How librarians make space for LGBTQ+ students

Rainbow Library project offers additional LGTBQ resources to K12 libraries
By: | July 1, 2019
This Rainbow Library kit comes with LGBTQ-themed books and other educational resources tailored for specific grade levels. Schools can get the kit by partnering with the Connecticut chapter of GLSEN, an LGTBQ support organization.This Rainbow Library kit comes with LGBTQ-themed books and other educational resources tailored for specific grade levels. Schools can get the kit by partnering with GLSEN, an LGTBQ support organization.

Libraries, with their place at the heart of the exchange of ideas in schools and communities, can play a key role in bolstering LGBTQ support in schools.

The Connecticut chapter of GLSEN, a student advocacy organization, has launched the Rainbow Library Community Reads Project for the upcoming school year to provide LGBTQ+-themed books and other educational resources to school and community libraries across the state.

“We know that even in blue states, things are still really hard for LGBTQ+ students at school,” says Michael Rady, the teacher who founded the Rainbow Library project.

“Having books that affirm their identities will get them more engaged because they’ll see themselves in literature and history,” he says.

A survey done by the chapter in 2017 found that 87% of LGBTQ+ students have heard offensive remarks at school, and about one-fifth have been harassed. And only half say their school has an LGBTQ+-inclusive curriculum.

To remedy that, the Rainbow Library comes with fiction and nonfiction books geared toward readers at all grade levels and placing an emphasis on people of color.

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The organization has partnered with about 120 school and community libraries in Connecticut, reaching more than 10,000 children. It also plans to hold a Rainbow Library summit for students, teachers and librarians this fall, Rady says.

“Books are a foundational tool for building reflection, empathy and curiosity,” Rady says. “When reading LGBTQ texts, teachers can have classroom conversations that promote deeper understanding and affirm kids’ self-worth.”

‘An easy win’

The American Association of School Librarians’ Defending Intellectual Freedom project provides resources on LGBTQ+ inclusiveness.

“As librarians, we’re the people who see every student in the school, so we’re in a pretty unique and important position as far as being advocates for kids,” says Kathryn Roots Lewis, the association’s president and the director of libraries and instructional technology at Norman Public Schools in Oklahoma. “Students, from pre-K through 12, have to see themselves and their peers in the books we have.”

Read more: California schools adopt inclusive textbooks that highlight LGBT figures in history

School libraries should establish themselves as safe spaces for diversity, says Shannon M. Oltmann, an associate professor and diversity officer in the School of Information Science at the University of Kentucky.

For instance, if a school librarian sets up a Valentine’s Day display, they should include books with gay romances. “It says this is part of life and these romances are just as valid,” Oltmann says.

A librarian may be hesitant to add LGBTQ books to the collection. “Sometimes, the fear of pushback is greater than the actual pushback,” Oltmann says. “Pushback in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It means you have engaged community members who are paying attention to what kids are doing.”

Oltmann says educators should be open about listening to thoughtful concerns, rather than immediately pulling a challenged library book. She points out that LGBTQ+ students continue to experience higher rates of drug abuse, depression and homelessness.

Read more: Suicide prevention program focuses on LGBTQ students

“Simply by providing some resources and making these students feel welcome and at home, we can put down those rates,” she says. “That seems like an easy win.”

Librarians also need to also raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues among all students. “The school library is a really safe place to learn about other perspectives,” adds Lewis. “Librarians should work hard to help learners look at multiple viewpoints.”