A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Knowledge is Power: Serving Gender Diverse Youth in the Library

by on May 11, 2016

KATHLEEN M. HUGHES is the Editor of Public Libraries and Manager of Publications for PLA in Chicago. Contact Kathleen at khughes@ala.org. Kathleen is currently reading The Neapolitan Novels series by Elena Ferrante.

As we strive to serve every member of the community, especially our YA patrons, public librarians may be looking to learn a bit more about a particularly marginalized group, transgender youth. Transgender youth, defined as those who do not conform to prevalent gender norms, can be an overlooked segment of the LGBT community. As society becomes more accepting of LGBT issues, transgender youth are also increasingly more comfortable being open about who they are. However, despite recent societal inroads, trans youth are at increased risk for being ostracized, as well as physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Currently, 41 percent of trans people attempt suicide, according to the University of California Los Angeles, School of Law’s Williams Institute.1

As these kids are increasingly claiming their right to define and express themselves in new ways, they may seek resources including—but not limited to—hormone treatment, gender reassignment surgery, name change, and cross-living. Whether they are seeking resources, or just a bathroom to change in, public libraries can be an excellent support network for this sidelined group. And though it might sound complicated, it’s as easy as learning about and understanding any other group within your community.

In an effort to shed a little light on the lives of trans young adults, I talked to Jennifer Leininger at the Gender & Sex Development Program at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Leininger’s extensive knowledge of the subject and experience in providing inclusivity training to local Chicago-area schools can help us make decisions when considering programming, collection development, and overall service to this YA

Public Libraries (PL): Tell us a little bit about the Gender & Sex Development Program at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and what you do there.

Jennifer Leininger (JL): We are a multidisciplinary clinic. I’m the only non-clinician on the team. We have a mental health team with two psychologists and a psychiatrist as well as a medical team, endocrinologist, and pediatricians specializing in adolescent medicine. Of course everyone on the medical and mental health teams also specialize in supporting gender work. I manage the gender program and I do a lot of the community outreach, advocacy, and education, making sure that the folks in our program are supported not just from a medical and mental health perspective but also in their social settings and communities. We all work together to help foster a holistic approach, recognizing that just like every human is different, every person navigating their gender is also different and needs different things. So we accommodate that idea and provide the necessary support unique to their needs.

PL: Before we move ahead, let’s talk about terms. What are some of the terms, definitions, and concepts that readers should become familiar with?

JL: So, language is really powerful. Young people in particular, really tune into when language is used to be supportive and when language is used in a harmful way. So often what happens is folks aren’t familiar with what to say, and they may say something that seems unsupportive, and that can be really tricky to navigate.

I think it is important to distinguish between all of these things that make up who we are as unique individuals. So, as far as terms and concepts there is:

Sex Assigned at Birth. So that’s body parts, internal and external genitalia, and chromosomes. It determines the birth-assigned sex and what gender we think someone might be.
Gender Identity. Gender identity is someone’s deeply felt sense of self, which is not always the same as someone’s sex assigned at birth. Everyone has a gender identity of being male, female, something other, something in-between, but that again can be different from sex assigned at birth.
Gender Expression. Then there is gender expression, which is individual characteristics of what we do that is perceived as more masculine or feminine. So that can be everything from clothing, appearance, play preference for younger kids, speech patterns, all kind of things. So that’s a little bit more like socially perceived as being male or female, masculine or feminine.
Gender Nonconforming. Gender nonconforming is a term that I will probably use in the course of this interview. Related expressions include gender variant, gender expansive, and gender creative. Those all fall into the category of gender expressions that fall outside of society’s expectations of someone’s sex assigned at birth. And this is a little confusing as it may or may not impact someone’s gender identity. So it could be someone who is male sex-assigned at birth and identifies as male, but likes to express his femininity, so he identifies as a boy but likes to express his femininity. It could also be someone who is sex-assigned at birth as male but identifies as female and likes to express her femininity, so I think that is where it can be a little tricky. As far as gender nonconforming, it is a long-standing occurrence, so six months or more, [so] not someone who is a little boy who identifies as a boy but puts on a dress from the kindergarten dress-up day and wears it around all day. That’s adorable but not necessarily gender nonconforming. So someone—you know I don’t love the term “tomboy”—but that is the term that most people are familiar with and that would be a female who identifies as female but is expressing her masculinity, so that is a nonconforming female.
Sexual Orientation. Sexual orientation is really different from gender identity. Sexual orientation is the gender to which folks are sexually and romantically attracted, so that really is external in terms of the other person, [rather] than gender identity, which is internal and how you feel. Part of talking about inclusion means having diverse representation of sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is definitely different from gender identity, and that is so important for folks to understand. You know when we are talking about gender, we are not talking about sex, we are actually just talking about how someone feels and is.
Cisgender. Cisgender is a term used to describe folks whose gender identity is congruent or the same as their sex assigned at birth. So someone, who is born with a penis and identifies as male is a cisgender guy. Related, there is this wonderful team of lawyers that I work with on some policy work and one of them asked me, “Why do we need to include this term cisgender in the list of key terms?” My response is that it really helps us avoid saying things like non-transgender students or even on The Morning Shift [WBEZ Chicago, NPR Affiliate, a radio show Leininger recently appeared on2], the caller, I think, didn’t quite know what to say so she said “traditional” students. I’ve heard other folks say “normal students.” So instead of saying those things, the right term is cisgender, so now we are all empowered with that information.
Transgender. And then transgender is an umbrella term, so basically it is a number of different gender identities that fall under the trans umbrella, but as individuals whose gender identity is different than sex assigned at birth. Trans means across, right? The big thing to remember is that it applies to identity so it does not really have anything to do with how someone looks or how someone behaves. And it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with someone’s body parts; I think that there is sort of a fixation with transgender people’s bodies, in a way that is really unsupportive. How do you know if someone is transgender? They tell you. It is not pathological, it can’t be diagnosed. I think that is also important for parents to know. It is not something that you can go to a therapist and they can say, “Oh your kid is transgender.” The other thing that is helpful to know is that transgender is an adjective, so it is not a noun or a verb. So, “she is a transgender” is incorrect. It is incorrect as a verb, so “that person is transgendered,” or saying a transgendered person is also incorrect. Correct would be saying something like a trans male, a transgender student, a trans person—any of those is certainly the right way to use it.
I think with any of these terms it is just important to remember to let people self-identify. But this is a helpful shared language to understand the experiences of the people we serve in libraries and in the community.

PL: On The Morning Shift program you talked about training that you are doing for Chicago-area schools on making the schools more inclusive for transgender youth. How did this come about and what is the goal of the training?

JL: We’ve been doing the training as part of the program for the past few years. Actually there has been a huge increase in requests for training, which is exciting, as folks are seeing this as an emerging diversity issue.

Basically I work with staff members to provide an understanding of gender diversity within a school framework, and to discuss best practices that support all students around gender diversity including but not limited to those who are transgender and gender nonconforming.

Depending on how much time we have [for training] we can really delve into scenarios. Language is certainly a part of that. I definitely take the opportunity to talk about why it is important to support gender diverse students and include gender diversity in language and curriculum just like with everything else, kind of try to thread it into the framework of the education process. So, that is sort of the goal.

PL: I believe this training was required in the schools after a touchy locker room issue?

JL: Locker rooms and bathrooms are definitely the issue that has been most contentious at this point, but certainly not the only issues that trans young people are navigating. Some trans young people have trouble getting a teacher to call them by a name that feels good and honors their gender identity. Some young people do not have their preferred name and pronoun in the student information system, so a substitute teacher might out them. That happens a lot.

They face bullying and harassment in locker rooms and bathrooms but certainly not only in those spaces. So part of the training is also understanding how this is not just about access to facilities. This does not begin and end with where we change and where we go to the bathroom.

It is about creating a space that reflects and celebrates gender identity and gender diversity, in the school culture, in the language we use, and in the ways that we interact with all students, including those who are trans and nonconforming. Recently, a colleague mentioned how violent it can feel for trans young people to feel that they are not reflected in any way in the curriculum or the language and I think that can be pretty devastating.

Something I always try to say at the beginning of trainings is that this is not a political training. The goal is not necessarily to get folks to change their beliefs because sometimes there are certain beliefs tied to gender and how folks feel people should identify, but these students are at increased risk for a number of different factors including dropout rates. So the goal is to make sure that all of the students get educated and at the end of the day here is what you need to do to make sure that happens and make sure that students feel supported. Regardless of how someone feels. So the goal isn’t necessarily to change hearts and minds but if that happens I’m fine with it.

PL: Transgender people face systemic exclusion and are often targets of misunderstanding and violence from individuals as well as institutions. How can public libraries and public library staff members best become allies to transgender youth?

JL: Well this is my favorite question, of course. So similar to schools, there is a lack of gender diversity representation in school curriculums and in libraries so a big part of combatting that is by having inclusive programming and books. Having books that feature gender diversity, LGB and T characters, and having them not just sit on the shelves but also [represented] in the activities.

Put it on a booklist, put it on a display that you are creating, because that is really demonstrating that the libraries and librarians are being proactive. So LGBT history month, the transgender day of remembrance, we can use that as we would any racial minority or religious minority group. Create a display around gender minority folks.

The more included they feel, the more engaged young people will be. Similar to schools, the goals is to keep folks engaged. That is a big part of libraries, too. If a transgender teen comes in and sees the book Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, that really shows them that… “Hey, this is a place for me, too.”

Including books and characters that are interrupting gender stereotypes is a big thing and that is liberating for everyone. It shows that there is not just one way to be male, female, or anything else. And showing different genders, different sexual orientations, different families, is important.

The other thing I did want to bring up—the bathroom issue is actually really significant at libraries. I knew that it was significant in all public spaces, but because libraries are such a commonly used public space, a lot of transgender teenagers will come into the library and maybe they are not supported at home. Someone who identifies as female but who has to have a masculine expression at home might come into the library to change. They might use the facility to change or they may be seeking resources. We don’t ask cisgender people to look a certain way when they use a bathroom so just remember that it is not very supportive to ask transgender people to look a certain way either.

I understand that there are safety issues that folks are concerned about, but we need to recognize that trans young people deserve to feel like the library is a space where they can feel supported and making sure that the bathrooms are a place where they can change or go to the bathroom just like everyone else, without fear of harassment or bullying. And it could sometimes be bullying by a staff member. Actually bullying by security guards, in this respect, is a big issue.

PL: This is a relatively new phenomenon and some persons may not yet have overcome their biases in regards to the transgendered. What are some resources for further information and how can a person who is uncomfortable with the idea of transgender best serve transgender youth?

JL: While society is more open to transgender people now, it is not really a new phenomenon. There are transgender people in history. There is a kids’ book about one of the fastest carriage drivers in the West, who was actually a transgender male, so his sex assigned at birth was female but no one knew that until he died. But lately there has been much more of a cultural awareness, which is really so exciting.

It is OK to feel uncomfortable. But recognize that everyone deserves to use the library and feel safe and supported in those spaces regardless of people’s own personal beliefs and biases. Sometimes it is a matter of looking internally and asking yourself, “How do I feel about this?” and “How will what I am thinking or doing be negatively reflected back to the patron?” It is just customer service, making sure that everyone is treated fairly and equitably in the public space, regardless of how you might feel about their gender identity or expression.

If you are not sure of someone’s pronoun, you can always ask. You can ask in a supportive way, like “Hey my name is ___ , I’m the librarian on duty today, I prefer she and her pronouns. Is there a name and pronoun that you would like me to use while we are working together today?” That can be a way to lead in without feeling uncomfortable.

Just like anything else, folks are entitled to feel whatever belief or bias they have, but part of their job is to create a space where everyone feels welcome and supported. So just remembering that. And I do think that knowledge is power. If there is something that makes you uncomfortable, maybe doing a little bit of digging and looking at some of these resources will help you understand better—regardless of how you might feel—
and also, it is important to make sure folks do not feel ostracized. You know they are already a marginalized population at risk for violence and harassment in schools and in any other public space, so how can we combat that regardless of how we feel? No one deserves to feel that kind of violence.

PL: Learning about transgender lives can break stereotypes and put a human face on issues that persons may not have encountered personally. Is there media available that can help put a human face on these issues?

JL: I Am Jazz is a reality show that follows a transgender teen. Transparent is a little bit more adult but might be a good opportunity to understand trans folks. There are also a lot of clips available online—some of them are good, some of them are not so good—but I think hearing directly from folks navigating these spaces as a transgender person can be really helpful. So it is not just hearing that two thirds of these people have faced violence and harassment for the first time in school; that is scary, but doesn’t mean anything really unless you put a face to it.

As far as Transparent, I work with children more than adults but obviously some folks have to wait to come out as their authentic gender until they are done with their careers, until a parent dies, or a child is out of the house, or for whatever reason.

If you are not sure of someone’s gender, one question also might be, “Do I need to know in order to help this person?” For example, if you are just directing them to where Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is, gender expression or identity doesn’t really matter. A smile goes a long way. Both children and older folks can tell when someone is uncomfortable around them. This group has been marginalized so they have to be hyper-aware for their safety, so when they are working with someone—a librarian or an educator, whoever they may be—and that person is demonstrating discomfort, that really sends the wrong message.

PL: Transgender youth may be struggling with a number of issues, from health to safety. What are some situations that may arise (or have arisen in the person’s life) and what is the best method for navigating or helping the transgendered person in those situations?

JL: There is a term, transphobia, and it basically is discrimination toward gender minorities. Gender is really deeply entrenched in our society, so folks that don’t conform to traditional binary ideas can face severe harassment and there are increased risks for violence and harassment. That can be everything from isolation, teasing, bullying, and gossip. I think there are few ways to approach those issues. Be proactive, show that the library is a safe and supportive environment through systemic work, make sure there is a diversity statement including gender identity, through policy work around bathrooms, and having those systems in place.

Be proactive and also be reactive. Recognize what transphobic language sounds like. Hearing things like transphobic slurs, or hearing someone who is being misgendered, can be hard if you do not have a relationship with the young person and don’t know their gender pronoun. Being misgendered [using a name and pronoun that doesn’t align with a person’s preferred gender identity] is a really common way that transphobia manifests itself.
So, again, I think being proactive systemically and reactive by stepping in if you hear someone using transphobic language. Interrupt gender stereotypes.

For example, there is no one way to be male, female, or any other gender so there is no such thing as a boy’s haircut or a girl’s haircut, clothes are clothes, shoes are shoes. Trying to interrupt that kind of language can be really helpful, but also educating staff, especially security guard staff and other support staff. This can make a really big impact on creating an inclusive and supportive environment for transgender folks.

PL: Pronouns seems like they might be an issue on occasion. What is the best way to salvage a situation in which an incorrect pronoun is used? Can you explain the idea of letting persons self-identify?

JL: This is an awesome, awesome question, because humans make mistakes. So if you use someone’s name or pronoun and it is not the one they prefer, like if you know someone as Katie and then they let you know that they prefer Mark and male pronouns. What I would not say is, “I always knew you as Katie and it is hard for me because you still look like Katie.” Because it is not supportive. It is putting it on the person and it is your mistake so make sure you own it.

So if you call someone sir and they actually prefer madam, say, “I’m so sorry, I did not mean to disrespect you and I will absolutely call you miss/she/her moving forward; we want to make sure you feel supported here.

The person might still be offended but just make sure you still own the mistake.

So if you accidentally call Mark Katie, say, “I know you prefer Mark. I’m so sorry that was my mistake. I’m going to do everything I can to remember to call you Mark in the future.” So, making sure you own it and that you don’t put it on the person. As far as letting folks self-identify, listen to the language that they are using and use neutral language. So if you’re talking to someone saying, “Where is the child’s dad?” You could say, “Where is
the child’s parent?” And maybe you don’t need to use gendered language. You can always use “they” and “them”—that is something that folks are becoming more comfortable with over time.

The Washington Post just came out with some guidelines around the use of they and them as single use pronouns.3 The American Dialect Society named “singular they” as the word of the year a few weeks ago, and there are some people who do identify as nonbinary and prefer “they” and “them” as their pronouns.4 Listening to the language that folks are using to describe themselves is a way that they can self-identify. We don’t always need to ask. If you think maybe a young person is transgender or gay, part of that is recognizing is this me being curious or do I need to know this information?

PL: What have you learned from your school-trainings?

JL: Most people, regardless of how they feel in terms of their comfort level, want students to feel safe and they want young people to feel supported. So regardless of how someone feels—and it is a huge range in districts that I’ve worked with—everyone wants students and young people to succeed. And that is a takeaway that, for me, has been really positive—giving folks the tools and the knowledge to support students and their success regardless
of how someone feels personally about transgender identity. I think that’s the big positive takeaway for me and not to get too cliché, but knowledge really is power.

PL: What might public libraries do to become more inclusive?

JL: Reflect gender identities and diverse families in materials and programming for sure—in addition to ensuring policies and systemic structures are in place and training. It is so great that folks are reading this interview, and this is a good nugget to introduce the idea of gender diversity to librarians, some of whom may not know that it existed or hadn’t thought too much about it.

Try to do training that is part of being proactive. You don’t know until you know, but once you know you can’t not know, if that makes sense. You can’t plead ignorance once you have this information and no one is teaching it as far as I know in any graduate programs. Whether it is education or library sciences, this is just a subject that is getting missed.

And so, doing some of your own research around trans folks and gender diversity and diversity in general will be very helpful, but also including that as part of staff trainings both for librarians and support staff. Because young people will be coming into contact with everyone.


The Williams Institute, “Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults,” accessed Feb. 10, 2016.
National Public Radio, WBEZ Chicago, The Morning Shift, Jan. 21, 2016, accessed Feb. 10, 2016.
Bill Walsh, “The Post Drops the ‘Mike’—and the Hyphen in ‘E-mail,’” Washington Post, Dec. 4, 2015, accessed Feb. 10, 2016.
American Dialect Society, “2015 Word of the Year Is Singular ‘They,’” Jan. 8, 2016, accessed Feb. 10, 2016.

41 Transgender-Friendly Books for Young Kids

PFLAG Illinois Book & Movie Recommendations 2015

Growing Up Trans (Frontline/PBS)

I Am Jazz (TLC)

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Gender & Sex Development Program

Welcoming Schools, Actions You Can Take as a Librarian

Welcoming Schools, Books to Engage Students: Bibliographies

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