Lesbians and Lovers in Library Land
tatiana de la tierra
Homosexuality is one of those things—like bad breath, global warming and pedophilia—that some would rather not mention by name. But it’s also a fact of life: sexuality comes in many flavors, including queer ones. Those of us in Library Land can’t ignore this if we’re going to attend to the bibliographic needs of the library-card-carrying public. But providing appropriate library materials and services for gays and lesbians of color is a complicated matter that is further complicated by silence.
when I say that I am a lesbian I get ahead of those who refer to me by saying: she is.
Despite legal gains in same-sex partnership benefits and the promise of legitimate queer matrimonies, there is still the elemental problem of homophobia. Not everyone who is gay is out and proud, even with the proliferation of rainbow flags, hot pink triangle T-shirts, glamorous dykes on cable TV and annual gay pride parades. And for queers of color, the closet is possibly deeper than for white America.
For Latina lesbians, the pull of language, culture and family is a strong deterrent to coming out. To be a foreigner in the U.S.—from another country, with another mother tongue, with another flag waving in your heart—is to be already outnumbered, vulnerable, and yearning for the lost land. Why risk losing the love of your own flesh and blood when you can just be quiet about it and have the best of all worlds? No one would lightly endanger that which is most precious. The closet is an alternative, a compromise.
when I am what I am, I continue to be everything that I am: the one who eats grapefruits for breakfast, who never brushes her hair, who dances vallenatos, and who continues to be what she is.
But the pull to be true to yourself is also great. For some reason—bi0logy, intelligent design, or pornography-induced lechery—kissing that girl in grade school was not a game. Same-sex sexual desire is difficult to ignore even when the patriarchy sells otherwise. Lesbianism is a calling, a trinket with your name on it, a song you have to dance to.
Sometimes Latina lesbians find their way to lesbianism by following the visible path within the predominantly white lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered world. We learn the ropes here—from the Stonewall historical marker to women’s music festivals to The Advocate and On Our Backs. And some of us eventually find our way to the Latina lesbian subculture via organizations, cultural productions, or by plugging in to a network of Latina lesbian friends.
the one who is but does not say “I am” can only be what she is when surrounded by others who also don’t say that they are unless they are with each other.
But lesbophobia persists. One Latina girlfriend introduced me to her family as her “friend.” “Lover is a strong word,” she said. “It sounds illegal and secretive.” Another hid all evidence of her lesbianism from her family and fled the small town in the mountains of South America, to the U.S., so she could be out as a lesbian.
the one who is and does not say “I am” can also be what she is by herself when there are no eyes around to scrutinize and label her.
Coming out is an intensely personal and complicated process. Oftentimes, it leads people to the library in search of validation of their sexual self. A lesbian could be in the library looking for information about queer history and culture, seeking to know about organizations, or just wanting to read a good lesbian novel in Spanish.
How can librarians serve patrons such as Latina lesbians? It’s a sizable task, especially considering the cultural, ethnic and linguistic disconnect. How is a librarian to know that Cristina Peri Rossi is an out lesbian Uruguayan writer with love poetry in Spanish? Or that Chavela Vargas, who recently published her autobiography, was an infamous womanizer who performed love songs for women? Or about Latin American lesbian listservs, organizations, and gatherings? And how is a librarian supposed to address issues such as incomplete collections, inappropriate subject headings, and bibliographic invisibility?
The best thing librarians can do, like lesbians, is be themselves. Do research, compile bibliographies, employ third-level cataloging, identify distributors, pursue periodicals, do exhibits, plan poetry readings, check electronic databases for queer and ethnic coverage, do not fear Spanish, do not expect to find it all or know it all, and go out of the way to get the goods. Because it’s not easy. There is no Latina-lesbian-in-a-nutshell encyclopedia yet, and there may never be. We have to make do with the bits and pieces, read between the lines, be sleuths. We have to go beneath the visible gay mainstream.
And once we’re there, we just need to continue to do our jobs.
still, it matters not that those who are do not say “I am” because in any case everyone else almost always knows that they are.
The text in italics is from the poem “When I Say I Am” from For the Hard Ones: A Lesbian Phenomenology / Para las duras: una fenomenología lesbiana by tatiana de la tierra (Calaca/Chibcha Press, 2002).
de la tierra, tatiana. “Lesbians and Lovers in Library Land.” Versed. January 2005: 2.