“The Reference Desk” is a regular column featured in the AALL Spectrum. The column below originally appeared in the May 2015 issue and is reprinted here with permission.
Q: I’m a director at a law school library, and I’ve heard through the grapevine that one of my staff members may be in the process of transitioning. I don’t know this person very well, but, even so, I know that I can’t question this individual directly. Not only is it none of my business at the moment, but I’m not sure what I can do. I anticipate, down the line, that this person may approach me and let me know (his/her) choices. I want to eliminate as much awkwardness as possible for everyone, including myself, and would like to know what kind of training or assistance I should provide.
A: You’re correct in that you can’t do or say anything at the moment and that you need to be cautious in your anticipation of any changes. If what you anticipate occurs, it will be your human resources department that will need to take the lead. There are confidentiality issues involved here, as well as potential changes to insurance documents and updates to business systems, such as email addresses. I am sure that your H.R. department will involve you to the appropriate degree when the need arises. However, it may not be too soon to focus training initiatives on how to ensure that your work culture is one of respect, inclusion, safety, and compliance. Many schools are conducting training workshops and informational sessions on The Gay Alliance’s SafeZone Program, which was created to develop and maintain environments in workplaces, schools, and other social settings that are culturally competent and supportive to LGBTQ populations. I’ve asked Joshua Burford, assistant director for sexual and gender diversity at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, to share his insights. Josh has more than 15 years of experience working with the LGBTQ populations in the south and also has his MLIS. I was privileged to attend one of Josh’s presentations on the SafeZone Program.
Josh has shared the following:
“The support of our trans colleagues is an important part of the 21st century workplace. Too often, cisgender people (non-trans-identified people) feel that they will make “mistakes” with names and pronouns, and, because of this, they have a tendency to ignore the challenges faced by the trans people sharing their spaces. We never want to render trans people silent simply out of fear or lack of knowledge. It is important for cisgender people to understand the privileges that they themselves experience every day. Once cisgender people can understand how freely they are allowed to move through their world, it will help them understand the challenges trans people face every day.
“The best way to support your trans-identified colleagues in the workplace is to take a twofold approach to making your environment as affirming as possible.
“Part one is a wholesale review of all your procedures, processes, and physical spaces in your workplace. This can mean checking your forms, applications, and online language to make sure that you have spaces for individuals to identify as transgender. If you are forcing people to choose from lists that only have “male” or “female” options, then you are limiting the ways that individuals can identify. Substituting a fillable blank space can work wonders.
“Any review of policy must include an update of your workplace’s nondiscrimination policy. If your workplace is truly a space where your trans colleagues can be their whole selves, then you need to have this reflected in a policy that includes ‘gender identity/expression’ and make certain that the policy is public. A review of your procedures and policies is tough work, but it shows a commitment to the well-being of everyone in your office.
“When you are reviewing your physical space, it is important to consider what your public space looks like. Do you offer gender-neutral or all-gender restrooms in your building? If the answer is no, what can you do to remedy this? Having a plan to address this can really show your trans colleagues that you are serious about their safety in your spaces.
“Part two is education. There are countless resources available online to get your staff up to speed on the nuances of trans identity. It is vital that your staff be up to speed about the use of correct pronouns and names for the individual(s) in your workplace who are transitioning. Asking the right questions is necessary. It’s important to remember that mistakes can be made, but if the process of education is ongoing, then they will happen less and less. Using the resources of the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project can help your workplace develop individual cultural competency around issues of trans identity and can be the springboard to the creation of a permanent SafeZone Program in your office. A SafeZone Program centralizes the available resources that are offered in your institution as well as provides current and future allies with the knowledge they need to be good trans allies.”
Thank you, Josh. You’ve provided some thoughtful and sensitive insights. When employees feel included and respected, they are happier and more productive, and our workplace is all the better. I’ve always said that we librarians are a resource for each other. The AALL Social Responsibility Special Interest Section’s Standing Committee on Lesbian and Gay Issues embraces the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities. I wish you the best and encourage you to contact this committee directly (www.aallnet.org/sections/sr/lgissues) if you have any additional questions.