Positive Living: LGBTs in Gulfport helping to redefine what a library can be

By : Greg Stemm
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In a normal community, if you want to find gay people you might visit a bar or go to a gay pride celebration.

But Gulfport is far from being a “normal” town.

If you want to meet gay people in this small artsy community, virtually surrounded by our bigger but just as gay cousin St. Petersburg, you visit the Gulfport Public Library.

Just a couple of years ago Circle of Friends, the philanthropist organization which supports the Gulfport Library, created a new subcommittee called the LGBTQ Resource Center. It was a bold move. No other library in the state of Florida has such a center, and it was a leap of faith for my library to do so.

Now, there are over 2500 books, DVDs and other resource materials available. We aren’t hiding them in some dark musty corner. There is a large prominent sign that you will see the moment you walk through the front door. It is boldly placed over dozens of shelves of both fiction and non-fiction works, dealing with just about any issue related to the LGBTQ community you might imagine. You could say our library is “out.”

I am privileged to serve on this amazing committee with other deeply committed men and women. We want to continue to make our library a true resource for our entire community, gay and straight.

Just recently the American Library Association awarded us with the Newlen-Symons award for excellence in serving the LGBTQ community. We were in the running with the big boys in cities like San Francisco and New York, but the Library Association commended us and the library in my community of just 12,000 residents on our AMAZING and EXTENSIVE (their words, which appeared in caps) collection and programming.

Programming is almost an understatement on what our committee has been offering to our community. In just the past two months we hosted a sold out crowd for Poppy Chaplin, an acclaimed lesbian comedian who has appeared on Ellen and Oprah; another lesbian comedian Fay Jacobs; a lunch and learn session on the sex lives of LGBT people after the age of 60; and screening of three movies including the lesbian love story “Cloudburst”, the gay male love story “Brokeback Mountain” and an award winning South Korean film “The Handmaiden.” We have also hosted a vocal performance by a Gulfport male couple who are members of St. Petersburg’s delightful One City Chorus. Most importantly, we produced the first-ever reading festival at our library focused on lesbian literature. We had 16 authors from around the country and a keynote address from award winning lesbian author Elizabeth Simms. It brought well over a hundred people, women and men, to the library. We’ve also started a new LGBTQ book club. It isn’t even Pride mon
th in June when we really go into high gear.

The general Gulfport community has been very supportive, too. Our city council has approved the rainbow flag to fly over our library the entire month of June. Since the library is right at the entrance of the historic district, with which many associate Gulfport, we are highly visible.

I suspect that every activist like me wonders from time to time if what we are doing is really making an impact in people’s lives. The impact of what we are accomplishing at the Gulfport Library became clear to me in a discussion with the lovely 90-something-year-old parents of the sex researcher who gave a wonderful presentation to a packed room. First, it was moving that she had invited her parents and they felt comfortable enough to come. Her mother shared with me that when her daughter came out to her in the ‘80s, she wanted very much to be supportive but she admits she knew absolutely nothing about homosexuality. She says she did what she has always done when she needed information about a subject: she visited her public library.

“There was nothing, no books whatsoever on the topic. They gave me no resources at all,” she said. With tears in her eyes she expressed to me how profoundly moving it was to visit our library, to see thousands of volumes on virtually any aspect of being gay; and that it was so prominently displayed.

“It’s amazing to me that when a child comes out to their parents in Gulfport they will have all the resources they need to better understand and support their loved one.”

We hope so too.

Come visit the LGBTQ Resource Center at the Gulfport Library located at 5501 28th Avenue South or learn more about us by visiting MyGulfport.us/LGBTQ-Resources.

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