By Bradley Turcotte
When Tara Sypniewski sought out writings on what it meant to be trans in the late 1970s, she turned to the Ottawa Public Library (OPL).
A search of now-antiquated terms resulted in one book: Transvestites & Transexuals: Mixed Views by American sociologist Deborah Heller Feinbloom.
While studying English at Carleton University, Sypniewski came across a book by English social reformer Henry Havelock Ellis, who promoted eugenics and termed trans people “eonists.”
The trans movement and social acceptance of trans people has evolved since the time of Havelock and Feinbloom.
Sypniewski first toyed with the idea of opening a library focusing on trans writings on her website Trans Ottawa, founded in 2017. The space officially opened on May 29 in Kitchissippi.
“I was going to open a little hole-in-the-wall but then that plan changed as I started to talk about it and to people who wanted to come on board,” Sypniewski said. When this space came up, I embraced the larger notion of a community space as well as a library. The library was always going to be a community space, but it was more book-inclined. It has been a successful community space so far.”
In addition to the library’s book club, the space has hosted a clothing swap for The Rainbow Ottawa Student Experience. Sypniewski says she hopes to launch a speaker series soon and host Capital Pride events.
“When you plant a seed, you never know how big it will grow,” Sypniewski says.
While not a sanctioned extension of the OPL, “CEO Danielle McDonald reached out to Tara after learning about the Ottawa Trans Library to welcome her to the Ottawa library community,” Alexandra Yarrow, program manager of OPL’s board and strategic services said.
“Rosemount Branch Manager Yvonne van Lith and Manager of Alternative Services Mark Gelsomino met with Tara to welcome her to the neighbourhood and discuss mutual support and potentials for collaboration,” Yarrow added.
Sypniewski is a founding member of the now-defunct Gender Mosaic, a group which lobbied to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act to include gender identity and gender expression.
“I wrote a eulogy for it; I buried it myself,” Sypniewski says of Gender Mosaic, adding that she was not out socially when the group pivoted towards social justice goals. Burnout and this change in direction led her to leave the group.
Historically, trans people are victimized, but Sypniewski does not see trans people as victims. The library’s dragon logo emblematizes this.
“It is based on a large tapestry that we have as art in the library. I inherited it from a friend. I see us more as dragons than victims,” Sypniewski said.
The library offers works by writers such as Paira Hassouri and Dean Kotula, in addition to donations from local writers and a collection of poetry from Finland. But there is one seminal book you can find here.
“Years ago, I was leaving the OPL and they were having a book sale. I don’t often stop because I always have a lot of reading material on hand, but this time I decided to stop and what do you think was there?” Sypniewski asks. “That one book [Transvestites & Transexuals: Mixed Views]. Like the hand of fate was drawing me there. Of course, I bought it. It’s in the library now.”
The Ottawa Trans Library is open at 1104 Somerset St. W. To learn more, visit transottawa.ca/ottawa-trans-library