Libraries as Safe Spaces for LGBT+ Patrons

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

You don’t have to be John Rawls, author of A Theory of Justice, to know that inequality, despite the social progress of the last 50 years, still exists. Minorities often struggle to enjoy rights that should be theirs. One area where the struggle is receiving more attention and more activity lately is lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender (LGBT+) rights.

There have been gains in this area, such as the legal right of same-sex couples to adopt children, engage in sexual activity, and marry. There have also been setbacks, such as the president’s July 2017 tweet that proposed to bar transgender people from serving in the military. (This potential move was rejected by a series of court rulings.) The fight continues with the Department of Education’s February 2018 notice that “it won’t investigate or take action on any complaints filed by transgender students who are banned from restrooms that match their gender identity.” When historians look back at the early 21st century, I think they will see LGBT+ struggles as our era’s civil rights movement.


Cisgender. Intersex. Pansexual. Gender expression. LGBTQQIA. When thinking and reading about this subject, it sometimes seems as if you’re learning a new language.

According to Jace Quinn, a writer specializing in gender issues, such learning is essential. “Labels,” Quinn told me, “may seem unnecessary or divisive, but they’re actually a pretty positive force. If you are asexual, it wouldn’t make a lot of sense to go to a homosexual or bisexual group and ask for advice on asexuality. It would be counter-intuitive, since someone who is a homosexual has no experience being asexual.” Beyond such practical considerations, taking the time to learn and use the proper terms validates people who are often treated without respect. “It’s good to have a place where you feel welcome,” says Quinn.

There are many websites for learning the terminology. A good beginner’s list is the glossary at We Are Family, an LGBT+ support and advocacy organization (see the sidebar for definitions of terms used in this article). Beyond definitions, the site explains why certain terms are derogatory. Most people understand that words such as “faggot” and “she-male” are no-gos, but it might surprise you to learn that “homosexual” and “sexual preference” can be offensive. “Because of the clinical history of the word ‘homosexual,’” the site tells us, “it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered. …” As for “sexual preference,” the term is “typically used to suggest that being [LGBT+] is a choice and therefore can and should be ‘cured.’”

A longer list is available at It’s Pronounced Metrosexual, a site that also has original articles, graphics (such as the Genderbread Person), and videos on gender and sexuality topics.


Gender-neutral restrooms are becoming more common. ALA, for instance, is great about having them at conferences, and other fields are catching up. I saw one in 2017 at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, known as C2E2 (why yes, I did write about my experience). It takes some getting used to, like with any socially modern practice. I watched as one guy walked toward the entrance, passed a woman walking out, stopped, looked up at the sign, looked around as if expecting to be arrested, and then darted inside. Finally, I felt brave enough to try it. There were no urinals, only stalls, and as I washed my hands, I saw men and women walk uncertainly in.

Genderless lavatories are actually a throwback. The U.S. had no laws separating restrooms by sex until Massachusetts enacted the first one at the end of the 19th century. By 1920, more than 40 states had joined in. The laws were part of a broader social trend that gave women dedicated spaces in photography studios, hotels, banks, department stores, trains — and libraries.

Libraries are now leading the effort to make restrooms safe places for transgender people, 70% of whom report that they’ve “experienced discrimination in restrooms, including being stared at, ridiculed, told to leave, or not allowed to use the facilities.” One method is not segregating restrooms by gender. Another is to eliminate community restrooms by making each one single-occupancy. The issue made headlines in 2016 when North Carolina passed the so-called Bathroom Bill, a law requiring individuals in government buildings, which include public schools, to use restrooms and changing facilities that correspond to the sex written on their birth certificates.

Since then, a number of states have considered similar legislation. As government facilities, libraries would be bound by such a law, but it would be a mistake, says Katherine Weadley, director of the Lyons Regional Library District in Colorado. “If libraries offer gender-neutral bathrooms,” she believes, “it says, ‘I see you.’ It says, ‘We care about you, and this is a safe space for you to come.’”

Collections and Services

Here is an interesting quote:

Certain societies at certain times, usually in the interest of maintaining the baby supply, have discouraged homosexuality. Other societies, particularly militaristic ones, have exalted it. But regardless of tribal taboos, homosexuality is a constant fact of the human condition and it is not a sickness, not a sin, not a crime … despite the best efforts of our puritan tribe to make it all three. Homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality.

Sounds modern, right? Like something written in the last few years? In fact, these words appeared in Esquire in 1969. They were written by Gore Vidal, an early LGBT+ champion. The year before, Vidal had published Myra Breckinridge, a novel that gave the world something it had never seen: a transgender main character. Myra, a would-be actress, was born a boy named Myron, whose sex reassignment surgery goes awry.

Fifty years after Myra Breckinridge, “we’ve seen an increase in the number and diversity of materials on and about transgender issues,” writes K.R. Roberto. Roberto lists and discusses works of fiction, politics, autobiography, and even comics. Another good source is the Lambda Literary Awards, which “identify and celebrate the best lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender books of the year. …” ALA bestows the Stonewall Book Awards, and its Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Round Table (GLBTRT) has book lists (for YA and 18+ titles), book reviews, and other selection tools. Public and academic libraries can help researchers and promote inclusion by adding some of these titles to their collections.

Another concern is privacy. LGBT+ people are circumspect about how, when, and to whom they come out. They have to be. A library should be a safe space for them to meet their information needs, and we have to do everything in our power to ensure that safety. This could include private rooms for reference transactions. Or circulation slips that don’t print a person’s name. If you were born, say, as Darlene but now go by Dan, you don’t want Dan showing up anywhere if your transition is incomplete and vice versa. Calling someone by their pre-transition name is sometimes known as dead-naming, and it can be painful. Finally, it may be tempting to keep LGBT+ materials in a special collection, but this isn’t ideal, as those who ask to see the collection have possibly outed themselves. Better to keep the materials in open stacks. Many libraries have had success with Pride Month displays, although there are risks of backlash. One Texas library was challenged by the group MassResistance, which claimed that its Pride Month displays “targeted children with psychologically intrusive homosexual propaganda.”

A generation ago, little was understood about LGBT+ people, their needs and desires, and their place in society. We have made progress since then, and there is more work to be done. Libraries, those cornerstones of equality, are vital elements of that progress. Librarians should educate themselves about the issues, putting us in prime position to educate others, thereby effecting change.

Originally published at

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Writer. Editor ( Librarian. Lover of books, cats, and comic cons. Hater of vegetables. Tweet: @anthonycaycock

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