Term-bending: Representation and Heteronormativity in Library Classification and Subject Headings

On December 19th 2014, the finale of the Nickelodeon animated series The Legend of Korra made television history when, in the final moments, the show’s titular Avatar — a dark-skinned young woman with the ability to “bend” the elements (and who, over the past two seasons, had been both temporarily disabled and suffering from PTSD) — walked off hand-in-hand into the spirit world with her girlfriend, Asami Soto, as romantic music swelled and the words “The End” appeared above them in Chinese characters.

The_Legend_of_Korra_S04E12_-_Asami_and_Korra_holding_handsAlmost immediately, the show’s fans took to Reddit, Tumblr and Youtube to celebrate this first “canonical” bisexual relationship on a children’s show (the spectacularly emotional Korrasami Reaction video, in which 30 individuals or groups watching the closing minutes erupt in cheers or break down crying is both moving and sociologically fascinating). This singular outpouring of emotion over what might be ostensibly viewed as “just a children’s cartoon” was explained this way by media studies grad student and filmmaker O.K. Keyes:

Korra is a fascinating case study in terms of fandom for its intersectionality and its exploration of disidentification. Who Korra is NOT is just as important as who she is. She…is NOT male, she is NOT white, she is NOT straight, and she is NOT here to fulfill the fantasies of white, teenager boys but rather to fulfill the dreams of queer, women of color. She stands to be acknowledged, to be respected, to be in control of her own body, and her own journey. The reason you see so many tears and screaming and disbelief in response to the finale is that for some of these kids, this is the FIRST time they have ever seen themselves as the hero, kid show or otherwise…[Korra is] one of the most important characters to ever exist on television.

Both fan-based and major media took notice of the Korra finale. Roth Cornet at the gaming and pop culture website IGN called it “hugely significant in the world of television”, while Vanity Fair found it to be “one of the most powerful, subversive shows of 2014.”  Many observers recognized that it transcended televisual aesthetics and could make a real difference in the lives of LGBTQ youth. As blogger ladylovenadjustice noted,

[Korrasami] becoming canon has a potential to make a huge media impact and even save lives. I’m not exaggerating here – it would be incredibly likely some queer kid who had thought there was something wrong with them would literally feel the will to go on after seeing their sexuality treated as okay in a cartoon they loved. This is a story many queer people have shared. Korrasami [is] about representation. It’s about making kids feel whole and accepted.

At the same time, however, several other online debates erupted, both premised on the argument that the so-called “korrasami” relationship was actually ambiguous, as the two women didn’t kiss, after all. The first — more typical of online fandom — was made by partisans of the show’s male hero Mako, who wanted to see Korra end up with him; unfortunately some of this commentary was overtly homophobic. The second debate was more complex: that, as Katie Schenkel at The Mary Sue argued LGBTQ viewers shouldn’t have to accept “implied” romance between same-sex characters, that their stories are too often erased from novels, television and film, and that true, honest representation should be as explicit as for straight characters.

The following Monday morning, series co-creator Bryan Konietzko responded to both of these arguments on his Tumblr blog:

If it [korrasami] seems out of the blue to you, I think a second viewing of the last two seasons would show that perhaps you were looking at it only through a hetero[normative] lens…Was it a slam-dunk victory for queer representation? I think it falls short of that, but hopefully it is a somewhat significant inching forward. It has been encouraging how well the media and the bulk of the fans have embraced it. Sadly and unsurprisingly, there are also plenty of people who have lashed out with homophobic vitriol and nonsense. It has been my experience that by and large this kind of mindset is a result of a lack of exposure to people whose lives and struggles are different from one’s own, and due to a deficiency in empathy––the latter being a key theme in Book [season] 4.

Representations of sexual diversity in television and film — such as on Korra — can have emancipatory power for viewers, but if they are negative or stereotypical can also serve to disable or silence the voices of LGBTQ people, which is why GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) produces an annual report on representation on television, as well as hosts its annual GLAAD Media Awards.

While not as visible publicly, library classification and subject headings terminology are also a powerful — and problematic — form of representation. As Tatiana de la Tierra, in her chapter in Radical Cataloging (2008) puts it,

Subject headings carry a lot of weight. The right ones help a researcher find books on the topic he or she is looking for; the wrong ones, or none at all, can cut off all access to them…To name, to categorize and classify, to label and brand, to make linguistic determination, to signal, to define, to say, “this is the word, these are the words that will represent you” — this is a powerful thing (de la Tierra, 95).

For these reasons (and as a long-time fan of the show) the themes arising from the discourse around the Korra finale — representation, the dominance of heteronormativity, erasure, the prevalance of anti-gay sentiment and bullying, and the oftentimes difficult emotional journey of LGBTQ youth — were very much on my mind as I began preparing, some weeks later, for an information literacy session in Women’s and Gender Studies classes here at the University of Winnipeg. After all, as many critical practitioners have noted over the decades, few structured knowledge systems are as dependent on a “heteronormative lens” as those related to library and information sciences. By heteronormativity, we mean

enforced cultural assumptions that heterosexuality is normal and natural for all people…Heterosexuality is so successfully established as normal and natural in everyday communication that the notion of homosexuality does not easily exist in the minds of most people, especially as a sexual orientation for oneself. The expectation of heterosexuality, combined with systems that value and benefit heterosexual expression, has created a world where it is hard for many to imagine that options other than heterosexuality exist. For someone to not see herself or himself as heterosexual is equated with lack of personal development, as going through a phase, as confusion, or even as insanity (Manning).

Situated as I am as a straight, white, able-bodied, middle-class, middle-aged male – and therefore representative of the presumptive “singular public” or “majority user” around which the library classification and subject heading systems were originally devised (see Olson) — my principal strategy was to convey to the students that, as is the case for so many issues and themes of concern to the progressive left, access to LGBTQ library materials is inadequately served by these systems, as they are “systems that value and benefit heterosexual expression.”

The Library of Congress Classification system, which organizes books in the library, dates to 1897 and is intended to represent the universe of knowledge regardless of what is published; the Subject Headings, by contrast, are premised on “literary warrant” (i.e., what’s being written and published). Given their origins in the late 19th-century, library terminology and structures concerning people have been critiqued for their dated (and often racist and sexist) value assumptions since the 1960s as part of a broader engagement with progressive issues (feminism, poverty, Indigeneity, social justice, pacifism) that are often marginalized by a professional orientation towards “neutrality.” In 1969, concerned librarians formed a Social Responsibilities Roundtable within the American Library Association (SRRT), and in 1970 established the Task Force on Gay Liberation (now the Gay Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table [GLBTRT]) which focuses on identifying core collections on homosexuality, promoting equal rights for gay and lesbian library workers, and changing and updating subject headings and classification. Sanford Berman (one of the founding members of the SRRT) wrote his groundbreaking Prejudices and Antipathies, (1971) in which he pointed out the regressive and pejorative attachment of the term SEXUAL PERVERSION as a “see also” reference for both Homosexuality and Lesbianism. Steve Wolf, in his 1972 Revolting Librarians essay “Sex and the Single Cataloger” condemned LC Classification for placing books on homosexuality (HQ 73-5) physically adjacent to those concerning sexual deviance and crimes, such as incest (HQ 71), sexual assault and pedophilia (HQ 72) (Wolf). Joan Marshall, in her “LC Labeling: An Indictment” (also in Revolting Librarians), wrote that “An examination of the [LC] list makes clear that the ‘majority reader’ and the norm, as far as LC is concerned, is white, Christian (often specifically Protestant), male and straight” (Marshall, 46).

The assumption on the part of LC of a “singular public” or “majority” (i.e. straight, white and male) user are even more troubling, de la Tierra says, for users experiencing multiple oppressed identities, in her case a lesbian Latina:

Library materials by and about queer people of color are among the most vulnerable, as this body of literature and academic study is at a growing stage. Simply put, since there is relative lack of materials, the ones that do exist may be necessary for survival and for the soul (ibid., 100).

Yet, she adds, erasure and misrepresentation through classification and subject assignment are not limited to existing inappropriate headings, but the outright lack of headings as well:

In these cases, if titles don’t contain magical keywords, the books are effectively erased from the catalogs. To not name is to eradicate, to make invisible. It is like banning a book that no one ever knew existed to begin with (ibid.).

Concepts and values surrounding representation matter a great deal: healthy individual and group identities depend at least in part on accurate, diverse and appropriate cultural portrayals, employing terminology indigenous to the persons or groups in question – language commensurate with the nature of those identities and their interrelations with others. The linguistic and cultural alternative — token, exogenous or pejorative language — results in negative, stereotypical, harmful misrepresentation or erasure. As Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor observes,

A person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning one in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being (Taylor, 25).

This “false, distorted, reduced mode of being” can have very tragic consequences for LGTBQ youth, whom, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

are nearly one and a half to three times more likely to have reported suicidal ideation than non-LGB youth. Research from several sources also revealed that LGB youth are nearly one and a half to seven times more likely than non-LGB youth to have reported attempting suicide.

With these realities and critiques in mind, I prepared a lecture in which the standard Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) were compared and contrasted with those in the Alternative Press Index (API), which arose from the work of Berman and the Social Responsibility Roundtable. The terminology used by API — which is regularly revised — reflects the language used in the progressive periodicals it indexes, and therefore more closely adheres to the values indigenous to the constituencies and causes for which those periodicals advocate. As we shall see, while the list has progressed considerably since the late 60s, there are still significant shortcomings, biases and terms with pejorative connotations.

For example, to describe discrimination and prejudice against LGBTQ persons, the Library of Congress uses the term Homophobia, or the much broader heading Sex discrimination, the former of which connotes a negative, prejudicial individual response, one associated with anti-gay bullying. What it cannot do is describe institutional and cultural barriers to the normalization of LGBTQ identities, which are pervasive. As J. Bryan Lowder, writing at Slate, says:

Bullying may suck for everyone, but being a Trekkie or socially awkward or straight edge or whatever just doesn’t have the same weight in that regard as being a sexual minority. For gays, the bully is the entire culture—a culture that often works its way insidiously inside your head.

Accordingly, the API uses GLBTQ Oppression which is not only more inclusive but captures the broader notion that LGBTQ persons face persecution in their daily lives when encountering prejudice within institutions or the culture more generally – that “the bully is the entire culture.”

Other LC headings also fail to interrogate agency appropriately. The Library of Congress headings for health care of gays, lesbians and transgendered persons use the subdivision health and hygiene – suggesting that it is up to gays and lesbians to practice appropriate hygiene. There is also no heading for transgendered health specifically, but instead this concept is incorporated under either Sexual minorities – health and hygiene or Male-to-female transsexuals – health and hygiene, the latter of which erases what Judith Butler refers to as the fluidity of gender identity by only identifies a single end state. The API places the emphasis on health care more generally (Gay health and health care; Lesbian health and health care), that their health is not only connected with their sexuality, but that health care is something that gays and lesbians have a right to. There is also a specific API heading for Transsexual and transgender health & health care.

The Library of Congress is exclusive and narrow in its approach to sexual politics, for which it has no actual subject heading. It only recognizes the “Gay liberation movement,” encompassing and universalizing the politics of lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. API by contrast recognizes that there is a GLBTQ movement – not to mention GLBTQ people & politics; sexual politics; GLBTQ relationships; cisgender/cissexual people; and intersectionality – all of which have no counterpart in the Library of Congress. Finally, LC has a subject heading for Queer theory but only the API understands that Queerness is a condition, a state of being, a way of describing literature, film and culture. Again, absent language commensurate with the content being indexed, books and articles on this theme will likely not be found.

When I presented these comparisons during the class, it promoted a very interesting and lively conversation with the students and the professor, and, I think, got the students engaged in using these alternative terminologies in their own research. Since then several students from Women’s and Gender Studies — not actually among my assigned subject areas — have approached me for research assistance consultations in which the API has proved invaluable.

Polling is showing that the culture is changing, and rapidly. A recent Gallup poll shows that over the past 14 years rates of acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships has soared from 38% to a solid majority of 58%. In Canada, 68% support same-sex marriages largely, argues Michael Adams, because we know each other — and can therefore empathize with others — better than in the past.

The cultural impact of The Legend of Korra — a show built around a character who subverts every notion of the “majority user” and which carried its own message of empathy — is another positive indication of this shift, one that holds promise for a new generation of gay-positive young people, a fanbase for whom the term “bending” might just as easily refer to the Avatar’s element-manipulating abilities as it would the diverse possibilities of gender identification.

Yet the information structures in our libraries related to, describing and enabling access to publications on sexual diversity have failed to keep pace with and reflect “literary warrant,” and as such continue to contribute to a heteronormative culture with which LGBTQ persons must contend on a daily basis.

(Special thanks to Dr. Roewan Crowe for the invitation to speak to her students, and for our enjoyable dialogue in advance!)

Image: (“The Legend of Korra,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 17 Mar. 2015. Fair dealing usage for purpose of criticism / review)


Berman, Sanford. Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the Lc Subject Heads Concerning People. (Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1971).

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. (New York: Routledge, 1999).

De la tierra, Tatiana. “Latina lesbian subject headings: the power of naming.” Radical cataloging: Essays at the Front. Eds. K.R. Roberto & S. Berman. (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co., 2008), pp. 94-102.

Manning, J. Heterosexuality. In J. O’Brien (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Gender and Society. (pp. 414-418). (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc, 2009). doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781412964517.n207

Marshall, Joan K. “LC Labeling: An Indictment,” Revolting Librarians ed. Celeste West and Elizabeth Katz (San Francisco: Booklegger Press, 1972), 46.

Olson, H. A. The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002).

Taylor, Charles. Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition,” Amy Gutmann, ed., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 25.

Wolf, Steve. 1972. “Sex and the single cataloger: New thoughts on some unthinkable subjects.” Revolting Librarians ed. Celeste West and Elizabeth Katz (San Francisco: Booklegger Press, 1972).

Additional Online LGBTQ resources:
Canadian Lesbian + Gay Archives
LGBT Life through EBSCOhost