About three months ago, I started working as the Library Intern at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center in Allentown, PA, through a grant from the Elton John AIDS Foundation. I was so excited the night before, I could barely sleep. When I walked up to the center and saw the rainbow flags blowing in the wind, I felt butterflies in my stomach. I was greeted by Kathleen, the center’s librarian, who welcomed me inside. I would be working with her for the next four months to plan events, manage the library, and expand the library materials the center has related to HIV literature.
“Before we get started, spend some time with the books.” Kathleen said. And so I made my way up to the library, a colorful room filled with bookshelves of 2200 volumes of queer literature — from fiction to biographies and memoirs to children’s books to plays and poetry. I tried to take it all in and I sat down on the floor in utter awe. As I began to read a book on a boy who has two moms, I tried to remember the first time I read a book about the queer community in school. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t remember.
I couldn’t remember because there was never a book about the queer community in school. My identity was never represented in the books my teachers would read to me and my peers. I could never see myself in the books on my summer reading list or find a book I resonated with that was available to check out.
As I sat on the floor of this place I had never been, I tried to imagine the five-year-old Val coming here, right after she asked her mother if there was a place where she could marry her friend, Rachel. I thought about how impactful this place would be for 12-year-old Val, who promised herself every day she would never come out, and 14-year-old Val, who cried at a carnival after kissing a boy on a ferris wheel, knowing she just could not hide anymore. I smiled as I imagined 16-year-old Val, who had just publicly come out, getting cozy with a book in here and realizing she would not be alone in her identity forever. As I envisioned all my past selves entering this space, I felt myself let out a deep breath — a breath I had been holding in for twenty long years as I had held in my queerness. Yes, I have been out since I was sixteen, but the majority of spaces in my life have forced me to hold it in. It is constantly an inner equation — can I be queer here? If I can be, how queer is too much? At Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center, I am in a physical space for my queer identity, not a space I have to push down my identity to fit into or a space where I have to judge whether or not coming out is safe.
Over the past three months, the books on the shelves at Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center have become my currency in communicating and forming relationships with my local community. I recommended a book to nervous parents, who came because their child recently came out and they wanted to make sure they supported them the best they could. I sat in the library with a middle school girl who begged her mom to take her here so she could get a book “that she could relate to” to read at school. I watched as an elderly transgender woman stood in shock at our inventory, explaining to me that she had just come out and could have never imagined this all was “just blocks away” from where she’d lived for 30 years. In addition to these multigenerational interactions, I have been researching HIV literature to add to the library and fundraising to make these additions possible. (You can donate here!)
A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with my mother as I walked home from the center. “You sound so…giddy. You’re just full of joy.” She said, laughing. “Yeah, I am.” I laughed back. “I think I’m full of queer joy.”
My experience at the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center gives me extreme deja vu from my experience at the Point Foundation Semifinalist weekend about a year ago, where I stood, stunned that I was surrounded by other queer young people. These spaces, whether made up of people or books, are so sacred. They heal us from the years so many of us have spent holding in our breath. But when we finally let out that breath, when we finally have a space to call home, to be wholeheartedly ourselves, we fill our lives with queer joy. And I believe that queer joy is the most transcendently powerful thing in the world.
This post was written by Point Scholar Val Weisler.
Val is currently studying Education Advocacy at Muhlenberg College. She is the Founder and CEO of The Validation Project, a program that helps other teens gain confidence, believe in themselves more deeply, and develop the skills to address social justice issues. Read more about Val here.