In response to recent spikes in anti-trans legislation, particularly in the South, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance hosted an hour-long virtual panel discussion May 18 billed as “A Conversation on Supporting Trans/Nonbinary Staff and Community.”
The panel, which drew 54 attendees from around the country, was moderated by Candice Huber, the owner of Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Bookshop in New Orleans who announced that the store is transitioning into a “queer traveling bookshop." The panel featured Libertie Valance, the co-owner of Firestorm Books in Asheville, N.C., a 15-year-old “queer and trans collectively-run bookstore;” and E.R. Anderson, the executive director of Charis Circle, the nonprofit programming arm of Charis Books & More in Decatur, Ga., one of the country’s oldest feminist bookstores. The moderator and panelists all identify as trans; Huber and Valance also identify as nonbinary.
The discussion was divided into three segments: accommodating trans and nonbinary employees and making the workplace a safe place for them; fighting anti-trans legislation as a bookseller; and supporting the trans and nonbinary community.
Anderson said that Charis asks new employees to fill out a form in order to obtain information that the employee is willing to share, such as who to contact in case of emergency. “We often have employees whose emergency contact is not going to be their mother or their father, it’s going to be their best friend or their room-mate.” The form also asks which pronouns are preferred, both within the store, and externally. “You get to tell us how you want us to behave in [different] contexts. We’ll make sure you’re seen in your workplace with dignity and respect,” he said. Anderson explained that the store also is receptive to changing names and gender classifications on payroll records and other paperwork to accommodate employees.
Noting that people’s gender identity sometimes shifts, and that it can be triggering to be asked to publicize one’s preferred pronouns, Valance emphasized that many trans and nonbinary people “are in crisis a lot of the time,” due to being marginalized and urged bookstore owners and managers to “have a higher level of flexibility” when dealing with employees who are in crisis.
Huber pointed out that they think “all the time” when in meetings if the other person(s) present “think I should exist” and suggested that if one wants to be a good ally, that “showing your support in various ways is important outside of meetings so that when we’re in them, it’s a little a little bit easier. I can tell myself, I know these people support me, it’s okay, let’s just do this meeting. It's also important to show in general that you care.”
Huber suggested that bookstore owners and managers not pressure their employees into disclosing preferred pronouns. “Asking is fine, but don’t make it required,” they said.
The conversation heated up when it turned to legislation targeting trans individuals and the panel made connections between discrimination against trans individuals and book banning. Noting that he has been fighting anti-trans legislation in Georgia, and has personally lobbied Republican officials at the state capitol “who want us to die,” Anderson expressed frustration: “I’ve been there during work hours when I should have been booking author events.” Pointing out that trans people are being denied access to medical care, Anderson described this as “a really perilous time” and declared that the mainstream media is “doing a terrible job of reporting on this crisis.” He urged booksellers and other allies to “get in the middle of” opposing this type of legislation.
Valance urged store owners and managers to support employees who want to take a stand on political issues. “Be flexible, close the store for a day, let your staff go to a rally or attend a civil action,” they said, noting that those who discriminate against trans people are often the same people who want to ban books. Firestorm Books has been partnering with youth groups, “making space to those folks, and making sure they know the bookstore is a safe space for them.” It has also been working with prison book programs, including the Transmission Book Project, an organization that sends books to incarcerated LGBTQ people throughout the Southeast. “We don’t talk as much as we should that prisons are ground zero for book banning,” they said, “In a lot of ways, things that are done to people who are incarcerated trickle out into our society.”
Huber said that book challengers engage in relationship building and coalition building and that “we need to be doing that as well.” They urged people to get involved with their local communities, and connect with their local government officials. “Knowing my hyper local government has been helpful to me in fighting this stuff [book bans],” Huber said.
Anderson added that if one has children, one must get involved “as much as these right-wing mother’s groups” and advocate before school boards for children’s freedom to read. “If we do not impose our will on some of these systems, we’re going to be steamrolled over completely,” he said, “We’re fighting the clock and it’s important for folks to be more aggressive about advocating for what you want your vision of the world to be, because we’re about to not have the opportunity to advocate for ourselves anymore; it’s that dire.”
Supporting The Community
Anderson noted that bookstores are “information hubs,” and that booksellers can provide “good information” on a range of issues to customers or point them in the direction of people or organizations that can best help them.
Recalling that when Firestorm first opened, its staff was more circumspect about their political views for fear of alienating customers, Valance insisted that bookstores need to step it up like Firestorm has.
“Sometimes we’re more afraid of alienating folks who don’t share our values. We need to think about who might we be able to reach as a result of being honest and taking a stand,” Valance explained, “At the end of the day, there are some topics that transcend marketing and we just have to take a stand, whether or not it ultimately impacts our bottom line. I would call upon everyone to understand this issue [trans rights] and many other issues, such as abortion access and anti-Black racism, have to be more than a marketing decision.”
Huber noted that they, too, have become more outspoken in their role as a bookseller, and “it has not hurt my business in any way – it has helped it in a lot of ways. Queer people are everywhere, people of color are everywhere, marginalized people are everywhere, more specifically trans and nonbinary people, are everywhere. If you show support to that group of people, you might alienate some, but you will gain others.”
Noting that he knows some booksellers that have received pushback because they have been perceived as “liberal,” Anderson responded that it all boils down to trans people being under attack and “we need everybody by our side. We need people who feel that trans people are worth fighting for, right now.”