Far from the spotlight of public debate, outside the jurisdiction of local school boards and Iowa state legislators, lies a collection of more than 3,000 books written by, for, and about LGBTQ people, people blacks and Hispanics and women.
The books, a mix of hardbacks and paperbacks, are almost all donated. Their leafy pages, passed down from one generation to the next, are yellow, stained by the sun that has flooded them for decades. They stand tall, lining the walls of a modest office in a nondescript mid-century ranch-style office building, home to dozens of nonprofit organizations and congregations, atop Sherman Hill.
The private library at Des Moines Pride Center, a nonprofit that provides services to the area’s LGBTQ community, includes titles such as “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” “Girls Man Up,” and “The Well of Loneliness”.
Among literary giants like “The Color Purple” are DVDs. The full season of “The L Word” — a series about a group of lesbian and bisexual women in Los Angeles — can be watched on the gray loveseat in the center of the room.
The library, which was recently professionally indexed, has been isolated from the world during the coronavirus pandemic. Pride Center leaders had hoped to reopen their space at the Mickle Center two days a week from January.
The omicron-fueled COVID-19 surge has delayed those plans.
And yet, there’s a new urgency to reopen this corner to provide central Iowa’s youth — and adults — with a safe and private space to learn more about race, gender and sexual identity, have leaders said.
“The healthy exploration of your identity takes courage,” said Diana Prince, president of the center.
The existence of the library — even if it is temporarily inaccessible — has taken on a new meaning. Parents across the state and nation, backed by conservative politicians, have pushed for books that affirm LGBTQ, Black and Hispanic identities — and in some cases include sexually explicit themes — to be removed from school libraries.
Many educators, librarians, students and activists in the Des Moines metro have pushed back, saying the books give readers a nuanced understanding of what it means to be black or transgender. And with the help of a caring adult, the books provide vital information for young people trying to find themselves.
It’s the healthy alternative to the internet’s “cesspool,” said Stacy Schmidt, a Des Moines social studies professor and Pride Center board member.
Schmidt, along with Marlu Abarca, Bilingual Services Library Assistant for the Des Moines Public Library System and leader of the Iowa Queer Communities of Color coalition, have been working behind the scenes for several months to gather resources and create new opportunities for young people. from central Iowa. who feel attacked by the body politic.
“The impetus was really trying to find ways to help kids feel more connected and to help them have safe spaces where they can be themselves and not worry about the pandemic or the… bullied or otherwise attacked for who they are,” Schmidt said.
Details are still being worked out. But the goal is to hold events at public libraries for black, Hispanic and LGBTQ youth, including trivia and movie nights, coloring nights and lessons on how to become a drag performer.
“People are just looking for a place to belong,” Abarca said. “It’s so easy to be assertive with a coloring sheet.”
It won’t be all fun and games, though. Leaders see a real need to raise awareness of mental health services and dig deep into untold stories, especially among people with intersecting identities. A possible lesson: how LGBTQ people influenced the Harlem Renaissance.
As the Pride Center prepares to reopen its library and these other events come to fruition, Prince, Schmidt and Abarca have a message for teens who feel under attack: Hold on. Find a supportive adult. There are resources out there – and very soon, a place where you can find hope in a book.
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