Greetings! My name is… well, I’m not sure. More on that later. My pronouns are they/them. More on that later too.
About a year ago, I began the process of “coming out” — revealing to the people in my life that I am not the gender that they perhaps thought I was. This Trans Day of Visibility I’d like to share the good and the bad of what this means for me, as the owner and main point of contact at Fish Percolator.
Trans: the very brief intro
When a person is born, they are normally assigned a gender of “male” or “female” by a doctor, based on the available information at the time of birth.
This assignment is often correct, but sometimes the doctor gets it wrong, and the child grows up to realise they are not the gender the doctor thought they were¹. When someone’s gender is different from the gender they were assigned at birth, this is called being trans.
For example, a man who was given the incorrect assignment of “female” at birth might be called a trans man (when their trans status is relevant to the conversation; in other contexts, they’d be called a man like any other man).
A person — like me — who realises their gender cannot be accurately described as “male” or “female” is known as non-binary. This is a catch-all term for all the gender identities that are neither male nor female².
A person who was correctly assigned their true gender at birth (the majority of the population) is often called cis in contexts where distinguishing them from trans people is important.
Why gender matters in the workplace
Something that people have said to me on occasion is something along the lines of “I don’t care what happens in your private life, but why should it matter to me? I only care about your abilities.” In other words, why am I bothering to talk about my gender at all in this business context?
Isn’t gender just a made-up concept anyway? You might hear people say “gender is a social construct”. This is true, but that definition also includes social constructs like money, government and nationality. That doesn’t make them any less real.
It only takes a cursory search of the internet to see the difference gender makes in a business context. For example, women might experience being financially undervalued compared to their male colleagues or not being listened to. Trans people might experience being labelled as aggressive or being questioned about their body parts. Trans women experience both kinds of gender discrimination as well as a third kind, even more vicious, which is often called transmisogyny. I’m not a woman and not qualified to talk about discrimination against women — so I’ll focus on what I do know — but I’d recommend reading women’s stories too, such as those on the Everyday Feminism blog.
Gender assumptions and misgendering
When we meet someone new (and most of us do this, trans people included) we make a judgement call about what gender they are. We do this based on the available information such as their name, physical appearance, the pitch of their voice and the clothes they are wearing.
I’m sure if you’ve read this far you can see how that judgement call could be completely wrong. If you then proceed to use a gendered term for that person such as a pronoun (more on these in a bit) or “Sir” / “madam” and that term doesn’t match the person’s actual gender, this is called misgendering.
Misgendering can be done intentionally or unintentionally but the impact is often the same: it has a small negative effect on a person’s mental wellbeing. When it happens dozens or hundreds of times a day, this can feel overwhelming. (Repetitive acts of discrimination like this are sometimes called microaggressions.)
If you want to understand a bit more about how it can feel, try asking a colleague to refer to you for a whole day using the wrong terms. For example, if you’re a man, whenever the colleague talks about you they might say “she has done a great job on that report”. It might not seem like a big deal at first but after a few times you might begin to see how it feels for this to happen many times every day.
The desire to not be misgendered leads many trans people to adopt a stereotype version of their gender in the workplace: for example, women might wear lots of makeup and a dress even if it’s not what they prefer to wear, just to reduce the chances that people might misgender them. I’ve found myself always making sure my nails are painted and I’m wearing excessively bright clothes when I go into business meetings for the same reason³.
Pronouns: the what and the why
If you move in any circles that contain queer and trans people, you might have heard people talking about pronouns. Here’s a very brief explanation of what this is about and why it’s important.
English is a partially gendered language. It has abandoned most instances of grammatical gender (such as the le/la in French) but retains it in some contexts, mostly related to when people are being discussed.
In English, if you want to talk about someone in the third person, you often have to use a pronoun even when the conversation has nothing to do with their gender. For example, you might say: “I recommended Steve for a promotion. He did such a good job on that last project.”
This means it’s impossible to do business in English without using gendered language, even when gender is not relevant to the business being done.
A further complication for non-binary people is that the English pronouns he/him and she/her don’t fit for us. There are many alternative pronouns used by non-binary people. The most common (used by 77% of us⁴, including me) is singular they/them.
For example, “I recommended Kris for a promotion. They are the best person for it.”
Some people think singular they is grammatically incorrect, but its usage is, in fact, at least as old as singular you: singular they/them is very common in everyday English. In fact, I used it 9 times in the “very brief intro” section above. Did you even notice?
Asking people what their gender is can seem slightly intrusive, like you’re asking for information that you don’t need to know. So what’s often recommended now is that you ask people for their pronouns. This isn’t invading someone’s privacy; it’s merely accepting the limitations of the language we speak. We can’t communicate without pronouns, so we ask for them in order to communicate in an inoffensive way.
This works best if you ask everyone — cis or trans — for their pronouns⁵. It can leave trans people feeling less like the “other”. And, besides, you can’t be sure who is cis and who is trans by looking at them.
My own experience
Since coming out as trans, I’ve tried to be upfront and honest about my pronouns with all my clients and colleagues, old and new. Being the boss of my company means I get the power to decide how and when this happens.
However, I find myself backing away from this when I’m in an unfamiliar context where I hold fewer of the cards. For example, I was recently at a conference on a subject I knew less about than many of the attendees. I wrote my pronouns on my name badge but when people inevitably misgendered me multiple times during the conference I never once corrected anyone. This results in me retreating somewhat even though the people present have no idea that is happening. For others it could have a more serious impact on their mental health.
Mostly when I’ve told cis people they’ve been very nice about it. I’ve not experienced any outright hostility at all⁶. I think being “businesslike” in this country means maintaining an appearance of total professionalism even if the person is thinking all sorts of thoughts inside.
The most common experience is someone saying “thanks for letting me know; using the correct pronouns won’t be a problem”. Almost invariably this is followed by several incidents of misgendering me. If you’re new to using they/them pronouns for a person it’s OK to say you think it’s going to be hard to adjust to, and I have always appreciated it when people have said they will find it a challenge but they intend to take it seriously.
Some people — usually those who think it’s ungrammatical — will go to great lengths to avoid using my pronouns at all. While probably well intentioned, this honestly doesn’t feel good… it almost feels as if the client or colleague is ashamed of working with a non-binary person. I have perfectly good pronouns and I would prefer people try to use them and make mistakes than not use them at all.
A much smaller set of cis people have just completely refused to acknowledge my pronouns at all and misgender me all the time. I’ve never felt like this is done with malicious intent… it just doesn’t seem like it’s important to those people.
So far I’ve been continuing to use a variant of my birth-assigned name in business contexts, and my appearance has aligned somewhat with my birth-assigned gender. Particularly, my body naturally grows facial hair and I like having facial hair, but it can be seen as a very strong gender indicator to some people. I think a lot of the positivity I’ve experienced in work contexts is because people can comfortably still conceive of me in their heads as the gender they thought I was. This isn’t how it will be for many trans people.
My name will change. My hair will change. My dress sense is changing slowly and moving further and further away from what people would associate with my birth-assigned gender. When these things change, will I still receive such a positive reception? Or will I mysteriously have less work opportunity as people feel less comfortable working with me? Only time will tell.
How cis people can help
If you’re a cis person reading this, and want to know how you can help make your business more trans-friendly, here are some ideas.
- Ask people for their pronouns, for example at the start of a meeting. Let’s make this as natural as asking people for their name. When you introduce yourself, you could add your pronouns. All this will feel a bit stilted at first, but the more people do it, the more normal it will feel. (If you get opposition or someone treats it as an opportunity to make a joke, you should be prepared to explain the why this is important, in order to avoid it becoming a negative experience for any trans people present.)
- Also, respect that some people might not be fully “out”. They might use different names, pronouns and gender descriptors in different contexts so try to be context-aware to avoid “outing” people.
- If you’re printing literature that includes bios of people (for example, a conference programme) be sure to include their pronouns. That way people reading that literature will know how to talk about them from the outset.
- If you know someone’s pronouns (remembering context) and you hear someone use the wrong pronouns, correct that person. It can be very overwhelming for us to be the ones doing all the correcting, and knowing we have cis allies can feel like a load off.
- If you get it wrong yourself and you realise you’ve done it, apologise and move on. Personally I feel a lot better when people apologise and you’d perhaps be surprised how rare this is!
- If you’re having trouble getting someone’s pronouns right, this might be because you’re still internally misgendering them. This is hard to explain: if you think of someone as a man you might end up using he pronouns by accident more often, so try to correct your understanding of a person’s actual gender as well as their pronouns. If you don’t know their gender and only their pronouns, try to remember that you don’t know their gender.
- Try to use someone’s current name and pronouns even when talking about them in the past tense (unless you know they prefer otherwise). It’s still misgendering a person to do this in the present even if there was no way for you have known in the past.
- Perhaps the best thing you can do, if you have access to a budget, is to hire a trans awareness trainer. Searching for this term and the name of your city should help you find them. If you’re in or near Leeds you can hire Natasha Handley (she/her), Kit Heyam (he/him or they/them) or Non-Binary Leeds.
Share your stories
If you’re a trans person reading this, I’d love to hear your stories about being trans at work in the comments below. I’d especially like to hear from other trans business owners, because I think we don’t get to meet each other all that often!
You can also email me at email@example.com and find me on LinkedIn by searching for Fish Percolator.
: This revelation can happen to some trans children as soon as they’re able to understand the basics of what gender is, but it can also happen to people much later in adulthood, especially if there have been societal pressures for a person to conform to their assigned gender during childhood.
: In my case, I strongly identify with a gender identity that is in no way male and in no way female (this is sometimes called aporagender or stellarian). Other non-binary people may be a mixture of male and female, have a gender identity that changes with the situation, have no gender identity at all (agender) or one of many other gender identities. Everyone should feel free to choose their own labels that fit best, which means not everyone in this category will be comfortably labelled as non-binary.
: Yes, I love excessively bright clothes and painting my nails, but sometimes I make a conscious decision to dress this way even if I’m not in a painted nails mood.
: Source: Gender Census 2018
: A side note: it’s better to ask people for their pronouns rather than asking for their preferred pronouns. Adding the word ‘preferred’ makes it sound like it’s merely a preference whether someone would like to be gendered correctly.
: This is definitely not the experience of all trans people. I’ve met people who have met horrendous hostility as soon as they came out, and I can only imagine what this is like for people who are employees and have a boss and team-mates.