Feature image via the Gender Spectrum Collection
I came out November 28th, 2016, just one day after my 27th birthday. When I say I came out, I mean I came out to myself. I remember that feeling of shock, fear, and joy while I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling and realizing that everything finally made sense. Growing up, I didn’t know I was trans, but I knew I wasn’t what I was “supposed” to be. I experienced extreme gender dysphoria that I didn’t understand. I had no vocabulary to express these feelings and even if I did, I had no one to turn to and ask for advice. I spent many nights in tears hating myself for not being normal.
I grew up in a tiny, conservative town called Pitman, New Jersey. Literally two square miles large, Pitman is overwhelmingly white, and boasts eight churches despite its size. In fact, the town was established as a Methodist summer camp. My experience with sex ed. was predictably cisnormative and heterocentric. It’s an experience I’m sure a lot of confused teenagers have shared throughout the country. Growing up, I did not have a close relationship with my public library but inspired by a friend of mine, I enrolled in library school because I wanted a career where I could help people and be surrounded by books at the same time. My graduate program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was the first professional experience I ever had where my preferred name and pronouns were respected. While the library community is incredibly accepting and supportive, a lack of trans and nonbinary representation in the profession means that many libraries fail to focus on properly representing our community in their collections.
The public library is in the unique position to pick up where public education leaves off—to succeed where public education fails. Especially in small, low-income neighborhoods, community members use the library to learn how to file their taxes, apply for jobs online, use technology they can’t afford at home, and more.
As a confused trans teenager, I felt out of place everywhere, including my local library. In my tiny conservative town, there was little chance of me coming across the type of trans and nonbinary positive material that could have changed my life. Young adult (YA) literature like the novel The Symptoms of Being Human explore the issues trans and nonbinary teens struggle with and does so with empathy and compassion but also with real information. The Symptoms of Being Human has a protagonist named Riley, whose sex assigned at birth is never once revealed. The novel follows Riley as they navigate their gender identity, come out to their parents, become an activist, and learn about gender and sexuality through a support group.
As the characters in books like The Symptoms of Being Human discover their genders and sexualities, readers are able to get answers to the type of questions they might not be able to ask, whether out of fear or embarrassment. Trans and nonbinary representation in children’s and YA literature opens up a space for young people to safely explore their gender and sexuality. It’s a space that’s much safer than searching online or asking questions on forums; spaces that may not be properly moderated or that might provide unsubstantiated information or advice.
It’s because of this that it’s so important for public libraries to make a concerted effort to provide not just acceptance, but explicit and positive representation of trans and nonbinary literature.
Programming like a trans and nonbinary mentorship program or book clubs specific to our community can break isolation and provide the guidance and resources that can literally save lives.
Jaz, who requested to be referred to as Jaz only, has grown up searching libraries for a mirror of themself: “As a tri-racial, queer, disabled person, I had no media that made me feel proud or happy about those attributes. I was so deeply in the closet; I felt that I had to be what people expected of me. I felt so lost in who I was. I used manga and other media to fill the gap but the representation there was also very sexualized and not particularly sensitive or informative. You cannot be what you cannot see, what I saw was gender conformity, hetero-normality, and for the most part, because of where I grew up, very ‘American’ media.”
Like Jaz, Alok Vaid-Menon also grew up loving books. Alok is a prolific writer and performance artist whose new book, Beyond the Gender Binary, was released with young adults as the primary audience. Growing up, Alok loved reading books because they introduced them to different worlds and realities. They lament the fact that they never encountered any trans or nonbinary representation in the books they read growing up: “I didn’t even have access to the questions to ask. I didn’t know that living outside of the binary was possible. If I had access to nonbinary literature my life wouldn’t have just been better, it would have been something else altogether. It would have saved me a lot of anguish and grief.”
Beyond the Gender Binary provides both crucial information and reminds trans individuals just starting to explore their identity that they are not alone. When asked about the importance of their book being a part of public library collections, Alok had the following to add: “There is a calculated historic project to disappear nonbinary expression and knowledge from this country. This creates an illusion that gender non-conformity is ‘new,’ and not something that has always been. In times like these with the staggering revision and distortion of history (which is an act of structural censorship), it’s necessary that libraries be proactive in addressing elisions and absences. So many trans and gender non-conforming people are struggling because they have been denied access to knowledge about themselves and their communities. I hope my book can connect with people who need it to help reconnect with themselves.”
“There is a calculated historic project to disappear nonbinary expression and knowledge from this country. This creates an illusion that gender non-conformity is ‘new,’ and not something that has always been.”
While so many libraries shift their focus to providing virtual and remote services, and while many librarians have been called upon to assist in local efforts responding to the virus, now is the perfect time to completely change our perception of what we think a library is supposed to be. Libraries provide spaces and collections that are curated from an educational and public service-oriented perspective that is not found in bookshops and cafes. As LGBTQ literature grows, evident by such awards and reading lists as the Stonewall Book Awards List, The Lambda Literary Awards, and The AbeBooks Essential LGBT+ Books for YA Readers, it’s imperative that we ensure LGBTQ readers have access to those books, even in small towns like my own in New Jersey. Let’s recognize the potential for libraries to not only be extensions of public education but also the source of life-saving knowledge that our youth need.