February 27, 2017

Louisville Library Workers Champion Preferred Pronoun Badges

New Louisville Free Public Library staff pronoun badges  Photo credit: Angela Berry

New Louisville Free Public Library staff pronoun badges
Photo credit: Angela Berry

Six months after librarian Valerie Pfister was told by administrators at Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL) that wearing a preferred pronoun button was a dress code violation, the library has honored its promise to list preferred pronouns on the library-issued name badges of any employee who requests it. The library also agreed to update the city’s Transgender 101 training with Pfister’s help, and offer it to any library employee who wished to take it.

The process, however, took more than half a year and a number of meetings between Pfister, LFPL administration, a library union steward, the head of the Louisville Metro Government (Metro) human resources department, and a representative from a local LBGTQ advocacy organization, and addressed issues ranging from inclusivity and LBGTQ rights to the proper placement of pronouns on the badges.

BUTTON DISPUTE

About two years ago Pfister, an adult library assistant at LFPL’s Shawnee Branch who identifies as transgender and nonbinary, emailed colleagues asking to be referred to using “they/them” pronouns, rather than “he/him” or “she/her.” While a few older staff members took a little longer to come around to the idea—one said, “I’ll just call you ‘kid,’” Pfister said—coworkers were supportive. Patrons, by and large, were as well, and Pfister began wearing a plain black-and-white button attached to their name tag lanyard stating that “They/Them” were their preferred pronouns.

“I would still get manned and ladied a lot by patrons,” Pfister told LJ, “but every once in a while another trans patron or another ally or queer patron would notice it and use the right language with me. I felt like I was more approachable for those patrons as well.”

However, in early summer 2016 a patron who had a history of run-ins with library staff became argumentative with Pfister, yelling, “You’re a lady!” Pfister spoke to the man calmly and didn’t ask him to leave, but wrote up an incident report.

A couple of weeks later, LFPL administrators asked to meet with Pfister about the incident. While they were sorry that it happened, they said, they couldn’t ban the patron because Pfister had not asked him to leave as soon as it happened. “And also,” Pfister reported being told, “you can’t wear that button anymore.” The reason, according to administration, was that the button didn’t relate to Pfister’s work. “I said, if people are interacting with me they’re going to have to use the right language,” recalled Pfister. “It does have to do with my work.”

Pfister felt that the administration’s ruling was discriminatory, and filed a formal grievance with the help of fellow librarian and AFSCME Local 3425 steward Ashley Sims and the Fairness Campaign, a local LGBTQ rights lobbying and advocacy organization. Sims, teen library assistant at the Shawnee branch, noted that the button incident happened not long after the mayor had sent an email to all Metro employees requesting that they march in the Louisville Pride Parade wearing Pride t-shirts to show solidarity with LGBTQ employees in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. Meanwhile, she told LJ, “queer employees were being told you can’t represent yourself in normal day-to-day interactions. That really deeply offended me.”

In July Pfister and Sims met with LFPL director James Blanton and Metro human resources director J.P. Hamm (LFPL is a department of Louisville Metro Government, which handles human resources and budget-related issues), and a union representative. Pfister and Sims agreed that although the administrators clearly wanted to be supportive, neither had a strong understanding of transgender issues. They again stated that the button was in violation of the library dress code, comparing the situation to an employee wearing a button expressing a political stance.

“If you can wear that button at work,” Pfister recalled being asked, “then what will stop somebody else from wearing a KKK button or a confederate flag button?…. That told me they were seeing my identity as political when it’s not political. It’s just I’m not comfortable being gendered male or female. This is who I am.”

Ultimately the library administration agreed to Pfister’s suggestion of giving employees the option to have preferred pronouns—“he/him,” “she/her,” or “they/them”—listed on their library-issued name badges. Hamm was also amenable to having Pfister help update Metro’s Transgender 101 training sessions for government employees.

NOT HOW PRONOUNS WORK

Pfister had agreed not to wear the preferred pronoun button while waiting for the new library name tags. But after several months they had still not been issued. When Pfister inquired as to the reason for the delay, LFPL administration responded that it was researching the best way to format the new name tags.

After a second meeting, where Hamm met with Pfister and Sims to discuss how the pronoun listing would be implemented, the library sent an email offering employees the opportunity to provide a gender-neutral title—Mx.—in front of their names on the new name badges. Although the two had provided LFPL and Metro with a range of reading materials about transgender issues, said Sims, “I realized that they thought they’d done everything they needed to do. They didn’t understand the difference between pronouns and adding a gender-neutral title.”

In response to their objections, LFPL continued to work on the badge submission form. Ultimately, said Pfister, they were told that they should use the same form but list their preferred pronoun in place of the title, in front of their names instead of Mr., Ms., or Mx.—so their name tags would read, “She Ashley” and “They Valerie.”

“I [said], I understand how you made that mistake, I guess,” recalled Pfister, “but that isn’t really appropriate for what pronouns are and how they operate in the English language…. If I were to walk in at another business location and saw that, I would be confused.”

Library administration defended the decision to keep the pronouns in front of names as a way to keep the badges looking professional.

ANOTHER MEETING, NEW BADGES

It took a second grievance meeting in December, with Fairness campaign director Chris Hartman and union representation in attendance, but Pfister and Sims were able to make their points about pronoun placement on the name badges. “It was resolved in, really, minutes,” Blanton told LJ. “When we sat down with Valerie and talked it over, it was suggested that the [pronouns] come after the staff members’ name and we had no problem with that. We made the accommodation and added it to the form.”

During the meeting a member of LFPL administration expressed concern that the badges could affect customer service, encouraging librarians to correct patrons who used misgendered language. Pfister explained that any corrections would be specifically about the pronouns used, with the understanding that people don’t mean to purposefully cause discomfort, adding, “honestly…we tell patrons they’re wrong all the time and it’s not an issue.” Sims noted, “I do believe the union did recommend that that specific employee receive Trans [101] training and sensitivity training in general.”

New name badges were issued about a week later, and both Pfister and Sims report being happy with them. Four other staff members have taken advantage of the preferred pronouns as well, said Pfister, and several others are considering getting updated badges after seeing how they are received. “I would understand hesitancy about getting them if you didn’t want to answer those questions [about gender],” Pfister told LJ. But coworkers and patrons alike have commented positively on the badges, and Pfister hasn’t received a single negative comment.

“When I put my updated name tag on,” said Pfister, “I definitely noticed the frequency of the gendering decrease. So maybe people don’t know what it means, but if they catch sight of it they might be less likely to gender me.” Metro plans to make the new name tag format available to other government employees who request it.

TRANSGENDER 101

Pfister’s and Sims’s contribution to the Transgender 101 training was a success as well. The two-hour course includes vocabulary to use for transgender people, information on the discrimination they face, and suggestions on how to be an ally. The first session, held specifically for LFPL employees—which included a number of administrators—filled up quickly and three other sessions were quickly scheduled.

It has now been added to LFPL’s professional development roster, which also includes crisis intervention training. This June, Metro will open it to all city government employees as well. “This kind of change could have implications citywide,” said Blanton. “I know [Metro was] interested in extending the conversation, and that training is part of that.”

“It shows, to me, a lot of support here and a lot of people wanting to learn how to better interact with people if they don’t understand…or how to offer them the best customer service,” said Pfister. “A lot of people don’t really know how to do it because they don’t interact, knowingly, with trans people all that much, and they want to be supportive but they don’t know how.”

“I’m excited that we’re doing it,” Blanton told LJ. “Louisville is…very forward thinking, and being a compassionate city is something that the mayor champions.” Instituting the new name badges and Transgender 101 training, he said, has allowed LFPL to set a standard for inclusivity. “Something like this [has] never been done before in this city. So we’re happy to be the first place that it does happen.”

Sims agreed, and feels that the seven months spent getting the name badges right was time well spent. She hopes, ultimately, that they will give administration, staff, and patrons more sensitivity toward the LGBTQ people they interact with, as well as making patrons more comfortable. “Perhaps seeing queer things in the library will make them feel safer,” she said. “Because oftentimes if you don’t see anything that welcomes you as a minority it’s probably an unsafe place to be—[that’s] just the reality of the world right now.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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