Professional Development While Oppressed

This post was inspired by something that happened to me, but I hope to make it relevant and helpful to all of our amazing readers. (Thank you all for filling out our survey!) I also realize that I write this post as a mostly able-bodied, white, cis woman, and that my experience could be different than yours, even if you check the same demographic boxes that I do.

Like another Hack Library School frequent contributor, I volunteered at the IFLA World Library and Information Congress this summer in Columbus, OH. I had a really great time, met a lot of cool people, and attended a lot of super amazing sessions. But my experience was ultimately tainted by the fact that, due to the homophobia of my roommates and others at the conference, I had to closet myself for pretty much the first time since coming out 5 years ago. No, nobody sat me down and said “Jessica, you must perform straightness and conform with femininity,” but I felt I had to do those things for my own safety. It was really stressful and hurtful and I don’t wish it on anybody.

So what does me experiencing homophobia have to do with library school or librarianship as a whole?

The Concept of “Professional”

What our profession (or any profession really) deems as “professional” has a lot of racist/homophobic/sexist/ableist/classist connotations. This great article from In the Library with the Lead Pipe discusses whiteness in librarianship and touches on the concept of “looking professional” and how that not only reinforces white supremacy but also lots of other awful things (that also sort of feed into white supremacy). I am white so I only benefit from those harmful standards, but as a gender non-conforming butch woman, the person asking about presenting soft butch as a professional really hit home for me. When I work at the reference desk or start doing job interviews, will how I present affect how well others think I can do my job? Am I too butch? Too obviously gay? Too intimidating?

And there’s only so much we as library students and emerging professionals can do to change this perception while still keeping our jobs. Even if I spend money on nice shoes and socks (which I just did) and make sure my button-ups don’t gape at the chest and my hair actually behaves for once, the fact that I’m not participating in compulsory femininity might make patrons at the reference desk not want to interact with me, or they might complain to my supervisor. I stopped shaving my legs a year ago, and I always worry that one day my supervisor will sit me down and tell me to shave. And if my job relied on it, I would. I am not in the position to make a feminist statement while I need a job. Which sucks!

Professional Development

I love professional development. I go to all sorts of conferences when I can. I subscribe to so many listservs I can’t even keep track of them all. I’m on national committees and working groups. I probably do way too much considering I’m only a student. But I don’t care. I love it, and I encourage you to do it as well. Rub elbows with who you want to be in a few years.

And I have never had a problem being an out butch lesbian while doing it, either. I wear blazers and button-ups to conferences. I wear lanyard pins with my pronouns. I always make a scene and dance with ladies who are willing when there are conference social outings. I’m here and I’m queer, etc etc. My poster on LGBT issues in cataloging even won best poster at an international conference.

But my experience at IFLA made me reconsider how “out” I am, especially online. And it made me think of other things. For instance, will I be denied job interviews because of my political views? Will people not take me seriously with a shaved head and tattoos? Am I not allowed to say “my girlfriend” in a listserv conversation?

It also made me consider what conferences I go to in the future, or where I will travel for professional development. Or even where I apply to jobs. I’m not trans, but I know I wouldn’t feel safe in North Carolina right now, for instance. I completely had to ignore my grad school acceptance to the program at Indiana University because of their religious freedom laws.

Things to Consider

I’m not really writing this to tell other oppressed library students not to do professional development. I’m not promoting assimilation or respectability politics. I’m also not saying I’m the only person who has ever thought about this. I think all members of oppressed or otherwise vulnerable groups do a lot of this self-defense subconsciously; it’s just a part of our life. But every once in a while, something happens that brings all that subconscious defense into the foreground.

I think maybe I’m writing this more for people who don’t have to think about this stuff. If you’re ever the head of your department or library, maybe think about the type of environment you’re fostering. Think about where you require your employees to travel for work. We as librarians love to pat ourselves on the back about how progressive and liberal we all are, but I really don’t think that’s accurate. It’s certainly not accurate for the majority of people everywhere else. Cultural relativity is one thing, but so is personal safety.

Think about the language you use. Think about the dress codes enforced in your workplace. Think about the problems with any diversity initiatives in your library.

Think. And then, act.


A lot of these will probably be LGBT-related, because that’s what I am, but I’ll do my best to include other types of resources as well. And feel free to leave things in the comments, too! These are for everybody, but also, hey allies, maybe try looking at these? Sometimes it feels like these types of things exist only to preach to the choir, so to speak. Do some of the work for us.

Websites and Groups


5 replies

  1. Jessica, I am so impressed by your bravery in writing this post. Despite the U.S. LIS field being generally LGBTQ-friendly, as you know, the reception of LGBTQ communities is not identical all around the world. At a conference like IFLA that specifically caters to an international following, it was and is courageous of you to find moments to be your full and true self. Moreover, I love what you wrote about the compulsory performance of femininity and leg shaving. Everyday there is a conversation turning over and over in my mind questioning for whom I am performing my own femininity. Who is this make-up for? These skin-tight pants? This high-pitched tone? This meek, unassuming approach? This smile? Thank you for providing me with more vocabulary to name and identify our struggles!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes Jessica, thanks so much for sharing your experience. I hear it and appreciate your candor. I think it wise to still be part of the conversation- having your voice and presence gives others like myself the courage to be visible. I think it is important to continue these conversations and make judgment based on what makes you most comfortable. If an organization makes me feel like I need to omit certain aspects of my personality then I don’t consider working there. My litmus test for negotiating jobs is to look at the community resources. How active is the community and are there areas where I feel empowered and included. Keep up the dialogue. Another great read coming out in October 2016 by UNC Press is Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, by Patricia A. Matthew (Ed.).


  3. This is an insightful and important post, and exposes issues that should not only be considered by students, but covered by discussions with faculty as well. The only way to move to more real acceptance of diversity is if faculty also take up the cause. I would like to suggest an addition to your links–the GLBT Issues Caucus of SLA, For librarians working in corporate and other special libraries, questions of professional presentation can be even more fraught with difficulty, as they face the long-standing conservatism of these environments.


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