By Elizabeth Gartley
This winter, when I was selecting nonfiction titles to purchase for this school year, I included a few LGBTQ nonfiction titles, including Stonewall by Ann Bausum, Branded by the Pink Triangle by Ken Setterington, and Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin. When they arrived, the LGBTQ books sat alongside others in the “New Books” display. All three of the books mentioned above have been checked out at least twice, and I’ve been pleased to hear my middle school students comment on how interesting they were.
As I read more about school library services for LGBTQ students, I’ve noticed that often the focus is on creating safe spaces and offering LGBTQ inclusive fiction. While both of these are worthwhile goals, and I’ve been disappointed that nonfiction and informational resources don’t get more attention. The school library is a hub for students to find information, since LGBTQ students already face more hurdles to access information, the school library should be proactive to serving the information needs of LGBTQ students.
According to the 2013 GLSEN National School Climate Survey, only 44 percent of LGBT students reported that they were able to find LGBT-related materials in their school library, and less than half of LGBT students with Internet access at school were able to find LGBT-related information online via school computers. Unfortunately, according to past survey data, this statistic had changed little in 10 years. Even as LGBTQ rights have come to the forefront nationally and LGBTQ people are better represented in the media, school library services to LGBTQ students have remained static.
In an article for School Library Research, Hughes-Hassell, Overberg, and Harris (2013) surveyed 125 school libraries for LGBTQ-themed materials, including fiction, nonfiction, and biographies. The study found that the average number of LGBTQ-themed titles in school libraries was 0.4 percent, and concluded that school libraries are under-serving LGBTQ students. The study also found that overall, school libraries collected more LGBTQ-themed fiction than nonfiction and biographies combined.
These findings are at odds with Darla Linville’s 2004 study in which she surveyed LGBTQ youth and found that the library resources most requested were nonfiction information resources such as coming out stories, how-to information on activism (like how to start a GSA), local community resources, information about being LGBTQ, and information about safe sex and sexual health.
Fortunately, every year, more and more LGBTQ inclusive informational and nonfiction resources become available. School libraries can meet the needs of LGBTQ students by selecting resources that are LGBTQ-specific or by selecting general materials that are LGBTQ-inclusive. LGBTQ-specific resources could include biographies of important LGBTQ figures, resources on LGBTQ history and rights movements, or “guidebooks” or books about being LGBTQ.
When I think of general materials that are LGBTQ-inclusive, I tend to think of biographies which acknowledge the LGBTQ lives of historical figures (such as Alexander the Great). Although these figures probably didn’t label themselves with terms used today, this kind of acknowledgement can help recognize that sexual and gender diversity has existed throughout history and across cultures. Other inclusive materials might include health and sexuality resources that treat sexual or gender identity as part of the human experience and not treat LGBTQ people or identities as abnormal.
Even for those students who aren’t ready to check out LGBTQ resources from the library, just seeing that they are available in the library will help students feel more included and safe at school. Having the resources available in the library is step one, but ensuring that students can easily and discreetly access those materials is also important. This can be achieved through clear signage (such as Dewey numbers for sensitive topics), using “honor system” labels, or removing security tags on certain resources. School librarians should also work with school administrators or technology personnel to override web-filtering software or “unblock” websites which contain useful information on LGBTQ topics. (At one of my former schools, the websites for the Bisexual Resource Center, a thirty year-old nonprofit, and Advocates for Youth, an organization dedicated to health education, were both blocked by web filtering software.)
I also recently discovered that ebooks are a great way to get information into the hands of kids. Myself and the two other secondary librarians in my district are working together to launch a new ebook platform. When I was introducing this new service to a class of sixth graders, a couple of boys discovered the book This Book Is Gay by James Dawson. They were both scandalized and greatly entertained by the name of the book. Although one boy commented that he thought the book might actually be “serious,” and another thought he’d read it to see what the book was all about. But I realized that having such books available electronically is another great way to get information into the hands of kids who need it (including giggly sixth graders).