Uncomfortable in my own skin – emerging, early-stage identity-related information needs of transgender people

Publication Date14 Feb 2020
AuthorAira Huttunen,Noora Hirvonen,Lotta Kähkönen
subjectMatterLibrary & information science,Records management & preservation,Document management,Classification & cataloguing,Information behaviour & retrieval,Collection building & management,Scholarly communications/publishing,Information & knowledge management,Information management & governance,Information management,Information & communications technology,Internet
Uncomfortable in my own
skin emerging, early-stage
identity-related information needs
of transgender people
Aira Huttunen and Noora Hirvonen
Information Studies, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland, and
Lotta K
John Morton Center for North American Studies, University of Turku,
Turku, Finland
Purpose This study aims to increase the understandingof the early-stage identity-related information needs
of transgender people.
Design/methodology/approachThis study draws on social constructivism, queer theory and information
practice research. In accordance with the queer phenomenological approach which emphasises lived
experiences, data was collected by interviewing 25 individuals who identified as transgender. The data was
analysed with a focus on how early-stage information needs are formed into conscious information needs.
Findings The formation of early-stage information needswere conceptualised as a chain including a trigger
for information seeking, finding the right words and understanding the experience. Especially the bodily
changes starting at puberty were strong causes of discomfort causing friction between the subjectsown
gendered body and their gender experience, even leading to gender dysphoria. Finding words to describe the
experience played an important role in the process of identity formation. In many cases this was difficult
because of the lack of accurate and relevant information.
Social implications Providing information especially of varying transgender experiences is vital for
individuals trying to understand and verbalise their gender identity.
Originality/value This study provides an understanding of the early-stage information needs described by
transgender people and the process of building identities through disorientation. This study suggests that
early-stage information needs are a valid concept to help understand how embodied experiences and the
friction between the lived experience and the social world can lead to information seeking.
Keywords Gender, Minorities, Identity, Embodiment
Paper type Research paper
1. Introduction
In this study, we examine identity-related early-stage information needs as described by
transgender individuals. Early-stage information needs have been described as embodied,
intuitive emotions or affects that will evolve into formalised information needs (Taylor, 1968;
Ruthven, 2019a). Taylors (1968) famous conception of information needs was based on
research on how and why information seekers come to library desks to ask questions
(Case and Given, 2016;Taylor, 1968). However, as information needs are difficult to study
empirically, research has focused on information-seeking activities rather than needs (Lundh,
2010), and the concept is still poorly understood (Ruthven, 2019a;Savolainen, 2017).
This being said, information needs are the core of many models and studies on human
information behaviour in contexts of work (Krikelas, 1983;Wilson, 1981) as well as everyday
life (Gorman, 1999).
needs of
The authors would like to acknowledge the financial support provided by Kone Foundationand thank
all the interviewees.
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 27 September 2019
Revised 20 December 2019
Accepted 29 December 2019
Journal of Documentation
Vol. 76 No. 3, 2020
pp. 709-729
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JD-09-2019-0193
Particularly relevant for the purpose of this study are approaches focusing on information
needs in the contexts of deeply meaningful and intensely personal situations with life-long
impacts(Clemens and Cushing, 2010, p. 9) and meaning-making (Ruthven, 2019b). In these
situations, the triggerfor information seeking may be a personal crisis, legal barriers to
information, social stigma or a significant life-long impact, for example (Clemens and
Cushing, 2010). Moreover, the process of meaning-making can emerge from both significant
events and gradual awakenings (Ruthven, 2019b). Significant events can be difficult life
changes, during which our beliefs about the world can change. Gradual awakenings, on the
other hand, happen when the current existence is not meaningful anymore, and a new way of
living may be required (Ruthven, 2019a,b).
The study focuses on information needs among people who identify as transgender.
The term is usually understood as an umbrella term referring to people with a range of
gender-variant identities (Simmons and White, 2014;Valentine, 2007). In this study, we use
the term to refer to people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth,
people whose relation to gender fluctuates and people who do not identify with the
gender-binary at all (Simmons and White, 2014;Valentine, 2007). For transgender people
identity-related information needs can emerge in connection to significant life events or
gradual awakening (see Ruthven, 2019b) and be deeply meaningful (see Clemens and
Cushing, 2010), since being treated as a man [for female-to-male transgender people] socially
is important enough to risk many other things including loss of family, friends, and career
(Dozier, 2005, pp. 304306). Underpinned by social constructivism and queer phenomenology
as an approach for studying experiences, the study aims to explore the experiences in which
way early-stage identity-related information needs are transformed into conscious
information needs, taking into account the role of embodiment as a part of this process.
2. Background
Transgender and trans are used as umbrella terms referring to a range of gender-variant
identities, practices and communities. As an identity category, broadly defined, transgender
includes people who do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, people
whose relation to gender fluctuates, as well as those who do not identify with the gender-
binary at all. The term has also been contested, and its meanings vary in different cultural
and material contexts. Many gender-variant people do not identify with the term or feel that
it does not account for the complexity of their lived experiences (Simmons and White, 2014;
Valentine, 2007). The varying understandings of transgender are also related to ongoing
epistemological, political and social changes (K
onen and Wickman, 2013).
The flexible nature of the term makes it difficult to use it in quantitative surveys and
statistical analyses. It is impossible to estimate the percentage of transgender people within
one nation, let alone globally. For example, in Finland, the growing number of people
(around 800 in 2017) who seek medical treatment hormones and reassignment surgery
to alter their physical bodies to align their gender identities represents only a small
percentage of the trans-spectrum. Evenwithin this group, approximately 50 per cent decide
not to undergo reassignment surgeries. This is partly because Finnish law requires that
patients must be sterile (either sterilised or sterile through hormone replacement) to have
access to the medical and legal transition process, which includes the legal recognition of
gender (for more on this, see Honkasalo, 2018). The majority of trans people, consisting of a
diversity of gender identifications, do not want medical interventions. In addition, many
trans people choose not to reveal their identification to others or on official forms (see, e.g.
Schild; Bratter , 2015). They may have different reasons for doing so, but one major reason
for this is a fear of being discriminated against. Results of many studies show that trans

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