It’s our 8th post in our Canadian Libraries Spotlight series! We are so happy to feature our fellow British Columbian today, blogging from the beuatiful Prince George Public Library. Our guest blogger is Michael J. Cruickshank, a Reader’s Advisory/Teen Programer. Read on to find out how Prince George Public Library is supporting LGBTQ youth.
Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs) are typically found in middle or high schools, and are essentially friendship clubs based around supporting Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Two-Spirited, Queer or Questioning (LGBTQ) youth, teens with LGBTQ families, and their supporters, friends and allies. When teens at the library were asked if they saw the need for more youth-oriented LGBTQ safe spaces outside of schools, we heard an absolute and resounding ‘Yes!’ The response was the same when we spoke with existing GSA facilitators. There was a dire need for more LGBTQ inclusive spaces within our community, specifically for youth. One issue that came up time and again with GSAs in schools was inconsistency of the program’s availability.
We knew that if the library was to provide a GSA program, we would be able to offer it with consistency. We have made the decision to run the Library GSA throughout the year because we recognize that teens find themselves without a safe, supportive place during times when school isn’t in session. Our Library GSA program has city-wide catchment, so teens from all over the city are able to participate. This also allows teens that might not have access to a school GSA, those who are home-schooled, are in alt-ed, or who do not attend school to participate in a GSA.
Our first meeting was held to help guide us in finding out exactly how the GSA at the library would work. We wanted the program to be a reflection of the teens that would use it, so we asked them to generate two lists; first, the ‘Terms of Agreement’ that outlined the general behavior expectations and rules of the program, as well as second list of ‘GSA Goals’ to establish the purpose of the group. The lists were simple, only 4-5 points, but they established the tone of the program. Most importantly was that these guidelines were established by the teens themselves. When ever in doubt as to if something is appropriate for the GSA, simply consult these lists and make sure it fits. It is also important that it is known these ‘rules’ are not set in stone, and any GSA participant can challenge any of the rules, can add rules, or suggest changes to existing rules, upon consensus of the group members.
When I’m asked what we ‘do’ at the GSA, I generally say that we do the same things that any other teen group might do. Teens are teens, and LGBTQ teens are no different. Take any program that you have run in your library for teens, and it will work. Crafts and painting are huge winners with our group. We have also partnered up with many community groups to offer workshops on issues like gender and sexuality, suicide awareness and prevention, LGBTQ History and opportunities to speak to prominent community members who identify as LGBTQ. One of my favorite GSA programs was Queer Story Time. I took as many children’s books from our shelves as I could muster that had an LGBTQ theme, and we took turns reading them aloud to the group. Who doesn’t love children’s books?
We have been especially fortunate to have secured a MyPG Social Grant three years in a row from the City of Prince George. This funding has helped turn the GSA into an extra-ordinary program. We have managed a few off-site activities (movie theater, the local YMCA, swimming) and give us an ability to host special events made possible by then money from the grant.
Our biggest and most successful GSA event has been our MasQueerade dance. We have run this event twice, and plan on a third incarnation this fall. It is an afterhours party in the library. We hire a DJ complete with light show, set up a photo booth, provide food, a pop-bar, gave away door prizes, and encourage the teens to have a blast – all totally free for the participants. We encourage the teens to show up ‘as you are, or as who you want to be’ and let their creativity take it from there. Some of them dress up in costume to match the theme; last fall our theme was “Through the Looking Glass” and the most creative costume by far was of Alice Cooper; Alice in Wonderland. Get it? Those clever teens!! We also had a Cheshire Cat and a very cool Steam Punk Lady Mad Hatter.
GSA events like the Masqueerade help to change the teen’s perception of the library; from a stuffy place to warehouse books to an amazing social space, a place to have a good time. The GSA connects a group of teens that may otherwise never have the opportunity to meet, to spark creativity and expression and to find a place where they can feel safe just being themselves.
I simply cannot say enough good things about my experience running the GSA. The connections I’ve made with teens, and seeing how important the program has become to them is remarkable. I’m blown away by how brave and incredible these teens are, they inspire me in every way to make sure they are coming up into a world that will value them. The library should be a place they can go and find the support they need, and I’m so incredibly proud of the Prince George Public Library for making this program available to the community.
I recently did a presentation on GSA in Public Libraries at both the Alberta Library Conference and Beyond Hope Library Conference. If you are interested in seeing my presentation, you can find it here. At the suggestion of community members, we recently re-branded the GSA to a Queer Straight Alliance, in effort to make it more inclusive, and this change has been a slight, but positive one that we feel better represents the group.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions or comments. I would love to hear from you and have a chance to further discuss this amazing program.