ALA Keynote Speech

It was an honor to speak before people devoted to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans written word. I was equally awed by my company on the dais. I was sharing space with some of the people who impacted my youth and refined my palate: Barbara Grier published some of the first lesbian literature I read, John D'Emilio wrote about the men and women who were absent from my school history books, Christopher Bram created characters I wanted to know or become. Then there were the talented authors whose work wasn't published at that time. Julie Anne Peters writes books that help young adult readers see the normalcy of GLBT life. Monique Truong has created a wonderful musing of a little noted character in a notable lesbian couple's life. I am grateful to have been asked to share my story and be in the good company of advocates of GLBT literature and fellow writers.

Steven Reigns, Author

Following is Steven's speech from the Stonewall Awards ceremony at the 2004 ALA Annual Meeting in Orlando, FL.

Good Morning, I'm Steven Reigns and it is an honor to address you today. I've always seen librarians as the preservers of our written culture. At a young age I realized that I didn't need to know all the answers, I just need to befriend the reference librarian. Since I've always held the knowledge of librarians in high regard, I was a bit unsure what I could tell you that you couldn't look up. Maybe I'd stand up here and read inspiring quotes by famous gay or lesbian authors. To look those up I would have had to ask a librarian and re-quoting the work back to you just seemed redundant. So I thought, well, I'll tell you about my story and my feelings about libraries because it seemed like one of the few things that couldn't be looked up.

About four years ago, I raised my standards on who to date. Aside from owning a vehicle, having a job, not doing drugs, chewing with their mouth closed, and understanding the importance of high-thread-count sheets, I added another standard — they needed to own a library card.

I was not interested in men with library cards out of some odd intellectual kink desire. I was interested because a library card symbolized a desire for knowledge, a willingness to learn and explore. I don't need to date another bibliophile but I do need to date someone open to new information. The resources housed in libraries give opportunities to learn, to feel, to explore, and to move beyond our own life experiences. I also know some must go because of the free video and DVD rentals. This is OK, too. Because I am an obsessive reader and always falling into low-paying professions, libraries have given me access to books I could not have afforded or would have been subjected to reading on the floor of my local bookstore.

I discovered books out of default. As a child I was seen as dorky, and I was made fun of. I didn't have a peer group to speak of and didn't have any athletic ability. I was an awkward boy who came from a household of extreme emotional, physical and sexual abuse. I liked men and also knew that this was one more trait that wouldn't be accepted by my schoolmates. My friends and confidants were characters from the pages of young adult fiction.

At 16, I got a fake ID, discovered gay bars, sex, drugs and left the library behind. I rediscovered it awhile later when I gave up partying and stopped avoiding all of the issues I didn't want to confront.

When I was ready to face my past abuse, ready to really embrace my sexuality, ready to explore what it really means to be gay in American society.I found solace in books. On the shelves of the St. Louis County Library, I discovered poets like Sapphire and Essex Hemphill, who spoke out in the times others had been silent. I found historians Martin Duberman and John D'Emilio, who tracked and traced the origins of gay culture. I found the novelists Dorothy Allison, Edmund White, and Christopher Bram, who told stories about characters I loved. I found the diaries of Anais Nin and Keith Haring and memoirs of Sarah Schulman and Audre Lorde, detailing the personal struggles and paths of people I related to or respected. I discovered anthologies that offered me a sampling of voices from across the spectrum edited by Irene Zahava, Amy Scholder, and John Preston.

My library card helped me claim my life. I don't know an accurate metaphor for what it meant to me; a map, a compass, a fortune told, a life preserver, a bible, a Buddha. In that library, all for free except for my overdue fees, I found role models, heroes and idols. I also found, and still read, people who have helped perpetuate the hate that we face daily — those who hate our culture and actions. I still read books by the opposition, but read them a bit less. I can find those opinions and theories by walking down the street. What I'm more interested in are those who are changing and challenging the society we live in. Those like Kate Bornstein, Mark Dotty, Bernard Cooper, Les Wright and Minnie Bruce Pratt who are charting the path of what it's like to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or trans in our society.

This year marked the second year I've organized an event for GLBT History Month at my local public library in Tampa. Historically the library has organized and sponsored events for Black History Month, National Poetry Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month, yet have always lacked an "out, non-straight" presenter. The month of June seemed completely neglected. I naively brought it to the attention of the programmer, thinking she'd see the error in her ways. Unfortunately, she didn't see any error at all and didn't intend to have any gay programming. I was told that library programming requires planning two years in advance. I asked why weren't they thinking of gays and lesbians in 2001? She wasn't amused. I wrote a proposal for a library sponsored event and it was denied. The safe sanctuary I had always known libraries to be, the place where I first found acceptance of my desires and feelings, the first place I found friends, now seemed flawed. The lack of GLBT programming seemed to validate that our culture, our community, and our experiences are not of worth. I was persistent, tenacious, and found a loophole. Because the library was a public building, I was able to reserve the auditorium provided my event was free and open to the public. So last year I organized Loving In Fear and got 100 people to the library to hear gay and lesbian authors read their work. I didn't recruit solely from the gay reading circle or from the gay arts organizations. I went to bars and clubs and handed out flyers. I even had flyers at the bathhouse. Because the library shouldn't be a place for academic exclusion, just as it shouldn't be place for the exclusion of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans?

This past year, the library refused to sponsor an event again, even after having two years to plan for it. So, I threw another event. Loving In Fear for 2004 brought in about 90 people. Part of our job as concerned citizens, librarians, library cardholders, and supporters of equal and free rights is to be vigilant about the representation of people in the margin. I'm going to keep organizing this annual event until the library treats gay programming the same way it treats its other programming.

I see my own writings and the literary event organizing work I do as ways to help youths (and even the not-so-young) who are struggling with the issues I've had to face. Since my public library isn't the safe space I always thought libraries to be, I'm creating it until the library itself does.

Today I've told you my story about being a shattered boy growing up in suburbs of the Midwest who found hope in the tomes I read at the library. But I'm just one person and mine is only one story. There are thousands morefrom that single library alone. Librarians give us the resources to help redefine our lives.

Book reading is not a dying art. It is a sacred art. I see librarians as the priests and priestesses of that sacred art. You have my sincere gratitude and I thank you.

Steven Reigns is a poet living in Florida and author of Your Dead Body Is My Welcome Mat, which published in 2001. He is currently working on a second poetry collection and teaches creative writing workshops to GLBTQ youth groups.