Content warning: transphobia, mental illness, mention suicide
The Human Library is an international organisation whose purpose is providing a space in which people’s stereotypes, prejudices, and beliefs may be challenged through dialogue. For Katy Jon Went, this is truer than most.
After first going along to an event in 2008 in order to help come to terms with their LGBT status, Katy Jon has gone on to become the organisation’s UK co-ordinator, overseeing exchanges up and down the country, as well as acting as a book and sharing their experiences with readers from all walks of life.
They’ve used a variety of book titles to highlight the different aspects of their life with which readers can engage, including everything from ‘Trans Ex-Missionary and Bipolar’, to ‘Non-Binary and Suicide Survivor’. The multiplicity of the banners under which Katy identifies is reflected in what initially pushed them to get involved with the Human Library.
Aside from a desire to challenge prejudice and overcome stigma, they say they were drawn to the organisation for its diversity and humanity.
“Seeing such a range of different topics gathered together, under different labels (often stigmatising ones) but putting being human first by being under one roof together. As a former fundamentalist Christian there were many that I would previously have objected to.”
Katy explains that discovering “their authentic self” as a trans, non-binary individual was made significantly harder by their religious background. Although they faced the rejection of their church, and was asked to leave after being involuntarily outed, the hardest obstacle to overcome was perhaps their own internalised transphobia.
They admit, “I thought LGBT was wrong in my past Christian days and that made it harder to be ok with being myself […] 30 years ago I actively opposed gay rights because of a faith position. I only discovered after embracing being out that it was possible to be LGBT and Christian but by then I kinda moved on”.
It was a desire to conquer their fears about being trans that led Katy to attend that first Human Library back in 2008 (“My psychiatrist described me as the most reluctant transsexual he’d ever met”).
A trans book offered to share her experiences, and months later Katy found themselves on the committee for Brighton Pride as they finally came to terms with who they were.
From there, Katy became more and more involved with the organisation:
“I was invited to pick it up and further its work. It was going through some positive developmental changes which were to include providing Human Libraries to business and institutions to further their understandings of diversity and difference within their workforces, customers and communities. This was something I’d had experience of having delivered diversity training to prisons, police, councils, businesses and venue over the years.”
Despite having only been in the position just over a month, Katy feels positive about the Human Library’s goals of opening minds and challenging negative stereotypes. However the nature of such events begs the question: are people with the openness of mind to attend really going to be pushed that far from their comfort zone?
Katy admits this could be an obstacle in a classic one-on-one format. “Our librarians, however, encourage people to take out a book that challenges them rather than just interests them and, with 10-20 titles typically on offer, there’s usually something that challenges our perceptions and prejudices.
“In addition, our reading hall format delivers an unexpected book to a table of half-a-dozen people or more, who have no idea what they are going to encounter. This is usually delivered to an entire year group or workforce department or conference, meaning that everyone experiences and is exposed to diversity, not only the curious.”
Beyond this, Katy explains that the books are benefited too. They “get to be part of a community of diversity and apart from the social gains they get to have their own views continually challenged and scrutinised by encounters with new books on the Human Library bookshelf. It is a continual learning experience.
“It is also about a dialogue and conversation, not a debate and rant. The difference is eye-opening, and one learns to listen as much as talk when trying to further better individual and relational understanding of each other.
“In the course of conversations one also encounters questions that one may not have considered before, and so the process of personal discovery and the giving of a spontaneous and authentic answer delivers greater understanding of self to both the reader and the book.”
Katy can vouch for the benefits of the Human Library by virtue of their experiences on both sides of the bookshelf. In terms of their own preconceptions, they say they had previously thought that “well-heeled beautiful people” were not affected by mental health problems, but acting as a book allowed them to realise that mental health doesn’t discriminate.
The way they relate to readers has also developed over the last decade, using different titles to display the progression of their own identity.
“I’ve used ex-missionary, transgender, queer dyke, bipolar, suicide survivor, non-binary, and asexual, plus a brief outing as polyamorous. I’ve been doing it eight to nine years or so and have retired some titles, and find suicide survivor quite draining depending upon my bipolar mood. I’d say the mental health titles have the most impact, since one in three of us may be affected by it and more may have family members suffering with it.
“I demonstrate a functionality despite it and authenticity that embraces it, which helps dissolve prejudice and raise healthy attitudes around it.”
It’s hardly surprising that Katy was drawn to the Human Library considering their lifelong love affair with books and reading. They say,
“Undoubtedly, the language and model of it appealed. I mean, I collected 6,000 plus books at home because I always hated returning books to the library. But more than that, I’ve been fascinated by people’s individual lives, and realising that no two people are the same.
“That every topic has multiple viewpoints. So in the same way when researching a subject, I obsessively read everything on the subject, with human books I like to encounter different version of the same published title. In the last year I’ve been at events with up to six transgender books at a time, but each one was so different from the next – that in itself, helps to break down stereotypes.”
This message of shattering stereotypes is what shines through most strongly both in Katy’s relationship with the Human Library, and in their attitude towards life in general. It’s evident that in living their life by this manta they’ve been able to become happier and more honest.
It’s a truly inspiring mantra, and one that speaks volumes for the success of the organisation, and suggests that it will continue to thrive in the years to come.
Image: Sara Konradi: photo