Hey reader, I have a question for you. What is it like, being cisgender in the tech industry? What sort of challenges have you faced? Do people treat you well? It must be really scary, being yourself in such a competitive and high-speed environment.
If you’ve never been asked these questions before, then congratulations; you are not an out transgender person who works in tech. In fact, it’s possible that you may have asked somebody else these questions in the recent past. That’s OK! It’s natural to be curious, and I’m sure you want to be a good ally to your trans coworkers. How will you know how to act if you don’t ask questions, right?
Today’s your lucky day, because I am going to tell you the definitive answer to “what does it mean to be transgender in the workplace?” After you read this, you will never have to ask another trans techie about their experiences, because you will already know the answer, and will be able to act accordingly.
Are you ready?
Being a transgender person in the workplace means having this exact conversation, over and over and over, forever. The question can only be answered by the question itself, ad infinitum. We often spend so much time justifying our presence to others that it begins to feel like our reason for being there in the first place. Why are we here? We’re here to tell you why we’re here.
I’m not here to make you feel bad for asking these questions. Well, maybe a little bit, but I want you to understand when your well-intentioned allyship stops being helpful and starts being intrusive. The fact of the matter is that we’ve got a job to do here, same as you; we just have a few more obstacles to maneuver around as we do it.
If you are serious about making your office a more inclusive environment, remember that changing these things is hard work. Your LGBTQIA+ coworkers will probably want to help or advise you, but it’s as unreasonable to expect them to do it all for you as it would be to have employees with mobility issues to commission handicapped parking spots. We can do it, but it’s not in our job description, and it’s an unnecessary amount of physical and emotional labor to demand of us on top of the actual work we are there to do.
With that in mind, here are some easy steps you can take towards making your workplace welcoming to transgender people. This list is by no means exhaustive, but you’ll find that even these small changes can have a remarkably positive effect on morale, engagement, and teamwork.
First and foremost, respect people’s pronouns. Yes, including the singular “they”, and yes, including ones you haven’t seen before. Consistently misgendering people is the fastest way to make them feel that they are in a hostile environment. Model correct pronoun use yourself, and reprimand cisgender employees who refuse to do so themselves.
Will you get pronouns wrong? Almost certainly. Contrary to what the media may tell you, transgender workers can tell the difference between mistakes and malice. When you do slip up, apologize, correct, and move on. Dramatic mea culpas do more to make us uncomfortable than using the wrong pronoun now and then ever could, because it makes us feel like the jerks in the situation.
An easy way to head off these confrontations is to normalize including pronouns when introductions are called for. This might seem odd to you; one complaint I’ve heard several times from cisgender people is “but my pronouns are obvious.” Good for you, but this isn’t the case for everybody. If the only employees in your company that introduce themselves with their pronouns are transgender, then that’s a way they are othered, a marker that they are separate from everyone else. By making pronouns a default part of introductions, then this barrier between cis and trans workers is torn down.
Does this seem like a lot? It really isn’t, but be prepared for pushback. For some people, even this small amount of consideration will be far too much. The people who push back hardest will probably surprise you; some of them will be people you’ve worked alongside for years, people whose politics you thought you understood. Transphobia isn’t limited to any side of the political spectrum, and can be found in even the most empathetic and liberal individuals.
This leads us to a harsh truth. Transphobia cannot be tolerated in the workplace, whether it manifests as refusing to respect a coworker’s pronouns or harassing them for using the correct bathroom. When it occurs, if you really are serious about fostering an inclusive environment, then your transgender employees will look to you for support. Be prepared to offer sensitivity and diversity training to employees who exhibit transphobic behavior. Stricter disciplinary actions may even become necessary.
Being an ally isn’t easy; as somebody once told me, it’s a verb, not an adjective. It means putting yourself out there, to serve as a shield between your marginalized employees and those that would harm them through actions and words. It also means being open to criticism, and accepting that you do not understand transgender people’s experiences the way you understand your own. If you have the strength, humility, and empathy, then you can make your workplace a beacon of inclusion.