By: Ryan Wilkinson, Account Coordinator
With recent studies showing that around 1 million adults in the U.S. identify as transgender – and considering that that number represents only those comfortable enough to come forward – it’s long past time we had a talk about gender in the workplace.
To be fair, work can be a difficult place to talk about things like gender. With concerns about privacy, about what is and isn’t “appropriate” and the risk of insulting someone, a lot of people prefer a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; after all, as long as everyone is getting their work done, does it really matter?
Short answer: yes. Since news broke that the U.S. government is developing a plan to retract rights granted to transgender citizens by the Obama administration, much of the gender-nonconforming community is raising a call to arms. From online campaigns like #WontBeErased to a banner flown at a World Series game at Dodger Stadium at the end of October, people are discussing gender identity in ways they didn’t before with one simple goal: to increase transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming visibility in the hopes of spurring public support in this fight for civil rights.
So, maybe your coworker has recently come out as gender-nonconforming, or maybe your new hire is transgender. Maybe you don’t think you know anyone who fits these descriptions (although, chances are you do – they just haven’t told you yet). In any case, what is the next step to make sure your workplace is inclusive and respectful for everyone?
Step one is education. That’s where this blog post comes in. We’ll start with some basic definitions of terms that come up in conversations about gender (for a deeper dive, see this helpful slide deck by Mandy Wilkens):
Binary (adj.): relating to, composed of, or involving two things. In this context, it’s the notion that there are only two genders: male and female.
Nonbinary (adj.): describes those who do not identify as either male or female, but as a separate gender, combination of genders, or even no gender at all! This umbrella term includes more specific identities such as agender (having no gender) and genderfluid (in which gender is more of a moving target; a genderfluid person may identify as a woman one week, a man the next, and agender after that).
Assigned Sex (noun): The binary sex that is assigned at birth according to the legal definitions of sex, based on one’s physical anatomy.
Cisgender (adj.): describes those who identify as the gender assigned to one at birth; a cisgender person’s gender identity aligns with their physical sex characteristics. Sometimes shortened to “cis.”
Gender Non-Conforming, or GNC (adj.): the dictionary definition for gender nonconformity reads: “a state in which a person has physical and behavioral characteristics that do not correspond with those typically associated with the person’s sex.” In the context of this blog post, we’ll use it as an umbrella term to include anyone who isn’t cisgender; however, it is generally used to describe a person, trans or not, who doesn’t conform to the norms of gender – such as a man who likes to wear nail polish.
Transgender (adj.): describes those who identify as a gender other than the one assigned at birth; a transgender person’s gender identity may or may not align with their physical sex characteristics. Sometimes shortened to “trans.”
There’s a lot more to learn, but this is a good place to start. Unfortunately, one blog post isn’t going to tell you everything you need to know to treat your coworker with the respect they deserve. There’s good news, though: the best source of information about your coworker’s gender identity, and how they prefer to be treated, is sitting in your office. Convenient, right?
The Importance of Asking
As we’ve already discussed, talking about gender can be difficult in the workplace. And I get it; you don’t want to make your coworker uncomfortable with your questions, especially if you sense that they’re already uneasy about openly displaying their identity at work! However, there is one important thing to stress here: no one can tell you about a person’s gender identity better than that person can. Why? Because gender identity is what is known as a social construct; it’s something we collectively made up, and so it’s entirely in our heads (not to be confused with physical sex characteristics, which we clearly didn’t just invent; gender is the construct we created to organize society according to those physical characteristics). Therefore, it isn’t something your other coworkers can see and tell you about. Even if they have already spoken to the person in question about their identity, it still isn’t their place to reveal anyone’s identity to you without explicit permission – everyone deserves the opportunity to explain their own identity, in their own words, when they are ready to and never before.
This can be awkward, though; how do you ask a person how they identify? The best place to start is usually to ask about their pronouns. If you need a refresher from your grade school English classes (I know I do sometimes), pronouns are the words we use to refer to people and things other than their proper names. Words like I, he, she, and they are all pronouns, and they make conversation easier. (Imagine if you had to say “Ryan will eat Ryan’s lunch after Ryan finishes Ryan’s work” instead of “Ryan will eat his lunch after he finishes his work” – what a headache!) The important thing to notice for our purposes is that many pronouns are gendered – in other words, they apply specifically to men or women, he or she, his or hers. There are also many pronouns that are not gendered, such as I, they, and theirs. Many GNC folks, especially those who fall under the umbrella of nonbinary, prefer those gender-neutral pronouns.
Even if they haven’t really thought about it, everyone knows what pronouns apply to them, and most will happily tell you if you ask. If you don’t know how to approach a conversation about gender identity, this is your easy in. But how do you proceed from there? Well, again, I can’t teach you in a blog post; unlearning a lifetime of binary gender roles will take longer than this five minute read. I can, however, give you some tips on how to treat the GNC people in your life with dignity and respect:
- Respect the pronouns. When a person tells you about their gender identity, they’re telling you that they trust you. Respect that trust! Use the name and pronouns that they give you every time you address them. If you’re nervous about messing up, it’s okay! The fact that it worries you means you care. If you do slip up, it isn’t the end of the world; quickly apologize, correct yourself, and move on. They don’t want to spend any more thought on the mistake than you do.
• In this same line of thought, the words transgender, cisgender and nonbinary are always adjectives. Someone can’t be “a transgender” or “a nonbinary” – they are “a nonbinary individual,” “a transgender girl/boy,” etc.
- Challenge gender norms. Many of us have lived our entire lives largely unaware of any challenges to the idea of binary gender. Unlearning such an integral part of your worldview will take time and effort, but as in everything else, practice makes perfect! Challenge unnecessary gendering when you see it, from snacks to household tools (finally, you don’t need to wait for a MAN to hang that picture!) and, on a deeper level, the notion that certain colors are suitable or not based on a person’s anatomy.
- Support GNC people. It’s a scary time, with the usual attacks by small-minded people being supported and amplified by the highest office in the United States government. Support can come in many forms, but genuine and friendly acceptance is a good baseline. If you want to go a step further, attend a protest or donate either directly to fundraisers for individual trans people or to organizations like trans lifeline or no more dysphoria.
- Never stop learning! As I keep saying, there’s a lot to learn about gender that simply won’t fit here. The slide deck linked above is a great place to start, and includes links for further reading. There are also groups and discussion to be found on virtually every social media platform by searching the terms above; if you don’t know any GNC people personally (that you know of), this can be a great way to hear directly from the people you’d like to learn about.
I know that this blog post is not exactly what you would expect to find on a company website, and want to thank you for reading it to the end. If you have questions about anything you’ve read here, or would like to have a conversation, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me at RJWenby@gmail. As a nonbinary individual who is still figuring these things out for myself, I would be honored to speak, listen and learn with you.