Dear Wichita Public Library,
My name is Liz Hamor. My pronouns are she/her. I am the Director of GLSEN Kansas, a local chapter of a national organization that works with K-12 schools to ensure that every member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
I wanted to applaud you for hosting an event with Drag Queens at the library in September (during Pride week). I work with hundreds of LGBTQ students and adults, and wanted to take a few moments to explain why visible community support is crucial.
Homophobia and transphobia are two things that thrive in communities like Wichita where LGBTQ topics are taboo to many people. GLSEN’s national research shows that when schools become safer and more inclusive for LGBTQ students, they are safer for ALL students. Unfortunately, we have a long way to go in Kansas to ensure that LGBTQ students feel safe, valued, and respected in schools. Our 2015 Kansas Snapshot of the GLSEN National School Climate Survey showed that nearly 9 in 10 Kansas LGBTQ students surveyed were harassed or assaulted at school. The majority of LGBTQ students in Kansas also regularly heard anti-LGBTQ remarks. Twenty one percent of those students even regularly heard school staff make homophobic remarks.
GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people. We are doing everything we can to ensure that schools are spaces where this is the case, so that ALL students can learn. We know that, according to psychology, specifically Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, feeling safe is ESSENTIAL to a student being able to learn. Personally, as a former educator and a parent myself, I want schools to be spaces where students don’t just survive, but where they can THRIVE.
Outside of schools, the Kansas climate for LGBTQ youth is often hostile as well. LGBTQ youth are disproportionately represented amongst homeless youth. It’s a fairly well-known statistic amongst LGBTQ advocates that forty percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. This is often due to students being kicked out of their homes when they come out. I have seen this happen to some of my students and it is heartbreaking. There is a devastating lack of programs and support for homeless youth in Wichita, much less LGBTQ homeless youth.
I know from some of the emails you received that you are aware that the suicide rate for LGBTQ folks is disproportionately high. Some may try to have you believe that this is evidence that there is something inherently wrong and unhealthy about being LGBTQ. However, Sam Dylan Finch, a leading advocate in LGBTQ mental health, said, “It’s not being transgender that, in and of itself, creates distress and dysfunction. It’s the difficulty in trying to be who you are when the society around you is deeply hostile toward you.”
As a community leader in LGBTQ advocacy, I could tell you stories for days about how our often hostile Kansas climate negatively affects the lives of LGBTQ people. However, I’d rather focus on and assist with solutions. Through my journey as a teacher, to a ministry leader (where this calling found me), to the Chapter Director of GLSEN Kansas, I’ve learned a few fundamentals about creating inclusive environments that I think often get overlooked in the conversation:
- Fear is incredibly powerful. It divides people. Often, we see opposition, and we think it’s caused by hate, but hate can’t survive without fear. Anger, even anger that leads to hostility, is just a secondary emotion. Fear is its source.
- It is easier to get rid of fear than many realize. Education about, exposure to, and experiences with whatever people fear are the keys.
- While it’s ideal that we each consciously choose to not allow fear to be the boss of us, sometimes we have to help others see there is no reason to be afraid.
With all of that in mind, I believe the Wichita Public Library is a perfect space to help people eliminate fear of the unknown. Education, exposure and experiences are something that reading can do for people who may not have any control over their environment. In addition to providing literature and resources that can open new worlds of understanding, these events also provide the opportunity for people to learn about identities they don’t understand, and perhaps even engage in discussion. That is just as important as demonstrating that the Wichita Public Library is a safe and inclusive place for LGBTQ people who may or may not have safety and inclusion at school, at work, or at home.
The American Library Association also seems to feel this way, as they have an entire webpage to help libraries navigate hosting Drag Queen Story Hours. While I understand the Wichita Public Library event was not an official Drag Queen Story Hour, there were drag queens, reading children’s books in the library. The similarities are there, and the guidance (including policies and suggestions for handling backlash) that can be found on that page are intended to help libraries create “a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive society”.
Thank you for providing hope and light in a dark world. I understand that many of you may be sacrificing comfort. I want you to know that I see that and I appreciate it. The students for whom I work on a daily basis need me, and you, and everyone else, to change the world. They need us to live Love loudly, even when that means getting uncomfortable. They don’t need us to be comfortable; they need us to be brave.
Liz Hamor, Chapter Director