Many forms of diversity are important to consider in a library context. Diversity of gender identity and expression are only recently being included more often in discussions of diversity in libraries, and so certain terminology may be unfamiliar to library staff. Though terminology can and will change, the following definitions are commonly in use today.
Brief overview of terminology
A cisgender person is someone whose gender identity aligns with their gender assigned at birth. Someone assigned female at birth who identifies as a woman is cisgender.
“Non-binary” is an umbrella term for gender identities falling outside of the gender binary of girl/woman versus boy/man. This may mean a non-binary person identifies as having no gender, a gender other than “man” or “woman”, more than one gender, or a fluctuating sense of gender.
Variant gender expression can be differentiated from a non-binary gender identity. A non-binary identity is part of someone’s innate sense of self – similar to the sense of self many people have for womanhood or manhood – while variant gender expression is behaviour defying a culture’s gender norms. A person with variant gender expression could be assigned male at birth, and consistently identify as a boy or man throughout life, yet have a gender expression atypical for men in his culture. For example, Pete Burns of English pop band Dead or Alive had consistently identified as male throughout his life, regardless of his gender expression, even saying he was “very proud to be a man”. Of course, non-binary people may defy gender norms for the gender assigned them at birth, and it may even be that because of variant gender expression a non-binary person first endures bullying. Regardless, variant gender expression does not necessarily indicate an atypical gender identity.
Though some people identifying as non-binary also identify as trans, a non-binary identity differs from a binary trans identity. While neither may identify with the gender assigned them at birth, unlike a binary trans person, a non-binary person does not exclusively identify as a man or a woman. This is not to say a binary trans person is ideologically opposed to non-binary identities any more than a cisgender person might be. It means that, similar to cisgender persons, a binary trans person identifies as being either a man or a woman.
Sex does not determine gender identity. Someone can be intersex (having atypical sex characteristics, e.g. not unambiguously male or female) and identify as the gender assigned them at birth, or dyadic (“not intersex”) and have a non-binary gender identity. Sexuality also does not determine gender identity, and vice versa; a non-binary person could identify as pansexual, asexual, or many other sexual orientations.
The use of pronouns also does not necessarily indicate gender identity. A non-binary person may use she/her, just as a cisgender person could use gender neutral pronouns. This is not to say that pronouns have no meaning for all non-binary people. It is simply that non-binary people do not invariably use gender neutral pronouns (although many do).
Gender diversity throughout human history
As Richards et. al note, “gender identities outside of the binary of female and male” have existed “historically and globally” (95). There is also, as Frohard-Dourlent et al. state, a “long historical record showing that gender has not always been conceived in the binary way that dominates our contemporary culture” (2). Simply put, non-binary gender identities are not a recent development for humankind.
It has also been noted that “the erasure of non-binary genders is part of the process of colonization that continues to impose a western binary gender/sex system on Indigenous cultures” (Frohard-Dourlent et al. 2). Though many of the following descriptors may not necessarily be synonymous with “non-binary” (with some indicating more of a “binary trans” identity), there are numerous examples of words for people whose gender is not solely based on sex assigned at birth: ‘akava’ine, ‘akatāne, baklâ, binalaki, bissu, burrnesha, calabai, calalai, faʻafafine, faʻatane, femminiello, Kinnar, koekchuch, māhū, mak nyah, muxe, phuying praphet song, takatāpui, winkte.
Despite attempted erasure of non-cisgender identities, in recent years increasing numbers of people have been openly identifying as non-binary (Steinmetz). This may not be due to a growth in the actual number of non-binary people, however, but due to a growing awareness, acceptance, and familiarity with the concept that it is possible to experience gender outside of a strict duality (Richards et al. 98).
Nevertheless, despite ample evidence that non-binary gender identities have existed in some form in cultures around the world, and throughout history, there is still a pervasive belief that gender is a duality tied resolutely to a binary sex, and any deviance from this is to be avoided, or even punished.
These kinds of societal and cultural attitudes towards gender can have an impact on children from a very young age, as “within the first years of life, children develop increasingly rigid beliefs about the behaviors, preferences, and traits associated with particular genders” (Sullivan et al. 2).
Adult reaction to gender nonconformity in children
In a study of adult reactions to questions about characteristics in children, experiments showed “adults rated [gender] stereotype-violating children as less likeable than their stereotype-conforming peers” and that there is “converging evidence of backlash against [gender] stereotype-violating children” (Sullivan et al. 1). Additionally, “results suggest that gender backlash is not limited to adults” and this “reinforces traditional gender roles by penalizing the stereotype violations of even very young children” (Sullivan et al. 20).
This indicates children may begin learning from a very young age messages about the roles of gender and how their own self-worth pertains to gendered behaviour, due to treatment received by adults. This can have a negative impact on children, regardless of whether their gender aligns with the gender they are assigned. Not only may children begin very closely monitoring and modifying their own behaviour, concerned that deviation from the accepted gender norms will result in disapproval from adult caregivers (and withdrawal of care and support), but it may legitimize their own bullying of peers who do not conform to gender stereotypes.
Children are influenced not only by their caregivers and peers, but information, media, and stories as well. Children’s materials may “convey strong messages about gender stereotypical behavior” (Sullivan et al. 2). When evaluating content of material, it is important to consider not only the subject material, but the way in which the subject material is presented. This can be particularly relevant when working in children’s services. “Children’s materials that provide inaccurate, stereotyped depictions [can] influence children” and consistent exposure to negative representations of a child’s minority group makes it “likely they will internalize these social messages and develop a poor sense of self” (Naidoo 3).
Children may be significantly impacted by the narratives they are presented with, and libraries can have a role to play in the kinds of narratives children are exposed to. As Naidoo notes, “stories help children understand how society perceives their culture as well as the cultures of their classmates, teachers, caregivers, and others, thereby influencing their social and identity development” and “one place that children can interact with stories on a regular basis is the library” (2). Additionally, library staff can facilitate in children a greater understanding of a culturally pluralistic society not only with diverse collections, but with diverse programming as well (Naidoo 5). Those providing library services to children can consider the content and themes of programming and collections, and the impact these things may have. Indeed, “children’s literature can serve as a mirror reflecting a child’s own life and culture, or as a window allowing children to peer into the lives of others” (Naidoo 2-3).
Non-binary youth in British Columbia
Youth can be a difficult time for many, but, as Wyss observes, “young people who may have the most difficulty are trans and genderqueer youth [as] relationships with their peers are fraught not only with the usual adolescent tensions but also with the dynamics introduced when ‘alternative’ gender identities come face to face with the homophobia and transphobia that are rampant in almost all schools” (710).
Many studies have identified the discrimination non-heterosexual, gender variant, and non-binary youth face (including Coyne 340; Peters 501; Wyss 709), but a recent survey conducted by the McCreary Centre Society specifically considers the experiences of young non-binary people in British Columbia. Published in 2019, the survey was conducted in 58 participating school districts across the province.
In comparison to the average rate for all genders, students self-reporting non-binary gender identities were more than twice as likely to report self-harm (34), that they had not been able to access the mental health services they felt they needed (36), and had seriously considered suicide in the past year (33). Additionally, non-binary students were three times more likely to report missing school due to bullying in the past month (74), and that they had actually attempted suicide in the last year (33).
Compared to male or female identifying students, this survey also found non-binary students were less likely to report feeling safe at school (79), or safe in their neighbourhood regardless of the time of day (82), and were more likely to report at least one form of discrimination in the past year (72). These reports of discrimination include higher rates of non-binary students reporting being teased, purposefully excluded, and physically attacked compared to the average rates reported by all genders (73). Furthermore, in questions relating to quality of life and well-being, non-binary students were the least likely to agree with the statements, “I have a good life,” “My life is going well,” “I have what I want in life,” “My life is going just right,” and most likely to agree with the statement, “I wish I had a different life” (91).
Higher rates of depression and anxiety are experienced by non-binary adults across Canada as well (Rutherford et al. 15). An increasing acceptance of diverse gender identities and expressions may lead to an improvement in the mental health of the children of today, the children who will grow into the non-binary adults of the future.
One heartening result from the McCreary Centre Society survey, however, was that students of all genders reported that within the school environment the place they felt safest was the library (79). It is with this in mind that the importance of library services can be examined, as well as the potential for library programming and collections to counteract damaging and erroneous narratives about gender identity and expression.
There is also evidence of a demand for materials which include diverse gender experiences. According to a School Library Journal survey on diverse book collections, 50% of respondents indicated a demand for authentically portrayed gender nonconforming characters (with 59% of respondents indicating a demand for LGBTQIA+ characters). Unfortunately, 47% of respondents also noted difficulty finding materials with authentic portrayals of gender nonconforming characters, with 32% reporting difficulty finding portrayals of LGBTQIA+ characters (Ishizuka 31).
Knowledge of non-binary gender identities is useful for library staff in a variety of roles. In addition to the potential for one’s colleagues to be non-binary (whether or not they are “out”, or open in their daily life with others about their gender identity), the following observations are just a few examples of how non-binary issues are relevant in a library environment.
Information services: As many people may still lack familiarity with non-binary identities, questions on this topic may come up from library patrons- particularly as more celebrities and other public figures openly identify themselves as having a non-binary identity (including Amandla Stenberg, Judith Butler, Sam Smith, Angel Haze, Ezra Miller, and Kae Tempest, to name a few). Library staff providing information services can find it helpful to educate themselves about non-binary issues in order to be better prepared for these kinds of reference questions.
Collections development: The life of one non-binary person may be very different than that of another non-binary person. For a particular group to be accurately reflected in a library’s collection, stories and life experiences from a variety of different individuals within that group should be included. Additionally, selecting materials which accurately portray gender diversity better serves those accessing the collection, whether someone is non-binary and aching for reflection, or cisgender and unfamiliar with non-binary experiences.
Accessible services: As with anyone of any gender, non-binary persons may be dyslexic, visually impaired, hearing impaired, or face other challenges reading standard print or holding a book, and are therefore eligible for accessible services. Even if there are limited resources for acquiring materials specifically dedicated to an accessible services’ collection, it can be useful to have an awareness of eBooks and eAudiobooks available in the general collection which accurately portray non-binary identities and experiences.
Programming and events: Whether collaborating internally with colleagues, or liaising with external clients, it is important to be aware that someone may have a non-binary gender identity. It can help to not make assumptions about someone’s pronouns, sexuality, or family life, especially based solely on appearance. Additionally, it is critical to consider the ways in which certain events held in a library environment may impact non-binary individuals in the community, and their sense of safety and inclusion at the library.
Circulation: A non-binary person may use a more gender neutral name, or a name that doesn’t seem like it would “fit” someone of their appearance. It is considerate to be mindful before making jokes or asking questions about a library patron’s name while providing service at the circulation desk, regardless of the reason someone is named as they are. It can also be helpful for a library system to have an approach to borrower registration that reflects the realities of many people’s lives. For example, a patron’s record could have a field for given name, and a field for name as it appears on legal documentation. This is helpful not only for non-binary and trans library patrons, but for other people whose legal name differs from a name used in daily life. This includes someone whose marital status has recently changed, those with an “English name” differing from their legal name, or an Indigenous person using a traditional name.
Children’s and teen services: As many non-binary people report recognizing their gender in childhood (though they may not yet have had words for it), there are going to be children with non-binary gender identities accessing library services. The narratives and attitudes presented to children and youth about gender can have a long-term impact on their sense of self worth, whether or not a child grows up to identify as cisgender. Even if not actively promoting materials about characters with non-binary identities or variant gender expression, considering the content of children’s and teen materials can make a difference. Materials featured in displays or included in storytimes can be selected with a sensitivity regarding messages about gender.
Devon Bates is a User Support Technician, and part of the Digital Creation Team (developing and providing online instruction) at the Vancouver Public Library, a library system based on the traditional and unceded territories of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish) and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.
Coyne, Claire A., et al. “Evidence-Based Psychological Practice for Transgender and Non-Binary Youth: Defining the Need, Framework for Treatment Adaptation, and Future Directions.” Evidence-Based Practice in Child & Adolescent Mental Health, vol. 5, no. 3, 21 July 2020, pp. 340–353. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1080/23794925.2020.1765433
Frohard-Dourlent, Hélène, et al. “‘I Would Have Preferred More Options’: Accounting for Non-Binary Youth in Health Research.” Nursing Inquiry, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 1–9. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1111/nin.12150
Ishizuka, Kathy. “Can Diverse Books Save Us?” School Library Journal, vol. 64, no. 11, Nov. 2018, pp. 28–33. School Library Journal, https://www.slj.com/?detailStory=can-diverse-books-save-us
McCreary Centre Society. “Balance and Connection in BC: The Health and Well-Being of Our Youth: Results of the 2018 BC Adolescent Health Survey.” McCreary Centre Society, 2019, https://www.mcs.bc.ca/pdf/balance_and_connection.pdf
Naidoo, Jamie Campbell. “The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children.” American Library Association, 2014, http://www.ala.org/alsc/sites/ala.org.alsc/files/content/ALSCwhitepaper_importance%20of%20diversity_with%20graphics_FINAL.pdf
Peters, Wendy. “Bullies and Blackmail: Finding Homophobia in the Closet on Teen TV.” Sexuality & Culture, vol. 20, no. 3, Sept. 2016, pp. 486–503. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-016-9336-3
Richards, Christina, et al. “Non-Binary or Genderqueer Genders.” International Review of Psychiatry, vol. 28, no. 1, 12 Jan. 2016, pp. 95–102. PubMed, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26753630/
Rutherford, Leo, et al. “Health and Well-Being of Trans and Non-Binary Participants in a Community-Based Survey of Gay, Bisexual, and Queer Men, and Non-Binary and Two-Spirit People across Canada.” PLOS ONE, vol. 16, no. 2, 11 Feb. 2021, pp. 1–21. PLOS ONE, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0246525
Steinmetz, Katy. “Beyond ‘He’ or ‘She’: The Changing Meaning of Gender and Sexuality.” TIME Magazine, vol. 189, no. 11, 27 Mar. 2017, https://time.com/4703309/gender-sexuality-changing/
Sullivan, Jessica, et al. “Backlash against Gender Stereotype-Violating Preschool Children.” PLOS ONE, vol. 13, no. 4, 9 Apr. 2018, pp. 1–24. PLOS ONE, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0195503
Wyss, Shannon E. “‘This Was My Hell’: The Violence Experienced by Gender Non-Conforming Youth in US High Schools.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, vol. 17, no. 5, Sept. 2004, pp. 709–730. EBSCOhost, https://doi.org/10.1080/0951839042000253676