This past Tuesday, 7 May 2019, I gave a presentation to students in a Library Journal professional development course “Evaluating, Auditing, and Diversifying Your Collections.” I was asked to present on the topic of tropes and stereotypes of LGBTQ+ people in media. Below are images of my PowerPoint slides and some of the key talking points of my (unscripted) presentation. A number of people on Twitter requested access to the talk so this is my attempt to make the content available in a more permanent, open access format.
I began by situating myself in relation to this topic as someone who is privileged in some ways while marginalized in others. I also have training and scholarly interests relevant to this work. I also acknowledged this was the first time I had presented on this particular set of ideas and welcomed feedback from the course participants (I welcome feedback from readers here as well!)
I took a moment to talk about my decision to use the word “queer” as an umbrella term for people who are non-normative in the areas of sex, gender, and sexuality. It was important to me that students understand that inclusive collection development in this area means not just materials on gay and lesbian vs. straight people but a diverse web of identities. I explained that a person who is queer may fit in one or more of these non-normative communities — for example, a person may be trans AND bisexual AND kinky. Or nonbinary AND aromantic AND practice BDSM.
I put my key takeaway in slide four: A collection that predominently represents the lives and stories of white, gay men is not a truly inclusive collection of queer fiction or nonfiction. It is important for libraries that are interested in building a robust collection of queer media to think about internal diversity as well. Think critically and intersectionally about who is (and is not) being represented and whose needs are (and are not) being met by your resources. What gaps do you need to fill? Are there resources to fill those gaps?
We also had an in-class poll to learn what % of student in the course considered themselves queer in some way. The results were about 15% queer / 85% not queer which actually surprised me (I had — clearly lazily! — assumed LGBTQ+ people might be over-represented in a course of this kind. I was speaking to a straighter audience than I had anticipated.)
I touched briefly on sexually explicit media because access to SEM in libraries is controversial and regulated — and those regulations disproportionately impact queer people’s access to information and stories by and about queer people. Queer content is often classified as more sexually explicit by default (for example, queer romance getting classified as erotica in content systems even if it is not as explicit as the straight romance that would be classified in the same way). This impacts the visibility of queer content continually, and library staff need to be aware of this dynamic as they assist their users.
The discourse of “own voices” is one that many participants in this course come into the class supporting. I think it is a good tool in the toolbox of collection development, since it asks people selecting resources to think critically about who has the power to tell stories — who is being paid to publish a book, create a documentary, conduct research within a marginalized community. However, I also wanted our students to understand that “own voices” is not always a simple check-box category — particularly when we begin to think of multiple, overlapping communities of marginalization. My favored definition of “own voices” is the one shown here, from Blue Crow Publishing. But even using that group-level test of ownership, not all works fit neatly in or out.
Using the Blue Crow Publishing definition above, paired with “queer” as the group identity, many of these examples are “own voices” (I count examples 1, 2, 3, 4, and possibly 5 and 7 as well). The students were polled on these examples and only examples 1 and 3 were voted most definitively as “own voices”.
We moved on to tropes and stereotypes. My central point in this part of the presentation was to explain how stories about queer experience, from the late-nineteenth century through to the early twenty-first century, have been shaped by cultural and legal regimes that required stories about queer people to end tragically. Depicting queer life as inherently criminal, closeted, sick, sad, and dead functioned to keep queer people marginalized and straight people aware of the importance of not deviating from heteronormative life scripts. Nonfiction and fiction alike treated queerness as a way of life to avoid and fear.
This resulted in a media landscape in which people are taught to believe that queer survival and queer joy are ahistorical and inauthentic representation of queer experience. I quoted a letter-writer to the Romance Writers Association magazine who complained that queer historicals mis-represent LGBTQ+ people: “Give the [queer] characters their dignity … teach what life was like for noncisgendered people … the obstacles were life-threatening.” The expectation that a queer life is inevitably a sad and dangerous one (except maybe in the very recent past and present) works to deny the validity of stories that deviate from a cisheteronormative script designed to police and marginalize queer people.
In a landscape of narratives in which this cycle of marginalization — where cultural narratives systematically render queer joy unimaginable — continues, it’s critically important to understand how those cultural narratives bias the public against the queer historical imaginary and queer history. Evidence of queer life in the past is systematically held to a higher (impossibly higher) standard of proof than evidence of a straight past, which is presumed to be reality.
I invited the students to consider this passage from a queer romance novel where two queer people, a trans man and his nonbinary lover, discuss this double standered for queer historical interpretation and what would happen if people turned the question around and in the place of presumed cisgender and heterosexual identity historians worked from a place of “assumed homosexuality [and] threw cisgender out the window?” What might history and historical practice look like then?
In the final series of slides, I planned to present on my process as a reviewer of queer content, posing a series of questions that I ask fiction and nonfiction works and offering some illustrative examples of works I think do relatively poorly or relatively well on matters of queer representation.
Because I ran out of time in the 30 minute presentation timeslot (my own fault!) I was unable to discuss these examples in live time, but did put together a document with a slightly expanded list of critical questions to ask and six examples (three problematic, three solid).