What counts? Gender identity and library workers.

Last week, I received an email inviting me to a webinar about transgender inclusion in libraries being offered by the Washington State Library, and I immediately signed up. I am always happy to learn more about supporting transgender and non-binary library workers and patrons. (Can’t make the webinar? If you’re attending ALA Annual in June, I recommend the “Trans* Customer Service 101” session which already has 72 interested attendees.)

How many people identify as transgender or non-binary? It’s difficult to get exact numbers, especially because many surveys only provide male/female gender options (and even when other options are offered, people may choose not to disclose their gender identity for a variety of reasons). In 2016, researchers at the Williams Institute at UCLA estimated that 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender. A similar finding in a February 2017 article in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 390 adults per 100,000, or about 1 million Americans, identify as transgender.

But we have almost no idea how many library workers identify as transgender or non-binary, and we don’t know because we aren’t asking.

The ALA Membership Demographics survey (a voluntary, self-selected survey completed by ALA members, which is not representative of all library workers) allows respondents to select “male” or “female” for their gender identity. As of January 2017, 37,666 respondents had completed the survey. The Diversity Counts report from ALA, last updated almost a decade ago, uses data from the American Community Survey, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Center for Education Statistics–all of which use male/female gender options.

In March, the Census Bureau submitted their planned questions for the 2020 Census to Congress. Two notable changes made the news: the 2020 version of the Census will ask respondents to disclose their citizenship status, and respondents will also be given options to declare same-sex relationships for the first time.

Disappointingly, the options for reporting sex haven’t changed since 1790.

On page 71 of the 98-page document outlining the planned questions, the Census Bureau explains that respondents will be asked to choose “Male” or “Female” for their sex, the same two options that have been available since the question was asked on the very first census in 1790. The word “gender” is not used in their proposal.

It is not impossible to collect data about transgender and non-binary identities. This week, Canada announced that its next census, and other future government surveys, will allow respondents to select a third gender option. (The exact wording hasn’t been worked out yet.) In June last year, Oregon became the first state to issue identification with a non-binary gender option.

Why do I care about this? Why does it matter to know how librarians identify?

Because library work is gendered, and it always has been. Transgender and non-binary library workers deserve recognition and support, but they cannot effectively advocate for themselves in a nearly-exclusively single-gendered profession that does not acknowledge their existence; our current demographic measures inadvertently erase the populations that need the most affirmation.

I’m excited about Sunny and Reed’s webinar on June 5th, and I think Stephen’s session at ALA will be a smash. It is incredibly important to support queer, trans, and non-binary library users. But I also think we need to be sure we’re doing our best to take care of queer, trans, and non-binary library workers. Just like on airplanes, you gotta put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.

If surveys of library workers ask, “Are you male or female?”, we are asking the wrong question.

Featured image by Karina Carvalho on Unsplash