The L Word(s) Among Us in the Library World

tatiana de la tierra

I first heard about “The L Word” when I went to the chiropractor for an adjustment. I had just gotten back from Spain and my chiropractor asked me what I was doing there.

“Interviewing lesbian and gay writers and publishers,” I told her.

She got really excited. “Oh, have you heard about the lesbians?”

“No,” I said. “What about them?”

“Well, I don’t know, but they’re on the cover of a magazine!” She called out to the receptionist to get it for me.

“It’s in the back room,” said the receptionist. “I can’t have that out in the waiting room.” That was New York magazine, which had a suggestive yet completely G-rated image of the stars of “The L Word” on the cover with the banner “Not Your Mother’s Lesbians” running across their torsos.

I read the feature article on the airplane on the way to Midwinter in San Diego, along with the article on “bois,” the young hip dyke playboys with the wham-bam philosophy on girl-on-girl sex. I noted the absence of Latina lesbians in both articles and wondered how Showtime could get away with eliminating Chicana lesbians from Los Angeles. The lesbian beauty standard proposed in the program was worrisome—glamorous and privileged white women with just a little bit of brown thrown in for spice. I dozed off with that horrid thought and soon landed in San Diego.

The next day, at the Convention Center, I found myself chatting with a gay Latino colleague from Reforma, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking. We bumped into each other at registration, went for some coffee, and talked about Reforma’s lack of visible queer representation in the programming and in the membership. I’ve been addressing these kinds of issues via my Latin@ lesbian and gay bibliography and my research on queer Latin@ materials and the subject headings assigned to them. So far, I’ve focused on my research, but now I’m wondering what I can do about Reforma’s lack of attention to certain L words—lesbianism, literature, and language.
My colleague cleared his throat. “You know, you’re just too in-your-face,” he said. “That turns people off.” He suggested that I tone down the volume. I thanked him for being honest. Yet toning it down is just not my style.

Richard Rodriguez presented the next day about the browning of America. I was moved to tears at one point; he is so eloquent, so sharp, brown and beautiful. I wanted to yell out “I love you!” to him from where I was standing in the back, against the wall. Yes, some things bother me—his use of the word “Hispanic,” his take on affirmative action, his invisible queer identity. But when I hear him I hear a poetic thinker, someone who speaks his truth, and I love him for doing it so well.

Later that night, I did a reading at Casa del Libro, a Latin@ bookstore in the gay region at Hillcrest. My book, For the Hard Ones:  A Lesbian Phenomenology is a bilingual treatise on lesbianism. It was co-published by Chibcha Press from Buffalo and Calaca Press from San Diego, and Calaca hosted the event. It was attended by mostly local queer Latin@s. At the end of the reading a man wanted to know if the name I used to publish was also the name I used at work in my library. And did my colleagues know what I wrote about? “Yes,” I said, to his astonishment. “It’s called intellectual freedom.”

But freedom is relative. I had been interviewed for a local Latin@ publication about my book. When the journalist presented the piece to the publisher, it was vetoed because my book includes graphic literary sexual imagery of lesbianism. Neither the journalist nor my publisher protested; they took it in stride, as if censorship for edgy queer writings is par for the course.

The next evening, at the social for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgendered Round Table (GLBTRT), a White gay man said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry I missed your reading but since I’m not Latina I didn’t think it was so relevant.” I should have thanked him for being honest.

Latin@  issues are largely not considered relevant by (White) queers, just like queer issues are not considered relevant by (heterosexual) Latin@s. I hate to say this because you’d think that by now, with all the multi-culty diversity talk in the library world and beyond, I could say something different. Why wouldn’t a White queer librarian think that a Latina lesbian’s experience matters? Why wouldn’t a straight Latin@ librarian think that homosexuality is relevant to the Latin@ community? This divide keeps those of us who are both Latin@ and queer in a quandary.

Which is my greatest allegiance? I have to ask myself. Lesbian? Or Latina?

I am a separatist from way back. Me and my friends, we stick to our own. We have our own groups, our own writers, our own saints. It becomes an insular world, though, and after a while, it gets old. I put myself in the Latina lesbian ghetto and now I am trying to give this identity its rightful place in the bibliographic world.

I want to say that the queer/Latin@ connection does matter because what we care about as human beings is ultimately reflected in our libraries, in our collections, in our archives, in our subject headings, in our cataloguing practices, in our policies, in the ways in which we serve our users, and in every single system in place in our libraries. Homophobia happens in a series of small and seemingly insignificant ways, yet the overall impact is large. From the internalized homophobia of the queers who don’t want to claim their sexuality to the queers that want to shut up those of us who do; from the editors who censor to the publishers who are complicit in the censorship; from the receptionist at the chiropractor’s office to the glossy homogenized dykes in “The L Word.”

Both homophobia and racism happen by omission as well. Reforma does a great job of addressing issues pertinent to public libraries, mentorship, and bilingual children’s literature. But what about issues pertinent to academic libraries and bilingual queers? The GLBTRT highlight contemporary English-language queer books and bring visibility to queers in the profession. But what about Spanish-language queer books? And what about addressing issues of diversity within the queer community? Why is it that there are hardly any out gays in Reforma and hardly any Latin@s (or other people of color) in GLBTRT?

I want Richard Rodriguez to talk about the queering and Spanishing of America. I want the local Latin@ media to include queers in their coverage. I want everyone to think about the new Latin@ “majority” of the minorities and what this implies when it comes to collection development and programming for our patrons in the libraries. Let’s not forget that some of these Latin@s are homosexual and either Spanish-speaking or bilingual. That many are immigrants from a slew of different countries, from Cuba and Colombia to Mexico and Guatemala. There is already great concern that the library profession is ill prepared to serve this vast and diverse community because of a shortage of librarians with adequate language and cultural skills. I’d like to add sexuality to the mix here.

And I invite collective thought on what could be done to address the queer/Latin@ connection. How about a book award for Spanish-language queer books? A think tank for considering how language and sexuality affect collections, catalogs, and library services? Resource guides that identify and review Spanish-language gay materials and demystify the distribution of these materials in the U.S.? An assessment of queer Latin@ cultural coverage in academic databases? A study that pinpoints queer Latin@ holdings in Latin@ and queer archives?

I don’t think White people are inherently racist or that Latin@s are pathologically homophobic. Instead, I think there is a cultural disconnect that keeps us in our own worlds, sheltered from the rest. We can stay here, or we can venture out. I call for us to step outside of what we think is ours and expand our boundaries. Those of us who are bilingual and bicultural live in multiple worlds all the time. We cross that border every time we say a word in English, every time we have a desire in Spanish. Being elastic, bouncing from one world into the next, this is good. As librarians, I hope we go out of our way to venture into these other worlds.

A professor from a university in the northeast called me recently to tell me that he taught For the Hard Ones in one of his classes. He told me that, on the day my book was discussed, several young women were in tears; they said that it was the first time they had ever read anything that spoke to them in their language. I want all librarians to hear this. Sometimes, we need Literature in our Language(s) and Latin@ cultures—in our L words. And this should matter to all of us.

19 de enero de 2004, buffalo, nueva york

Originally published:

de la tierra, tatiana. “The L Word(s) Among Us in the Library World.” GLBTRT Newsletter Spring 2004: 4-5.  Also published as “The L Word(s) Among Us in the Library World.” REFORMA Newsletter Summer 2004:  7+.