A public existence

I know angry blogging doesn’t get people very far these days, but I am so sick of all this.

I am so sick of libraries not prioritising queer safety. I should know better than to expect anything decent from IFLA, but their latest statement defending their choice to hold the 2024 World Library and Information Conference in Dubai, United Arab Emirates—a country with a shockingly poor human rights record, and where homosexuality is illegal—is a masterful exercise in defensive bullshit. Among several shocking statements is this jaw-dropper: ‘The Governing Board was equally aware that every time we hold a congress, regardless of our host, there are some countries or communities that are excluded.’ (Is IFLA suggesting the queers take one for the team this year so IFLA can take Emirati oil money? Seriously?!) The IFLA president-elect, Vicki McDonald, who put her name to this statement, is also the CEO of the State Library of Queensland. Australian librarianship is complicit in queer erasure.

I also noticed that the ALIA president, Jane Cowell, runs a public library service where drag queen storytime was recently ‘moved online’ at one of its branches. I don’t know whether that was the branch manager’s decision, or Jane’s, or the council’s, but for Jane to subsequently write a column for the latest issue of InCite (volume 44, issue 2, page 5, paywalled) talking about the difficulties faced by libraries in the face of such ‘community backlash’ and fail to mention that her own library service caved into said backlash is a stunning display of hypocrisy. Replacing in-person storytimes with online events has the same effect as cancellation: that is, of removing queer activities from visible public space. It is exactly what the fascists want. Australian librarianship is complicit in queer erasure.

We are not an ethical profession when we behave this way.

What would a culturally safe library look like for queer people? Aside from the absolute bare minimum of no neo-Nazis protesting outside (which, in the absence of a police force prepared to protect the queer public and not far-right protesters, would have to be achieved by private security or some other deterrent force). It would look like simply having a safe and gender-neutral place to pee. Queer lives and themes represented in book displays, both for Pride and for other things, fully included as part of modern society. Staff wearing pronoun badges and rainbow lanyards (optional, but appreciated). Drag queen storytime held in-person, not erased and moved online. Targeted collection development by queer authors. Own-voices tags in the catalogue. Homosaurus vocabulary in the catalogue. Not being asked one’s gender upon signing up for a library card, or at the very least having a free-text field. Seeing oneself not only reflected, but welcomed, in a library’s physical and digital space.

I can’t believe I have to say these things out loud, but sadly I have learned that hard-fought-for human rights—and the acquiescence of the broader public to queer existence—cannot be taken for granted. Queer people deserve to exist in public venues. Queer people deserve to be safe in public venues. And while IFLA WLIC is a private event, it also has grand aspirations of being a conference where people from all corners of the Earth can meet and learn from each other. ‘Change happens through dialogue & certainly cannot happen if we are not present,’ reads the IFLA statement. Yes, it certainly cannot happen if a whole class of attendees cannot safely be present in the country at all.

Already there is a lot of anger and resistance to IFLA’s decision: strong statements already from the Association of French Librarians (ABF), the Swedish Union of Librarians (DIK), the Brazilian Federation of Associations of Librarians, Information Scientists and Institutions (FEBAB) and the Finnish Library Association. It is deeply heartening to see such institutional support and solidarity with queer library workers and communities. Not everyone is capitulating to oppressive regimes abroad.

People in Australia are fighting back against neo-Nazi attempts to cancel drag queen storytime: Rainbow Community Angels are showing up in force to counter-protest, the socialist magazine Redflag penned an excellent article titled ‘Councils that cancel LGBT events are helping the fascists win. It has to stop’, unionists from the Australian Services Union Vic/Tas branch are organising for public library workers to be safe at work and hold safe queer community events. Drag queen storytimes have been successfully held, albeit with a lot of noise, in Newcastle NSW and at Maylands Library in Perth WA. Not everyone is capitulating to fascists at home.

ALIA’s recent statement supporting library staff was nice, I guess, but predictably tepid and frustratingly vague. I wish ALIA would put out a much stronger statement affirming the rights of queer people to exist safely in libraries and the value of representing queer lives in library spaces and collections, and by the way, maybe Dubai isn’t a great choice for a global library conference. I suspect I’ll keep wishing.