Rainbow Services | Trans + Script

It’s healing to have a role focused on increasing access to resources that I never had, especially ones that facilitate self-exploration and empathy building through play.

This column focuses on lived trans experience in libraries, and a big part of how that experience feels is often attributed to interpersonal relationships with colleagues, individual patrons, and the community as a whole. It’s great to get a perspective from a transgender public librarian in a queer role (my words, not the employing agency’s). Hal Patnott, the Rainbow Services Librarian at the Oak Park Public Library, IL, shares how his experiences developing his identity and his professional role have intersected.—Elsworth Carman

Hal Patnott head shotAn excited chorus greets me as I walk into a classroom of middle school students with a cart of books and my department’s beloved button maker: “The gay librarians are here!” While I’m sitting at the desk, an approaching parent tells their child, “This is Mr. Hal. He’s trans like you.” One of the most joyful parts of my job as the Rainbow Services Librarian at the Oak Park Public Library is connecting with the young people in my community, whether it’s by visiting the gender and sexuality alliances at the local schools or having a chance encounter during a desk shift. Moments like that soothe the wounded parts of my past self that I still carry with me, the parts that warn me not to take up space or to stand out in ways that might make someone else experience discomfort.

In the conservative Christian community that I grew up in, I barely encountered language to describe sexuality, let alone gender identity. I knew trans women existed, but I’d never heard of trans men or nonbinary people. The only narrative I encountered about trans people described a narrow experience—someone who had known since early childhood that they were born in the wrong body. I thought that if I couldn't say with heartfelt conviction that I needed to have “the surgery” to survive, I didn’t qualify as trans. Like many young, queer millennials, I eventually learned the words to describe my identity on Tumblr, but it took a lot of internet searching with painful phrases like “girls who wear boys’ clothes” before I found my way.

It’s healing to have a role focused on increasing access to resources that I never had, especially ones that facilitate self-exploration and empathy building through play. Over the last few years, we’ve added new Social-Emotional Learning and Discovery kits about gender identity and expression to our collection. They provide games, as well as conversation guides for caregivers and educators who may feel anxious or uncertain about how to get started. Seeing our kits go out into the community gives me hope to hold onto when transphobia feels overwhelming.

I continue to grow and thrive in my work, because I have institutional support. Before I landed in my current role, I went to an interview for a librarian job at a private school. At the end of the interview, I asked the principal how the administration would respond and support me if parents reacted negatively when they found out that the school hired a transgender person. She couldn’t answer my question or give me any assurance that my job would be safe.

For me, feeling fully supported as a trans library worker comes from more than my basic sense of job security. While I don’t take for granted that I know I won’t get reprimanded or fired because a patron complains that I read a book about a trans character at storytime, what makes a significant impact is that I work in a department that values personal needs and mental well-being. When I was still a library assistant, supervisors, librarians, and coworkers demonstrated they cared about my safety and comfort by asking how I wanted them to respond if they heard someone misgender me on the desk. I got to set the terms for what made me feel safe and comfortable.

Working with librarians who affirm one another when someone advocates for their own needs has encouraged me to value my own needs too. I’ve had the space to unlearn the guilt and responsibility for other people’s feelings about my identity. When I started my job, I was too anxious to correct patrons who misgendered me, but because I work in a secure, supportive environment, I’ve been able to push against that anxiety and shame. While I don’t always have the energy to speak up, whether I do or don’t correct someone feels more like a choice I make for me.

I stepped into my role as the Rainbow Services Librarian at a strange time—late 2019. In all the change that’s happened since March of 2020, I feel like I still have so much to learn about the ways I can connect with and serve my community. However, if exploring my gender identity has taught me one thing, it’s that I don’t have to know every answer. Staying open to change and confronting growth can be scary and overwhelming, but it can also bring fulfillment and life-saving joy.

Hal Patnott is rainbow services librarian at the Oak Park Public Library, IL. 

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