Meet The Superhero Librarians Fighting For Their Queer Communities

Growing up as a queer kid in the U.K. in the ’90s, I found refuge in books, preferring their company to the harsh realities of the outside world. My imagination was immense, colorful and greedy, and I was always on the hunt for something to satisfy my voracious literary appetite.

English was my favorite subject at school — so much so that I would write and illustrate stories for my English teacher on a weekly basis; tales of murderous werewolves were a fave. Reading about and crafting worlds that were so different from my own served as the escape I needed from reality. And the library was crucial to facilitating this escape.

I loved reading about bloodthirsty supernatural creatures as an 8-year-old. But the older I got and the more confused I became about my queerness, the more I craved reading material that was a bit more, well, relatable. But books about and for young queer people didn’t really exist 30 years ago, in any part of the world.

Fortunately, there are more now than ever before — and for free at your local library. Queer kids today have a wealth of options, like Meredith Russo’s joyful transgender romance “If I Was Your Girl” and Juno Dawson’s fun yet incredibly informative “This Book Is Gay.” If books like these were available when I was processing my queerness, it would have made me feel less alone and I’d need a lot less therapy now.

Despite being all grown-up (kind of) and more comfortable with my identity, I still want to read books like these, books that discuss our authentic selves. Living in the U.K., I can access them easily. But unfortunately, this is not the case in other parts of the world deemed equally as “progressive.”

The current bans on queer books in the U.S. are mostly orchestrated by parent-led groups and far-right activists who believe that conversations about queerness should not exist in schools. Incidentally, Russo’s and Dawson’s books have been banned in multiple school libraries in America.

Fortunately, librarians all over the U.S. are fighting back, with many viewing their job as inherently political. They’re doing everything they can to protect and advocate for queer people, even if it costs them their jobs and mental health.

“I had threatening emails and phone calls, one of which mentioned my wife by name,” Gavin Downing, a former librarian at Cedar Heights Middle School in Covington, Washington, tells me. After adding some queer books to his library’s shelves in early 2022, three were removed by the school’s principal when a student reportedly complained of one — “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)”containing “sexually explicit content.”

What followed was a turbulent time for Downing. His efforts gained national attention, and the three books were subjected to review by the school board. After he made it clear that protocol hadn’t been followed in the removal of the books, the challenge was dropped and they were discreetly returned to shelves. The process was a long one, but Downing was steadfast in his belief that students should have access to books that discuss queerness. “I was prepared to defend it,” he says. “Even more than I was before.”

Things had become too much at Cedar Heights, and Downing tells me that he felt there was no choice but to leave. “I had panic attacks about going to work,” he says. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat and wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep.” With the help of his union, he was able to get out and was reassigned to another school. While Downing doesn’t identify as queer, many of his family members and friends do — including his wife. That’s been a factor in his quest to elevate the voices of people who have been historically marginalized and excluded.

Despite Downing’s experience at Cedar Heights being a distressing one, it was illuminating. “It’s changed me so much. I went from quietly supporting my union and Washington Library Association to being an active participant in both,” he says, referring to a professional organization for librarians. Downing also ran for a position on his local school board — a role that would have afforded him greater powers in opposing the censorship of queer books. He didn’t win, but his determination to fight has only grown.

Librarians who care about making queer kids feel seen are hyperaware of the opposition to valuable reading material. And they’re fighting the good fight online and offline.

Storm Kopitsch and her colleague Annessa Dimkoff, who work at Michigan’s Fowlerville District Library, run its popular TikTok account. They lead fun initiatives such as “Gilmore Girls” themed reading challenges for their 122,000 followers — but behind the scenes, they’re doing more serious work to advocate for local queer people.

I’ve added ‘rainbow reads’ stickers to LGBTQ+ teen books,” Kopitsch tells me. “This came about because we had teens that were desperate for books and kept asking whether a book was queer or not.”

Librarians who care about making queer kids feel seen are hyperaware of the opposition to valuable reading material.
Librarians who care about making queer kids feel seen are hyperaware of the opposition to valuable reading material.

Photo: Storm Kopitsch

Fowlerville may be one of the luckier libraries, but it has still faced opposition because of its support for queer voices. “We do see people, usually parents, complaining about LGBTQ+ books as a whole,” Dimkoff tells me. “Around the time that our [funding] was being passed, it felt like every day someone had something to say about the ‘kind of books we carry’ or the ‘lifestyle we’re teaching being sinful.’”

“In 2022, an anonymous community member made a stink about the TikTok videos I made because I wasn’t afraid to provide service to those asking for queer book recommendations,” Kopitsch adds. “I made more content and was called a ‘woke cheerleader,’ so I put that phrase on a button with the pride flag, which I now wear around the library.”

These librarians’ acts of resistance are both admirable and treacherous to their careers. A librarian named Suzette Baker was fired from her position in Llano County, Texas, in 2022, and many others are being threatened with legal action. Stories like these should belong in a disturbing dystopian horror — akin to George Orwell’s “1984” or Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which have often faced bans, ironically) — but unfortunately they’re very much a reality.

"This is one of the most exciting jobs I’ve ever had, and that’s because of how much good we’re able to do," says Samuel Sims.
“This is one of the most exciting jobs I’ve ever had, and that’s because of how much good we’re able to do,” says Samuel Sims.

Photo: Samuel Sims

Since 2022, I’ve been the manager of a library in the U.K. Before taking on this role, I thought librarians stamped books all day and told people to shut the hell up when necessary, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

This is one of the most exciting jobs I’ve ever had, and that’s because of how much good we’re able to do. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, though, as there’s anti-queerness and other types of discrimination everywhere. That’s why I’ve paid attention to how queer librarians are holding strong in the U.S., taking notes on how to best advocate for queer voices.

I’ve had a customer express disgust at the LGBTQ+ book display in my library. I’ve been told that “this thing with gender has gone too far.” And before I started, colleagues told me they had to help protect a drag queen after their story time at a library in my city that was met by vile protesters. But this just pushes me to do more to support queer kids exploring their identity, which is like a giant “F you” to the haters.

Soon after starting, I, alongside a colleague, started a book club and we’ve been very intentional about curation for these two years. More than anything, it’s about forging a safe space and allowing people to speak their truths without being censored. During and after October’s Banned Books Week last year, we read several titles that had made the list in the U.S., including Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer.” When somebody expresses displeasure about my community, as they have done, I calmly explain to them why they’re wrong. Activism can be quiet and discreet but still hold power. Of course, I can be loud when I need to be too.

Yes, queer people are luckier now than when I was growing up because there’s more information out there, but many still exist in a permanent state of fear. Some libraries are stuck in the past and ill-equipped to fight oppression, but these institutions have the potential to be so much more than a space for dusty old books. They help bring marginalized communities together and, by doing so, make us stronger. They’re full of passionate people who, whether they intended to or not, have become activists against the forces that have waged war on queer people.

Should I be worried as a librarian in the U.K.? We exist in a significantly different political climate than the U.S., and our far-right groups aren’t as large or visible. But fear, ignorance and anti-queerness exist, of course. This 2023 article in The Guardian cited research finding that a third of U.K. librarians had been asked by members of the public to censor or remove books.

Librarians are an extremely valuable part of the fight against LGBTQ+ oppression, and if these attacks continue, then we’re all screwed. As research like that reported in The Guardian shows, this is everybody’s battle to wage. So please, go to your local library, request queer books, tell your friends and families about them. Speak up if they’re being attacked, sign petitions. The fight is far from over, but silence and apathy won’t help win it — rainbow swords will.

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