In the face of bill H6324 introduced in Rhode Island late April, local libraries – which have long harbored safe spaces for teens and young adults – are on the frontlines of a battle against censorship. If passed, H6324 would hold public and charter school librarians accountable for distributing materials to minors broadly deemed “indecent,” mirroring a national effort to keep books that explore gender and sexuality out of school libraries.
“We are hopeful that the current Judiciary Committee leadership will recognize this bill as censorship and not support it,” says Beatrice Pulliam, president of the Rhode Island Library Association. While local librarians work behind the scenes to combat H6324, they’re also publicly supporting LGBTQ+ communities and addressing the particularly vital concerns of the trans folks they serve in light of state bills, including here in Rhode Island, attacking trans rights.
“We are educating staff and providing gender-neutral bathrooms, and many staff members opt to wear pronoun pins for the comfort of trans and non-binary visitors,” says Janet Fuentes, marketing manager at Community Libraries of Providence. Teen librarian Kelly Parlin recognizes the challenges young members of the LGBTQ+ community face. “A number of teens feel a lack of support at home or school,” she says. “We offer programs centered on joy and community where teens can fully be themselves.”
Rochambeau and Washington Park libraries offer a weekly program called Queer Umbrella where teens gather to make art, play games, and watch movies, while feeling safe to vent their frustrations. The program educates participants on queer history and activism and invites local speakers to discuss politics, health, and gender expression, all crucial topics for queer young people navigating identity and fitting in. The libraries also recently piloted Camp Kaleidoscope. “[Attendees] could learn, hang out, make friends and ultimately, celebrate who they are,” explains Parlin.
Youth Pride Inc. (YPI), which serves ages 5 to 23, offers much-needed affirmation and community to its young members, in the form of a drop-in space with video games, movies, books, and art supplies, along with more formal group meetings centered around a range of topics and gender exploration. As YPI works toward policy change to create homophobia- and transphobia-free environments, it encourages young people to self-advocate by joining rallies or testifying at the State House.
Being visible, particularly at the State House, is one of the most important things an advocacy organization can do, according to Julio Berroa, executive director of Haus of Codec, whose mission is to combat youth homelessness by providing safe housing to people who have aged out of the foster care system. “Haus of Codec’s role is staying resilient and true to our community, and showing up in any way we can,” Berroa says. “We organize, sign letters, boost social media posts. We are here to be in support of other people.”
Their mission is sustained, in part, by their art markets. Berroa describes the art markets’ birth: “We held our first art market in June 2021 because after the pandemic lockdowns, there were no accessible spaces for artists to sell their work. RI Pride was postponed. The Providence Flea was taking a hiatus. Everything was dormant. But vaccines were becoming available, so the timing was perfect to create an outdoor space for queer and BIPOC individuals to sell their crafts.”
Last year, Haus of Codec held 15 art markets, but this year, they’re dialing it back a bit to ensure they’re fulfilling their original mission. “Our housing capacity is increasing. We need to spend more time providing services to our youth,” Berroa explains. This year, a July market is planned for Fringe Fest, along with one at PVD Fest and an October market at Dexter Park. “Our art markets are free and uncensored. We give people an accessible opportunity to showcase their true selves. And I think it’s important that there’s a space for queer people to gather outside rather than at a bar.”
Daniel Cano, executive director of Newport Pride, agrees. “Our Newport community is growing, and a lot of people are suggesting we open a gay bar,” says Cano, whose organization opened a Pride Center this month. “But our community can’t be only about entertainment and alcohol. We have to build it from its core and address key issues like housing, transportation, and safety.”
Newport Pride began as a one-day celebration five years ago, but Cano quickly realized it wasn’t enough. “Our community needs support year-round,” he says, describing the programs and services Newport Pride offers. In addition to hobby-focused programs that create community, like crafting and literature, the organization offers in-depth educational workshops and Spanish-language programs, connects members with community resources, and engages in outreach. “Our allies play a key role in building community,” says Cano. “And it’s important that we educate people who want to learn because issues like the trans hatred our country is experiencing stem from a lack of understanding.”
Cano is understandably skeptical of companies that fly the rainbow flag only once a year. “I appreciate it when organizations express their support,” he says. “but I want to see what they’re doing when June ends.” Berroa says he also keeps an eye on who shows up consistently. “We hold people accountable,” he says, emphasizing that his organization runs counter to more well-known Pride organizations in prioritizing community over corporations.
In a reliably blue state, it’s easy to feel immune to discourse that seems intent on turning back the clock, but plenty of bills were introduced in the RI State House this year that mirror those introduced across the country. Although they have little support, their mere existence succeeds in othering LGBTQ+ folks, revealing just how vital the tireless work of advocacy groups is in elevating marginalized community members.
Last June, Cano’s organization created Rhode Island’s first rainbow crosswalk in Newport with wide support from the city and community members. “It isn’t going to save lives,” Cano admits, “but people come to Newport and feel a sense of belonging. This work is inspiring.”
Community Libraries of Providence
Haus of Codec
Youth Pride, Inc
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