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Sunday, December 26, 2010

The End of LGBT Bookstores: A New Era for Equality?

By Andrew Belonsky -

Outloud, a gay bookstore in Nashville, announced last week that they will be closing their doors after 15 years of service, making them the latest LGBT literary emporium to go out of business in the recent past.
This and other cessations are symptomatic of our nation's economic malaise, and an illustration of how large companies have squeezed out the little guy.
"The greed of some in the banking industry continues to push interest rates so high that most small businesses can't afford them. Affordable credit is simply not available to most small business owners." OutLoud owners Ted Jensen and Kevin Medley asserted in their outgoing message, which revolved largely around the monetary matters at hand. "Supersized businesses like Amazon, Wal-Mart and Best Buy have unfair price advantages over locally-owned businesses."
Surely big business has squeezed out the little guy, gay and straight alike, but not everyone sees the closings as necessarily negative.
Deacon Maccubbin, founder of Washington DC's long-running bookstore Lambda Rising, also had to shutter his beloved business this year. Instead of fretting, though, he saw the end as an achievement.
"The phrase 'mission accomplished' has gotten a bad rap in recent years, but in this case, it certainly applies," he said last January. "When we set out to establish Lambda Rising in 1974, it was intended as a demonstration of the demand for gay and lesbian literature. We thought... we could encourage the writing and publishing of LGBT books, and sooner or later other bookstores would put those books on their own shelves and there would be less need for a specifically gay and lesbian bookstore. Today, 35-years later, nearly every general bookstore carries LGBT books..."
Suddenly the dollars and cents of these businesses appears to be something else: a much larger discussion over whether it's best to have a "gay only" space safe from a sometimes hostile world? Or would it be better if gay become blasé, and we were fully integrated in the culture at large? Does self-segregation serve a purpose, or should the end goal be complete, seamless assimilation?
At their inception, gay bookstores weren't simply about wordsmiths. They were an organic outgrowth of a repressed culture, the manifestation of a collective need and want; they were part of a revolution.
In fact, New York's first LGBT bookstore, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, opened in 1967, two blocks down from the famed Stonewall Inn, and proved integral to the city's -- and by consequence the world's -- gay rights movement. It was as much a meeting place where ideas were exchanged as it was a simple shop. Like the other outposts mentioned here, Oscar Wilde has also closed, swallowed up by larger conglomerates who have made our media interest into their business.
Social conservatives have successfully merged their "traditional values" with the more timely fiscal conservatism, and Republican leaders from Sen. Jim DeMint to Rep. Mike Pence are touting a policy that paints "moral erosion," like gay equality, as part of the economic downturn. "As we seek to build national wealth, we must renew our commitment to the institutions that nurture the character of our people -- traditional family and religion," said Pence in a speech this month.
The closures of OutLoud, Lambda Rising and the rest prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that LGBT people aren't fringe at all. We're mainstream precisely because we're struggling under the same recession as the rest of America. It's not a gay, straight or omnisexual situation. And, as hard as the economic realities may be, perhaps the realization that everyone's in the same boat can help alleviate some of the culture war tensions.
We're here, we're queer, and we're part of the economy, and LGBT politics aside, if we want to prevent a world of utter conformity and mass production, then the nation as a whole needs to support the small businesses that made this nation great in the first place.

Andrew Belonsky is a journalist living in New York City. 

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