I became a patriot because I was a horny, queer teenager who loved reading smut. I didn’t know it at the time, but my adolescent obsession with dirty stories would lead me to a lifelong devotion of defending First Amendment rights.
I was thirteen years old in 1999, a Portland teenager with untamable red hair, a round face covered in dark freckles, and a black-and-white speckled Mead composition notebook filled with stream-of-conscious rants. I was mildly obsessed with blink-182 (“Enema of the State” played on repeat in my bedroom), talking to strangers in online chat rooms, practicing Wicca, and spending time with my gay best friend. I did not have very many female friends because I was adamantly disinterested in makeup, boys, and Victoria Secret bras. I easily made good grades in most classes, including advanced courses, but I didn’t want to look like I was trying so I gave the appearance of little to no effort. I rarely practiced my trombone, finished homework at the last minute, and spent most of my spare time reading tarot cards and posting free verse poetry on my Geocities website, where I used white font on black background for maximum dramatic effect.
College applications were a few years away and I wanted to be an impressive candidate to selective, big name universities in far-off places. I got the sense that admissions officers were impressed by extracurriculars—whether or not this was true, I had no idea; my parents hadn’t gone to college and my brother was headed off to Southern Oregon University in the fall, and the only college outreach we received in middle school was from the local community and for-profit technical colleges. Since I was already going to the public library all the time, anyway, to feed my need for new collections of dirty boy-on-boy stories to read, I looked into the requirements to be a volunteer. The minimum age requirement was thirteen. Perfect.
I filled out the online application and, shortly after, I received a voicemail from the Volunteer Coordinator at Multnomah County Libraries. “This is Bess,” she said in her message, “as in Porgy and Bess.” I had no idea what she was referring to, and thought for a second that she said ‘Porky and Bess.’ I pictured Porky the Pig. I called her back and we set up a time to meet. My mother escorted me to the interview, holding her purse in her lap as I answered Bess’s questions about why I wanted to volunteer and what I hoped to do. Bess told me about the kinds of positions available, ranging from checking in and shelving books to visiting schools to talk to kids my own age about books they should be reading.
“We have a program called Homework Helpers,” Bess explained. “You would be available during certain times to help students and other people in the library, using computers or looking for books. You would need to be comfortable explaining things and helping people. How does that sound?”
“Sure,” I said. “Sounds good.”
“Excellent, I’ll let your local branch know. And you’ll need to attend one of our mandatory volunteer trainings. Everyone who volunteers has to attend.” Bess turned to my mother. “Will Zoe have reliable transportation to her volunteer shifts?”
“Yes, of course,” my mother said. If she felt weary at the prospect of driving me to the library several times a week, it didn’t register in her voice.
She drove me to the volunteer training a few weeks later, which was held in a cavernous meeting room in a sprawling branch library near our house. The room was packed with aspiring volunteers from all over the county. I noticed the crowd was mostly adults, ranging from grandmotherly types to parents with young kids squirming at their feet. I didn’t see any other teenagers. At the back of the room, there was a table with paper cups, jugs of syrupy punch, and bowls of pretzels. I stood near it, but didn’t take any food. A projector was set up at the front of the room next to a podium, and I recognized Bess standing there. I had no idea that what she was about to say would change my life.
“Welcome,” she said. “Welcome, and thank you for agreeing to be a volunteer with Multnomah County Libraries. We are so grateful for you and your commitment to our community. For the next hour, we’re going to go over some important information that you need to know as a volunteer, no matter what role you play.”
I expected that we were going to learn about things like policies for canceling our shifts, or maybe where to find first aid kits. We probably did talk about those things. But the part that I remember most vividly is the first thing she talked about.
“We’re going to start with the Library Bill of Rights from the American Library Association,” she said, and she projected the text of the document onto the screen. “Everyone who works for libraries, including volunteers, helps to support and uphold the Library Bill of Rights.”
This was new to me. I’d been a regular patron at my local public library for years, graduating from Dr. Seuss to The Babysitters Club series to, most recently, my fixation on books about neo-paganism and queer sex. No one had mentioned this whole Bill of Rights thing. It was a short document with just a few bullet points.
“Libraries support free access to information,” Bess explained. “One of our core values is intellectual freedom. This impacts all of you because when you’re volunteering for the library, we expect you to support the rights of library users to find and read whatever they want, even if you don’t agree with what they’re looking for.”
She continued, “For example, let’s say that a small child came up to you and asked where to find the Stephen King books. You might think those books are too scary for someone that age, or that he shouldn’t be reading that kind of stuff. But that doesn’t matter. No matter what, we help people find the information they want, and we don’t censor their interests. Does that make sense?”
Heads around the room nodded, and I leaned back into the wall, letting her words sink in. It was absolutely, positively the most radical, punk rock thing I had ever heard in my life.
I can read whatever I want. No one can stop me.
I can help other people read what they want. And no one can stop them.
“This is core,” Bess added, “to a functioning democracy. We believe that fighting censorship and providing free, unrestricted access is key to helping citizens participate in the world. And, most importantly, we keep everyone’s information strictly confidential. So, even if you know what books your neighbor is checking out or what they’re looking at on the computer, you don’t share that with anyone.”
As someone who kept carefully guarded notebooks full of very personal thoughts, I was especially excited by the library’s emphasis on privacy. All of this sounded great. I wanted more. I wanted in. I wanted to be a crazy, wild, counterculture librarian-witch who would help anyone read anything from The Anarchist’s Cookbook to Mein Kampf. I would be a bold freedom fighter in the face of censorship. I would defend unfiltered Internet access and anatomically correct picture books. Maybe I was only in the eighth grade, but I was ready to stand up to anyone who tried to threaten the ideal of intellectual freedom. Fuck blink-182. Libraries were the real punk rock.
It was two years before George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law, four years before Attorney General John Ashcroft accused librarians of “fueling baseless hysteria” when they opposed the Patriot Act (and its provisions that required libraries to provide access to patron records), and eighteen years before Carla Hayden would become the first Black person and the first woman to serve as Librarian of Congress. I didn’t know what was coming, or what it would mean for me.
But in 1999, in the eighth grade, I had an inkling that the world was purposely stacked against certain people. Increasingly, it seemed like people who had it easy were doing the right thing, which meant buying and wearing the right things, listening to the right people, being friends with Jesus, being white, having money, and having a dick. I got the sense that if you were different, you were fucked. The categories of The Fucked were broad and included (but were not limited to): girls who wanted to hold hands with other girls, fat kids, brown and Black people, people who couldn’t always afford things like groceries or gas money or school lunches, people who didn’t want to be told to believe in God, and, on the whole, women.
At thirteen, I didn’t know whether or not I loved my country, but I knew that I loved libraries. And if working in a library meant that I could help people by connecting them to whatever they wanted or needed to know without judgment, then maybe I could make this country a better place for We The Fucked. Maybe we could help each other out. Maybe we could help each other find a way out.
For the next four years, I spent several hours a week at my public library, helping people use the library catalog to find books, teaching people how to hold a mouse, open an Internet browser, create an email address, and type on a keyboard. I signed up children for the Summer Reading program and handed out small toys and coupons for free ice cream, entered data into spreadsheets for hours, and processed materials coming into and leaving the library.
I watched everything. I watched people sleep because they didn’t have anywhere else to sleep but the library. I watched children learn how to read their first words and I watched adults learn how to read their first words in English. I watched parents with children, children without parents, and white-haired senior citizens wearing thick glasses browsing our Large Print section. I felt happy whenever I was in the library. I was never, ever bored.
While I was in high school, I was too young to vote for Al Gore but felt that it wouldn’t have mattered; the Supreme Court elected George W. Bush as President, then the Twin Towers fell, and we invaded Iraq. My grandfather died. I started a Gay-Straight Alliance and told boys who asked me out that I didn’t date boys. My gay best friend got spit on. I worried about animals becoming extinct due to global warming and spent afternoons with the Earth Club, pulling dirty Styrofoam out of the cafeteria garbage cans. I wondered if I would ever be able to legally marry to the person I loved.
In the spring of 2004, I received an acceptance letter from Oberlin College. I didn’t know how I would pay for school and I didn’t know what I wanted to study, but I knew Oberlin had a reputation for being a little weird, a little queer, a little experimental. I knew they hosted an annual Drag Ball where students were encouraged to crossdress. Students could teach classes to other students for credit, and you could feed and house each other in student-run coops. I knew that I wanted to tear things down and build something new. I wanted to make to a difference, to help The Fucked, to help all of us.
I arrived on campus in late August, and the air was thick and still. Nothing was familiar to me. I had never visited campus before, I had never been to Ohio, and I had come to college by myself without my parents. I only knew how to find my way around from studying every page of the Oberlin website all summer. I picked up the keys to my dorm and threw my suitcases on the bed. I went to the mail room and picked up the boxes I had shipped to myself from Portland. I was sweaty, hungry, and uncertain but unafraid. Then, I headed to the library and asked for a job application.
Rumpus original art by Becca Shaw Glaser.