TL;DR The main purpose of this post is to address what I’ve experienced while transitioning at work and what you can do to help your colleagues.
I’m approaching two major anniversaries this month. The first (and it feels crazy to say) is my two-year anniversary at HubSpot. The second, which is far more personal, is the 1-year anniversary of my medical transition.
Let’s start with a bit of context. For those of you who’ve never heard that term before, the HRC defines transitioning as:
“…the process by which some people strive to more closely align their internal knowledge of gender with its outward appearance.”
It is a deeply personal process that includes, but is not limited to: coming out, legally changing your name/gender marker, using different personal pronouns, medical aspects such as hormone therapy, and/or various surgeries. Not all trans people transition medically, but whether or not they do has no impact on the validity of their gender identity. You should respect a trans person’s preferred name and pronouns regardless of their stage in the medical process.
I began socially transitioning last June, and medically last August. It didn’t take long before people started wondering about my voice getting deeper, or my facial features getting a bit wider. Overall, the response from my direct colleagues was overwhelmingly positive. Unfortunately though, I’ve noticed that even in 2018, the “T” in LGBT is not quite as normalized as the other letters — people don’t know what they don’t know. Many people have indicated to me that I’m the first trans person they’ve ever met, and while they’d love to show their support, they’re not sure what good support looks like.
With that in mind, I’ve put together a short list of “Do’s” and “Don’ts” (with some help from the sources linked through the article) to help educate anyone who might face this situation.
- Keep reactions to a minimum. I’m ecstatic that you’re happy for me, but just like everyone else, I’m here primarily to do my job. If I bring up my trans status, it’s likely to make sure you know my correct name and pronouns so we can address each other appropriately. Unless we’re close friends outside the office, we can skip the confetti and go right back to the task at hand once we get this out of the way. We’re at work, after all.
- Get preferred names & pronouns right. As noted in this great article from HBR, “No one is going to expect you to become an instant expert on transgender issues. But there are two things you really, absolutely have to get right: the person’s chosen name and preferred pronoun.” If you aren’t sure, it’s totally okay to politely ask — your colleague will appreciate it! It’s much less awkward than getting it wrong and being corrected. Additionally, note that names and pronouns may evolve over time. For example, for the first 6ish months after I came out, I went by “Nat” because I thought it might make adjusting easier on the people around me. Once I committed to “Nathan”, it took a while for everyone to catch up.
- Address any inappropriate remarks or behaviors. It’s easy to call it out when someone is exhibiting intentionally malicious behavior in the workplace.
One thing we tend to overlook is that not everyone is up-to-date on correct terminology and a lot of people say some fairly inappropriate things without even realizing it. I’ve heard everything from “tranny” to “the great transgender change” — this may sound totally harmless to some, but it’s deeply offensive. If you’re not sure about proper terminology, either ask a buddy or avoid the topic all-together. Speaking up is often more powerful coming from someone who doesn’t have “skin in the game” (i.e. another queer person). If we set the expectation that it’s unacceptable no matter who you’re talking to, folks are much more likely to change problematic behavior.
- Do your own research. I hear you, transitioning is a bit “novel” and not a ton of people have experience with it. But unless you have a close personal relationship with the person, it is grossly inappropriate to ask someone when they’re “having the surgery”*. Even if it’s well-intentioned, you wouldn’t want someone asking you all sorts of weirdly personal questions about your private parts, especially in the workplace. The same goes for trans people. If you’re curious about the transition process, start by googling it, on your own time. If you absolutely must ask, make sure you clear it with the person before you dive right in. A simple “Do you mind if I ask you a question about your transition?” gives the person the option to opt-out if they want to.
*There is no such thing as “the surgery”. There are a number of procedures a trans person may or may not elect to undergo, and that is 100% a conversation for them and their doctor only.
- Treat every trans person as an individual. We’ve all had different experiences, and we all have varying degrees of comfort talking about it. Just because you talked to one friend about it doesn’t mean your other friend is going to want to open up. Similarly, just because one person had a certain experience doesn’t mean every trans person has that experience.
- Bring up a trans person’s past or former gender expression, pronouns, or name. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Just don’t do it.
- Gossip or disclose a person’s trans status to other colleagues. Nobody likes being talked about behind their back. Unfortunately, it’s pretty difficult for a trans person to keep their transition private since much of the time it is very visible to the people around them. Resist the urge to gossip to others about your trans colleague. And unless that person specifically asks you to tell others, do not disclose their trans status to anyone else. This is one of the few factors a trans person can exercise their own control over, and oftentimes can lead to dangerous consequences — please leave it up to them to come out to others when they’re ready/comfortable.
- Assume a trans person is a subject-matter expert. See points 4 and 5 under “Do”.
- Be weird in the bathroom. I promise you, I’m trying to get in and out of there as fast as possible just like everyone else.Violence against trans people is on the rise, and there is no place we feel this fear more than in public restrooms. For the first few months of my transition, I took a buddy with me almost every time I used the bathroom. How wild is that? Even the smallest action can cause us to question our safety, so try to be conscious of the little things, such as staring or jarred looks.
It’s my hope that this post will help us all be better empathizers. Thanks for celebrating my anniversaries with me and I hope you were able to take away something useful!
The list was adapted from personal experience and was originally posted on thinkgrowth.org.