Things I Never Learned in Library School: Training Staff to Work with Transgender Teens
In 25 years of working with teens in a public library, it is only recently that I have served and worked with teens that openly identified as transgender. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in working with them and they have been gracious in helping me understand those mistakes. I’ve also had to work with admin to discuss policy challenges and work with general staff to provide quality customer service to these teens. So today, I wanted to share with you some of what I’ve been learning. Let me be the first to say that there is a lot of terminology and language used when discussing transgender teens that I am just beginning to understand and that I may use or may be using incorrectly. I am an older cisgender woman from a conservative Christian background who is just learning and I want to share what I am learning with others like myself. It’s vitally important that we talk with our staff about GLBTQ issues and customer service to make sure that every patron who walks into our library is afforded the same equity, respect and quality customer service.
The first thing you should know is that sex and gender are not the same thing. I wish I could explain this to you further, but it’s a concept that I’m still trying to wrap my head around. Boiled down to the very basics, sex is the biological construct while gender is the social construct. For more on this important discussion, I suggest doing some extensive research.
In addition, gender is not purely a chromosomal presentation despite what you probably learned in your basic genetics class. In the scientific community, they talk a lot about things like gender dysphoria, gene expression, endocrine disruptions, and more. However, I’m not a scientist and neither are most library staff. I feel like at the end of the day, the how, when, where and why don’t matter. It’s important that remember that the thing that matters is the person standing before us in our library.
It’s also important to keep in mind that language evolves. Transexuality, transvestite and transgender are all terms that have been used to identify members of the transgender community. Older members of the transgender community may refer to themselves in one way and younger members of the community may refer to themselves as a different way. Even a brief look into our MARC records reveals that the subject headings have changed. I have had some conversations with technical services about subject headings. I would love to see that catalog subject headings linked so that all titles would come up regardless what term a patron searches.
In addition to talking with and respecting my teens, I have done a lot of research and reading on these issues to help me move past my own personal upbringing and biases to better understand and serve my teens. I’ve read a lot, for example, on the various things that they believe influences gender identity. From sex genes to endocrine disruptors to fertility treatments, there are a lot of environmental factors that influence gender expression. At the end of the day, none of this matters because what matters is the person standing before you asking to be treated with basic human dignity and respect. We owe it to our fellow humans to extend that basic respect to them and as a matter of good customer service, which every library should be striving to achieve, it’s the basic foundation: treat the person standing before you with common courtesy, basic respect, and with a full recognition that we’re all just fellow humans trying to make it day to day.
It’s also important that we recognize that there is a lot of hostility towards the GLBTQ community and that there are high incidences of homelessness, depression and anxiety, and suicide among GLBTQ teens. How we as teen librarians and how our staff as public servants respond to our transgender patrons is vitally important. It’s not an exaggeration for me to say that it can be a matter of life and death.
When a transgender person “comes out” (and I’m not sure that is the correct terminology), they are making known to the public that they identify with a gender different from what they have previously appeared or presented on the outside. So although they may have presented or been identified as female, they have known for quite some time that they are male and at some point they make the decision to finally let the world know and live as their authentic self. From what my teens have shared with me, this is a very important and freeing moment. It’s very important to respect your teens and honor their requests to be called by the names and pronouns that they prefer. At some point, your teens may come to you and ask to be referred to as a different pronoun and this is vitally important.
I will be the first to admit that changing pronouns can be challenging. Not because I haven’t respected my teens wishes, but because of force of habit. On occasion I slip and when I do, I always make a point of apologizing. Try to use the correct pronouns and when you mess up, apologize.
One day, after another pronoun slip, I declared to one of my teens that I was closer to that I was just going to start using they/them pronouns for everyone. This teen actually declared that this was a really good habit to get into to help avoid misgendering people that you didn’t really know yet. Our cultural go to has always been to default to he/she, which has often led to those moments on the public service desk when you have just misgendered someone. Training staff to default to they/them pronouns helps to ensure any misgendering by avoiding any assumptions of gender.
Where is the bathroom?
I have often worked in a library where there is a men’s and a women’s bathroom and they are in different locations in the building. A coworker recently shared with me that when she is asked where the bathroom is, she makes no assumptions and just answers the question by giving directions to both bathrooms. Again, we serve a lot of patrons and trying to determine what bathroom they may be asking about can be tricky. I admit to having that moment where I have told someone the directions to the women’s restroom after assuming that they were female only to learn that they were male and were asking for directions to the male restroom. Being in the common practice of just providing directions to both bathrooms is another way that we can stop assuming we can easily see how a patron identifies and provide quality customer service. When someone asks for directions to the bathroom, don’t assume you know which bathroom they need and just provide directions to all the bathrooms.
Nongendered Bathrooms and Bathroom Laws
I’m not particularly in the habit of paying attention to when and how patrons are going to the bathroom, so I didn’t really know that our transgender male teens were using the male restroom until a man complained. An older gentleman came to our management and expressed concern that a teenage girl had walked into the restroom and he didn’t want to be accused of taking her in there and doing anything to her. What this older gentleman didn’t know is that this teen was a transgender male. We then began researching bathroom policies and even met with an architect to determine if there were ways that we could change our bathrooms to make them non-gendered. I was surprised to learn that there are a lot of laws regulating bathrooms, including how many bathrooms you must have and how they must be labelled. These laws vary by state and it’s important that you consult with legal counsel to make sure that you are following the law and providing the best case scenarios for all of your library patrons. In part because of this bathroom issue, but also because of some other issues such as drug use, the library that I was working at eventually decided to have the bathrooms be locking restrooms where the key had to be requested at the Circulation Desk.
Let me take a moment here to add that having a family restroom or nongendered bathroom isn’t just a transgender issue, there are many disabled adults who may need assistance as well as children. Moving forward, every public space should definitely include inclusive bathrooms. If you can retrofit your bathrooms, please consider doing so.
Personal Opinions Don’t Matter When it Comes to Good Customer Service
For some of our staff, it was pretty easy to respect the teens wishes to be identified as they requested. For others, there was some real resistance. The issue of being transgender is very controversial for many people and there are some strongly held opinions on the topic. Though we can’t control what our coworkers believe, think or feel about GLBTQ issues, we can and should demand that they treat all of our patrons with equal respect and honor the wishes of our transgender teens in how they are identified. If a patron asks to be called a particular pronoun or asks to be called by a different name, it’s really important that our staff respect that. Demanding that our staff treat our GLBTQ patrons with respect is no different then demanding that they treat any and all patrons with respect. Failure to do so should be met with coaching and ultimately termination if needed.
When a person comes out or transitions, to whatever degree they choose to transition or not, they will often choose a new name that better represents their true identity. For example, a teen perceived as female at birth may have been named Colleen by their parents but when they are finally ready to share with the world that they are male they may choose the name Cole. This example, by the way, is completely made up because as a librarian I respect patron privacy. Cole may not yet have legally changed his name to Cole, in part because minors have limited legal rights and also in part because there is a process and a cost to changing one’s legal name. However, it is important that all staff refer to Cole as Cole. Calling Cole by the name of Colleen is deadnaming and it is considered an offensive and very hurtful act of aggression.
If a transgender teen asks to be called by a different name, a note should be make in their library card status letting staff know about this desire. If you can, change the library card name altogether. But if you work with an administration that is a stickler for legal names, at least make a note of it and train your staff to call a patron by their preferred name. It’s not the same by any means, but I’ll use my husband as an example. His legal name is Timothy but he goes by the name Tim. I have only once ever heard someone call him Timothy and neither one of us responded because although that’s his legal name which he signs and appears on all of his documentation, he doesn’t go by that and it didn’t occur to him that someone was trying to get his attention using that name. My point is this: we allow people to shorten their names or go by nicknames all of the time. The first day of each new school year we allow students to tell us what name they prefer to go by when we call the first roll call. We can call our transgender patrons by their correct name, no matter what the legal paperwork says. It’s actually a standard practice and to not extend it to transgender individuals just reveals our own personal bias.
A Note About Transitioning
In some cases, a transgender individual will choose, or not, to transition to their gender. What that looks like is different for every person. For teens, it is even more limited in what they can do because they have to have parental support, financial means, and usually doctors will wait until a person is past puberty before hormone treatment or surgery is considered. That means that most teens have very limited ways in which they can control transitioning. Transgender male teens, for example, may choose to wear binders and cut their hair and buy all male clothes, but there are a lot of limitations to what transgender teens can do. I mention this only because I was in a meeting once with a coworker discussing our bathroom complaint and this co-worker said, “outside of cutting their hair, they haven’t really done anything.” The implication seemed to be that they weren’t trying very hard or putting in very much effort. It’s important for everyone who is cisgender to remember that coming out as transgender is a process, that there are a lot of cultural and financial barriers, and that transgender individuals don’t owe it to anyone to transition in a way or time that works best for anyone but themselves.
ENBY and Gender Fluid Teens
When talking about gender, we should also keep in mind that there are more than just cisgender and transgender people. Enby is a term that is used by non-binary individuals. An enby is a nonbinary person who identifies as neither male or female. The Teen is friends with an individual who is very femme (traditionally female presenting), has chosen a male name, and identifies as enby. This invidiual uses they/them pronouns. Other teens are what they refer to as gender fluid. They may fluctuate between genders or identify as any and all genders at once.
I highly recommend to everyone the book The 57 Bus which has some good discussion of these terms within it. In fact, as we really began exploring these issues I requested from my administration that my staff be allowed to read this book on staff time because it’s an important and relevant book to serving our patrons and I don’t believe in asking staff to do something that they aren’t getting paid for.
Training Staff is the Goal
This is by no means an exhaustive look into any of the issues facing the transgender community nor is it a complete discussion of what public and school libraries need to know when considering serving the transgender community. What it is, however, is a reminder that we need to be having these discussion in the larger professional context but also at the local level. If your library hasn’t already, you need to go through your policies and procedures and make sure they are a good foundation for helping your staff know how to provide exemplary customer service to the transgender community. You need to be training staff in how to work with transgender individuals and reminding them that their personal opinions don’t matter when they’re at work, because I guarantee that you are employing some individuals that have very hostile feelings about the GLBTQ and transgender community.
This was not a thing that I had ever been trained about or discussed in almost 20 years of public library service, but necessity became the mother of invention. I am truly honored that my teens trusted me enough to share their journey with me, that they allowed me to fumble as I tried to figure out how best to serve them, and that I had the opportunity to advocate for them when issues came up. And make no mistake, issues came up and will continue to come up. I was forced to be reactive, but moving forward I will have the advantage of experience on my side and can now be more proactive. I highly recommend being proactive.
One final point I would like to make. Just as no group is a monolith, not all transgender individuals are the same either. I’m sharing with you here what my teens have taught me in our journey together. Take a moment to talk to and listen to a wide variety of members of the LGBTQA+ and keep listening. Language evolves, people change, and what we know about each other and the basics of good customer service are always evolving. Do the work and then keep doing the work.
Filed under: Things I Never Learned in Library School
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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