The American Library Association’s lesbian president is on a mission to protect LGBTQ+ librarians

American Library Association President Emily Drabinski
American Library Association President Emily Drabinski Photo: American Library Association

Emily Drabinski wants more people to pay attention to libraries. A career librarian and educator, Drabinski ran for president of the American Library Association (ALA) last year to help advance this goal.

And what a year it has been. 

Amid record-high book bans and numerous attempts to defund or shut down libraries across the country, Drabinski has been fighting to enhance access to books and information. And with the majority of bans targeting books with LGBTQ+ themes and characters, for her this fight is personal.

“This is a year when libraries and readers and books have been challenged in many ways because of their LGBTQ+ content, and being an openly out lesbian leader of the association has meant that I have been a target of some of those attacks as well,” Drabinski told LGBTQ Nation. 

In 2023, more than 4,200 books were targeted for censorship in schools and libraries in the U.S., with over 1,200 challenges to books and resources in public libraries. “There’s been a lot of pressure from a lot of places, but I’m really proud of the work I’ve done to elevate the stories of American librarians,” she said. 

Under Drabinski’s leadership, the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has been documenting these instances as they arise. The organization’s Unite Against Book Bans campaign also provides tools and resources for outreach and organizing to empower individuals to defend the right to read and advocate for their local libraries. 

“I’m really focused on thinking about ways to organize and mobilize people because we know that even though this loud minority of people is making it very difficult for some of us to do our jobs, the vast majority of Americans trust libraries,” she said, adding that her main focus is to ensure that more people are aware of these challenges to books and libraries and are equipped to respond to them accordingly.  

Drabinski has also been traveling extensively to meet with librarians and library workers across the country and recently created a task force to address the ongoing issues that LGBTQ+ library workers are facing. In addition, the ALA is gearing up to launch a state-based peer-to-peer support hotline program for librarians. 

“Libraries are hyperlocal institutions, and these fights are hyper-local, so the best way to combat the feelings of isolation and fear and anxiety is to be in the company of others,” she said. 

“When I talk to people who have been on the receiving end of some of the hate that is directed at librarians in this moment in time, they tell me that the only thing that made them feel better, the only thing that made it feel a little bit worth it, was the opportunity to talk to other people who are dealing with the issue.”

Drabinski has been dealing with some of these same feelings herself. Having faced personal attacks by Republican lawmakers due to her identity and political opinions, she knows firsthand how lonely that can feel. 

“Those are the feelings that we have to combat at the same time that we’re changing the working conditions of librarians through affirmative legislation, fighting back against book bans, and expanding access to the resources of the association to the broad public of library workers,” she said. 

Despite the hate she has received, Drabinski says it has been very important for her to be out and for anyone who can do so safely to be open about their LGBTQ+ identity. 

In talking with librarians, she has seen how that visibility can make a difference in people’s lives. “I’m not scary. I’m not any of the things that the right-wing press has said about me, and none of us are,” she said. “So being out and open and talking about my identity and talking about my partner and the child we’re raising together and making sure that’s a part of my public conversation, I think, is useful.”

When it comes to the ways in which her identity plays a role in her job, she says she has a deep appreciation for context. Drabinski sees queer people as always thinking about who they are in relation to the people and circumstances around them, which has shaped how she thinks about her own work. 

“The circumstances dictate what I can and can’t do and can and can’t say. How the ALA would work to facilitate fighting back in Alabama will be different from how it will do that in California. In some places, everybody loves the library, and in other places, they’re trying to shut it down.”

Drabinski, who grew up in Idaho, says the state recently passed a law that requires school and public libraries to relocate supposed “obscene content” out of the youth section because it is harmful to minors. “That objectionable content is content about me, content about my life, my experience. It’s LGBTQ+ content.”

Drabinski believes these anti-LGBTQ+ book bans and restrictions are really a backlash to the progress that has been made for the community. She says the people driving and championing these bans don’t just want to get rid of the queer books, they want to eliminate queer people. 

“We can’t give a millimeter in these fights if we want to have a world where you and I can exist as we are, which is what we want, and I want that for everybody, even people that don’t agree with me.”

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