Please stop making me come out as non-binary at work

Yesterday I was turned down for a job with extremely short notice. I’m a freelancer by circumstance, and this happens more frequently than I would like. Business needs change, budgets are adjusted, and sometimes the terms of contracts simply don’t work out. This time, however, something didn’t feel right.

I was offered a short-term development contract. The company seemed excited to have me, wanting me to start immediately and welcoming me to the team before papers were even signed.

The paperwork was to be sent over in the afternoon and they asked to schedule an on-boarding meeting. Earlier, one of the employees had referred to me as “she” while outlining the terms of my contract. So, in response for their request for a meeting, I made a polite, gentle, note of the fact that I use “they/them” pronouns.

5 hours later, I was told the company no longer needed my services.

I asked whether my gender identity affected their decision, but so far I’ve received no reply. For my own sanity, however, I’m trying my best to afford that company the benefit of a doubt. Everyone had been so kind and nice to me, could my pronouns really change their perception of me so drastically?

What could this company have done, so that I would know for certain that my gender identity wasn’t an issue?

Coming out as a non-binary person at work always feels like a clumsy balancing act. As a contract worker I’m constantly working with new teams, so it’s a recurrent conversation.

Fuck you, obtuse bags of short term comfort.

During the interview process, one of my main questions is regarding what the corporate culture is like. I know it’s a bad fit if their immediate response details the beer they serve on Fridays or the existence of a ping-pong table. I’ve grown a distrust in bean bag chairs over the years. It’s nice to have free meals offered in a well-decorated office once in a while, but I’d much rather see clear efforts to make sure all employees and contractors feel safe in their places of work regardless of their gender, race, disabilities, or sexual orientation.

The most reassuring response a potential employer can offer to my questions about corporate culture is something along the lines of “It’s not the best it could be, but we’re actively trying and listening”, followed by a list of some of their efforts. If a team’s efforts towards building diversity seem earnest, I’m much more likely to feel comfortable acknowledging my gender identity.

I feel even better if I don’t have to come out about my gender identity at all. I get obnoxiously excited when I interview for a gig and the interviewer makes a point of acknowledging my pronouns and gender identity. I’m not saying I want anyone to make a show of it, because that’s absolutely not the case. It is, however, incredibly validating and comforting to have someone correct themselves if they get it wrong — or even better if they don’t misgender me at all.

I’ve put measures in place to try to facilitate awareness of my pronouns. I try to ensure any public writing about me doesn’t misgender me. My pronouns are stated in every social media bio I have. This morning, I added them to my email signature. It’s honestly surprising when I do have to mention my gender identity.

I often do have to bring it up, though. Sometimes the conversation doesn’t happen until I’ve already signed a contract and have started work. Sometimes it’s because I felt uncomfortable, and sometimes this simply happens because I haven’t yet had anyone refer to me in the third person. Either way, it’s a frequent-enough situation which more first-day jitters than necessary.

Part of the reason coming out at work is so daunting, is the fear I’ll be the odd one out. I’ve worked in tech since I was 15, and for years I was the only “girl” on the teams I worked on. The difference in my perceived gender consistently affected how I was treated, but it was the most egregious when all of my colleagues were cis men. I fear that the fact that I’m fem-presenting person who uses “they/them” pronouns will make things even harder.

A colleague can make it clear they are welcoming to those with non-binary gender identities by simply offering their pronouns when they introduce themselves. Being greeted with “Hi, I’m John, or he/him if you’re using pronouns, welcome to the team” makes it feel a lot less unnerving for me to do the same. Additionally, as I continue to work on these teams, it’s really helpful to have colleagues who are aware of my gender identity correct those who are not.

I don’t have the luxury of a stable income which would allow me to feel comfortable asserting my pronouns in every situation. So when I do need to discuss it, it’s incredibly stressful. In many cases, I’ll receive a response which essentially boils down to “cool” and I’ll continue to get misgendered. In other cases, I’ll be pulled aside by at least one colleague who wants to ask me invasive questions about my gender. While I absolutely don’t want to be misgendered at work, I don’t want to talk to about my gender at work more than I have to. I want to talk about work at work.

Having pronouns being considered as part of the conversation signals that there has been some effort to be empathetic towards those with non-binary gender identities and/or trans folk. Having a culture that acknowledges people’s pronouns can instigate much larger conversations that need to happen regarding both sexism and cis-sexism in the workplace.

So, hi, I’m Eden (or they/them if you’re using pronouns), and I’m really excited to be here.