Libraries Expand LGBTQ Health Promotion and Wellness

JC 2017

By Juan Carlos Vega, MLS

Librarian and community blogger,  Citizen’s Alliance Pro LGBTTA Health of Puerto Rico President, My LGBT HealthLink member

Public and research libraries are not always safe spaces for LGBTQ communities, especially individuals who are transgender/transsexual (trans).  Recently, speaking with a trans Latina immigrant in Washington, D.C. she clearly stated that she and her peers do not feel safe going to the public library.  Like everyone else in D.C. who pays taxes, why shouldn’t they use the resources they already paid for?  It is a reality!  When gender non-conforming individuals walk into public, open spaces like the library, staff and patrons can be the first detrimental factors that can create an unsafe and uncomfortable space to learn and to access knowledge by simply staring while reading a book.

Librarians are social justice activists who have been in the forefront of creating LGBTQ friendly spaces, build LGBTQ collections and libraries, and creating national and international networks to maintain LGBTQ voices visible.  Yet, much work is needed, especially where there is no token gay or lesbian librarian but in only one of 25 branches in a city/county wide system.  The reality of lack of safe spaces or competencies amplifies for trans women of color and gender non-conforming individuals.

This lack of safe spaces is why I presented on May 4, 2017 to the Substance Abuse Librarians and Information Specialists (SALIS) Association & the Association of Mental Health Librarians (AMHL) 2017 Joint Annual International Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts.  My mission was to help librarians, health information specialists, program managers, and prevention resource center managers properly expand collections and services to LGBTQ clients and communities.  During the session, LGBTQ heath disparities were discussed and strategies were provided to make welcoming spaces for LGBTQ individuals in hospitals, libraries and resource centers.

JC presentation

For most members of the LGBTQ communities, access to health promotion and prevention is limited to HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted disease (STDs).  Risk behaviors like tobacco and alcohol consumption are not always on the brochure table when you enter into LGBTQ spaces or participate in LGBTQ related events.

Departments of health, service providers, and health promotion programs and organizations need to aggressively move beyond sexual health and condom distribution.  They need to implement wellness approaches in our communities.  They need to face LGBTQ high incidences of obesity, diabetes, anxiety/stress, and substance use. They need to start providing mammograms, giving-out incentives for pap smears, and distributing lollipops for colonoscopies at Pride events.  They should follow the example of the Quitline Ladies from the North Carolina Department of Health Tobacco Prevention and Control Branch.  Their nickname comes for their years of distributing tobacco prevention and smoking cessation support opportunities at Pride events.  Now, they are integrating technologies and are reaching out to LGBTQ smokers using smartphones.

According to data from the National Adult Tobacco Survey, LGBT individuals smoke at rates 50% higher than the general population.  As concerning as that is the “research and intervention programs, prevention and health care practices, and resources and policies that specifically address cancer in the LGBT communities are significantly lacking,” according to LGBT HealthLink’s LGBT Best and Promising Practices Throughout the Cancer Continuum Report .  Equally disturbing is the 2011 Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.  It presents dramatic findings on the impact of how transgender bias and discrimination related “events lead to insurmountable challenges and devastating outcomes for study participants”.  Among the findings, 41 percent of the 6,450 respondents reported attempting suicide compared to a rate of 1.6 percent for the general population.  Our communities have made huge strides on working with the HIV epidemic (although not necessarily among LGBTQ people of color).  Yet very much is still needed to decrease the rates of smoking and to increase cancer screening rates in our communities.

While some states health departments, hospitals, and non-profit programs are pushing to change this landscape, LGBTQ community centers are leading the way to promote LGBTQ health promotion and wellness.  For decades, community support groups have been a primary service provided at the centers.  More recently, LGBTQ community centers are creatively implementing wellness promotion programs and other culturally competent means of disseminating health risk information and identifying prevention/treatment services including tobacco cessation and cancer screening programs.  Local LGBTQ leadership continues to educate themselves on data surveillance and program evaluation strategies to be able to implement locally.  Other centers have small libraries or information centers in make-up corners with donated book shelves, while others like Oklahomans for Equality manage a full library as part of the operation of the Equality Center.  Their Nancy & Joe McDonald Rainbow Library, like many others libraries across the country, honors the efforts of local LGBT activists, leaders, and allies.  The community lending library houses over 3,500 LGBT-related titles including biographies, family, history, health, travel, and much more.  I had the opportunity to visit in 2015 and it is incredible to see what a group of dedicated volunteers can do!  I know of several other LGBTQ community centers looking to set up small libraries and information centers as ways to organize and expand the books and resources available in the corner bookshelf.  Contact me at!  Let’s make this happen!

An information specialist from Virginia Commonwealth University discussed during her SALIS/AMHL conference session on her work regarding information literacy competencies for the field of addictions.  She was looking for comments to improve competencies on her efforts and personal responsibilities of libraries and librarians to disseminate information and knowledge to our peers in the field.  I knew exactly I was talking to the right crowd.


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