBTQ materials is not only recognized as important, but also a duty that falls within their mission.

A recent overview of Bethlehem Area and Easton Area public libraries showed considerable effort by both institutions to provide programming, displays and other services that sought to recognize the LGBTQ community. And other local libraries have also promoted events geared toward the community. On Saturday, Parkland Community Library hosted an inclusive storytime with LGBTQ books and songs on the itinerary.

“Libraries are a space for exploration,” said Mariatou Coulibaly, a junior at Lafayette College who frequents the Bethlehem Area and Easton Area public libraries. “There are so many ways, so many multimedia accesses, to understanding Queer histories that are available at libraries that were not always available at home. I’m thinking here of music videos, audio clips, or even the ability to rent important culturally and historically significant films like ‘Moonlight’ or ‘Paris is Burning.’”

The Bethlehem Area and Easton Area public libraries often partner with the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center on programming, including free flu vaccine clinics and book talks with LGBTQ authors. By partnering with the libraries, the center provides equitable health and wellness to LGBTQ community members who too often face barriers when attempting to access healthcare and other resources. Such structural challenges associated with cost and location are minimized when hosted at accessible communal centers like libraries.

“Whenever we partner with libraries, it’s always been super positive,” said Robin Gow, cultural and community-building programs manager at Bradbury-Sullivan Center. “We hosted vaccine clinics at a bunch of libraries in the area, both for the flu shot and for COVID, and it was a really great experience.”

Gow also pointed to the Allentown and Emmaus public libraries as places where they’ve had a positive experience.

Though Gow acknowledged that “any space is a potential for queerphobia,” they’ve never had an issue at public libraries. “I think that’s because there’s a lot of overtly affirming materials at those libraries like a flag, or like a queer-books display, which I’ve seen at all of those,” Gow said.

Gabby Hochfeld, arts and culture programs coordinator at Bradbury-Sullivan Center, agreed that the affirming materials help.

In Bethlehem and Easton, there are LGBTQ films available through both libraries’ access to Kanopy or Hoopla, streaming video platforms designed specifically for public libraries and/or universities. In addition to popular LGBTQ films like “Moonlight” and “Paris is Burning,” Kanopy’s offerings include a plethora of others that address LGBTQ health, activism, media representation and more. Hoopla, which is primarily reserved for libraries, provides access to LGBTQ audiobooks, comics, and e-books in addition to a range of films.

A recent survey at Bethlehem Area, Easton Area and Memorial Library of Nazareth and Vicinity sought to determine the availability of four books on Advocate Magazine’s list of most frequently banned LGBTQ books – “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson; “Lawn Boy”by Jonathan Evison; “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe; and “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out” by Susan Kuklin.

Reference desks indicate the only book Nazareth carried was “Beyond Magenta” while the only book Easton and Bethlehem did not carry was “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” The reference desks, however, said that book was available at the Allentown Public Library.

Hochfeld said the dearth of queer literature in libraries like Nazareth can often be attributed to oversights like cataloging. But more overt reasons are sometimes at play elsewhere. In some cases, it’s out of the library’s control.

A group called CatholicVote launched a campaign this month to coincide with Pride Month. The “Hide the Pride” campaign encouraged its followers to check out all LGBTQ books it deemed as “progressive sex- and gender-related content aimed at children” so others cannot access them. The campaign by the conservative Catholic group drew swift rebukes from LGBTQ authors and allies.

Locally, efforts to keep LGBTQ materials and programming out of public libraries have also garnered attention in recent years.

An outcry from some in the community over a scheduled “Drag Queen Story Hour” in 2019 at the northeast branch of the Warren County Library System in New Jersey prompted that library to cancel the event. The library’s manager at the time said he was frustrated by the cancellation, a decision that was made by the library’s commission.

Just last week in Pennsylvania’s Cumberland County, the public library received phone calls and emails expressing opposition to a similar event called “Storytime with Drag Royalty.” The event was scheduled for Saturday, and the library defended its decision to host.

Addressing the opposition to libraries offering LGBTQ resources, Kristen Leipert, a Bethlehem Area reference librarian, said most librarians do not want to see restricted access to books through bans or other campaigns.

“There is such an effort from librarians and the American Library Association to be very transparent about how they feel about any of these (bans) and they don’t agree with them,” Leipert said. “I can’t speak for every librarian, but I also feel generally, librarians are pretty open, want to provide for people, and make sure people have what they need.”

Leipert referenced the American Library Association’s code of ethics: A nine-point program that ends on a resounding note of inclusion. It begins, “We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person” and concludes with a push forward to “advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, profession, and associations through awareness, advocacy, education, collaboration, services, and allocation of resources and spaces.”

Hochfield, of the Bradbury-Sullivan Center, said libraries have a reputation as being allies to the LGBTQ community.

“Libraries have always been down with it, it seems, and if they haven’t, then that’s news to me,” Hochfeld said. “Libraries have always been a little bit more radical about acceptance and understanding than pretty much any other workspace.”

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