Thinking About Gender, Again
Gender is something that we typically think of in binary and often stereotypical terms. Most people continue to divide people up into either male or female and if we’re going to be honest, most of us have certain thoughts in our minds as to what it means to be female or male. We even have childhood rhymes about it, snakes and snails and puppy dog tails or sugar and spice and everything nice. But it’s the year 2015 and we are learning that not everyone defines themselves into these easy binary categories and if we are going to be in the business of respecting people and providing safe spaces for them then we need to do the work of breaking down our traditional binary thinking. And it’s not always easy work.
One of the reasons that I read a variety of professional literature and blogs is that I learn things. We are best, I feel, when we share and we learn from each other. It’s part of the reason that I blog. It’s part of the reason that I read blogs. And this week I was challenged once again to rethink my approach to issues of gender when I read Ingrid, The Magpie Librarian’s post on Adventures in Library Card Applications and Gender Neutral Bathrooms.
A few years ago when we were discussing summer reading registration I argued against compiling gender demographics as part of our sign up. For one, the information is, in my opinion, basically irrelevant. The other argument is that however we would respond to this information, it would probably be in a way that reinforced gender stereotypes and I feel that gender stereotypes are harmful to us all. There is no one right way to be a man and there is no one right way to be a woman.
In her post on Library Card Applications and Gender Neutral Bathrooms, Ingrid mentions her campaign to try to get her library system to stop asking those who register to define themselves as male or female:
As we have it now, anyone who doesn’t fit into the Male and Female categories is treated like an “other”, which is generally not how I like to treat library patrons. It’s not very welcoming
Many people will argue that we need this for statistical purposes. I would argue that it’s something that we’re just used to being asked so it’s more out of habit or tradition then in providing us with meaningful information that better helps us meet the needs of our patrons. And again, our responses to this information will tend to be based on stereotypes as opposed to any meaningful types of outreach. I will say that I discussed this post with a fellow staff member and they said that having the male/female information on the record helps if you have, say, someone named “Chris” listed as the name on a card, particularly if a dispute comes up.
The other truth is that in the year 2015 many people don’t identify as traditionally male or female. You probably saw some media attention to the fact that Olympic gold medalist Bruce Jenner transitioned to female and is now Caitlyn Jenner. And just this past week pop star Miley Cyrus came out as gender fluid, meaning she doesn’t identify as male or female. You don’t have to personally like it and I have read enough of the comments to know that there are many people that have strong feelings on the subject, but I think that if we are going to call ourselves compassionate people that when have to do the work of breaking down our personal biases and allowing people to identify themselves as they want to self-identify and respect their right to do so. And if libraries are going to be neutral and safe spaces, and I believe that they should be to be successful in their mission to their communities, then we have to respect our patrons. As Ingrid mentions, othering people is not very welcoming.
The second part of Ingrid’s post has to do with turning the single stall bathrooms on the children’s floor into gender neutral bathrooms. Instead of a boy’s and a girl’s bathroom they were re-labelled Bathroom A and Bathroom B. This is, actually, a pretty common sense thing to do. In fact, as soon as I read the post I went to our head of children’s with the post in hand stating that we should do the same. Beyond gender neutrality issues, it’s just actually a better way to use resources. How many times have I seen a young girl waiting outside the girl’s bathroom when the boy’s bathroom sat empty and vice versa? Too many to mention and, if you think about it, there’s no reason for them to be waiting when there is another perfectly empty single stall right there waiting to be used. The only thing that is stopping them is a sign that says “boys”.
One of the arguments is, of course, this idea that we are keeping our girls safe by not allowing men to go into the girls bathroom. Transgender women are especially an object of fear for many, so much so that Michelle Duggar spent a great amount of time campaigning to prevent a law that would have allowed transgendered individuals to use the bathroom of their choice. She stated that this would make young girls in particular susceptible to male pedophiles who dressed up as women to gain access to our children. The idea that a simple sign that says “girls” will prevent a man intent on raping a young girl from entering a bathroom is, if we really think about it, an absurd notion. I remember reading years ago about a library that locked its bathroom doors and you had to ask for a key at the desk. A young girl, I believe aged 8, asked for the key and when she went into the bathroom she was followed by a man who did in fact rape her in the bathroom. The truth is, if someone is intent on raping another a sign isn’t going to stop them. But this is not the only reason that this mindset is dangerous, because we must remember that women can and do sexually abuse and that men are equally capable of sexually abusing boys and men in a boys bathroom. Designating a bathroom in terms of binary genders does nothing to keep our children from sexual abuse and those that think it does are not doing the real work necessary to help break down the cultural issues that really put our children at risk of sexual violence. They are fighting, I believe, the wrong battles.
I think it’s important to note as well that when we’re talking about single stall bathrooms, there is actually no good reason to gender them. This is a case of us continuing to do the things we used to do without thinking fully of what it means to the library and it’s patrons. So as I read Ingrid’s post I had a genuine A-HA! moment.
Doing the cognitive work of moving from traditional binary gendered thinking is not easy work. As I have mentioned, I hold a Bachelor’s of Art degree in Youth Ministry from a very conservative Christian college, so I understand that spiritual teachings and objections of the conservative side of things. I am, though I am loathe to admit it, slightly older (only slightly), so I understand the cultural norms there as well and how hard it is to ask a more firmly set mind to adjust those settings. It’s not easy and I’m probably not doing as good of a job as I think I am in changing my thinking and my ability to approach others with basic human dignity and respect. But I’m trying, and that has to count for something, I hope. I hope you’ll read Ingrid’s piece and allow yourself to think on it as well. We owe it to our patrons to create welcoming environments.
Of note: As Ingrid mentions in her post, some states have laws indicating that an individual can use the bathroom of their choice based on how they self identify. It’s important to know what the laws are in your state. Ingrid recommends using http://www.lambdalegal.org/help as a resource to find out what the laws in your state may be.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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