Since the beginning of 2021, the Gender Community Lending Library has supported the LGBTQ+ community by providing access to trans and queer texts for people across the United Kingdom. I spoke with James Bates, the founder and coordinator of the GCLL, about what went into creating such a resource and the impact it has had in the UK.
By Alexandra Kuenning
What led to the founding of the Gender Community Lending Library (GCLL)?
In Autumn 2020, I was close to being ‘stealth.’ Not even my closest friends knew I was trans. Now, Autumn 2020 was a horrific time for UK trans people due to, among many other things, the Bell vs. Tavistock court case, which was an explicit attempt to end transition-related healthcare for minors. I made a Facebook post explaining the situation, which got a bit of traction. That made me feel guilty about my choice not to disclose my transness to those around me and to remove myself from activism.
I’d felt that way before, but I had just graduated and was unemployed when I made the post. In fact, I was also recovering from Covid-19 and could barely leave my bed. So, I had a lot more time than usual to think. Say that I did want to give back to my community — how could I do that?
I considered starting a blog. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, as a middle-class white man, my voice was neither interesting nor useful to promote in that way. Clearly, I needed to promote others’ voices. Of course, the trans community is very good at sharing information; this is what keeps us alive in the face of extreme medical gatekeeping. But, that doesn’t mean we all have access to all the information that could benefit us. So, I concluded that the best way to leverage my skills, relative privilege, and free time would be to share academic research on trans people with trans people.
How did you go about setting up the GCLL?
I set up GCLL through WordPress using my own money — it cost around £30 — and maybe twenty relevant books my friends and I owned between us. Once I had a URL, I started emailing authors: between five and ten a day for a couple of months. When they sent me books, the library popped into existence. A few of my friends and a couple of the authors I emailed felt this was a worthy enough cause to make small donations. That got me business cards and a library stamp.
There’s a perception that organizations like GCLL are heavily regulated and that you have to have a lot of specialist knowledge before you begin one. In the UK, this isn’t correct. GCLL makes under £4,000 per annum, so we aren’t obliged to register with Revenue and Customs. What you see — the website, social media, books posted in used Amazon packages that have passed through multiple people before they reach me — is exactly what is going on behind the scenes. Our catalog is a Google sheet, and our social media prize draws are donor-funded. I find new books by trawling reviews, social media, and publishers’ websites. There’s nothing sophisticated behind the scenes, just lots of work!
Have you faced any challenges setting up the GCLL?
I expected pushback. As a trans person, doing just about anything in public means sticking your head above the parapet. In the end, it was anticlimactic: I never got people protesting outside my front door. But, I also didn’t get a single book request for the first month! After that, things picked up because people within the community promoted GCLL at work, on social media, and to their friends. That’s how anything like this gets built, and it takes time.
Time is, of course, the biggest challenge. I’m no longer a couchbound graduate; I work full-time for an LGBTQ+ organization. That means taking a step back, delegating to volunteers, and putting some of my GCLL projects on hold. I hope to one day apply the skills I learn professionally to running the library full-time, but that’s a long way off!
Can you tell me more about how the GCLL operates?
For the most part, it’s a very simple project. Users browse the catalog on our website, then use Google forms to tell us what they want to read and whether they need us to pay return postage. Although the library was initially founded with the idea of making research more available to laypeople, we now stock all genres, so a typical week might involve mailing out a romance novel and renewing a book on gay culture in ’80s Germany.
What has been the response to the GCLL? What sort of impact has it had in the UK?
The response has generally been very positive — as I said, no protestors on my doorstep! A very high proportion of authors send books in response to my requests. Academic authors, in particular, don’t get free copies of their own books, so they buy their donations out of pocket, which is such a show of faith. And of course, we have a lot of happy readers, many of whom have written lovely notes to the library.
Even so, I don’t think I’d frame GCLL’s first year in terms of ‘impact,’ which implies comparing GCLL to other organizations and quantifying its success. In terms of comparison, queer communities have always had their own infrastructure. We build what mainstream society denies us. Many grassroots queer libraries in the UK pre-dateGCLL, such as the Small Trans Libraries in Cardiff and Glasgow, the Queer Zine Library, and Book28. None of them was the first such library in the UK, and none will be the last. If GCLL is successful, it’s because, like those other queer libraries, it continues the work of its predecessors.
As to quantifying success, I have a question. If we were completely unsuccessful — that is, if no one used GCLL at all, which fortunately isn’t the case! — would it be unnecessary to create a physical archive of Trans Studies research outside the academy? If there was little or no demand, would it be acceptable for trans people to go without access to all the scholarly works about us? I don’t think so.
Can you tell me more about the archival research and conservation projects run by the GCLL?
Our main ongoing project is the Historical Crossdressing Project. This is centered around a Google map. Crossdressing and intersex individuals we find in the archives, primarily the British Newspaper Archive, are added to the map as pins. Each pin has a summary or — if possible — a quote from a primary source. It’s such a simple but powerful visual representation of the UK’s queer past. Last year I gave a more in-depth virtual talk on the subject for LGBT History Month. The transcript is available on our Medium. I’m hoping to give another talk in February 2022.
I saw that the GCLL also ran a pen pal program. Can you tell me more about that?
I’m so glad you asked about the Pen Pal Project! We connect UK trans people with one another by asking them to write physical letters. It’s a fun, anonymous, and low-pressure way to meet someone new. Besides this, I hope that in one hundred years, a social historian will find these letters and use them to understand 21st century trans people!
There are currently around 100 active writers, and we should do another batch of pen pal matching on April 15th — so, if you’re interested, now’s your chance to sign up!
How can readers support your work?
Request a book! The best way to support the library is to use it.
The second best way is to donate. One issue with acquiring books through author donations is that the kind of writers we would most like to promote are the least likely to be able to afford to send us their books. If you donate, we can continue to develop the collection to represent the trans community, spotlighting works by marginalized writers and independent publishers.
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