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Clifton Spires is the father of a gay son who walked out of the family home in 1996 after a family row and they've never seen or spoken to each other since. A journalist living in Ohio with his wife and other son he now campaigns vigorously for gay rights and each week on OutUK he reflects on how this affects his life and family. Though it's written in America, we believe the issues he deals with affect the worldwide gay community. Previous columns are archived in OutBack.

Shush ... A Quiet Way Of Censoring Gay Literature

If I ever had the illusion that librarians were all dried up old maids who had nothing better to do than go around shushing people and denying children access to "mature" materials, that stereotype fractured and fell into pieces the day my older sister Julia announced she intended to become a children's librarian.

Certainly sis was an old maid by our rural Appalachian family's standards of marrying --- she waited until was 26 and had a master's degree before embarking on her lifetime hobby of husband collecting. She also had the temperament: One of her frequent comments to me, after wiping away my tears resulting from her deliberately clawing me with her three-inch nails or slamming the car door on my hand, was, "Having you for a brother is the best argument for not having children!"

However, she did not dress in dour clothes nor wear her hair in a bun held together with pencils and there were eyewitnesses, including me, who could attest that she liked men and frequently skimmed "Modern Bride" magazine.

She also read books that were on certain lists which regarded them as unsuitable. Books like "Atlas Shrugged," "The Collected Short Stories of William Faulkner," "The Catcher in the Rye," "The Tin Drum," "Peyton Place," "Mandingo," "Of Mice and Men," and "Huckleberry Finn." Always has she, in her career as a librarian, which began in the mid-1960s, taken the approach that books are meant to be read, not banned.

As a professional journalist I have shared this belief, which basically stems from having parents who read kept every kind of reading material on their coffee table from Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and The Book of Mormon to Zane Grey westerns and The National Enquirer. Our family liked the idea of the First Amendment and believed that being able to say, think and read about anything we want is our most valuable right as human beings, short of being able to take a breath without filling out a form first. I believe it is better to hear, read and be offended by something with which we disagree than to risk taking away anyone's right to write or speak that offensive thought.

In the mid-1950s, there was a B-movie called "Storm Center," which starred Bette Davis as a stereotypical old maid small town librarian who is accused of being a Red sympathizer because she refuses to take a pro-Communist book off her shelves. A small boy who previously admired her is swayed into believing she is evil and eventually burns down the town library to get even with her. However, at the end, the child sees the error of his ways, apologizes and ol' Miz Bette straightens her back and says, "Together, Tommy, we shall rebuild our library!"

In a family like mine, where we all were (and still are) book and First Amendment junkies, Davis' attitude was an inspiration, despite the hokiness of the movie. Alas, I'm discovering more and more that for every Bette Davis type of librarian --- who, by the way, are considered educators --- there are others of the profession, as well as teachers and politicians, who are using subtle methods of censorship to restrict our access to certain materials, and thus subvert our freedom of thought, learning and speech.

Now, what does this have to do with gay rights and gay literature, I hear you ask.

Most people --- unless they are like me and subscribe to news services specializing in providing relevant information to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people and their families and friends, probably are unaware of the big Banned Biographies Scandal at Orangeview Junior High School in Anaheim, Calif. It's a complicated piece of business, but basically this is what happened:

A librarian at the junior high and a teacher were unpacking a huge shipment of books at the school back in September 2000. A teacher of conservative views came in and questioned them if they were going to use a series of 10 books received called "Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians, biographies of well-known celebrities such as Martina Navratilova, Liberace, Marlene Dietrich, k.d. lang, John Maynard Keynes, Willa Cather, T.E. Lawrence and Sappho, among others. The librarian said yes, and a somewhat heated discussion erupted among the three educators.

After the conservative fellow left, the librarian and the other teacher decided to notify the school principal about the situation, just in case the conservative guy decided to make a complaint about the gay content of the books. The principal thanked them for the tip, informed her higher-ups in the school administration food chain and the next thing anyone knew, the books in question ended up in the board of education's office for several months and not on the library shelves where there might be of use to students or anyone else wanting to see them. Accusations of censorship were made, the American Civil Liberties Union got involved, a civil rights lawsuit was filed and the story made the national news wires, causing quite a bit of embarrassment for the school district.

I would have found the whole event a paranoid saga of a tempest in a teapot had I not been told by a librarian friend of mine recently that similar quiet actions of censorship have taken place where my friend works.

"I've noticed that sometimes books dealing with gay interests will be taken off the shelves or will just disappear without explanation," my friend, who is openly gay, said. "Apparently someone doesn't think the library should have these books available to the public." The disappearing books include what have become standard literature on gay rights, as well as gay history, fiction and biographies.

This has troubled me quite a bit because I believe the only way we can make the world better for our gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered relatives and friends is through raising the rest of the world's consciousness as well as our own. One of the most important ways we can do this is through making the best literature on the subject available to the public.

Another way that libraries censor what we have access to is through library attrition, although most librarians would be horrified to have this labeled as censorship. The fact is, libraries only have so much space and have to be ruthless periodically with their collections and get rid of some volumes. This is the event which is the source of materials marketed at annual library book sales.

I once asked my sister why her library seemed to have a complete collection of Dame Barbara Cartland romances and not one work by Marcel Proust. "Well, the fact is, we don't get many requests for Marcel Proust, and every day someone checks out at least one Barbara Cartland and several Harlequin Romances," she explained with a deep sigh, indicating that she knew what was coming next.

"But Marcel Proust's 'Remembrance of Things Past,' is a classic of modern literature!" I said. "They actually devote whole college courses to it in some universities."

"I know, I know," she said. "When you enroll in that course, would you like me to order it for you through inter-library loan?"

"I don't want to read it," I replied. "Proust is boring. But it's a classic. And I might want to read it someday and so might someone else, 10 or 15 years from now, after Masterpiece Theatre makes a two-year mini-series out of it. And if and when I want to read it, it should be here."

My sister got that look that she used to get before she would slam my little brother's hand in the car door. She got her facial muscles to quit twitching and then proceeded to explain that the fairest way her library and most others use to decide whether to keep books on their shelves is by the number of times they are checked out. That's why, she explained, you will find multiple copies of Stephen King's books and maybe only one copy of "War and Peace." You can find the complete works of Danielle Steel at most public libraries but maybe only one work by Daniel Defoe and very likely it will have accumulated a lot of dust between outings.

Now, applying this principle to gay literature --- what do you think happens to a book that some censorious library employee has been keeping off the shelves the next time the library decides to have a yard sale of books of which it is ridding itself? Do you think they'll put Paul Monette's "Becoming a Man" or Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On" back on the shelves once space is freed or do you think maybe they'll look at the number of times it hasn't been taken out, overlook the fact that someone hid it from the public and put it out with the old collected works of Taylor Caldwell, Daphne du Maurier and Francis Parkinson Keyes novels they're dumping because they're no longer in fashion?

I have one suggestion as to how we who are gay or gay supportive can combat this: Play the game by the libraries' own rules. Go in and at least once a year, check out everything they have that is relevant to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered experience, even if you've read it before. You can always lend it to a friend. Then bring the books back on time and encourage someone else to do the same thing. In other words, keep the books circulating. And if you can't find it on the shelves, ask the librarians to check to see if it is in. If they say it is but don't know where it is, ask if they could search for it or order another. Even if you get it through interlibrary loan, it will benefit a copy of the book somewhere and add points for it to stay in circulation.

Keeping gay literature circulating is a very easy way to combat censorship of such books in our libraries.

While we're on the subject of libraries, let me say that everyone who loves books of any kind should be aware that most community libraries get some funding from state dollars. In some, such as my home state of Ohio, those dollars are being threatened by budget cuts. In Ohio, Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican who campaigned on a pro-education platform, has proposed a budget that not only freezes library spending but also slashes the State Library Board's budget by one third. This means that there will be little or no money for local libraries to purchase new library materials.

If anyone doesn't see how this may affect gay-related library holdings, I suggest they consider what volumes might first be cut as unnecessary in the budget. Chances are it won't be anything in the Harry Potter series, but don't expect many new volumes by Rita Mae Brown.

If this is happening in any states besides Ohio, we all need to get on the stick and put some pressure on our state senators and legislators to refuse to vote for cuts for our libraries, the most important centers of learning for students of all ages and incomes. And why not put some pressure on First Lady Laura Bush, a former librarian herself, and her mother-in-law, former first lady Barbara Bush, a literacy advocate, to speak out against censorship and for keeping the volumes in our public libraries fresh, alive and growing?

Published May 21st


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