WASHINGTON, DC—In another salvo in the ongoing civil-rights battle, the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation announced the formation of a broad new campaign supporting full library-card privileges for homosexuals.
"The time for gay people to be granted equal access to our public lending-libraries is long past due," GLAAD Fairness In Book Borrowing Campaign co-chair Elaine Thomas, a self-described committed lesbian and avid reader, said at a press conference outside the Library of Congress Monday. "We are demanding the same opportunity to select, borrow, and return library books—without regard to subject matter or Dewey decimal number—that any other American has. We are talking about a fundamental right."
GLAAD's announcement comes on the heels of a controversial decision in December by a Hawaii librarian to allow a gay Honolulu resident, Dean Farlaine, 47, to check out three books, which prompted strong protests from proponents of traditional library values. In response to the controversy, the Third Court Of Appeals reversed the card-granting decision. Further complicating the growing legal entanglements, Farlaine has reportedly been too intimidated by the periodic demonstrations outside the library to return the books.
Leaders of the library-cards-for-gays movement, who say some 10 million homosexual citizens are forced to check out books from a loose network of underground libraries each year, liken their plight to American women's long and historic struggle for borrowing privileges. Women were first issued library cards in 1936.
But opponents say the prospect of same-sex book-borrowing endangers the moral fiber of the country's most sacred reading traditions.
"What's next—gay people at the DMV, being granted licenses to drive cars?" Rev. Brian Peters of Verona, WI said. "Will we be soon seeing gays and lesbians at our local post offices, being sold stamps and mailing packages? We must protect our nation's public institutions from relentless encroachment by those who threaten our values."
Other critics say they oppose such a move not out of prejudice, but to maintain the sanctity of a bedrock community institution.
"No one's preventing gays from using libraries—they're fully welcome to walk into them, browse all they want, and sit down and flip through any book they choose, even in the reference section," said Sen. Jim Bunning (R–KY), one of several conservative legislators who has vowed to draft a constitutional amendment that would define library book-lending as a contract between a library and a heterosexual reader. "But to issue them the same library cards as a regular American citizen would demean what our nation's library cards stand for."
"Is that the message we want to send our young readers?" Bunning added.
Others, such as Mansfield, OH mother of four Janet Hargrove, say that because library books are public property and libraries are funded by taxes, taxpayer money should not be used to promote one group's reading agenda.
"I don't want my tax dollars going to something I can't in good conscience support," Hargrove, 32, said. "Who knows what kind of books these people could check out? They could read about anything—even our children."
Some moderates who believe the country is not yet ready for full homosexual library-card access are proposing to state and local lawmakers a compromise solution in the form of a limited-access "Short-Term Government Literacy Loan" card. While the card would grant some borrowing privileges, it would have higher late-return penalties, shorter borrowing times, and may not be recognized as valid by all libraries within the municipality in which it was issued.
"Perhaps in 10 or 20 years we can talk about full library rights for all," said University of Florida Library and Information Sciences Professor Bruce Seitz, who co-authored the proposal. "If gays are issued cards too quickly, we could see a violent reactionary response, with millions of shocked and offended Americans cutting up their own cards and their children's cards."
"For now, gays should just be happy to read their Bibles," Seitz added.
Such compromise solutions do not satisfy activists such as GLAAD's Thomas, who perceive "raging hypocrisy" within the cardholder status quo.
"Among U.S. library-cardholders, at least 50 percent are guilty of repeatedly keeping overdue books, and that figure is probably conservative," Thomas said. "Many don't even use their library cards. Seems like straight people do a good enough job demeaning the institution of book-lending by themselves."