Moving Beyond the Binary for Transgender Library Patrons by Kaela Delgado

From the public transition of Caitlyn Jenner, to the Trump administration’s ongoing identity politics, the American transgender community has recently received more exposure and scrutiny than ever before.  For better or worse, US media continues to put a spotlight on one of the most disenfranchised groups in our country.  Although significant progress has been made for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community, there is still much work to be done to uphold and advocate for their basic human rights.

As modern librarians, our profession is defined by a set of core values that, as stated by the American Library Association, seek to “reflect the history and ongoing development of the profession” (ALA core values, 2004).  These values include, but are not limited to, access, diversity, confidentiality, and social good.  When considering the needs of the transgender community and the guiding principles of our profession, there is an obvious opportunity for libraries to do what they do best: provide space and equitable access for the underserved.

While many libraries claim to support the LGBTQ community, their services may inadvertently overlook or discriminate against a portion of this population.  This is, in large part, because our society widely misunderstands what it means to be transgender (Steinmetz, 2011).  If we as librarians seek to uphold our professional principles and support LGBTQ equity, we need to begin with our own accountability.  By taking the time to understand the complexities of this patron population, we will be better equipped to advocate for access, services, and safety in solidarity.

First and foremost, it is critical for librarians to make a conscious effort to move beyond perceived binaries.  Providing equitable service to the LGBTQ community requires an understanding that this is not a one-size-fits-all acronym.  Transgender patrons are a unique subgroup of this population and they present a diverse set of needs.  The LGBTQ community utilizes two primary terms to denote gender: cisgender and transgender.  The term cisgender represents those who live their lives identifying as the same gender they were assigned at birth.  People who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, or straight may also identify as cisgender.  This is because sexual orientation and gender identity are not one in the same.

Alternatively, transgender is an umbrella term for anyone who does not exclusively identify with their birth gender.  This subgroup includes transgender women, transgender men, people who are gender-fluid, gender non-conforming, asexual, and other identities that stretch beyond the confines of the traditional male and female binary (LGBTQ+ definitions, 2017).  It may be difficult for people to recognize gender as a spectrum rather than a binary, but libraries can advocate for this reality through education and demonstrated awareness (Steinmetz, 2011).  (Please visit Transtudent.org for a more comprehensive list of LGBTQ definitions.)

Librarians must be aware that misconceptions and a general lack of understanding contribute negatively to the experience of transgender people in our communities at large.  One of the most common misconceptions, is that the term transgender implies a surgical or medical transition.  While some transgender people do seek gender reassignment surgery, many choose to express their identity in other ways.  Regardless, the emotional stress of being born into a body that does not align with their personal gender identity can be highly detrimental (Frequently asked questions, 2017).  The fact that this population is continuously abused, marginalized, and discriminated against, underlines their need for support.  Whether this manifests as a need for safe public space, private access to information, or community advocacy, libraries can and should answer this call.

When considering the ways in which libraries can meet the needs of transgender patrons, it is important to understand their constraints.  Collectively, the transgender population has maintained a very clandestine existence throughout history (Beiriger & Jackson, 2007).  Oppression largely impedes their search for resources, as most collaborative efforts require outing their identity and subjecting themselves to judgement, ridicule, and harm.  While the internet has provided great solace for this population, there is no doubt that these patrons would also benefit from access to information literacy through the library.  Not to mention, all members of our communities should have the choice to seek out information in safe public spaces.  For this reason, the confidential nature of libraries and the privacy polices they adhere to, have the potential to offer invaluable protection to transgender people.

As providers of equitable service and access to all, librarians need to regularly evaluate their efforts to serve disenfranchised populations.  When assessing your service to the LGBTQ population, I implore and encourage you to take note of whether your library serves all, none, or only some members of this group.  Intentions are good, but action is better.  For that reason, another post will address initiatives you can take to make the library an inclusive space for transgender patrons and employees.

References:

ALA core values of librarianship. (2004). Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/corevalues

Beiriger, A., & Jackson, R. M. (2007). An assessment of the information needs of transgender communities in portland, oregon. Public Library Quarterly, 26(1-2), 45-60. doi:10.1300/J118v26n01_03

Frequently asked questions about transgender people. Retrieved from https://transequality.org/issues/resources/frequently-asked-questions-about-transgender-people

LGBTQ+ definitions. (2017). Retrieved from http://www.transstudent.org/definitions

Steinmetz, K. (2011). Being transgender is still widely misunderstood. Retrieved from http://healthland.time.com/2011/11/18/being-transgender-is-still-widely-misunderstood/