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Tucson libraries are a safe space to learn and explore

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Em DeMeester-Lane

Not many community members realize it, but one of the ethical pillars of the library profession is protecting the freedom to read. This means that everyone, regardless of background, identity or age, has the right to access materials that are meaningful to them. Perhaps someone wants to read a controversial book to see what all the fuss is about, or perhaps like me, someone relies on these materials as a lifeline to community and belonging.

One weekend afternoon, I had the opportunity to connect with a young teen who reminded me so much of myself at that age. On my name tag, under my name, are the letters LGBTQ+. I include that mostly because I want to offer a subtle way for customers to know I am a safe place. After years as a young adult librarian, I understand that these sort of subtle cues go much farther with teens than anything flashy. And, like clockwork, I had a customer interaction I’ve had countless times.

A young person came up to me and said “I’m looking for books about LGBTQ people.” I smiled at them and said “Of course!” The next words out of their mouth was “I need the covers to not look like anything because I’m with my grandma and she doesn’t approve, but your name says LGBTQ and that’s what I am.”

The courage of this young person reaching out towards community took me back to my own days of loneliness and isolation. I tried to fight back the tears that welled in my eyes and I got to work looking for age appropriate LGBTQ books that had some boring covers. We were able to find one title, but I did promise them that I’d fill up their holds so they would have a lot of great reads the next week.

That interaction is the core of why I became a librarian. I grew up in the late ’90s and early ’00s, navigating the internet to find community outside the shadow of my unaccepting (and sometimes unsafe) environment.

It was secret books, Ani Difranco message boards and taking the bus to Casa Video or to the old Rainbow Planet coffee shop on North Fourth Avenue that helped me find pieces of myself that I had been holding so tightly and hiding so deeply for so many years. When I got to college and started working for my university’s library system, outside the shadow of my oppressive school climate and anti-gay upbringing, I understood just how important access and identity are.

Now I stand as a 37-year-old trans man, that, to be honest, fits in with the crowd now more than I probably ever have in my life.

Most people would not think anything when I walk down the street holding my wife’s hand, but that experience of my burgeoning identity and the folks whose friendly faces helped me along my journey, whether they knew it or not, is what got me to this place. I carry that debt every day when I enter the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, which I now manage.

I often think about what teenage or middle school Em would think of me. I think they would be proud and I know I am very proud of them for getting me to this place, too.

There’s a lot of talk these days about books and the level of importance and influence they play in the lives of children and young adults especially. Challenges against materials that feature LGBTQ+ and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) lives are at an all-time high. ‘

But books are no threat to our youth; books literally saved me. They let me see myself in the world in ways that were healing and validating. They pulled me out of a deep depression in high school when my English teacher and I would have a small book club together, reading Oprah Book Club picks and discussing them over lunch. Or when I read “Stone Butch Blues” for the first time and something inside me clicked about myself and the fluidity of gender and the realization that I could someday, maybe, if I wanted, do something about that nagging feeling inside me. These books, those people, they told me every day that I wasn’t alone every time I felt like I really, truly was.

I have been with Pima County Public Library for 14 years and since my first position as a library associate into my years as a young adult services supervisor, I have repeatedly had young people come to me with what is weighing on them, a lot of it being about identity.

The library is a safe space for learning and books are an ideal way to explore a world you may be drawn to, but know nothing about. It is imperative that we keep these spaces sacred.

Nov. 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance. According to the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), this day was started in 1999 by a transgender advocate named Gwendolyn Ann Smith as a vigil to mourn her late friend Rita Hester.

That small gesture turned into a movement, sadly, because of the high rates of violence against trans and gender non-conforming people even today. Coming out of the shadows is one way to combat those rates of violence and I am committed to that.

Being visible so that young people in my community can feel safe and freely access the resources that help them is my highest calling.

A record number of LGBTQ candidates are running for office in November, according to newly compiled data, and some breakthrough victories are likely. Democrat Becca Balint is favored to win Vermont's lone U.S. House seat, becoming the first woman and first openly gay person to represent the state in Congress. Balint said she is someone who Vermonters did not know by name, despite having served in the state legislature for several years. The large amount of support she has seen during her campaign run for the U.S. House of Representatives has excited her. "It's going to be so exciting to be the first woman to represent Vermont and the first openly gay person to represent Vermont. It's an incredible honor. I never really thought that that I would be here. I don't come from a political family. I did not have those connections. And, you know, for a long time, it was really just a pipe dream," she said. But for Balint, the reason she is running for Congress is personal, outside of her LGBTQ identity. "My grandfather was killed in the Holocaust, and I understand what it looks like when democracies start to fail. I feel like that's where we're at right now. So that's really my why, that's what's driving me to run right now," she said. Balint said now is a time for courage, and vows to not let democracy fail in her lifetime.

Em DeMeester-Lane is in his 14th year of public librarianship and manages the Joel Valdez Main Library. His professional work is centered in youth advocacy and equity. In his spare time he loves gardening, cooking and spending time with his wife and family (both biological and chosen).

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"As libraries continue to evolve, I believe it is important for librarians to become aware of our roles within diverse communities and to understand their needs and aspirations."

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