Nonbinary Gender Identities in Libraries and Beyond

From an annotated bibliography on nonbinary gender identities in media, written by nonbinary scholar and librarian Charlie McNabb, and adopted by the American Library Association (ALA), “Nonbinary identities are those that fall outside of the traditional binary “man” and “woman” gender categories. Nonbinary folks can be somewhere between man and woman, a mixture of both, or may identify completely separately from these categories. Nonbinary people can also move between genders or have no gender at all.” As library and information professionals, we are especially responsible for not only maintaining awareness around individual and cultural expressions of identity, but we are also accountable for ensuring that the collections and resources that we provide access to are accessible and reflective of our diverse communities.

I recently attended a reading and interactive discussion on nonbinary identities and representation featuring McNabb’s new book, Nonbinary Gender Identities: History, Culture, Resources. McNabb gave an inspired overview of their book and encouraged questions and discussion among the attendees, punctuated by readings of select passages. Not only was the content insightful and enlightening, but the event created a much-needed safe space for thoughtful discussion around gender and identity.

Designed as a resource for nonbinary people and allies, as well as to help librarians build collections reflective of nonbinary identities, the book includes background information on the history, or “(Hir)story” of nonbinary gender identities across various cultures, as well as related resources that are available in archives and special collections, non-fiction, journals, theses and dissertations, fiction, organizations, online spaces, and multimedia. As an added bonus, McNabb also provides useful appendices including notes on pronoun usage, and related Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). In a foreword written by Jane Sandberg, Electronic Resources Librarian at Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon, attention is called to the many barriers in schools, search engines, and library practices that make it difficult to find works for and about gender nonconforming, nonbinary, and transgender people, including the fact that “the Library of Congress received a proposal to add ‘genderqueer’ as a subject heading more than ten years ago, and has still not created a way to describe books that discuss nonbinary gender identities” (p. xi).

Many questions were raised, and lively discussion ensued around the role of the Library of Congress (LC) and LCSH – it was noted that many people think of LC as a national library in charge of setting overarching practices, when in fact it is the library of the United States Congress, and other libraries are free to use their own judgement when it comes to subject headings and cataloguing terms. The LC has updated many outdated terms over the years, but McNabb and other librarians present agreed that it’s important to keep references to outdated terms, even if potentially offensive, in order to preserve the record of language and cultural history over time.

After a reading on the history of nonbinary identities and the impact of European colonialism on indigenous cultures, attendees discussed the complexities and continuing repercussions of colonialism and issues of cultural appropriation of terms such as “two spirit,” an intertribal umbrella term for First Nation/Native American sexual/gender identities outside of European binary gender identification practices.

The event concluded with a discussion of allyship, and ways to support and show respect for nonbinary people, including:

  • Respecting and using gender-neutral pronouns. Pronouns have gained attention in many academic and other professional communities (as shown in the practice of printing preferred pronouns on name badges at conferences), and it’s important that we all respect each others’ pronouns. If you are involved in event planning and printing name badges, make sure to ask for permission to print pronouns, or provide an option for event attendees to opt in to pronoun identification. Including pronouns in your email signature, for example, is another good way to communicate identity and show support for those who identify as transgender. 
  • Respecting and using a person’s real name. Many nonbinary people choose to change their name as part of claiming their individual identity, switching from a previous “dead name” to their real name.  Using a person’s real name is super important, in addition to respecting pronouns. (For some, it may be challenging to get used to using different names and pronouns such as “they/them/theirs,” but McNabb pointed out that practicing the use of nonbinary pronouns really helps. For example, the Pronoun Dressing Room serves an online madlib-style resource designed to provide a fun way to play around with classic stories to get used to various names and pronouns.)
  • Active learning and showing support. Many campuses and community groups offer a “safe zone” training that allies can participate in, that usually involves one or more classes followed by receipt of a sticker or badge that can be displayed in an office or classroom to indicate that the space is safe for LGBTQIA students. Allies can also help to create venues for safe, open discussion, such as events like the book event that I attended.

As with all forms of knowledge, language around identity and gender is constantly changing. McNabb noted that their book came out in December 2017 and is already outdated, due to the increasing number of materials that are becoming available, in addition to the constant shifting of language in the wide array of communities that include nonbinary people. As current and future information professionals, it is up to us to continue these conversations and encourage a broader awareness of nonbinary gender identities in libraries, and beyond.

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1 reply

  1. What an awesome post! As a queer person going into library science, this is super important to me. I’m glad these conversations are being had and learned from. I definitely need to add McNabb’s book to my summer reading list.

    Liked by 1 person

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