Every June, I often find myself in a state of reflection wading through the history of my queer and non-binary identity. This year, in particular, I have delved deeper into the importance of storytelling in the LGBTQI+ Liberation Movement and how our community's unwavering commitment to telling our stories has been our lifeline when our safety is continuously under attack. For example, during the AIDS Epidemic, when our lived experiences and narratives were rewritten by those who feared us, we reclaimed our stories and told them in our own words publicly, proudly, and loudly. Today, I feel in my queer bones a shift that our community needs to lean once more into our historical roots of radical storytelling as we face new narratives from those who wish to endanger us, especially, our youth who are coming into their own. We can no longer, as queer people, make our stories palatable to cisgender, heterosexual people and mistake assimilation for protection.
Albeit this duty of storytelling in our community can be heavy, it is one of the most beautiful attributes of being part of the LGBTQI+ community –– we are inherently non-linear in re-learning our history and re-defining our origin story. Last year, I came across the idea of an "origin story" when it comes to LGBTQ+ people through a TikTok. As queer people, we often have to learn ourselves over and over again throughout the course of our lives because we have the history of a movement on our backs and the weight of suppressing our identities yearning to be slowly unpacked. It's my job to ensure that these histories, these stories, are reflected back accurately and are archived for our members.
With this being said, in the spirit of Pride Month, it's so, so important that we share and dig into the origin stories of our LGBTQI+ members and how their identities have intertwined with their profession. Their stories are part of the larger fabric of LGBTQI+ history as we continue to come out of the closet and unpack our origin stories. So, without further ado, let's Come on OUT!
***Please note that these interviews have been condensed and edited for this piece. Those interviewed submitted their interest via an interest form from an email blast to NYLA membership and are in no particular order of the interviews. Only those who attended their scheduled interview slots are included in this article. This year, we experienced the largest amount of interest in this piece - so the responses to the questions are generalized utilizing common themes between the participants with some direct and paraphrased quotes from our interviewees throughout. This is by no means a full or comprehensive representation of all the members of the LGBTQI+ community within our membership. We hope to do more articles like this in the future since we strongly believe in the power of storytelling. If you'd want to be interviewed for a future follow-up piece, please email C at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amber Pasiak (They/Them)
Librarian, Edith B. Ford Memorial Library
Interim Chief Librarian, CUNY Graduate Center
Reference Librarian, Patchogue-Medford Library
Research Instruction Librarian, SUNY Geneseo
Family Service Coordinator, Livonia Public Library
Coordinator for Health Sciences, Frank Gannett Memorial Library, Utica University
Thomas Scott Burgess
Instructional Technology Coach/Library Media Specialist, Liverpool School District
Director, Montour Falls Library
Information Services and Community Engagement Librarian, Lindenhurst Memorial Library
Techbrarian, Western Sullivan Public Library
What inspired you to become a librarian?
Each of our interviewees had drastically varied paths to librarianship - but what was a common theme was the act of "falling" into the profession and a sense of wanting to do good in the world. Emily Drabinski, who is currently the Interim Chief Librarian of the CUNY Graduate Center was working a job that didn't fulfill her, and then "...applied for a job in an NYC Library and was then given the opportunity to be paid to go to library school and recognized this was the first job I had that was good for the world." Along the same theme, the Director of the Montour Falls Library, Emily Smith, said that working in libraries was "good for the soul."
Many of our interviewees either were deeply enamored by libraries as a kid, like Wendy Ambrozewicz, the Reference Librarian of Patchogue-Medford Library, who said she had "a deep appreciation for libraries growing up," and similarly, Grace Frenzel, Family Service Coordinator of the Livonia Public Library, always knew she wanted to be a librarian. She said, "I wrote an essay as a kid that I wanted to be a librarian. Then, I worked in the library as a teenager to even in college - despite flip-flopping between environmental studies and library science - I landed back in the library. I can be considered, though, a librarian farmer." In the same wavelength, Amber Pasiak, a Librarian from the Edith B.Ford Memorial Library said, "I always loved research, writing, and spending time in libraries - and wanted to give others the feeling I had doing those things, which was hope."
Others felt deeply compelled to be a librarian because they wanted to deconstruct larger systemic issues. For example, Thomas Scott Burgess, who is the Instructional Technology Coach and Library Media Specialist of the Liverpool School District, taught for twenty-three years and then was teaching in special education for twelve years. However, he said, "...the bureaucracy was frustrating and the kid's needs were not being met as a result of that bureaucracy. So, I always had a passion for literature and technology - so library media merged these two passions - and I have been able to see that love of learning now blossom in the kids I work with now." For Sam Berry-Sullivan, who is the Coordinator for Health Science, Frank Gannett Memorial Library at Utica University, working in libraries fueled her "deep love of literature and teasing difficult questions - such as who do our systems serve and give access too more than others and how libraries can bridge those gaps."
When did you know you were a part of the LGBTQI+ community?
Our interviewees varied in when they knew they were part of the LGBTQI+ community - from those who have known since they were in middle school to those who have recently come out after a period of reflection. For example, Alan Witt, who is the Research Instruction Librarian at SUNY Geneseo, said that he knew in middle school while Burgess was a late bloomer - only coming out ten years ago. He said, "I grew up with my dad as a pastor and was raised in a conservative Christian family - so coming into myself happened later in life. When I went to the library school, I was challenged to think deeper about myself - alongside meeting someone special. I continue to evolve as I learn more about myself and the world around me - especially so I can show up for my students how they need me."
Similar to Burgess, Noel Reich who is the Information Services and Community Engagement Librarian of the Lindenhurst Memorial Library said, "I didn't come out until I was in college. I had a conservative upbringing - but then played rugby in college which gave me a community that helped me come out." And, speaking of community, Pasiak said, "I always knew I was bisexual/pansexual, but my older sister - who came out when I was a kid, has always been supportive and made it easier for me." Drabinski also mentioned the role of community in coming out - "It was 1996 and I was in college and I fell in love with someone at a library. But, being part of a community also helped - and there was a large queer community to be with. We worked heavily in political work together - like organizing a Dyke March and non-corporate Pride events." The theme of being dedicated to the queer rights movement also resonated with Fenzel, who came out later in life, but was "always really, really invested in gay rights" growing up.
And, while others turned to find community through activism or rugby - others had smaller context clues to learning they were part of the LGBTQ+ community. For example, Berry-Sullivan, said "I knew for a really long time, but didn't have the language to attach feelings until I was ten or eleven. However, I did get in trouble in first or second grade for a short story I wrote about salaciously dressed twins masquerading as spies - so that could have also been a clue I was queer."
What does "Pride" mean to you?
Throughout each of my interviews, the theme that resonated the most was that Pride to our interviewees meant having the freedom to be utterly and authentically themselves while also being able to show others the importance of being visible in their queerness. For Ambrozewicz, she said Pride is a way for our community to "move closer to a reality where we can exist and live in a way where we experience less of a stigma towards us through representation - and interviews like this one are one of the ways for us to get there."
On the theme of representation - the importance of visibility of our community was also present in many of our interviewees' interpretations. For Frenzel, she said "Pride means my community and building queer community - both personally and where I live in Rochester. It is a decisive effort to do that work in a more conservative area - and ensure that the library is a safe space for everyone - especially our youth - to be exactly who they are." Drabinski also echoed this sentiment saying that "Pride, to me, is being open and honest with myself and others." In a similar light, Burgess also mentioned that "I wear my queerness on my sleeve because I have to be unapologetic of who I am."
While Pride meaning to many to be community building, being openly visible, and ensuring there is an adequate representation of LGBTQ+ people in every aspect of our world - Blagrove also reminded me of the historical roots of Pride and reconciling with the truth of Pride's purpose. He said, "Pride is protest. We have to ensure that our right to live is protected. We also, have to be aware of the corporatization of Pride and allow both the celebration and protest of Pride to exist." Berry-Sullivan also expanded on this point - "Pride is a time to remind ourselves of the queer elders who laid the foundation for our lives today. To see the social justice work they have done and continue to do, and that we have a duty to continue, to ensure that every queer person can feel and be safe. While, also, allowing ourselves [queer community] to be confident and feel queer joy."
What advice would you give to future librarians who are questioning their sexual/romantic attraction and/or gender identity/expression and are thinking of coming into this profession?
Our interviewees had a variety of advice to share with future librarians who may be questioning their sexual/romantic attraction and/or gender identity/expression - and to do their insight justice - here are some of the highlights of the pieces of wisdom they shared!
Emily Drabinski said, "There are lots of us! You are not alone and we love you and each other. There is a vibrant online community for you to explore - from book series on gender studies and beyond. Also, it is easy to feel hopeless but we are going to win and there is more of us than them. Continue to build your networks and chosen community."
Amber Pasiak said, "If you feel safe to do so, talk about it because learning the language and vocabulary is important. Even more so, talk to people who are in different stages of coming out to learn from them."
Alan Witt said, "Utilize your research and general library skills to find more information - and give yourself space to figure it out because you don't have to know it all immediately. Libraries have historically been more accepting than the culture at large - but always look out for your safety and seek out who is actively accepting. Notice who is willing to take a stand. Notice who is welcoming where you work. And, more importantly, don't be afraid to ask questions - don't allow yourself to work in an environment that doesn't accept you."
Grace Frenzel said, "When you are exploring your sexuality, give yourself breathing room, flexibility, and grace. Ignore the noise - sit and listen to yourself. Also, never apologize for having boundaries, especially at work!"
Sam Berry-Sullivan said, "Try to take a temperature check of the workplace before your start there to ensure that you are safe. This isn't labor that everyone needs to do, but it is valuable to leverage your identity to create safe spaces for the queer communities you serve. If you are publishing, for example, in the library sphere - use your perspective to critically examine our profession and the library you work in. You have a unique perspective so embrace it and bring it to the table."
Emily Smith said, "There are a lot of resources and people out there - and libraries are a way to connect those resources and be that safe space where everyone can be exactly who they are. Feel empowered to be that safe space and surround yourself with folks that are supportive, accepting, and educated."
And, finally, maybe one of my personal favorite anecdotes while asking this question to our interviewees came from Thomas Scott Burgess who said, "Be the spokesperson YOU needed - we need queer librarians for the youth to be seen and loved for who they are."
What are your favorite LGBTQ+ books/podcasts/resources? Anything that you really have looked to?
Ready for some recommendations?! See some of our interviewee's favorite LGBTQ+ resources below. Please note, that this is a sampling of all of the amazing recommendations I was provided! Feel free to reach out to our participants for expanded recommendations.
Amber Pasiak recommended the movies Boys Don't Cry, Victor/Victoria, Birdcage and Thanks for Everything, and for books, Running with Scissors and anything by David Sedaris
Emily Drabinski recommended their own book series that won the PEN America Award - Brickmakers.
Wendy Ambrozewicz recommended the book Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring, and My Autobiography of Carson McCullers: A Memoir by Jenn Shapland.
Alan Witt recommended the book series Lord of the White Hell and Swords Point.
Grace Frenzel recommended following ihartericka on Instagram as well as the books the Prince and the Dressmaker, Cardboard Kingdom, Cemetary Boys, One Last Stop, and anything by the author Melinda Lowe who will be at the Rochester Teen Book Festival this year.
Sam Berry-Sullivan recommended the podcasts Gender Reveal and Food4Thot, both the Netflix Series and the Graphic Novel of Heartstoppers, Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, My Body and Other Parties is by Carmen Maria Machado and the Xenogenesis Series by Octavia Butler.
Thomas Scott Burgess recommended following LetMeEducateYou, TheEmancipator, Black Librarians, OutMagazine, SoInformedLGBTQMedia, and maxxiv on Instagram.
Noel Reich recommended the Rainbow Reading Series and Hannah Gadsby's memoir.
Dale Blagrove recommended Punch Me Up to the Gods by Brian Broome and mentioned he hosts a monthly LGBTQ+ Hybrid Book Club, Catskills Rainbow Readers Boock Club at Western Sullivan Public Library.
C Romeo (they/she) is the Director of Communications & Member Engagement for the New York Library Association and the editor of The NYLA Voice. When they aren't in the office, you can find them tending to her indoor plant babies, cuddling their cat, Eliza, writing, reading theory books, updating their Animal Crossing New Horizons Island, and/or volunteering for GLSEN Upstate NY and/or organizing locally in queer youth advocacy, reparations, and racial justice-oriented work. Have questions about this issue or future issues of The NYLA Voice? Feel free to email them at email@example.com or call them 518-432-6952 x105.