“The world changes in direct proportion to the number of people willing to be honest about their lives.”
Happy National Coming Out Day!
I thought it was important to begin this post with the word “happy” because … well, that’s an important part of an important conversation, something that shouldn’t be forgotten.
Recently, as most everyone knows, a rash of suicides involving young men from all across the country has seized the national conversation. All of their suicides were undoubtedly linked to sexuality and gender based torment, intimidation, and harassment. (see how much more accurate and powerful those words are instead of “they were bullied.”) While we know that LGBTQ teens are more likely to commit suicide, while we even know that the harassment of LGBTQ students is endemic, there was something about these suicides that made people really stop and think. It really took hold when Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better project, which has moved beyond “going viral” and is now everywhere, with celebrities recording PSAs, your mom posting that video of Ellen on Facebook, and People doing a cover story.
And while “it gets better” is an absolutely vital message, one worth spreading, while it’s amazing this has made people actually talk about what the nightmare of being harassed as a LGBTQ kid (or even a child who is perceived to be) is like – I think it’s important that it doesn’t dominate the conversation and become the only message.
To that end, I was reading an article in the New York Times about a LGBTQ support group for 11-14 year olds and one bit stuck out in my mind. The leader of the group was showing them videos from It Gets Better and encouraging dialogue about Tyler Clementi. One boy, aged 12, said: “But he was in college. I thought it was supposed to get better after high school.”
It’s our job, as librarians, as people who work with and are involved in the lives of teens and children, to let them know that, yes, it gets better. But they can help make it better, it can be better now.
How do we do that? Here’s five simple steps I recommend all librarians who work with children and teens take. (or teachers! or teen advocates!)
- 1. For all of you who spread the message of the It Gets Better Project on Facebook, Twitter, your blog, or anywhere else, please take a minute or two to share the Make It Better Project. Make It Better is an initiative for teens to help make it better in their schools and communities. There are YouTube videos of teens speaking out and a whole bunch of tools and action steps for interested teens. Teens deserve to know that they have the power to share their stories too, to be part of making their world better.
- 2. October is GLBT History Mont, so celebrate GLBT History Month at your library. At my library, we have just about every kind of seasonal or thematic display you can imagine, why shouldn’t your teen section have a display for GLBT History Month? Visit and use the resources of the amazing online GLBT History Month which, every year, features the biographies of 31 GLBTQ icons. (this year some of the downloadable bio-sheets will include Maurice Sendak, Jane Lynch, and Jamie Nabozny, who spoke out against bullying when he was still a teen.) You can feature books by LGBTQI authors and books with queer content. If you’re worried about possible objection, you can start planning for next year now. I wrote a more comprehensive guide for how to do this in the Summer 2009 YALS, but I will say that one of the most important elements is using what you have. For instance, I used my library’s long range plan and mission statement in my proposal, something my administration was wild about and gave us real standing and justification if anyone in the community complained. (and not only did no one complain, but the head of the adult services department was inspired and bought a bunch of new books and made a display in the adult section.) If you start the research and planning now, by next October you’ll have something amazing ready to go!
- 3. Don’t tolerate hate speech in your library. My library Code of Conduct forbids “obscene language” and I consider “that’s so gay!” and all derivatives to be just that; obscene. You can’t control what teens will say out of your earshot, but you can monitor what they say around you and in public spaces where you can hear. More than that, you can use it as a teachable moment, a chance to discuss why this language is unacceptable, hurtful, and, yes, obscene.
- 4. Related to that: make use of the tools and information provided by ThinkB4YouSpeak, a joint project between GLSEN and the Ad Council. While the whole site is full of useful information, worth particular note is the Download & Share section, where you can find downloadable .PDFs that challenge teens casual use of slurs. Think what great conversation starters and/or shows of support these would be if printed up as flyers or posters in your teen area!
- 5. Buy those books! Yes, here we are again, back at the what might be the simplest of steps. Buy the books. Get them on your shelves. Have them available for teens who are browsing Amazon or your catalog or “heard about it from a kid at school.” Buy the books that may get stolen off your shelves, that no one may ever ask you about but someone might find and be anchored by. Read reviews, share good titles on lis-serves, on blogs, with colleagues. Include LGBTQI titles on your “If You Like Sarah Dessen…” read-alike list, on your “Recommend Books for High School Students” list. Booktalk one during a teen advisory meeting. Familiarize yourself with YA authors who often write books with LGBTQI content and keep a watch for their new titles. Contact publishers or stop by their booths at conferences to tell them we want more: more diversity, more titles, more age ranges, we want to buy more. Buy the books, put ’em on the shelves, put them out there as our way to change the conversation, as our way to show LGBTQI teens an accurate reflection of their world, a world where it can get better, a world where their lives and their stories matter and are told.
Now is the moment, as librarians and adovcates for teens, to do something for the teens that we serve, to do something that can matter in their lives. Now is the moment that we can stand up for what’s right, when we can do something that could actually save lives.
It does get better, but we can help make now better.
And we can be happy about it.