The library in my home town (Deer Lodge, MT, pop. 6000) was not unusual for a small-town library of its time. A somber Victorian granite pile amid aging cottonwood trees, the William Kohrs Memorial Library had been built by my own great-grandparents in memory of their son, who died as a university student. Inside, the building had that fragrant smell of old books, and a feeling that spirits of men in muttonchop whiskers and ladies in bustles still hovered in the air. In winter, its cranky old steam radiators barely kept me warm as I searched the stacks lined with venerable volumes -- "classic" meaning anything good published before World War II. Even in summer, the woman librarian wore a heavy sweater, for frost can surprise the Rockies in August.
Yet here, as a high-school student in the late 40s, I found books that gave me that first secret thrill of same-sex recognition. Like the whitetail deer browsing in the valley's willow brakes, I found bites of wild food here and there, in certain places.
The first book I stumbled on was T.E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." History homework on World War I led me to it. At 13 I was as intellectually precocious as I was emotionally naive. So T.E.'s frank comments on the sexuality of men in combat, and his moving subplot on the two young Arab lovers, Daud and Farraj, were my first clue that others in the universe had strangely powerful feelings about their own gender. "Death in Venice" was easily found in a collected Thomas Mann -- my Teutonic pioneer ancestry led me to nibble this German author. Ancient Greek literature was a bountiful browsing-ground -- I had no trouble translating Hector's tears over Patroclus, or Sappho's companionships with women. Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde were suspiciously fond of the beauty of men.
Yes, the small-town libraries of my childhood didn't offer "Heather Has Two Mommies." But they had their own rich pickings -- all under the safe label of "best loved classics."
While classics were unassailable, it was the flood of new postwar books that our town's librarians scrutinized frowningly. Even as a kid, I noticed that libraries all stocked "The Three Musketeers" with its adulterous/extramarital bedroom romps. But "Forever Amber," that shocking new bestseller with bedroom romps, was not allowed. While "Gulliver's Travels"'s fondness for scat was okay, Hemingway's new "Old Man and the Sea" was not okay -- our high-school librarian was revolted by one line where the old fisherman pees over the side of the boat.
Last week, speaking at the American Library Assn.'s Gay and Lesbian Book Awards, these adolescent browsings came back powerfully as I faced a roomful of gay librarians. Some in the audience were known to me through online chats with the "gay-libn list." Many had shared their own similar experience with "that first book." Like me, the older librarians had often jump-started their gay awareness with classics.
While critical acclaim, book awards, a flash of bestsellerdom, are important today, they are no guarantee that any book -- gay or straight -- will be on the country's library shelves a century from now. Posterity seems more lenient with "classics." Maybe it's because it takes half a century to distinguish a rich and solid reading experience from the rhetoric and vogue of an era in which a book first sees print. Whereas new books get a harsher scrutiny by community censors. Indeed, the strait-laced Christian bookreader is very forgiving about violence, slavery, adulteries, incest and other hair-raising stuff in that "religious classic" called the Bible. If the Bible were a new front-list release today, the Family Friendly Libraries people would be up in arms, demanding its removal before their children find it.
The local librarian -- gay or straight -- is the last line of defense for books that have a track record of long-time redeeming value. And the gay librarian, however closeted, has often been there to quietly vibe the needs of a questing kid standing shyly at the desk. As I think about where our country is heading, the growing conservatism worries me. Yet I have a strong feeling that classic books whose pages are mirrors (however subtle) of gay sensibility will still be quietly found on library shelves a century from now -- even in some small towns, far from the urban centers where gay influence is more heavily felt. Indeed, such books will be quietly protected by the most sensible librarians and library boards of tomorrow.
I have no idea if that lady librarian in her heavy sweater was a sister -- I was too nervous to ask her any questions. Besides, this wild yearling knew exactly what tastes she was looking for. But I take hope from the fact that my literary "food" could be found in her stacks, in a far more rigid time than today.