NOTE: Everything on this blog is an expression of my personal opinions and not those of my employer. It’s especially important to keep this in mind for this post.
Drag Queen Story Times in public libraries are causing quite a lot of controversy lately. The most important thing for me is to state as clearly as I can:
I am an ally.
I do not believe it’s legitimate to cancel these programs because of the prejudices of some members of a community. It’s discriminatory. Public libraries have an obligation to represent all members of our community, which includes LGBTQIA+ folk.
It also includes representing those people who are offended by the drag queen story times. But when you cancel one at the behest of the other, you’re de facto showing preference for the people who are offended.
Some people argue this the other way around: if you go through with a drag queen story time, are you not de facto showing preference for the queens over those who are offended by them?
For me, the answer lies in who’s doing harm.
(It also has quite a lot to do with the structure of power in a community and the inequality of people’s respective positions, dominance vs. marginalization, etc. But there are literally thousands of books and articles and posts about structural inequality and prejudice and power imbalances so I won’t rehash all that here.)
I do not believe drag queens cause harm. I do not believe LGBTQIA+ folk cause harm. I know prejudice and intolerance cause harm. Real, measurable harm.
I read a study when I was in grad school (which, of course, I now can’t find) in which the authors attempted to determine whether passive signs of support for LGBTQIA+ folk do any good. Pride flags in shop windows, rainbow decorations, pink triangles, themed displays in libraries, etc.—do these things help in ways that can be measured? Or are they just nice gestures that make people feel good?
The data was complex and inconclusive except for two findings which stick with me:
- Increases in public displays of support appear to be related to decreases in public displays of intolerance.
It may be prejudiced people are less willing to express their beliefs openly when they see their surrounding community supporting LGBTQIA+ folk—open support drives prejudice underground. Or it may be that public support leads some prejudiced people to question their prejudices—open support normalizes things which makes it easier to tolerate and accept. (This is why it helps when cisgender people foreground their preferred pronouns.)
- Public displays of support for LGBTQIA+ folk are strongly correlated with decreases in teen suicides in a community.
This one is important and it was the strongest conclusion of the study. LGBTQIA+ teens are the most likely youth population to commit suicide. Transgender teens, in particular, are deeply vulnerable to self-harm and suicide because of the prejudice against them. Self-identity is precarious and fragile when you’re a teen. It’s hard enough to figure out who you are and who you should be when the world isn’t screaming hate at you.
Public displays of support and acceptance of LGBTQIA+ folk reduce teen suicides in a community. These displays help. They save lives.
The opposite of helping someone is doing harm. Being offended doesn’t harm people. Being offended doesn’t do any actual damage to the person who’s offended.
If we chose not to do something that can measurably help certain members of our community because we’re afraid of offending others—this reasoning is out of balance. These things aren’t equal. The risk of offending someone isn’t enough to outweigh the opportunity to help people who are vulnerable.
Public libraries are political entities whether we like it or not. We depend on support from our communities. Offending people may not actually harm those offended but it could cost the library. I know it’s complicated. We have to compromise to survive.
Cancelling drag queen story times because we might offend prejudiced people in our community isn’t a compromise I can accept.
If ever there was an institution that should be able to host crucial conversations and dialog about sensitive topics—it’s the library. If ever there was an institution that should be able to navigate an issue like this without denying the rights of anyone—it’s the library.
When we cancel the program, we avoid having the conversation. When we cancel the program, we avoid addressing the issue.
I don’t see how avoiding the issue is the best way for us to serve our communities. Let’s talk about it instead of running away from it.