Supporting Transgender Individuals in Libraries: Developing Responsive Policies

Alejandro Marquez
Instruction/Reference Librarian
Fort Lewis College

One of the American Library Association’s Core Values of Librarianship is diversity. The document states: “We value our nation’s diversity and strive to reflect that diversity by providing a full spectrum of resources and services to the communities we serve” (American Library Association). The library welcomes individuals from many different walks of life ethnic and racial backgrounds, young and old, and different sexual orientations. As members of society have gotten to know gay and lesbian individuals, one segment that people typically know little about is transgender individuals. A recent national survey of about 2,000 people by the Public Religion Research Institute found that thirty percent of Americans did not know how to define the term “transgender.”

Defining Terms

Librarians are no different than the general public even though there is a common perception that librarians are socially liberal. David Brooks, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, found that political donations by librarians in the 2004 election overwhelmingly skewed toward the Democratic party and “the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations was a whopping 223 to 1.” In contrast, the corresponding ratio for those in higher education was 11 to 1. Generally speaking, there is an openness to the gay rights movement on the left side of the political spectrum.However, the gay rights movement is based on sexual orientation while the transgender rights movement is based on gender identity. Transgender individuals are frequently grouped with the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community as a sign of inclusion and solidarity in the equality movement. Likewise, there is a commitment and willingness from librarians to work with under-represented communities. That said, Cal Gough and Ellen Greenblatt point out “librarians must examine their own personal feelings, biases, and stereotypes and they must minimize them when working with patrons” (169).

The gender and sexuality spectrum has expanded in recent years from narrow and familiar designations into an alphabet soup of words and acronyms. Intersex, Queer, Questioning, Two Spirit, Asexual Androgynous (IQQ2AA) are only a few of the ways library patrons self-identify their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. The American Psychological Association defines “transgender as an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.” Transgender may include crossdressers (transvestites), transsexuals, and others who do not fit into the traditional binary system of man/woman and male/female. “Sex” refers to biological sex (male/female) and “gender” to a range of physical, mental, and behavioral characteristics (masculine/feminine). Additionally, some individuals may not use the term transgender when referring to themselves as they believe the term does not match their life experience and personal values even though others may classify them under this definition. Transgender is meant to be an inclusive term to refer to individuals who have physically altered their bodies and those who have not. Conversely, “cisgender” refers to individuals whose gender identity matches their perceived gender–in other words, an individual who agrees with their assigned birth sex. Not all transgender individuals desire or have sexual reassignment surgery commonly referred to as a sex change. Conversely, they may decide to alter their physical appearance, body, legally changing their name and/or gender on official documents. Gary Gates of the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates that there are about 700,000 transgender adults in the United States, or 0.3 percent of the population. Others estimate that this population may range from 3 million to as many as 9 million individuals (Olyslager and Conway). However, it is difficult to estimate this minority population due to there being no official reporting mechanisms. Population size varies greatly depending on the definition of transgender, and many choose not to self-identify for personal and safety reasons.

Approaches to Transgender Issues in Libraries

There is not a significant amount of library research about transgender individuals. Often, the information is anecdotal, and the transgender community often gets lumped into the broader Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender (GLBT) research category. Although the information presented within the articles is inclusive, transgender individuals face contexts outside of sexual orientation and gender that at times more narrowly defines the GLBT movement.

A major area of research focuses on library collections and the representation of transgender literary characters, mainly in children and young adult literature. Talya Sokoll, an information and systems librarian, looks at the representations of transgender youth in young adult literature and finds many characters “bend / break the rules of gender and blur the boundaries but who do not necessarily identify as transgender.” She finds that most core titles are not readily available within library holdings because they are not reviewed in mainstream publications, not present in the library collection nor accessible through ILL, and are mainly available through an author’s website.   Likewise, researchers in the field of school libraries investigated if young adults have access through school libraries to LGBTQ-themed literature. They found that the average number of LGBTQ-themed titles held by these school libraries was 0.4 percent while LGBTQ teens are estimated to make up 5.9 percent of the students in American high schools. There are not enough materials to meet the population size (Hughes-Hassell, Overberg, and Harris).

A current trend for researchers is investigating the barriers to access. Transgender individuals experience higher levels of violence, homelessness, depression, suicide, and substance abuse which might have an impact on their library use. Fiona Jardine, MLIS student from the University of Maryland, finds that ”it is essential that trans* [a more inclusive term for transgender] feel welcome to enter the library, that the right resources are available, and that they are able to find the information they are seeking.“ Her article offers practical ways these barriers can be eliminated so that transgender patrons can get the information and insights they want and need. Additionally, Susann Schaller advocates for more accessibility and promotion of services, while maintaining a patron’s strong desire for privacy and confidentiality for LGBTQ college students.

Providing Transgender-Friendly Bathrooms

In public spaces such as libraries, a lot of our interactions are directly influenced by the concepts of sex and gender. One area that is difficult for both cisgender and transgender individuals revolves around the bathroom issue. The bathroom remains to this day one of the last gender segregated spaces. The bathroom for many individuals brings up issues of privacy and safety. Many transgender individuals report a high rate of laughing and teasing leading up to physical assaults while using the bathroom due to their transgender status. A 2011 study from the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that “people who identify as transgender were 28% more likely to experience physical violence than those who are gender normative” (19). Despite the concern of personal safety, “there have been gender identity protection laws covering public accommodations since the 1970s without any sort of increase in violence” (Lambda Legal). Many libraries provide “unisex” or “family” restrooms, primarily to benefit families with children and individuals with disabilities who might have an attendant. Providing these individual bathrooms is a creative solution as long as transgender individuals are not required to use them.

There have been many laws around the country that make this issue difficult to navigate. The Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund states that “16 states and the District of Columbia offer some form of legal protections for transgender individuals” (Frosh). Opponents of legal protections such as Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council believe that “no government should be so irresponsible as to deliberately compromise its citizenry’s safety and wellbeing in order to appease minority demands based on personal sexual preferences.” They believe that these “bathroom bills” are a form of sexual deception and present safety issues. That being said, courts around the country have often ruled that discrimination against transgender individuals is akin to sex discrimination.

Libraries, like many public institutions such as schools, walk a fine line between public accommodation and potentially discriminatory practices. In school settings, research has shown that enumerated laws and policies provide greater protections across the board (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network). The Supreme Court of the United States noted in Romer v. Evans that “enumeration is the essential device used to make the duty not to discriminate concrete and to provide guidance for those who must comply.” In 2013, Coy Mathis, a six year old who was born biologically male, was told that she could no longer use the girls’ bathroom but could instead use a gender-neutral restroom in her school. Her family filed a complaint that tested Colorado’s anti-discrimination law (Frosh). She ultimately won her complaint. On April 29, 2014, the Office for Civil Rights of the U. S. Department of Education announced that schools have legal obligation to protect transgender students from discrimination under Title IX.

All individuals regardless of their gender status have the right to use the bathroom, and a public policy helps to insure that right. A first step is adding gender identity/expression to the common anti-discrimination policy statement found in many libraries across the nation. A sample nondiscrimation policy from The Gay & Lesbian Fund of Colorado offers a more detailed statement:

   This policy states [Organization Name]’s position on discrimination. This policy applies to all [Organization Name] employees, volunteers, members, clients, and contractors.

   [Organization Name] follows an equal opportunity employment policy and employs personnel without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, height, weight, disability status, veteran status, military obligations, and marital status.

   This policy also applies to internal promotions, training, opportunities for advancement, terminations, outside vendors, members and customers, service clients, use of contractors and consultants, and dealings with the general public.

Beyond Bathrooms

Another way to raise awareness is to require or strongly encourage staff members to attend a training on transgender issues. These awareness building sessions help dispel common myths and stereotypes. They help make staff aware of all the patrons they serve. Additionally, libraries should use inclusive language in their promotional literature by replacing man and/or woman with gender neutral language such customer, client, or patron. Similarly, this literature should use gender neutral pronouns such as they and their.

Patrons asked to fill out paperwork that have the designations of Mr. or Mrs. may feel disregarded and with no means to self-identify as they see fit. This designation of gender may force individuals to reveal their gender identity and possibly subject them to further discrimination. Moreover, an individual’s name/appearance/perceived gender may not correspond to their legal photo ID. Inclusive library policies and procedures are important to individuals navigating this personal and legal issue.

Lastly, libraries can create programming that addresses the needs of the transgender community. They can partner with a local organizations to bring a transgender speaker into the library. Additionally, they can allow and promote the use the meeting rooms to local community organizations.

Being an ally means to be joined with another for a common purpose. Libraries can be hospitable to transgendered individuals by providing appropriate bathroom facilities and creating inclusive policies to better serve them. Policy statements provide expectations and guidelines of behavior that are acceptable from both patrons and staff. Such policies are supportive of their institutions’ mission of diversity and serving the community. Improved policies will improve the community’s experience, and having staff members who understand their patrons’ concerns will make the patrons feel like they matter. At its most basic level, being an ally means developing an understanding of the issues surrounding the transgender community. An ally should expect to make mistakes but does not give up on creating an open and supportive environment. Finally, an ally takes action when appropriate. The adoption of policies is not a brief process. Rather it is a reminder that library professionals should make a constant commitment to the ALA’s core values of diversity and of making libraries more hospitable to all patrons.

Works Cited

American Library Association. Core Values of Librarianship. ALA, 2004. Web. 15 June 2014.

American Psychological Association. What does Transgender Mean? APA, 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.

Brooks, David. “Ruling Class War.” The New York Times 11 Sept. 2004. Web. 15 June 2014.

Frosh, Dan. “Dispute on Transgender Rights Unfolds at a Colorado School.” The NewYork Times, 17 March 2013. Web. 15 June 2014.

Gates, Gary J. How Many People are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender? Williams Institute, 2011. Web 15 June 2014.

Gay & Lesbian Fund of Colorado. Nondiscrimination Policy Requirements and Sample. Gill Foundation, 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.

The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network. Enumeration. GLSEN. Web. 15 June 2014.

Gough, Cal and Ellen Greenblatt. “Barriers to Selecting Materials about Sexual and Gender Diversity.” Serving LGBTIQ Library and Archives Users :Essays on Outreach, Service, Collections and Access. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2011, 165-173. Print.

Hughes-Hassell, Sandra, Elizabeth Overberg, and Shannon Harris. “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, And Questioning (LGBTQ)-Themed Literature For Teens: Are School Libraries Providing Adequate Collections?.” School Library Research 16 (2013): 1-18. Print.

Jardine, Fiona “Inclusive Information For Trans* Persons.” Public Library Quarterly 32.3 (2013): 240-262. Print.

Lambda Legal. FAQ About Restrooms & What to Do If You’re Hassled. Web. 15 June 2014.

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. Hate Violence Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and HIV – affected Communities In the United States in 2011. NCVAP, 2012.  Web. 15 June 2014.

Olyslager, Femke and Lynn Conway. “On the Calculation of the Prevalence of Transsexualism.” WPATH 20th International Symposium, September 5-8, 2007. Chicago, Illinois. Web.

Public Religion Research Institute. Strong Majorities of Americans Favor Rights and Legal Protections for Transgender People. PRBI, 2011. Web. 15 June 2014.

Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620 (1996). Web. 15 June 2014.

Schaller, Susann. “Information Needs Of LGBTQ College Students.” Libri: International Journal Of Libraries & Information Services 61.2 (2011): 100-115. Print.

Sokoll, Talya. “Representations Of Trans* Youth In Young Adult Literature: A Report And A Suggestion.” Young Adult Library Services 11.4 (2013): 23-26. Print.

Sprigg, Peter. “Gender Identity” Protections (“Bathroom Bills”). Family Research Council, 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.

United States. Dept. of Education. Office of Civil Rights. Questions and Answers on Title IX and Sexual Violence. April 2014. Web. 15 June 2014.