Title: glbtq - an encyclopedia of gay lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer culture

Publisher: glbtq, Inc.

URL: http://www.glbtq.com

Cost: free

Tested: September 18-25, 2005

Excellent, comprehensive, authoritative open access content on GLBT issues and persons created by highly competent contributors, consultants and editors,  matched by software which facilitates the exploration of this ready reference treasure, and could bring even more out of it. 

 

THE CONTEXT

The terminology, the acronyms may change, but the issues related to the gay, lesbian bisexual, transgender and queer culture remain and get center stage in all walks of life from workplace to family, from sports to entertainment, from religion to education, and from arts to law. Queer has been the collective term for many decades for people who were not considered straight, and it had a pejorative tone. In a rather unusual development the word (both as a noun and as an adjective) seems to acquire a neutral meaning as witnessed not only by the lengthy subtitle of this excellent, open access ready reference source, but also in the main title of one of its print-only predecessors, Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia, published in 1997 as a hardcover book, followed by a paperback edition.

I respect the preference of the editors (and e.e. cummings) who chose the all lower-case spelling, but I use the  most common uppercase acronym GLBT, except when referring to the glbtq encyclopedia itself. I realize that LGBT is also a popular acronym (and I hear and agree with the not so subtle message of it), and I am also cognizant of the opposition of  the inclusion of the transgender (sometimes referred to as transgendered) group, to be distinguished in turn from the transsexual and transvestite community.  The use of the acronym GLBT far exceeds (in numbers if not in weight) that of LGBT both in the print world and the web world, where there are many  excellent print and subscription based digital reference sources  (such as GLBT Life, the abstracting/indexing database of  Ebsco, and the Sexual Diversity Studies of NISC). Even in the more narrowly defined ready reference field there have  been quite a number of directories, review collections and  encyclopedias published in the past 15 years.

In the league of encyclopedias, the pioneering work was Wayne Dynes’ Encyclopedia of Homosexuality published by Garland in the late 1980s with a comprehensive coverage of the male hemisphere of the GLBT community. Garland apparently heeded the criticism for ignoring the lesbian history and 10 years later published the 2 volume Encyclopedia of Gay Histories and Cultures edited by George Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman – one volume about the gay history and culture, and one about the lesbian history and culture. Steve Hogan’s and Lee Hudson’s Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia has a broader subject coverage of the GLBT community but its time domain is limited to the last 50 years. The 3 volume Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America is a very current (and very expensive) encyclopedia, and has  in-depth articles (as well as the LGBT acronym), but its exclusive focus is the United States. There are some other good ready reference books about the GLBT community and culture, and some disappointingly shallow ones (such as Queer Facts: The Greatest Gay and Lesbian Trivia Book Ever), but none of them are available digitally.

The only exception is the substantial biography collection, Who’s Who in Gay and Lesbian History by  Robert Aldrich and Gary Wotherspoon. This Routledge publication is hosted by the subscription-based Xrefer service in its impressive collection of many of the best ready reference sources. However, only Volume 1 (covering the period from Antiquity to World War II) is available, not Volume 2 which covers the past 60 years.

Some free web sites have high quality ready reference components, such as the fine collection of reviews of films with GLBT-themes within the  outstanding PlanetOut.com site focusing on cultural issues. There is a good, but indeed very Brief Dictionary of  Queer Slang and Culture by Rebecca Smith and an interesting GLBT superdictionary compiled from entries in other dictionaries. There is an OutCyclopedia which is essentially a rather eclectic and redundant collection of essay-length biographies crippled  by an excessively aggressive and large pop-up ad. Enter the open access, comprehensive, professionally compiled, authoritative  glbtq encyclopedia.

 

THE CONTENT

By the sheer number of entries, glbtq may be the largest GLBT encyclopedia, reportedly having 1,200 entries. To put things into perspective, Marc Stein’s Encyclopedia mentioned above has “only” 500 entries, and so has Completely Queer. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality has about 700 entries. Of course, the number of entries (even if we accept the numbers at face value) represent only one dimension. The other is the average length of the articles, which turns out to be 1,000 words – if (once again) we accept the claim that there are 1.2 million words in glbtq. There is no way to verify these claims, but neither is a reason to doubt the publisher’s word, as the whole site exudes professionalism. In my tests some of the topical articles were much much longer than 1,000 or even 2,000 words, and some of the biographies were indeed under 1,000 words, which still qualifies for informative, essay length biographical entry.

The list of contributors (which is now at  325), shows not only a very impressive team of experts but also provides informative biographical details, with emphasis on the practical credentials of the contributors on the topics. This group is complemented by 9 consultants, and two editors with impeccable credentials. The producer behind the project, and the president of gltbq, Inc. is Andrew Wikholm, who has not only the funds, and subject knowledge, but is also a principal in a software company and this clearly comes through the design, implementation and content of the  encyclopedia project.  Wikholm was also behind the gayhistory.com web site which is now incorporated into glbtq. 

The encyclopedia is divided into three major topical areas: arts, literature and social sciences. This is quite limited and leads to unusual subject hierarchies, such as Law under Social Sciences, and especially Sports under Arts where Greg Louganis biography appears along with articles about gay male athletes. But this does not matter much because the content can be browsed by a subject index, and an alphabetical  index, and can be searched directly.  There is a Special Features section with interviews, slide shows and spotlight collages dedicated to a specific topic, such as the major English literary figures in the renaissance . The interviews are mostly from the mid-1990s, and the collection would be worth refreshing by interviews with current prominent figures of the GLBT community.

There is a Discussion Board (with a nod to the current craze of blogging) on major topics, with the usual mix of a few worthy submissions and the unstoppable blogorrhea of cliché thoughts in  cliché styles. These days one must offer this token gesture. The good thing is that it does not detract from the value of the encyclopedia itself as  you may just ignore the board.  

The encyclopedic articles are very well written, well-balanced and are also well structured which is  much needed for articles well beyond 1,000 words such as the one on same-sex marriage, probably the longest article, running more than 4,100 words. The headings provide a structure to such lengthy articles, it could be only better if the headings were listed as a mini table of contents to let the user jump to a particularly interesting section.

The tone is usually objective but does not (and should not) refrain from critical or at least sarcastic comments as happens in writing about the handling of the same-sex marriage issue in the Hawaii court system. "The Hawaii Supreme Court sat on the appeal for over two years, which gave the legislature time to pass a proposed constitutional amendment reserving marriage to opposite-sex couples. The people of Hawaii overwhelmingly ratified the amendment in November 1998. In December 1999, the Hawaii Supreme Court unceremoniously dismissed the Baehr case due to the new amendment. In the end, no marriage licenses were ever issued in Hawaii, and the struggle moved on to other states."

The 2-3 line summaries of the articles are often excellent in their compactness and punch. These appear in the result list and help the users get the skinny even without reading the whole article.   This summary of  the article about the attitude to same sex practice in Islamic countries tells a lot in a few words:  Despite religious prohibitions against same-sex sexual relationships, Islamic societies generally extend tolerance through a pattern of collective denial. “ The author’s competence is obvious from the full essay, which may incline the reader to follow up on the topic by reading the book Islamic Homosexualities edited by Stephen O Murray, the author of the essay.  The main entries are followed by a list of related entries, a bibliography, and a group of metadata about the article itself. This is smart, very useful and elegant.

There are some inaccuracies, pieces of misinformation, and omissions, but not many and not inexcusable ones. The article about Károly Kertbeny  who coined the word homosexual, refers to him as an "   Austro-Hungarian man of letters, translator and journalist …". Kertbeny himself wrote this about the issue: "I was born in Vienna, yet I am not a Viennese, but rightfully Hungarian".

The article about Klaus Mann  (one of the sons of Nobel-laurate Thomas Mann) presents a detailed , exemplary, fact-filled biography, referring to many of his novels, but omits Mephisto which  was the basis of the screenplay for the movie  that won 10 of the most prestigious international awards 25 years ago, including the Oscar for best foreign film. Interestingly, the biography of Klaus Mann’s sister, Erika Mann (who in turn was the wife of W.H Auden -  on paper has a reference to the move and the novel, although without mentioning any of its many awards.

The entry about Pedro Almodovar, is equally comprehensive, but the last movie the biography mentions is Talk To Her made in 2002, and omits Bad Education, another of Almodovar’s masterful movies which was the film chosen to open the Cannes Film Festival in 2004. It definitely belongs to this encyclopedia, and hopefully it  is just  late rather than omitted.

These are minor problems in light of the wealth of quality information about the GLBT culture and history, but currency should be improved especially as  expectations to get up-to-the-minute information from any Web sources keeps increasing.    

 

THE SOFTWARE

The navigation and browse features are very good. The very detailed alphabetic and subject indexes  facilitate the  exploration of this impressive resource. These indexes are grouped under each of the three main categories: art, literature, and social sciences. It could be an interesting idea to offer an overall, combined  alphabetic and subject index as well. The entries in the Special Features section can be sorted by Date, Subject and Popularity. The popularity sort could be a useful option also for the main articles.

Navigation and discovery could be significantly improved by providing links to articles about the person, era, issue, movement, legal case, etc. mentioned in other articles. To illustrate this on my earlier example: the entry about Erika Mann mentions her brother (Klaus Mann), and her father (Thomas Mann) repeatedly, but there are no links to their very substantial biographies from the body of the text of the Erika Mann article. Neither is there a link to the biography of her second husband (H. W. Auden) whom she married to get British citizenship when she had to flee Nazi Germany, or about her friend Christian Isherwood, both of whom have also detailed biographies in glbtq. There are links to a few articles from within the main entry text, but it is just the tip of the iceberg of the linking potential, the heart of any good Web resources  

To the credit of glbtq, following the articles there is an excellent collection of links, and in the case of Erika Mann, they include all the entries I mentioned and then some. I think these should be maintained but they don’t obviate the need for links from within the body of the text. Exactly because of the length of the entries, some users may not get to the bottom of these splendid articles, and may not recognize the links to the related entries section on the right margin.  One of the reasons Wikipedia gets so high Page Rank in Google is that all of its entries are peppered with links to non-existent articles, pointing to Wikipedia itself. Legitimate links from within the body of the main entries would improve the Page Rank of glbtq without the shade of abuse of link-based popularity ranking.

Searching is simple and fast. The matching terms should be highlighted or boldfaced. The content would deserve a little more sophisticated searching by offering combination of  gender, nationality, occupation, year range, country as search criteria. These metadata elements are readily available in most articles. That would be a much more useful voluntary contribution by competent bloggers under editorial control. 

 

There are many good and even excellent GLBT encyclopedias. This one stands out by virtue of being digital, and smartly so, as well as being open access.  Part of glbtq is also available in book format. Two of them have been published in 2004, the third volume is to come out in early November, 2005. On the one hand, I would be unhappy if my positive review of glbtq would undermine the sale of the print subsets, but on the other hand this superb open access digital resource also deserves exposure, so that those who are unaware of or just ignore this encyclopedia like the GLBT Historical Society which offers two  sponsored links of little relevance and a book when searching its site for encyclopedia, can learn about this source and spread the gospel.