At the close of Pride Month, Nathan from Hillingdon Libraries writes about growing up gay and the work Hillingdon Libraries is doing to help LGBT+ residents and their allies.
I’ve always loved libraries – I even volunteered in my school library growing up – but though I borrowed all sorts of books, I don’t remember ever finding one with an LGBT+ character back in the early 2000s.
As a gay teenager at the dawn of reality TV, most of my role models were on evening telly. People like singer Will Young, who won Pop Idol in 2002, and Big Brother champion Brian Dowling were the first visible gay men I noticed.
Gay and lesbian representation was only just starting to filter down into stories aimed squarely at people my age. On TV, Buffy The Vampire Slayer managed a mostly positive – if tentative – portrayal of a lesbian couple in 2001, but the Harry Potter series isn’t exactly known for its LGBT+ witches and wizards – and looking through a list of 2000s teen fiction you’d struggle to find any memorable characters from our community.
Representation did exist – but it was sporadic and well hidden. Author Aidan Chambers had been ahead of the curve, dealing with gay themes as early as 1982 in his novel for young people, Dance On My Grave. The same year, Nancy Garden published Annie On My Mind, still regarded as a lesiban classic.
But these authors were an exception to the rule, and the few gay, lesbian or bisexual character popping up on the Teen Fiction shelves definitely didn’t mean that other parts of the LGBT+ community were being represented at all in that corner of the library before the 2010s. Books about trans people? Nonexistent. An asexual protagonist? Not a chance.
Today, on the other hand, a much longer roll call of writers focus on LGBT+ experiences in their work for young readers, including people like Juno Dawson, Patrick Ness and Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Even action-packed fantasy blockbusters aimed at younger kids, like Rick Riordan’s Trials of Apollo books, now include out LGBT+ characters in their stories. And a far wider range of experiences are being covered: Alice Oseman has included asexuality in her work, for example. Others, like Lisa Williamson and Alex Gino, have put trans characters centre stage.
Writers and characters from this community are simply a lot more visible in books for people of all ages in 2020 – hopefully a trend that will grow and grow.
I often read to look for ways to understand what it means to be gay, so books exploring this topic are hugely important to me as an adult.
Whatever our age, It’s vital to have the chance to read about experiences we can connect to personally, just as it’s enlightening to find out about people who aren’t like us in one way or another by reading their stories.
There may be people out there who wouldn’t describe themselves as either LGBT+ or allies – I hope for them seeing more people like us in stories at the very least makes their reading lives more varied and interesting.
I’m thrilled to work for a library service – one that’s helping to make it easy for LGBT+ people to find entertainment and information about themselves and their community.
As we near the end of Pride Month it’s a good time to take a look at some of the ways our service supports LGBT+ people throughout the year.
Making it easy to find LGBT+ themes and characters in our books
We make sure our catalogue represents LGBT+ voices, characters and themes, by choosing books that speak to our communities. There’s always more work to do, but we hope you’ll find some gems you’ve not heard of yet among our collection, alongside queer classics.
You can find many of our titles on our online catalogue by searing ‘LGBT’. We add new books all the time – even I found exciting new reading the last time I searched!
LGBT+ themes and voices are well represented in our digital offer. Recent additions to our BorrowBox reading app include In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Diary of a Drag Queen by Crystal Rasmussen and Black Leopard Red Wolf by Marlon James (which I’ve just decided I should probably read soon!).
Elsewhere, both Attitude and Diva magazine are available on our RB Digital platform – and why not check out our new, improved selection of eBooks and audiobooks while you’re there, too?
We’ve been lucky enough to host a wide range of LGBT+ writers and allies at our events in Hillingdon – and I’d love to organise more of these in future, too. In 2016 I had the chance to interview Wray Delaney, Stella Duffy and Rupert Smith about the LGBT+ themes in their work at an event at Uxbridge Library.
As part of our first ever YA Schools’ Day for local secondary schools in 2017, we brought together Young Adult novelists Lauren James, Lucy Saxon and Lisa Williamson to discuss how they explore LGBT+ lives in their writing.
Bringing LGBT+ readers together
Since 2016, Hillingdon Libraries has been home to a monthly LGBT+ Reading Group. Everyone is invited, but we only read books by LGBT+ writers or about LGBT+ themes. This month, we’re reading Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Over the past three years, we’ve made our way through classics like Maurice by E. M Forster, YA titles like Simon Vs The Homosapiens Agenda (Becky Albertalli’s novel, which became the film Love, Simon) and memoirs like Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson).
Perhaps the only regular public LGBT+ event in the borough, and bringing together people of all ages, the group has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my time with the library service. We’re not meeting in person at the moment, but if you’re interested in joining once we are, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.