Beyond the Binary: Trans Identity in the Workplace06 July 2019
By the plethora of rainbow-coloured logos and the crowds that turn out to watch the LGBTQ community on their march of remembrance and celebration each year, you could be forgiven for thinking that equality has been well and truly achieved. Most people have at least one gay friend or co-worker, and the announcement, “actually, I’m gay”, doesn’t raise as many eyebrows as it once did. But identity in the workplace has always been a tricky thing, and it’s doubly difficult when your identity isn’t even recognised by law.
I am non-binary. It means I am transgender – I don’t align with the gender I was assigned at birth. Instead, I am a third gender, neither man nor woman. Non-binary identities are not currently recognised or protected by law, and since non-binary people often undergo minimal or no surgical reassignment, we aren’t protected by worker’s rights (which cover gender reassignment, but not gender identity).
Most trans people hide their identity at work, and many of those who transition choose to work from home, away from unkind eyes and prying questions from HR. However, it’s not a luxury that everyone has access to, and being trans in the workplace can be difficult at the best of times. If you declare it on your application form, will that be the reason you didn’t get an interview? If you use one bathroom over another, will HR be having a word with you? Will your boss, as one of mine did, tell you to hide your identity, “because it’s too much work” to change pronouns?
Pronouns are a sticking point for a lot of trans people – if we can’t yet transition or present as we wish, we can at least ask people to speak about us the right way. As a non-binary person, I use neutral pronouns – ‘they’, ‘them’, and ‘their’. If I’m away from my desk, my co-worker might say “oh, they’re outside, making a call,” rather than “she’s outside, making a call”. It’s a small change, but it can make a big difference to the comfort of a trans employee at work.
Many companies now list every employees’ pronouns next to their profile on a webpage, or encourage everyone to add them to their signature – if everyone does it, it stops some people being singled out, and encourages an environment where asking for pronouns is not only acceptable, but encouraged.
Other things an employer can do to help trans staff include having a process for managing their transition sensitively, setting aside at least one gender-neutral toilet or changing room and adding menstrual product disposal bins to men’s toilets, so staff aren’t forced to misgender themselves to take care of basic needs. It’s never going to be easy to transition at work, particularly if it involves changing a name and essentially re-introducing yourself to your co-workers under a new identity, but employers can – and should – help.
A queer staff member letting you know they’re queer is an expression of trust, and employers need to support their staff in order to keep them. It means educating yourself and, sometimes, correcting yourself, challenging ideas you’ve always held and listening to someone about how best you can help, but it’s always a positive thing.
My colleagues at NYCC have been wonderful, making an effort right from the beginning to help me feel comfortable at work. There have been slip-ups, but always followed by a quick apology, and the questions about my identity have been curious, not invasive or challenging. My line manager took steps to educate herself and the team, and read up around supporting trans staff. It’s a workplace where I can just be me, their colleague who happens to be non-binary. And for now, that’s the best I could ask for.