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Queer library has a home at Western

A group of students pose next to a bookshelf

The idea would be for somebody who is maybe struggling with their identity or wants to find a piece of fiction or nonfiction that represents them, can come and just take it and not have to make any kind of public statement about it if they’re not ready to.

For a long time, Western Colorado University had just one library — the 80-year-old Leslie J. Savage Library perched at the top of Taylor Lawn. But starting this spring, another has popped up just across the sidewalk in Taylor Hall. The new library, notably smaller as a three-tiered homemade bookshelf, is offering students on Western’s campus a curated selection of titles from queer authors and books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer plus (LGBTQ+) subject matter.

The idea for the library came from Theatre Department Director Steven Hughes’ class, “The History of  LGBTQ+ Theater” — offered as a part of a campus-wide effort to increase inclusivity in the classroom. A couple years ago, the university received a score of 3 out of 5  on The Campus Pride Index, a survey that rates college campuses on resources offered to queer students. In response, Western staff and students started brainstorming how to increase campus inclusivity, and through that process, Hughes’ class was born.

At the end of the class, students decided on a group activism project. They considered a mural, drag show or community play, but ultimately settled on something that would offer a more permanent resource to the Western community.

“We wanted all students on campus to have access to something like this,” Sarah Lingenfelter, a student in Hughes’ class, said. “We didn’t want to just put up a mural and everyone looks at it like, ‘great, cool.’ This is actually queer literature. For those that aren’t queer, and allies, it is a good resource to understand and learn more.”

Several bookstores have already donated titles to the library. Second Star to the Right Children’s Books and Tattered Cover in Denver and Auntie’s Books all the way in Washington State have made offerings to the library. Community donations from friends and family have rounded out the selection, which is now so large that Hughes has to keep overflow in his office.

“There needs to be more of a presence of queerness on campus because we lack it,” Kacy Olmstead said. Olmstead took Hughes’ class and helped build the bookshelf. “There are queer people who exist here, and we want everyone to know that Western is a welcoming space.”

The university has some resources to welcome queer students. Campus club Spectrum hosts events and offers support for LGBTQ+ students. A few months ago, the Western Theatre Company organized a drag show and drag bingo night, which Olmstead said was “beautiful, seeing so many people come out and support in a time that is kind of scary for all of us.”

The mission of the queer library also spoke to a troubling national political trend, Lingenfelter said. Around the country, state legislatures are floating or passing bills that restrict the freedoms of LGBTQ+ and transgender individuals. At the same time, books are being removed from public schools due to the people’s concern over content surrounding race and sexuality.

“We loved the idea of a free library, because who doesn’t love a free library? You get free books,” she said. “But it also tied in well with everything that’s happening politically, and we realized this can do even more than what we had originally intended.”

And as much as the library is about contributing to a national conversation, it is also about singular, discrete moments: when a queer student walks down the hallway and grabs a book to feel less alone, Hughes said.

“The idea would be for somebody who is maybe struggling with their identity or wants to find a piece of fiction or nonfiction that represents them, can come and just take it and not have to make any kind of public statement about it if they’re not ready to,” he said.

Now that the class has ended, the bookshelf will come under the watchful eye of the Western Theater Company, whose students and staff will stock the bookshelf and continue to think of ways to make the space warmer and more welcoming.

“It’s been scary, but we know that we come from a place of love, and we are here to welcome everyone, no matter who they are,” Olmstead said.

Author Credit: Abby Harrison – Gunnison Country Times Staff Writer (Abby Harrison can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or abby@gunnisontimes.com.)

Photo Credit: Courtesy Steven Cole Hughes

Originally published in Gunnison Country Times on June 7, 2023. To read the original article, click here.

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