Out in the Library: On Being The Only Transgender Staff Member

When I was accepted into grad school, I decided that this would be my moment to be out as non-binary in my professional life. This was both a personal decision – wanting to live authentically – and a public one – wanting to be visible to minority patrons as a non-binary library worker. 

Coming out – even in an environment that claims to value diversity – is always a gamble. Even though being white and able-bodied means I’m less likely to be threatened with physical violence than transgender folks with other intersecting identities, the emotional toll of being out in a system that was not built for me is still steep.

I have worked at both an academic and a public library, and it is infrequent that a patron gets my pronouns right. Most of my interactions with them are so brief that the effort to correct them often does not seem worth it. That said, it still affects me to be constantly called “ma’am” and “her” throughout the day. This is compounded on by the stress and exhaustion of having to out myself to coworkers, and correct them on my pronouns. Microaggressions, such as comments on how I dress and what that says about my gender, can also add up. And while one of my libraries has a gender-neutral staff bathroom I can use, my other workplace only has two in the entire building, and using them means I have to go to an entirely different floor than the one I work on. 

There is an increasing body of literature on services to transgender patrons, and HLS has addressed some of these issues in the past as well. But little is still known about trans and gender-nonconforming library workers. The ALA membership demographics survey only allows members to identify as male or female, so getting accurate information on non-binary and gender-nonconforming library workers is difficult. 

Universities also can fail their current and prospective students – when applying for my current program, I had to choose between identifying as a man or a woman on my application, and the iSchool program still uses the language of “preferred pronouns” rather than just “pronouns”, which is the nomenclature more widely accepted by the transgender community. 

I say this less to call out these institutions rather than to point out that when all of the people making decisions about policies are cisgender, the needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming workers can often be forgotten. 

I also am very lucky to have supportive classmates and coworkers. I have been able to recruit several allies at work and in class who are willing to correct people who misgender me, which is a small but very meaningful act of allyship. Finding the handful of other gender-nonconforming LIS students in my program has also helped me to feel less alone in a field that is overwhelmingly cisgendered. 

The demographic makeup of library staff members also affects library patrons. It’s important for trans patrons to see themselves represented, and lets them know that there is a safe person to go to if they need help. Being out has also allowed me to be an advocate. At one of my jobs, I had the opportunity to help lead a staff workshop on using gender-neutral pronouns in public service, and since then I have seen most of our staff members put in the effort to use gender-neutral language when referring to library users. I also get to have a say in what books are added to the collection, and I try to prioritize including more books by trans and gender-nonconforming authors. 

A few weeks ago, I was helping a patron who saw my pronouns pin and told me that her grandchild also uses they/them pronouns, and asked where she could get a pin like mine for them. It’s moments like these that affirm my choice to be out at work. My goal after graduation is to work at an academic library, and my hope is that students at that future university who might be questioning their own gender can see a space for themselves in the library, and see a transgender librarian as the kind of person they could be.

Further reading:

Not Cis in LIS: A Roundtable Discussion about being Trans in Libraries

What counts? Gender identity and library workers

What It Means to Be Out: Queer, Trans, and Gender Nonconforming Identities in Library Work 

Being Seen: Gender Identity and Performance as a Professional Resource in Library Work

Featured image by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Robin is the Community Manager of Hack Library School, and a student at University of Wisconsin Madison. They are on Twitter at @robinmgee 

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