On Friday, January 20th, I was on my way to Atlanta for the American Library Association Midwinter meeting, and I was looking forward to two things: staying with my friend Jessica and filling my suitcase with free books.
Things I was not looking forward to included: crowds, long lines for the bathroom, awkward exhibit hall interactions where vendors try to force stuff into my hands, and dragging aforementioned free books across the convention center.
I did not anticipate that the highlight of ALA Midwinter would be Carla Hayden touching my arm.
I also did not anticipate that I would completely lose all respect for Neil Patrick Harris before leaving Atlanta.
Let’s back up a second.
There’s a reason they call ALA Midwinter a “meeting” instead of a conference. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the deep inner workings of librarianship in America today, the Midwinter meeting is when the professional association for librarians conducts its organizational business. This means that librarians meet with their colleagues from around the country and give updates or make decisions about their agendas for the year. There are a lot of sub-groups within ALA, including Divisions (like the Association of College and Research Libraries), Round Tables (like the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Round Table), and Offices (the Office for Intellectual Freedom is probably the most well-known since it promotes the Banned Books Week observed by libraries around the country every year). This doesn’t include all of the committees and task forces within these groups. Approximately 5,000 librarians attended Midwinter this year, and most of those folks were there to fulfill their service commitments to the organization.
For me, the most important meeting at Midwinter was the CHOICE Editorial Board meeting. I’ve been a member of the CHOICE Magazine Editorial Board since 2014, but I hadn’t met most of the other Board members in person. We had a great conversation about CHOICE’s initiatives with Open Educational Resources (OER), their successful webinar series, the new ACRL-Choice app, and other exciting developments for 2017.
Before I explain why I won’t be watching “A Series of Unfortunate Events” any time soon, let me mention a few other Midwinter highlights:
- Attending Kamau Bell’s fantastic opening session on Friday afternoon, which he delivered with love and passion while wearing his GIVE ALL THE DAMNS t-shirt.
- Impromptu #critlib BBQ lunch with Chris Bourg, Emily Drabinski, Eamon Tewell, Angela Pashia, April Hathcock, and Jessica Critten.
- Picking up advance reader’s copies of some great new books, including PRIESTDADDY, A COLONY IN A NATION, THE HATE U GIVE, AMERICAN STREET, and EVERY BODY YOGA.
- Eating “The Shouk” from Yalla! at Krog Street Market.
So what did Neil Patrick Harris do?
Harris was our closing session speaker at Midwinter. He was there to promote his new book, The Magic Misfits, which should have been a simple task, but he managed to simultaneously disrespect Muslims, the deaf, and trans people all in one joke. Bravo, sir.
Harris’s session was interpreted by two ASL interpreters: a person in a hijab and another person in a suit jacket. Harris decided that it would be funny to flirt with, joke, and harass the interpreters rather than let them focus on their work. For example, he mentioned that Lemony Snicket didn’t like his new book, so he wouldn’t be asking him for a pull quote.
“Wait a second,” Harris said. “Let me see how you sign ‘pull quote’.” He paused and turned to the interpreter in the hijab.
The interpreter repeated the gesture, hooking her fingers and pulling them toward her chest.
“Oh, that’s right,” he said salaciously. I barfed a little in my mouth. Somehow, it got worse.
A few moments later, while Harris was distracted by a question from the audience, the interpreters switched places with one another. The interpreter in the suit jacket was busy signing when Harris noticed the switch and made the joke,
“That’s what was under there? Wow.”
In just a few painful words, Harris managed to:
- Insult the person dressed in a hijab, stoking Islamophobic fears that there’s something “hidden” under their clothing.
- Insult both of the interpreters’ gender presentations. Hyuk, hyuk, men don’t look like women, hyuk.
- Distract the interpreters, yet again, from their important work of serving the people in the audience who needed them to interpret.
The worst part was the laughter.
A room full of librarians thought this joke was funny. My stomach sank. I was disgusted.
It was hard to watch as librarians hustled out of the theater, his die-hard fans in a hurry to get in line for him.
Seeing folks pour to the exits before he was finished, Harris joked, “Why’s everyone leaving?”
“Because you made fun of the interpreters!” I yelled, loud enough for all to hear. Harris paused. Then he let out a half-chuckle, trying to feign disbelief, and said, “What? No way! I wasn’t making fun of them.” He jerked his thumb toward the interpreter in the suit jacket. “He’s cute!”
Whatever and ever, dude. I walked out. And whatever and ever to all the librarians who laughed at his joke, waited in line, and fawned over him.
Later, at the airport, I overhead a woman in a “Library Folks in Solidarity with…” t-shirt bragging about getting her tote bag signed by Harris, and the moment burned itself into my brain. What is solidarity to you, I wondered? Just a goddamn t-shirt?