Wellington, Ohio had a few more than 2,000 people when I was growing up there. It had one stoplight and 7 bars, one school building that housed all grades from kindergarten to high school. And it had a library.
This library saved my life.
I knew I was “different” from a very young age. It wasn’t just about being queer, it was more about not fitting into Wellington’s rural, small-town Ohio culture. I wasn’t athletic, handsome or muscular. I was thin, wore big thick glasses, had buck teeth and two ears that were far from a matched set.
But, I had books. Books about people who were like me. Books about people who had lives in cities, lives with culture, lives full of music and literature and dance and theatre. People who lived lives that dared to challenge the norms of their societies.
I went to the library once a week. I learned to read before I went to kindergarten: from comic books. My dad owned a drugstore and – on Sundays – while he was mopping the floor and restocking shelves, I was reading my way through all the comic books that the store carried. I would yell out to my Dad, “What’s this word? What does it mean?” and he, not to be distracted from his work, would yell back what I needed to know. I remember reading about Richie Rich, Archie, Betty, Veronica and too many superheroes to mention.
Once I began elementary school, my Mom took me to the library and I got the tour from the children’s librarian. She showed me the children’s section (which was on the first floor) and rushed us through the adult section (on floors 2 and 3). It was a most impressive building, beautifully designed and assembled at the beginning of the twentieth century. I was in awe of the adult section and made up my mind then-and-there that THAT was where I wanted to be. I wasn’t going to be stuck in the children’s section for one second more than I had to be.
It was around third grade when I began to “sneak” into the adult section. My mother never came with me to the library after that first day, I always went alone. The adult librarian vaguely knew my face but she didn’t know me. She allowed my stealthy visits to the second floor (I was too chicken to risk the third floor) until one day she stopped me and said, “What are you doing up here? The children’s section is downstairs.”
My heart stopped. Was I going to be denied my fantasies of reading all these fascinating, forbidden adult books?
Oh, hell no! So, I gulped and managed to say, “I would like to be able to read biographies and autobiographies and I’ve read all the ones downstairs” (a lie, but I was desperate).
“Hmmmmm”, she replied, “why do you want to read those kinds of adult books?”
“Because I want to learn about people who get out of small towns like this and make something of themselves.” I whispered, staring hard at the floor.
She looked at me intently for a few moments. I had taken a big risk: had I offended her? Was she a happy, small-town librarian, proud of her local roots?
She was not. I was saved. She smiled at me, said, “I know what you mean” and took me to the biography and autobiography sections. She made a couple of suggestions for books that I could “handle” and I happily took them home, indulging in them as if they were the most delicious desserts imaginable.
Those books, and that librarian, saved my life. They showed me what was possible out there in that big old world…telling me about London and Paris, New York and Los Angeles, artists and writers, dancers and playwrights.
And – happily – I have never been the same.