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Lee Ely - Rutgers Portfolio

The information needs and behaviors of members of the transgender community

Abstract #

While the amount of research into the information behavior and experiences of the LGBTQ+ community has expanded over the twenty years, there has been little focus on the specific information needs of transgender individuals. What research has been done on the information behavior and needs of the transgender community often focuses on specific health or transition-related concerns, although some studies have looked at the broader landscape of information access.

Despite the relatively small amount of literature on this topic, trends do appear to emerge from these studies, including the importance of serendipity in early-stage information gathering relating to transgender identity, heavy reliance on other transgender individuals for information (in person and on the internet), and concerns about privacy, transphobia, and a lack of relevant materials when considering using library resources.

It is also clear that one of the contributing factors to the lack of research into the information needs of the transgender community is the difficulty in collecting data about populations who self-report and that also often face discrimination for one or more of their identities. The current research relies on survey data and interviews with small sample sizes, which makes it difficult to make definitive statements about the information behavior of the transgender community as a whole.

The goal of this literature review is to assess the existing literature to see if there are common patterns in the information behavior of transgender individuals, and to provide suggestions for how libraries and other institutions can provide better service to their transgender patrons.

Terminology #

This analysis focuses on the information behavior of individuals who self-identify as transgender. A transgender person, broadly speaking, is someone whose concept of their own gender does not match the sex they were designated at birth. Transgender identities can fall into traditional binary categories of man and woman, but may also include non-binary identities that encompass both of these categories or neither (though it is worth noting that not all non-binary, gender non-conforming, or gender variant people identify as transgender).

“Transitioning” is the process of taking steps to make one’s outside appearance align more with one’s internal experience of their gender. While this is often taken to mean medical interventions such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) or surgery, transitioning can also include non-medical steps like coming out to friends and family or updating one’s name or gender marker on identification and other legal documents. While many transgender people will undertake one or more of these steps as part of their transition, some do not. This may be due to a lack of support or resources, or simply a personal choice.

A cisgender person is someone whose concept of their own gender aligns with the sex they were designated at birth. This term is frequently used to mean “not transgender.”

LGBTQ+ is an acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning. The plus is used to represent additional letters corresponding to other sexual orientations and gender identities. LGBTQ+ is often used as a catchall for a group of people who hold one or more non-heterosexual and/or non-cisgender identities.

Language and terminology around LGBTQ+ identities have varied greatly over time. Medical terminology has changed, as have classifications of LGBTQ+ identities in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Many of the studies cited use language in reference to transgender people that is outdated and potentially offensive.

Many of the studies cited allowed participants to select from a variety of non-cisgender gender identities or to self-identify. For the purposes of this paper, “transgender” will be used as an umbrella term for all study participants, unless it is necessary to specify otherwise.

Introduction to studies chosen #

The studies chosen for this literature review consist of the collection and analysis of survey data or interview responses. They can all roughly be categorized as being about either the information-seeking experiences of transgender individuals, or about the preferred information sources of transgender individuals.

Taylor (2002), Beiriger and Jackson (2007), and Drake and Bielefield (2017) look at qualitative and quantitative data from surveys and interviews to assess the preferred information sources for transgender individuals, and the most common information barriers they face.

Taylor (2002) looks at the information-seeking behavior of transgender individuals through the lens of Dunne’s (2002) “person-in-progressive-situations” model. Pohjanen and Kortelainen (2016) highlight the importance of serendipity in the early information-seeking behavior of transgender individuals. Several recent studies focused on meaning-making and embodied cognition in the information-seeking processes of transgender people (Huttunen, Hirvonen, & Kähkönen , 2020; Huttunen, Kähkönen, Enwald, & Kortelainen, 2019; Huttunen & Kortelainen, 2021).

Summary of findings #

There have been relatively few studies on the specific information needs and behavior of the transgender community. While more attention has been paid to studying and addressing the information needs of the LGBTQ+ community, in many cases, the resulting programs put into place by libraries and other institutions end up primarily centering gay and lesbian experiences (Stewart & Kendrick, 2019). The needs (information and otherwise) of transgender individuals often overlap with those of the larger LGBQ+ community, but they also have information needs that may not be addressed without a specific focus on the transgender community. These include questions about gender-affirming medical services, legal rights, and changes to identification and other documents. In addition, many collections of fiction and non-fiction books curated for the LGBTQ+ community feature few, if any, books by transgender authors, or books that feature transgender characters or experiences (Bielefield & Drake, 2017).

In all of the research reviewed that dealt specifically with the information needs of the transgender community, survey sample sizes were small, ranging from 12 to 102 participants. Where racial demographic data was collected, the majority of respondents indicated they were white.

Because of the small sample sizes of the surveys in the studies cited in this review, “the information behavior of members of the transgender community” seems more appropriate than “the information behavior of the transgender community.” Until data can be collected from a larger, more diverse section of the transgender community, it is hard to draw concrete conclusions from the existing research.

Despite the small amount of research and the limited sample sizes of the surveys conducted, some themes do emerge. As with the literature cited in this review, these themes can be roughly categorized as findings about the information-seeking experiences of transgender individuals, or the preferred information sources for transgender individuals.

Experiences #

The information-seeking process of transgender individuals often varies from that of LGBQ+ cisgender individuals. In early-stage information seeking related to transgender identities, embodied cognition and serendipity often play a large role, as the information seeker looks for answers in relation to physical and emotional responses they do not have words or concepts for (Huttunen & Kortelainen, 2021).
Several studies look at the early-stage information needs of transgender individuals. In many cases, the “trigger” for information seeking is a sense of discomfort which a person may not be able to verbalize, or may describe as “an experience of dissonance” or simply the feeling that “something is wrong.” Without any existing knowledge of transgender experiences, someone going through these feelings of wrongness does not have a framework with which to form a question. This is the visceral, unexpressed need for information described by Taylor (1969). This vague feeling will change into something that can be expressed verbally as more information is added (Huttunen, Hirvonen, & Kähkönen, 2020, p. 713). Feelings of dissonance in one’s own body acting as a catalyst for information-seeking shows how embodied cognition plays a role in the information-seeking behavior of transgender individuals.

Pohjanen and Kortelainen (2016) asked participants to describe their earliest memories of encountering, intentionally or not, information about transgender identities or experiences. Many recalled early encounters with information about transgender identities or experiences, but this did not provoke a full information need. In many cases, the respondent did not have a “prepared mind” for this information (p. 178). This may be in part due to the social control aspects of Chatman’s life in the round, which can make expressing or receiving identity about one’s identity difficult (p. 168). Participants in other studies described learning about transgender identities from popular culture, internet quizzes, or fan fiction, and beginning to seek more information from there. In these cases, the chance encounter with information about gender diversity became “deeply meaningful” information; that is, information that has personal importance and a long-lasting, profound meaning (Huttunen & Kortelainen, 2020). Without these serendipitous encounters, these individuals may never have found the words with which to further express and explore their own identities.

Information seeking over time #

Information seeking about transgender identities and experiences, especially with regard to transitioning (medically or otherwise) can be a long-term process, during which many aspects of an individual’s information needs may change. Taylor (2002) relates it to the “person-in-progressive-situations” model (Dunne, 2002). Dunne’s model, initially developed while studying victims of domestic violence, looks at information seeking as a series of “person in situation” states. It frames information needs as progressive, rather than static.

The “person-in-progressive-situations” model outlines three categories of barriers to information access: personal (a lack of knowledge of resources or terminology that would help one access appropriate services), responsive (emotional responses to situations or changes in situation, which often include shame or fear and prevent further action), and situational (isolation, violence, control, or other physical impediments to information seeking). The “person-in-progressive-situations” model also has an end, where the information seeker has gotten the information they needed and gotten out of the series of progressive situations.

The “person-in-progressive-situations” model is in many ways applicable to the information-seeking behavior of transgender individuals, particularly those who are seeking transition-related information. Information needs emerging from personal crises (in this case, questioning one’s gender identity and seeking resources, care, or community) differ from everyday information needs. Resources that were previously available may become inaccessible or lose relevance, and the information-gathering process may change (Huttunen & Kortelainen, 2020).

A person may start with little to no knowledge of terminology related to or experiences of transgender identity, which presents a personal barrier to access (Pohjanen & Kortelainen, 2016; Huttunen, Hirvonen, & Kähkönen, 2020). Throughout their information-seeking journey, they may also experience responsive barriers in the form of emotional reactions to new information or situations. Transgender people also frequently face situational barriers to information access, which may also include violence, isolation, or control. Finally, needs for information about topics like gender reassignment surgery, or how to update the gender marker or name on all of one’s documents may have a finite end.

While the “person-in-progressive-situations” model does provide a useful framework for thinking about the evolving information needs of transgender people, it was developed as a model specifically related to victims of domestic violence. It is important to keep this in mind when applying it to situations where the threat of violence may not be a factor.

Sources of information #

The internet and community #

The internet is consistently ranked as a top information resource for members of the transgender community (Bielefield & Drake, 2017; Beiriger & Jackson, 2007; Pohjanen & Kortelainen, 2015; Taylor, 2002). The internet was ranked highly due to its convenience, 24-hour availability, and the potential for relative anonymity. It was also seen as a safe way to make contact with other transgender individuals. In addition to the internet, other transgender people were the major source of information for transgender individuals. This was the case for questions about general health and wellbeing and transgender-specific health and wellbeing (Bielefield & Drake, 2017). Doctors, counselors, family, and public libraries all ranked lower as information sources.

The majority of survey respondents were reached via the internet, which may have created an upward bias towards internet resources (Taylor, 2002). It is possible that the internet would not be rated as highly as a source of information if outreach had been done through other methods. Additionally, many of the participants in these studies were contacted through transgender-related community groups or support centers, which implies that the majority of respondents have a relatively close tie to the larger transgender community. This may also have a bearing on the high ranking of reliance on other transgender people as a source of information.

With both the internet and other transgender people as primary sources of information, there are concerns about the accuracy of information (Taylor, 2002). Online sources must be scrutinized for their credibility. Misinformation can spread within communities, which is especially concerning in vulnerable populations that have unmet medical needs.

Barriers to access #

In a survey directed specifically at measuring public library usage among transgender individuals in Portland, the findings suggested that the transgender community does not consider libraries a viable resource (Beiriger & Jackson, 2007). Ten years later, Bielefield and Drake (2017) show that members of the transgender community have low satisfaction with libraries. Participants in this survey provided qualitative responses about their use (or lack of use) of library reference services. Many respondents explained that they did not use library reference services due to fear of discrimination. Other respondents who had used library reference services did experience discrimination. One individual reported that staff reacted to them and their questions with “clear distaste,” and another recounted experiencing questioning from library staff that made them feel unsafe after they asked about a young adult novel that featured transgender identities. Another common complaint was an overall lack of resources and knowledgeable staff for LGBTQ+ topics (Bielefield & Drake, 2017, p.164). Overall, participants did not think of libraries as reliable sources of information about transgender-related topics, or as safe places for transgender people to seek information.

Outside of a lack of recent transgender-related literature and negative attitudes from staff, major concerns for potential transgender patrons included privacy-focused accommodations and clear gender-related non-discrimination policies. Specific changes like establishing online or otherwise remote systems for name changes on library cards and gender-neutral restrooms ranked highly on a list of accommodations necessary to improve library experiences. Also highly ranked were the addition of openly LGBQ+ and transgender staff members (Bielefield & Drake, 2017, p.164).

Many of the barriers to access facing transgender people can be described in terms of Chatman’s Theory of Information Poverty. Of particular note is Proposition 3, which states that “information poverty is determined by self-protective behaviors which are used in response to social norms” (1996, p. 197). However, these barriers are better assessed using the theory of information marginalization, instead of information poverty. The theory of information marginalization describes the “systematic, interactive socio-technical” processes that force certain groups of people into the social margins, where their needs are left unmet (Gibson & Martin, 2018). In this case, cisgender-normative culture at large presents a hostile environment for transgender people.

Service Proposal #

Developing cultural awareness is vital in addressing the needs of any community, especially those that face frequent discrimination. When working with community leaders or individuals, care must be taken in order to show proper consideration and respect for individuals’ time and participation. Research fatigue is a form of psychological and emotional exhaustion that can develop in participants in research studies, particularly those from marginalized communities, when taking part in research over time, or when they are subjected to over-research. Research fatigue at an individual level results in reluctance or refusal to participate in ongoing or future studies. This reluctance or refusal can then carry over to the larger community, which can undermine trust in researchers or damage an institution’s ties to the very community they are trying to benefit (Cooke, 2017, p. 49; Ashley, 2020). Therefore, it is crucial for libraries and other institutions that seek to improve their services for transgender patrons to do so thoughtfully. Advance planning and research is important, and in situations where staff or management may have little knowledge about transgender people, it is worth considering hiring an outside diversity and inclusion consultant.

The first step towards providing better service to transgender patrons is for institutions to assume they already have transgender patrons. In many cases, changes to policies or collections are not considered (or are actively pushed back on) because of the belief that there are no transgender people living in a given area (Beirger & Jackson, 2007). Often, policies and environments have been created to serve a default cisgender population. Problems for transgender people arise simply from not considering the existence of transgender people.

Providing up-to-date material about transgender-related medical and legal issues, as well as fiction and non-fiction material about transgender lives and experiences can help improve the value of a library to members of the transgender community. But, without a safe and welcoming environment, resources are not enough and will go unused. Transgender people need to know that they will be respected by staff. This can be partially achieved by creating clear gender-related non-discrimination policies.

Another practical step that libraries and other institutions can take is to reevaluate the personal information that is required to receive services. If this information includes gender or asks a patron to select a gendered title like Mr. or Mrs., is it necessary? Where possible, this information should not be requested or should be made optional. Name changes on any required documents should be made as easy and private as possible (Bielefield & Drake, 2017, p.166). Allowing patrons to provide name and gender information (if necessary) without showing other identification should be considered, as according to the National Center for Transgender Equality's US Transgender Survey, 68% of respondents do not have any ID or record that reflects both their correct name and gender (James et al., 2016).

A 2013 survey of transgender residents of the Washington, D.C. are found that 70% of respondents had experienced denial of access, verbal harassment, or physical assault when using gendered public restrooms (Herman, 2013, p. 71). Posting statements outside of bathroom facilities that explain that individuals are welcome to use whichever bathroom they feel most comfortable using can have a positive effect. While not feasible for all institutions, a single-stall, gender-neutral bathroom that does not require special permission for access should be provided if possible. Such facilities are also beneficial to other marginalized patrons, including those with disabilities who might require assistance (Bielefield & Drake, 2017, p.165).

When possible, libraries and other institutions should hire LGBQ+ and transgender people, and provide them with a safe and encouraging work environment. Transgender people are more likely to feel comfortable in spaces when they see that other transgender people are already comfortable there (Bielefield & Drake, 2017, p.165).

The availability and accessibility of materials related to transgender experiences, whether fiction or nonfiction, can help enable the type of spontaneous, serendipitous information encountering which transgender people often rely on early in their information-seeking journeys. Making this content available means that libraries and other institutions are actively helping create an environment that helps transgender people experience and build their identities (Huttunen, Hirvonen, & Kähkönen, 2020, p. 722)

Conclusion #

Despite the relatively small number of studies on the information behavior and needs of transgender individuals, some conclusions can be drawn.

The early-stage information needs of transgender people, relating to exploring transgender identity, rely heavily on embodied cognition and serendipity. The “trigger” of the information-seeking process often comes from a sense of physical or mental discomfort with one’s body or gender, which often can only be described as feeling like something is wrong. With little prior knowledge about transgender identities and experiences, the information seeker often does not have the vocabulary necessary to form questions, and therefore relies on chance encounters to gain enough knowledge to move forward.

Longer-term information seeking, especially in regard to transitioning, is often non-linear, with information needs changing frequently. Where information about the transition is the goal, the information search often has a concrete end, with the individual acquiring all the information they need to make a decision or complete a process.

Transgender people are most likely to rely on other transgender people as sources of information, both in-person and online. Transgender people are both consumers and generators of information about transgender issues.

Transgender people tend to have low confidence in libraries and other institutions as reliable sources of information. They are also not perceived as safe places, with many survey respondents citing fear of discrimination, overt discrimination, or systems that are hostile towards transgender people.

There are a number of clear steps that libraries and other institutions can take to improve their services to transgender patrons. These include:

Ultimately, one of the biggest things that libraries and other institutions can do to improve the experiences of transgender individuals is to assume that they already have transgender patrons and work proactively to ensure a safe and welcoming environment. By providing a space where transgender individuals can comfortably encounter information about transgender identities and experiences, libraries and other institutions actively create environments that can improve lives.

References #

Ashley, F. (2020). Accounting for research fatigue in research ethics. Bioethics, 35(3), 270–276.

Beiriger, A., & Jackson, R. M. (2007). An Assessment of the Information Needs of Transgender Communities in Portland, Oregon. Public Library Quarterly, 26(1–2), 45–60.

Chatman, E. A. (1996). The impoverished life-world of outsiders. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47(3), 193–206.

Drake, A. A., & Bielefield, A. (2017). Equitable access: Information seeking behavior, information needs, and necessary library accommodations for transgender patrons. Library & Information Science Research, 39(3), 160–168.

Dunne, J. E. (2002). Information seeking and use by battered women: A “person-in-progressive-situations” approach. Library & Information Science Research, 24(4), 343–355.

Gibson, A. N., & Martin, J. D. (2019). Re-situating information poverty: Information marginalization and parents of individuals with disabilities. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 70(5), 476–487.

Herman, J. L. (2013). Gendered Restrooms and Minority Stress: The Public Regulation of Gender and its Impact on Transgender People's Lives. Journal of Public Management & Social Policy, 19(1), 65-80.

Huttunen, A., Hirvonen, N., & Kähkönen, L. (2020). Uncomfortable in my own skin – emerging, early-stage identity-related information needs of transgender people. Journal of Documentation, 76(3), 709–729.

Huttunen, A., Kähkönen, L., Enwald, H., & Kortelainen, T. (2019). Embodied cognition and information experiences of transgender people.

Huttunen, A., & Kortelainen, T. (2021). Meaning-making on gender: Deeply meaningful information in a significant life change among transgender people. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 72(7), 799–810.

Pohjanen, A. M., & Kortelainen, T. A. M. (2016). Transgender information behaviour. Journal of Documentation, 72(1), 172–190.

Stewart, B., & Kendrick, K. D. (2019). “Hard to find”: information barriers among LGBT college students. Aslib Journal of Information Management, 71(5), 601–617.

Taylor, J. K. (2002). Targeting the information needs of transgender individuals. Current Studies in Librarianship, 26(1/2), 85–110.