Reading the Rainbow: Memphis Public Libraries as Safe Spaces for LGBTQ+ Communities

Memphis Public Libraries, Safe Havens for LGBTQ+ book lovers 

Pride Fest 2023 at Memphis Public Library, by Dylan Miller. Reading the Rainbow, Memphis Public Libraries
Pride Fest 2023 at Memphis Public Library, by Dylan Miller

Memphis is lucky. Our library system is unique in that it’s the only system in the United States to have won the National Medal for Museum and Library Services twice. Our libraries serve as community hubs, offering socially conscious programming to address the needs of our city’s diverse population. Over the past decade, there has been a growing emphasis on LGBTQIA+ inclusivity within our library spaces. Queer book nerds rejoice, for in the cozy corners of our local libraries, the presence of LGBTQIA+ literature offers the opportunity to find a voice that resonates with your own.

I recently had the honor of speaking with several staff members at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, located in Midtown at 3030 Poplar Avenue, about their initiatives to create a safe and welcoming environment for the Memphis queer community – especially the bibliophiles among us.

When asked about visual markers indicating the library’s commitment to LGBTQIA+ inclusivity, Dylan Miller, Public Services Supervisor for the Humanities, cited their use of creative, colorful LGBTQ-focused book displays. These displays are not limited to Pride Month, either! No, these bookish beacons of queerness are scattered throughout the library year-round, and cater to all ages.  

“When people come in, if they see those books, they’ll notice and know that it is a safe, welcoming space for them,” says Jessica Clark, Public Services Supervisor for the Children’s Department. 

Library Signage, Jessica Clark. by Laura Bontrager. Colorful. Reading the Rainbow, Memphis Public Libraries
Library Signage, Jessica Clark. by Laura Bontrager

As we spoke, I couldn’t help but notice Jessica’s rainbow lanyard. On that, she remarked,” Yeah! Staff members often wear lanyards adorned with pride symbols, signaling to visitors that they are approachable and supportive!”

The library takes a proactive approach to ensuring its collection is diverse and inclusive, catering to the interests and identities of book nerds of all ages. Jessica informed me of a massive diversity audit that was recently conducted for the children’s department. Staff members went through their entire collection, book by book, analyzing representation on book covers, authorship, and content. This audit later informed substantial book orders to fill gaps in their collection. While these projects are enormous, time-consuming undertakings, the staff agreed they are crucial to keeping the library a space where representation and diversity are honored. Dylan noted that they hope to do diversity audits for other departments, as well as other branches within the library system, in the future.

When it comes to LGBTQIA+ events, the library shows up and shows out for the community with an annual Pride Fest. It’s an event funded by the Friends of the Library, a flagship initiative active since 2019. The festivities begin with a themed night time affair for adults called “Proud Out Loud,” featuring a dance party and drag bingo. The following day is the main event, which features games and fun activities for all ages. There, the library hosts an array of local non-profit organizations and businesses, inviting them to set up tables and forge face-to-face relationships with community members. To top it off, through a grant provided by International Paper, the library was able to distribute around $2500 worth of books last year to children, tweens, and teens. 

Pride Fest is big with teens and tweens, many of whom show up hand-in-hand with a date wearing pride flags as capes. 

“It’s so fulfilling to see because you can tell that’s possibly their first Pride,” Jessica shared. 

Supportive parents of LGBTQIA+ kids often attend and will pull staff members aside to thank them for hosting such a wholesome, all-ages event.

The most beloved event among younger attendees is Rainbow Family Story Time, which started with the first Pride Fest and has continued monthly at different library branches ever since. The goal is to reach diverse families throughout Memphis, addressing specific themes such as “love is love” and transgender family experiences. 

Dylan Miller beamed as she recounted the Rainbow Family Story Time at 2023’s Pride Fest. “Each year that we’ve had it in person, Miss Mothie (a well-known local LGBTQIA+ activist and drag performer) comes through the meeting space, and we do a little parade. This was Jessica’s idea, and I love it!” 

Jessica and Dylan described how the kids proudly marched through the room waving little pride flags, following Miss Mothie, who danced ahead of them, while the crowd clapped and cheered them on. The room was light with joy and laughter … and bubbles. Yes, bubbles. Because what kind of Pride parade doesn’t include a bubble blower?

Tabling at Pride fest, by Jamie Griffin. Reading the Rainbow, Memphis Public Libraries
Tabling at Pride fest, by Jamie Griffin

With the help of a grant from the American Library Association (ALA), Cossitt Library hosted a weeklong event centering the Black queer community. The event series featured a workshop on writing love letters to yourself, a Black Queer History talk, a “Celebrate Yourself” portrait workshop, yoga and self-care lessons, a movie night, an outdoor open mic night, and a panel discussion about cultivating creative dreams.

Beyond its programming and events, the library is committed to supporting its LGBTQIA+ staff through its Spectrum Employee Resource Group, an employee-run initiative for all City of Memphis employees. The group offers networking opportunities, with HR and DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) representatives present to address questions and concerns. The library also provides comprehensive training for supervisors and managers on equity, diversity, and inclusion, emphasizing a zero-tolerance stance on bullying and harassment.

A notable aspect of staff support is the explicit HR policy addressing the rights and resources of trans or non-binary staff members. This internal policy ensures a smooth transitioning process within the workplace, and the library emphasizes the importance of respecting pronouns and names. Anthony Lucatelli, a Library Customer Service Assistant at Central who identifies as non-binary, described the policy as “heartening,” as it lays out in no uncertain terms that all employee gender identities are valid and accepted. 

They went on to say, “I’ve seen it in practice! Across MPL, pronouns, names, and identities are respected.”

So, my little bookworms, in case you were looking for another reason to browse the stacks in search of your new favorite fantasy romance or sci-fi novel, let this be your reminder that the library is a safe space for ALL who visit. 

All are welcome at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on March 12th at 6:00 PM for a Pride-themed library card contest featuring local artists. These cards will be in circulation in June. Follow @memphislibrary for updates.

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