The African-American writer Richard Wright (1908-1960) was on my mind when I recently headed out to the Trans & Two-Spirit Name Change Clinic at the Halifax Central Library.
The famed author of works such as Native Son, Wright had suffered soul-murdering experiences during his upbringing in the Jim Crow south. A July 1992 article in The New Yorker (“The Hammer and The Nail”) detailed a key incident:
“Wright was living in Memphis when his serious immersion in literature began, but he could not get books from the public library. So he persuaded a sympathetic, though puzzled, white man to lend him his library card, and he forged a note for himself to present to the librarian: ‘Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?’”
That Wright debased himself in such a manner exhibits his ingenuity in outsmarting racists — he secured the books — and speaks volumes about the vital role of libraries in society.
Indeed, the Halifax Central Library factored mightily in my decision to move from BC to Nova Scotia. To paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston in her story “The Gilded Six-Bits:” “If you burn me, you won’t git a thing but library-fanatic ashes.”
Respectful of privacy concerns, I’d not planned to interview anyone at the free clinic held in collaboration with Dalhousie Legal Aid Service. As one who’s tracked public discussions about trans issues, I had instead hoped to attend the gathering for informational purposes. While officially registered, I’d neglected to request advance media clearance (my bad) on that front. Hence, by mutual agreement with library staff, I left the clinic before it began.
Call it kismet. For en route home, I discovered a copy of Guitar Player magazine (on the library “free shelf”) that boasted a cover story on the famously gender non-conforming Prince Rogers Nelson. The article included a photo of the late artist playing his iconic Love Symbol guitar.
I later conducted an interview with members of the library’s 2SLGBTQIA+ team who’d helped to organize the Name Change gathering. A staffer since 2006, Zso said the workshop was inspired by their exchange with a person who was struggling to print a document at the central branch. “It was before COVID,” Zso told me. “I could see that the individual was nervous and having difficulties with the printer, so I went over to assist.”
They continued: “Based on my own lived experience, I thought the person might be transgender. I noticed that the document was a name change application from the Department of Vital Statistics. While no words were spoken about the form, I think we intuitively both felt a common bond and the person’s mood lightened completely. I thought the clinic would be a great service to the community.”
A self-described “queer person” at the library, Elinor Crosby agreed. “It’s a pilot project that provides moral and practical support for trans and two-spirit people who need a safe space to properly fill out legal forms,” said Crosby, on staff since 2013. “We envision the clinic as part of our overall Pride programming and hope to host it again in rural parts of the province where 2SLGBTQIA+ people don’t have easy access to such services.”
Both staffers noted the high cost of hiring lawyers to execute documents related to transgender concerns.
“There are fees for changing one’s name and sex indicator,” Zso said. “Then there are fees for changing birth certificates, domestic partner or marriage certificates, obtaining fingerprints. There could be hidden costs for, say, the translation of immigration documents. Then there are all the other personal identification documents such as passports, driver’s licences, and health cards to consider. One often needs multiple copies of the forms. The fees can add up quickly. To say nothing of the mental stress that many trans people experience as they are going through the process.”
Enter Dal Legal Aid. Two lawyers from the agency volunteered to attend the clinic and assist participants.
“The library reached out for support and we were happy to mobilize staff,” said Fiona Traynor, a community legal worker at the organization. “It’s important that the rights of more marginalized people are protected, validated, and seen.”
She continued: “Name change forms must be stamped and notarized before they are submitted to the provincial government. Depending on the type and number of forms needed, one could pay up to $400 for the service that the library provided for free. The lawyers met with participants one-on-one and I understand the event was a huge success.”
Zso agreed. “There was a bit of tension in the room before the clinic began,” they said. “But then people started to relax and everyone left with huge smiles on their faces. It was a really beautiful and wholesome experience.”
In addition to the clinic, the Halifax library system offers a wide range of transgender-related materials. Among other works, No Ordinary Man, a documentary about the pioneering transgender jazz musician Billy Tipton (1914-1989) is available on Kanopy, the library’s free streaming platform.
The riveting film includes footage of Diane Middlebrook (1939-2007) whose controversial biography Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton (1998) stands as the first major work on the performer. As one who counted Middlebrook as a friend and colleague, I took special note of the spirited discussion about her book, in the film.
The library’s collection also includes My Prairie Home, a documentary about Calgary-born trans singer Rae Spoon.
And a search of the library’s catalogue reveals nearly 450 transgender-related titles. Among them: Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity by C. Riley Snorton, The Trans Generation: How trans kids (and their parents) are creating a gender revolution by Ann Travers, and I’m Afraid of Men by multidisciplinary Canadian artist Vivek Shraya.
Reflecting on the library’s indisputable support of transgender people, I was perplexed by those who, earlier this year, initiated a boycott against its scheduled Pride events. Their gripe? The refusal of library staff to remove from the collection a single title that some decried as transphobic. Reasonable people can disagree.
This brings me back to Richard Wright. One of his lesser known writings (first penned as a radio play) turns on a husband who, in dire financial straits, cross dresses as a maid. Thus attired, he secures a job in a white household. About “Man of All Work,” French literary critic Laurence Cossu-Beaumont aptly noted: “The disguise of a male character as female [serves] a political purpose of denunciation of sexual domination and stereotypes.”
The subversive piece is found in Wright’s collection Eight Men — available at the Halifax Central Library. As for the contested transgender book, I’m riding with a renown mantra that has held wide sway in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community: “Take what you need and leave the rest.”
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance writer in Halifax.