While attitudes toward gay people have changed a great deal for the better in my lifetime, prejudice and stereotypes remain. There is one stereotype in particular that kept me from coming out until later in life: that of the gay man as a predator from whom children must be protected. I am told I am good in my interaction with children and young people. I am gentle and soft-spoken and very easy going, and children generally like me. Because of this, it was suggested that I consider a career in teaching by one of my mentors at Queen’s University. I was reluctant to go into teaching because of this stereotype. I was confronted with this stereotype and the prejudice against gay men as teachers in 1986, the year I graduated from Queen’s. The Chairman of the Frontenac County Board of Education, in commenting on the amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Code which added sexual orientation to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination, was dismayed that he no longer had any legal grounds to refuse to hire a teacher if he knew he was dealing with an “obvious faggot.”
Following my graduation from Queen’s, I found work in a federal government library as a clerk and one day my boss presented me with the application forms for the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) at the University of Western Ontario. The school takes 60 new students per trimester, so I thought my chances of admission were slim to none, having a solid B average in my undergrad degree, but hey, there was no harm in applying. To my astonishment and delight, I was offered admission! I enrolled in SLIS in 1990 and along with the core courses I was required to take I chose as electives courses in children’s librarianship, children’s literature and librarianship for young adults. I had not precluded the possibility of working in a school library or for a public library as a children’s librarian. It never occurred to me I would become a librarian all the years I was growing up. Though I have always liked books and enjoyed borrowing them from school and public libraries, by and large, the memories I have of visiting libraries as a child and adolescent is the array of cranky old bitches who went out of their way to make children and young people feel unwelcome. I resolved that if I ever became a children’s librarian, I would make sure to make my young patrons feel welcome in the library.
I graduated from SLIS in 1993, having studied part-time the first two years and completing my studies full-time in the final year, and set about finding work as a librarian. Though I applied for various positions as children’s librarian in Canada and the United States, it was not until 1995 that I was offered a temporary position with the Smiths Falls Public Library. I was hired to stand in for a permanent employee who was off on maternity leave. Smiths Falls is a small town about one hour’s drive outside of Ottawa. My duties as children’s librarian were extensive, to say the least. Every week I was required to come up with a theme for preschool story time, select stories to read, a craft for the children to create and a movie from the library’s selection of 16 mm reels of film to show. I had bi-weekly visits from 4th-6th-grade classes and also went out into local schools and community centres to read stories and encourage the children to use the public library. I was charged with the task of designing a program for the summer reading club and activities to introduce 3rd graders to the library. The mandate of the children’s librarian was to interest children in reading and encourage them to borrow books from the library.
I applied myself to these tasks and did my best to ensure the library was a fun and welcoming environment for the children and families I served. When word got out it was a man putting on preschool story time, fathers began showing up with their children. Among the families, I had visit the library were a number who were homeschooling their children because of their sincerely held religious beliefs. These parents always brought lists of materials they did not want their children to view, and I was happy to oblige but had they, or anyone else for that matter, demanded I remove any materials from the library collection, I would have refused. I got along fine with these parents as they had no idea I am gay. I remember one occasion when I was talking to a woman who was one of the homeschoolers. Her little girl who was with her blurted out “my mother likes you, but she’s already married.” The fact is I was good at my job, and my sexual orientation had no bearing on my ability to carry out my responsibilities like children’s librarian.
I cannot say for sure what would have happened had anyone found out I am gay. I was careful to keep this to myself for fear I would lose my job if word got out. I have no doubt the religious families who were homeschooling their children and other families would have objected to my being employed as children’s librarian, despite the fact we got along fine all the while they had no idea I was gay. The library board could not have fired me for being gay as this is unlawful, but if they wanted to be rid of me for that reason, they could have some other grounds for my dismissal. While it bothered me at the time that I felt the need to conceal the truth about myself, I accepted this was just the reality. Homosexuality is neither approved nor tolerated by some people, so it is better to take your place in society as a member of an invisible minority.
When my term of employment as children’s librarian at Smiths Falls Public Library was completed, I decided that working with children is really not for me as it was the most daunting, time-consuming and thankless work you can get in a library. These days I work in a university library. I enjoy my work and have found my niche in the labour force. I live openly with pride with Mika in the present to having decided that remaining in the closet only enables those who harbour prejudice and stereotypes against gay people.
Posted by Geoffrey