Fifty years ago, under the auspices of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table, a small group of activists, librarians, and activist-librarians formed what was then known as the Task Force on Gay Liberation—the very first gay and lesbian caucus in any national professional organization.
In the decades that followed, the group’s name changed periodically to reflect the evolving times, finally becoming known in 2019 as the Rainbow Round Table. But its mission—to serve the information needs of LGBTQIA+ library professionals as well as the information and access needs of the LGBTQIA+ community at large—has never faltered.
LGBTQIA+ youth have always turned to the library for information and support.
Anne Moore: I think I was 11 or 12 when I first realized I was attracted to women. There was nobody I could talk to; there weren’t any role models. I think one of the first books I got was Rubyfruit Jungle. Thank God I didn’t get The Well of Loneliness.
Dale McNeill: When I was 18, I wrote to the university library in Ada, Oklahoma, which had a literal, physical bulletin board where you could ask the librarian a question. I asked, “What’s a church that’s cool with gay people?” They got answers from several pastors, of which only one said anything positive, so I went to church there.
Deb Sica: I was able to come out because of the library. I started with the World Book—I think I looked up “homosexuality.” I was able to put definitions on what I was experiencing. You find the book that becomes a sanctuary and you’re not alone, no matter how disenfranchised you might feel.
Michael Mungin: As a gay black kid in the pre–Will and Grace era, I did not see myself represented in very many places. And I could find glimpses of what I could be in the materials that I found at the library, like B-Boy Blues by James Earl Hardy. I came to understand that those materials didn’t show up in the library by accident—librarians were putting them there. I was like, “I want to be part of that system.”
“That system,” at least in an official sense, begins in 1970, at ALA’s Annual Conference in Detroit. During a session of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT), librarian Israel Fishman proposes an official gay and lesbian caucus within ALA—the Task Force on Gay Liberation. Though not a librarian, activist Barbara Gittings soon joins the task force and becomes a major force in its growth.
Kay Lahusen: I met Barbara Gittings, my partner of 46 years, at a Daughters of Bilitis picnic in Rhode Island. Someone told her I was a cute little package and she should go after me.
There was a man who had a radio broadcast, Homosexual News and Reviews. He thought well of Barbara, and he said, “When I’m on vacation, why don’t you handle the broadcast?” So she went to the station one day, and there was something in the mailbox—a notice of a meeting of librarians who were going to try to get a [gay and lesbian] organization going. Barbara thought, “This is for me because I love books; I love libraries.”
I think most people just thought it was a kind of kooky group. They struggled along for a year or so, and Israel Fishman realized he wasn’t an organizer, so he asked Barbara if she would be the coordinator.
They said, “What can we do to get ourselves on the map in ALA?” Well, they came up with the idea to have a kissing booth. A gay kissing booth.
In 1971, at ALA’s Annual Conference in Dallas, the new task force makes a splash with several actions, including the announcement of a book award (which will later become known as the Stonewall Book Award), its first formal program (“Sex and the Single Cataloger”), and a Hug-a-Homosexual booth in the exhibit hall. Along with signs reading MEN ONLY and WOMEN ONLY, the booth contains task force members ready to dispense hugs and kisses on request. No one takes them up on it, so Gittings and author Alma Routsong (winner of the task force’s first book award) hug and kiss each other.
Lahusen: The place was packed. Many people couldn’t imagine what gay people looked like, and they couldn’t imagine they would kiss openly in public. One woman said, “Why on earth would they get all this publicity when we have all these famous authors here?” Barbara said, “I think she needs a new pair of glasses if she can’t see why we had publicity.” So that put us on the map.
The task force continues to hold its book award and other programs at Annual, including the 1975 “The Children’s Hour: Must Gay Be Grim for Jane and Jim?”; distributes bibliographies of gay and lesbian titles; changes its name to the Gay Task Force; and successfully lobbies ALA Council to adopt resolutions affirming support of equal employment opportunities for gay and lesbian library workers.
McNeill: When I was in college in 1979, I went to the library and looked in the Encyclopedia of Associations to see if there was any gay profession. I was a bold child. The Gay Task Force of the ALA was listed—I think it was Barbara Gittings’s home address. I wrote to whatever address it was, and Barbara replied, telling me why she thought being a librarian would be a good career choice. It seemed perfectly rational to me. I got my undergraduate degree in education, and then I thought, “Well, I think I’ll see if I can get this master’s degree in library science that Barbara suggested.”
By 1985, the task force has grown large enough that the need for more structure is evident.
Dee Michel: [Originally] Barbara ran the task force completely herself. I waged a battle with her to make it more participatory and democratic. She was a force of nature. A lot of the people from that era were very tough, which you had to be to survive.
Roland Hansen: She was a real go-getter and wouldn’t take guff from anybody. Very tenacious, and very caring too. It’s not that we didn’t like what she was doing, but the task force was getting bigger and bigger, and it needed some organizing.
Michel: She let me put on a program [at the 1985 Annual Conference] called “What Do We Want—from Each Other, from ALA, from the World?” There was a huge number of people. I said, “What’s your vision for the task force?”
Part of the vision was to have a male and a female cochair. A lot of groups at that point were having male and female cochairs as a way to ensure representation. [In 1986], I became the first male cochair. Barbara didn’t want to run, so she stepped down. Ellen Greenblatt was the female cochair.
Also in 1986, the task force changes its name to the Gay and Lesbian Task Force and sees its book award recognized as an official ALA award.
Cal Gough: That was the first time I had been to Annual. I had no idea that that conference would be so exciting. This was a weekend that’s never been surpassed. And that was because I met so many more gay people than I expected to meet. That’s when I met Ellen Greenblatt, and that resulted four years later in the book she and I coedited, Gay and Lesbian Library Service, which was the first book like that in the world.
I spent the next 10 years working on publications that we could disseminate through the task force. I didn’t want all this knowledge about how to better serve gay and lesbian library users to be restricted to such a small group of activist librarians; I wanted it to be available to anybody. We ended up with 50 or so publications that people could get through the mail—a directory of gay and lesbian librarians so that people could find their counterparts in their parts of the country, a directory of gay and lesbian professional organizations, things like that.
During the 1988 ALA Annual Conference in New Orleans, the task force holds a program titled “Positively Out: Gay and Lesbian Librarians in the Workplace.” Moore remembers what it was like to be a lesbian library worker in those days.
Moore: It wasn’t welcoming at all. If you said in 1984, “I bought a house with my girlfriend,” there was just this silence. It was like your life didn’t have meaning. I was working with a lot of women my age going through life events like getting engaged, getting married, getting pregnant. And you’re totally outside that. What do I talk about, sports?
One of the first people I was out to in my job was this woman who was going through a divorce. One day I said, “I have something to tell you.” She said, “Yeah, I’ve been telling you a lot; feel free to tell me anything.” So I came out to her, and she was totally cool with it. It changed my life.
McNeill: One thing that was really useful in the beginning was [advice on] how to be out at work. I know I got some advice to make sure to put on my résumé: “Member, ALA Gay Liberation Task Force.” I was just determined, “I’m not going to go to some library, and then they’re going to find out I’m gay after I get there, and that’s going to become an issue.” I’m just going to spell it right out.
When the children’s book Daddy’s Roommate is published in 1990, it becomes a lightning rod for antigay activists. Ann K. Symons, who later serves as 1998–1999 ALA president and 2014–2015 chair of GLBTRT, remembers dealing with a book challenge around it.
Ann K. Symons: In the early 1990s, I defended a book challenge in our school district, where I was a high school librarian. One of our librarians wanted to buy Daddy’s Roommate because she felt there was a need in that school. She also knew she would be fired if she put it in the library. So she asked me for advice. I said, “This is how we’re gonna do it. What we need to do is have every single library [in the district] buy the books so that nobody can pinpoint one librarian.”
The next thing I knew, the superintendent called me in. I went to his office, and he had the books, and the offending pages were marked with yellow stickies. I wasn’t going to have a discussion with him. I just picked up the books and said, “Oh, that’s where our books are, thank you,” and walked out.
Another controversy hits even closer to home: In 1992, American Libraries’ July/August cover features a photograph of Gay and Lesbian Task Force members marching in the San Francisco Pride parade.
McNeill: There were some really hateful letters that were published and opinions that were stated.
Martin Garnar: Some commenters accused American Libraries of glorifying homosexuality.
Among the many letters to the editor that followed were statements such as: “I am disgusted, appalled, and nauseated to see my professional organization supporting a sexually perverse movement”; “I wanted to puke!”; and “The gay and lesbian issue … has nothing whatsoever to do with the library profession. And the library profession should have absolutely nothing to do with it.”
But so were statements like: “I have nothing but praise for ALA’s ongoing commitment to defending the rights of all people”; “I felt pleased that my professional association chose such a happy, celebratory photograph”; and “I became a librarian because I wanted to serve the information needs of all people, including gays and lesbians.”
McNeill: For me and for so many other people, to see that picture on the cover of American Libraries was to feel seen.
In 1995, the task force changes its name to the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Task Force (GLBTF). Just four years later, it is promoted to round table status and becomes the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Round Table of the ALA.
Symons: I remember at the Newbery-Caldecott Banquet, someone had written remarks for me, and I remember sitting there thinking, “Nobody’s written remarks for what I’m going to say tomorrow at the gay task force event.” So I took those remarks and I personalized them to the gay task force, and I went. Later I realized I was the first ALA president ever who had come and taken notice of what they were doing.
McNeill: I remember thinking, “This is a little different, that the ALA president even knows where this event is. How the heck did that happen?”
After Symons completes her term as ALA president, she retires and lives in Russia for several years.
Symons: When I came back from Russia, I came back to ALA to see my friends. I didn’t have anything to do in ALA, so I thought, “I wonder if I could run for the GLBTRT board.” So I sat there at the meeting, and at the end of the meeting, three friends came and said, “Would you run for chair?” I said, “Well, yeah, I’ll run for chair, but do you feel comfortable knowing that I would be your first-ever straight chair?” And they said, “Absolutely.”
I spent three years on the board, and then I was the GLBTRT Councilor and spent three years on Council, during which the most significant issue was gender-neutral restrooms at conference. A few of the members early on took it upon themselves to just make hand-printed signs and change the restrooms into gender-neutral restrooms. Ultimately we passed a resolution in Council requiring a certain percentage of restrooms to be gender-neutral at all of our conferences.
The murder of 49 people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, less than two weeks before the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in the same city, leaves many reeling, not least the GLBTRT.
Sica: I was incoming chair when the Pulse tragedy happened. That was one of the culminating moments for me about how important what we do is. People were asking us, “Was it safe? Should we go? Would we have heightened security?” We had to make some decisions. Would we be fear-based in our response, or did we rally the troops and say, “This is not going to stop us”? We had to take the high road to say, “This is going to motivate us.”
We had a couple of trips to the [shooting] site, and it felt like hallowed ground. That was a morbid reminder that there’s still a lot of hostility and hatred that we need to confront. And looking back on it, that’s what motivated me to start the name change process.
GLBTRT members ask: Is it time to change the round table’s name again?
Sica: Every time the name came up, there would be all kinds of conversations like, “Why is the G first?” Our understanding of gender expression and sexual orientation has evolved in so many ways, so it was time to think about: What does inclusivity look like? We went through many conversations, especially about the Q. Was [queer] a reclaimed term or still a term of hatred? We had more than three years of conversation around that.
Ana Elisa de Campos Salles: According to ALA rules for name changes, we needed to have two different round table boards vote on this. We sent out surveys to get as much feedback from membership as possible. How did they feel about possibly extending our alphabet soup of a name to additional letters? Or did they want something more emblematic? The one that came out on top was Rainbow Round Table.
Five years after same-sex marriage was legalized in all 50 states, and 50 years after the Gay Task Force came into being, is there still a need for a LGBTQIA+ group within ALA?
Mungin: Maybe five years ago we might’ve been able to envision this committee becoming redundant. Since the 2016 [US presidential] election, we are having to work on some fundamental things that maybe we thought we were past. Homophobia is creeping up in all kinds of ways. I think the round table’s work is nowhere near finished.
Garnar: There still are times where LGBTQIA+ folks deal with microaggressions, deal with outright oppression. Especially in the current political climate, it’s always comforting to have a place where you can walk into the room and know you are loved for who you are.
Sica: The emergence of drag queen storytime has proven how much residual hate and resistance continues. We’re still in a position where we have to protect titles for access. We have lots of states where it’s legal to discriminate for employment. Marriage equality passed, but we don’t have employment protection. There are so many places where you can come out and be fired. We’ve got 50 years behind us, and we’ve got 50 years ahead of us, too.