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What It’s Like To Transition At Work

Many people want to support their trans colleagues but aren’t sure how. Air Force veteran Shannon Scott has a few firsthand pointers.

Growing up outside of Great Falls, a small Montana city, Shannon Scott worked on a ranch with what she remembers were “rough and tough” men—bailing hay, riding four-wheelers and horses, and branding cattle. Her coworkers saw her softer personality as a weakness, and for that she suffered name-calling and violence. Scott quickly learned there was a side of her that wasn’t safe to share.

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Last year, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that nearly half of the almost 28,000 transgender adults it polled weren’t hired, were fired, or weren’t promoted due to their gender identities. The same report found that nine in 10 transgender employees either took steps to avoid harassment or experienced it in the workplace.

As Luke Jude, the executive director of the advocacy organization Yes Institute, points out, “Going through a gender transition can be scary for everyone—from the person transitioning to the top tier of leadership.” When she finally did transition, Scott found her manager to be hugely supportive, even bringing in a specialist to address her team. But it was a long road leading up to that point. Here’s what she’s learned about navigating—and minimizing—the pitfalls of transitioning at work.

Early Challenges

After high school, Scott joined the Air Force and served for a little over 11 years, including a tour for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Knowing she couldn’t transition while serving, Scott applied for jobs outside the military. After two years, she landed a highly technical role with the Federal Aviation Administration in 2011 as an airway transportation systems specialist. While in this role, Scott fully transitioned.

It was a predominantly male field, and many of Scott’s male coworkers struggled for quite some time with her transition. “But honestly, they always knew something was up,” she explains. “I was never really like them and could never really hang out like one of the guys.”

Scott’s biggest immediate challenge at work was one we hear a lot in politics lately: the restroom. She didn’t want any special accommodations, though, she “simply wanted to use the restroom with all the other women and ‘blend in.'” But Scott says her female coworkers expressed discomfort, which immediately made her uncomfortable, too. Fortunately, that tension gradually dissipated. She explains, “The situation solved itself when everybody realized that we were all just going to the bathroom, to go to the bathroom.”

Inappropriate questions were also a hurdle. “I remember the first time one of my male coworkers tried to talk to me about my genitalia,” Scott recalls. “Regardless of the fact that I knew the question would be posed, I was still incredibly uncomfortable having the conversation.” Scott’s advice: “If you haven’t been having in-depth conversations with your coworkers about their genitalia before transition, it certainly isn’t appropriate to be having them after. And in actuality, it is never appropriate!”

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Work And Life After Transitioning

Less obvious are the ways people treat and relate to Scott now that she’s transitioned. When someone notices her overhearing a “guy conversation,” she says, they’ll sometimes give the speaker an elbow and apologize. “I’m no longer seen as one of the guys,” she says, “which is okay because I’m not and never really was.” Yet she wasn’t automatically “one of the girls,” either—it took some time to be accepted by other women.

Scott also says she watched as her coworkers’ expectations of her subtly changed. Her mostly male colleagues suddenly didn’t think she could lift heavy boxes. But that didn’t surprise her. What did surprise her “is that they also assumed I’d be much less able to accomplish highly technical troubleshooting tasks. It almost seemed as though once I transitioned, they assumed I lost a little bit of my intelligence”—an experience countless cisgender women can surely relate to.

What’s more, Scott’s male colleagues began only seeking assistance from other men in the office for things they’d once approached her about. “Maybe they didn’t want to have to ask the girl for help,” Scott muses. At the time, she didn’t feel ready or strong enough to confront these gender biases. “It wasn’t until much later in my transition that I became confident in who I was, and was able to stand up for myself once again,” Scott explains.

Her advice to others in similar situations is simply to “continue doing the very best work you can . . . and [to] take proper steps to ensure that your performance is given appropriate credit.”

Making Transitioning Easier For Everyone

As someone who has walked both paths, Scott has a few tips for making transgender employees feel more welcome.

First, simple as it sounds, if you want your coworker to feel supported, tell them! Scott suggests saying something like, “I’m so happy for you, and I want you to know that I’m going to support you in every way I can.” Then just ask, “What are some ways that I can best do that?”

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Next, genuinely be their ally, Scott advises—and not just when they’re in the room. If someone is having an inappropriate conversation about someone who’s transitioning in the workplace, be the brave person and speak up.

Lastly, she says, just make sure your colleague is being treated respectfully, that they have a safe place to use the restroom, and that you know how to appropriately ask for their pronouns: Never ask what pronouns they “prefer”—it’s not a preference like chicken or fish, it’s an identity. The best way to do this when you’re meeting someone new is to first offer your own, and then ask what pronouns they use: “Hi, my name is Shannon Scott and my pronouns are ‘she,’ ‘her,’ and ‘hers.’ What pronouns do you use?” This way you avoid singling them out.

If a coworker you’ve worked with for a while is transitioning, just include this discussion when you first voice your support. You might add, “I realize we’ve never talked about pronouns before,” then share yours and ask for theirs. At any rate, the simple truth is you can’t assume someone’s gender identity simply by looking at them.

Some of these responsibilities fall to team leaders and managers, but anybody can take proactive charge and push for these steps to be taken. Scott points out that it’s also helpful for employers to have a written policy in place protecting employees from workplace discrimination—and that companies shouldn’t wait until somebody transitions to draw one up.

It turns out that 78% of transgender people surveyed felt more comfortable at work after their transition, and they also felt their workplace performance improved. Transitioning is never easy or simple, but this basic precept is: When trans employees feel supported, entire work cultures improve, and so do organizations as a whole.

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