Oh, Dewey, Where Would You Put Me?

By | June 4, 2021

Modern Love

Oh, Dewey, Where Would You Put Me?

A librarian who identifies as queer wrestles with our tendency to classify both books and people.

Credit…Brian Rea

As a librarian who has dated both men and women, I couldn’t help but think of how my various loves would be categorized by the Dewey Decimal Classification. Stefan, for example, was an architect (720.23), as well as a Californian (979.4) with eyes like the ocean (551). Our love felt like a fairy tale (398.2); I knew I was marrying this guy.

At the same time, I felt a pang of loss, because I was “choosing a side” (much as I hate that expression), and being a queer feminist was a big part of my identity. What would it mean to make a life with a man? How would I categorize myself — and us?

I didn’t have much time to contemplate this back in 2008. I was busy starting a new library from scratch for a public school in Queens, New York. Wondering if Stefan would support my career, I joked to him that my weekends were “booked.”

He smiled and offered to help. Our first excursion took us to a deceased professor’s estate in western Massachusetts, where we spent 14 hours loading 3,000 dusty books into a fleet of U-Hauls to bring to the new library.

“Shall we do this again next weekend?” I said that night.

“Sure,” he said.

Stefan had childlike genuineness that clicked with me. When we first met, he almost tripped on his untied shoelaces while admiring skyscrapers in Manhattan. He was wise; he’d suffered hardships, but his perspective was fresh and new.

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After the library trip, I loved Stefan so much that I didn’t care what gender he was or what I called myself. The first time he slept over, I dreamed I was helping him find a book in mazelike stacks. I woke us both, bolting upright in bed, shaking his shoulders, and said, “What are you searching for?”

“What?” he said groggily.

“Can I help you find a book?” I said before realizing it was dark and we were in bed. I laughed and we went back to sleep, only to repeat the same routine a few nights later, and then again. In these dreams, Stefan was the library patron, but I was the one searching for myself.

My school library grew book by book, and I cataloged thousands of volumes in Dewey. Melvil Dewey, creator of the 1876 classification system, was no hero, having withdrawn from the American Library Association, which he co-founded, following numerous accusations of sexual harassment. He was also forced out of the New York State Library for racism and anti-Semitism. Despite the fact that his system has been revised 23 times — with current editors especially committed to ethics in classification — it remains dated.

People often ask me why, in the digital age, libraries still have print books with obscure coded labels. I find comfort in categorization. But knowledge, like love, is as vast and ever-changing as the ocean.

Before I moved in with Stefan, I donated all the books that reminded me of exes to my school library. I donated film books from my filmmaker and actress girlfriend of almost four years, and the nautical books from my boatbuilder boyfriend who lived in a lighthouse on Long Island.

I let go of old heartbreak by setting my exes’ books free among thousands of other volumes in my library to circulate and have lives of their own. Every few years, I bump into them like old friends and reflect on how loving this man and woman prepared me to find Stefan, who knew my story from the beginning and always accepted me.

My own Dewey Decimal Classification is 306.765, for bisexual. But that isn’t my favorite word; I believe it reinforces the gender binary and overemphasizes sex. During my long relationship with a woman, I tried calling myself a lesbian, but that didn’t fit either. When we were over, I stopped calling myself anything.

The plus sign at the end of L.G.B.T.Q.A.I.+ was intended for me. But I have belatedly realized, at 41, that identifying as a “whatever” was lonely; it didn’t give me a community. The pandemic prompted me to reflect on 25 years of shifting identities and embrace “queer.” Queer is as big and beautiful as a library.

Dewey’s naming of L.G.B.T.Q.A.I.+ people has also fluctuated over time. We have been shelved under “Abnormal Psychology,” “Perversion,” “Derangement,” “Neurological Disorders” and “Social Problems and Social Services,” before we landed in our current home: “Sexual Orientation, Transgenderism and Intersexuality.” The only flaw with our address in the 305s is that our neighbors are books on prostitution, pornography, incest and child trafficking. Anyone who goes to retrieve a queer nonfiction book on a library shelf can’t help but notice this.

Dewey is a worldwide system, so whether you’re in Tokyo, Cape Town or São Paulo, you’ll locate books with the same or similar library codes. Books on marriage are divided into two main categories — books on Christian marriage (248.84) and secular marriage (306.8). Of course, Dewey never made a call number for a marriage like mine, a bisexual woman with a heterosexual man.

I find solace in combing the stacks, remembering that there have always been bisexual women with husbands: Virginia Woolf, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frida Kahlo. And queer women through history have truly loved these men. Diego Rivera was the love of Ms. Kahlo’s life, but she never stopped being queer. She made her own rules in marriage, living in a separate cobalt blue house connected to her husband’s house via a footbridge.

In her 2019 TED Talk, “The Invisible Letter B,” Misty Gedlinske describes her marriage as “an opposite sex marriage, but not a straight marriage.” We queer women bring innovative thinking about gender and a special kind of courage and resilience to our relationships with cis-gendered men. When I meet women like me, I feel an instant connection: We’re sisters. However, after I broke up with the female filmmaker and embarked on a relationship with the male boatbuilder, most of my family and friends erased my queer identity. My mother described the boatbuilder as my “first real relationship,” though I had lived with a woman for many years. Friends stopped inviting me to Pride events.

Even one of my closest friends at the time, who then identified as a straight ally, boycotted my wedding to Stefan. She knew me during the girlfriend years and didn’t believe I was being true to myself in marrying a man.

That hurt. We didn’t speak for about five years, when she called to share that she was dating a woman for the first time — and they were getting married.

We laughed. In our 20s, I was the gay one, and she was the straight one, but we had switched. Or maybe we were always two queer women searching for the right alphabet letter.

There aren’t many role models for male-partnered queer women to be out, or express pride. It inspired me that Ms. Gedlinske wears suits and ties, consistently acknowledging her identity instead of lying by omission, as I have. It has often felt easier to keep my story on a high shelf instead of constantly explaining myself.

I wanted to get married in jeans and a flowing white Indian blouse, like one of my heroines, Gloria Steinem. When I told my mother, she cried with the same bewilderment as she had when I came out as gay at 19. A purple pantsuit might have been a fun compromise. Instead, I listened to my mother and got married in a simple, short, unadorned white dress.

When the minister said, “An Episcopal marriage is between a man and woman,” I wanted to bash him over the head with my bouquet. I can still see the pain in the eyes of one of my queer friends at those words. Why didn’t I ask the minister to revise the script? Why was I chicken?

I’m not chicken anymore. I try to rewrite scripts all the time. I rallied a group of my students — all women of color, some also queer — to help me dismantle everything offensive about the Dewey Decimal system. We re-shelved a lot of the library. When I asked one student where queer books should go, her words brought tears to my eyes: “I want queer books to be everywhere. Because love is everywhere.”

My school library now contains 20,000 volumes. Like my relationship with Stefan, it’s ever-changing, always being recataloged. Becoming parents has been our most beautiful reclassification of all. Our daughters, now 8 and 2, have truly shown us the limitlessness of love.

These days our marriage is as capacious as a library, holding everything under the sun. It holds inside jokes, lying side-by-side, laughing in the dark. It holds pregnancy losses, my father-in-law’s Parkinson’s and dementia. It holds hospice. It holds our toddler’s giddy peals of laughter. It even holds my queerness, a rainbow sparkle dusted over the overflowing shelves of our life together.

Jess deCourcy Hinds is completing a novel about bisexual and sexually fluid graffiti artists in post-9/11 New York.

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