This summer, the contributions and struggles of trans folks underneath the LGBTQ2S+ umbrella are being particularly highlighted in Pride Month celebrations. As a nonbinary transgender person and gender diversity researcher, I’m noticing that the general public is more informed about transgender people and issues than ever before—sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, when this information is incorrect or caught up in partisan politics. It’s also more likely than ever before that you know someone who is transgender. For people who don’t spend time in and around transgender communities, the place where you encounter the most people outside of your network is likely your workplace. If you haven’t yet worked alongside a transgender person, you will soon.
Trans people are coworkers just like any other, except we face elevated degrees of discrimination and harassment—both explicit and less so. On average, trans people are more likely to live in poverty and experience housing instability, which stems from other well-researched issues like trouble with stable employment, and leaving the school or post-secondary education that can lead to stable employment. All of these things are in some way attributable to how everyday life can be unlivable for many trans people due to others’ behavior in these spaces, whether intentional or not. You can help, and below I give you some tips for how.
The advice I’ll share is aimed at people who may not be transgender themselves, but who either currently work or will work alongside a transgender colleague in some capacity. In my work with people of all ages and stages on creating spaces more affirming of gender diversity, I’ve come to understand that most people are either supportive or want to be supportive of the trans folks in their midst. They just feel like they need a starting place.
The tips below act on this knowledge, which is inspiring at a time when trans people and our (blessedly) boring lives (if we are lucky) are becoming unhelpfully politicized. I share them with you so that you can pitch in and help create a workplace where trans folks can participate and, hopefully, thrive.
First, however, a disclaimer: My tips presume that your hypothetical transgender coworker is out as transgender. You may know a colleague is transgender because they have transitioned on the job, or because they are nonbinary, meaning they are in neither the male/man or female/woman box, likely having gender-neutral pronouns and using no gendered terms. That said, you may have worked alongside a transgender man or women for many years and not have a clue.
There is also considerable diversity among transgender people in terms of how we relate to our trans-ness, and in terms of what we choose to share about our trans-ness across the many contexts in which we live our lives. Regardless, it’s a good practice to assume that there is always a transgender person around you, which is always possible, and be mindful of the space you are creating.
1. Do for your trans coworker what you do for everyone else.
If you aren’t trans, you probably take for granted that people are going to address you with your name and the other ordinary words that reinforce, every day, who you are. When you say your name, people will only respond by offering theirs in return. When you share information that identifies you as someone’s husband, daughter, or boyfriend, people don’t bat an eye as you name these ties that bind you to others. You likely never think about your pronouns at all, but would quickly notice if people used the wrong ones.
So my number-one tip for supporting a trans colleague is just to do what you do for everyone else, to the best of your ability (understanding that it can take time to get it right): Call us our names, say our pronouns, use the words we use for ourselves, and use other words (or not), as needed, based on what we have already shared with you. Do this without drama or overemphasis, even if you’re hyper-aware of what you are saying, at first. And when you make a mistake—and you will—just say sorry, rephrase, and move on with no drama. That’s it.
2. Stand up for us when we are not there.
You know how learning a language is easier when you’re surrounded by other people who are speaking it? Well, changing your language for a trans coworker, using language that might not be your gut’s first choice, or learning to use singular they/them for just one person because they are under the nonbinary umbrella—this is all language learning.
If you and your coworkers do not support each other in practicing when your trans colleague isn’t around to witness, you will not be able to do it when they are. You do not have to be a mistake-free pronoun superhero in order to begin helping others by gently—and I mean gently, like a good teacher—offering reminders when people slip up. And, most importantly, even if you are frustrated, don’t let that show. Resist the urge to make moral arguments, unless these come up, and just keep on trucking with gentle help. Otherwise, the everyday effort to meet our needs can become a site of shame and resentment.
3. Help us go to work, do our job, and not have to talk about ourselves all the time.
The public’s increased exposure to transgender people and issues is often a good thing, but it also means people have questions. Trans people can sometimes feel like we’re on a stage or under a microscope, even when the person asking their question or telling their story or testing out their idea has kind intentions. Sometimes we just want to chill and not think or talk about being trans, and peoples’ good-natured curiosity can turn to bad feelings if we don’t play ball and answer their question, listen to their story, or affirm their idea. Do your trans colleague a favor: You know they are here, and you can predict that people will have questions. So, you can support your colleague by boning up a little.
There are plenty of resources available. Read my book, or one of its wonderful siblings. Try to deter curious folks from bringing their trans questions, stories, or ideas to your trans colleague, and either take a stab at engaging yourself with your newfound knowledge or send them to a resource. You can even let them know directly that it would be both courteous and kind to find answers without asking firsthand.
4. Open the door, and do it again.
Workplace dynamics can be as cliquey as any high school class, and there are as many spoken as unspoken reasons why some people get together after work or on the weekend, and others don’t. It can be hard to put your finger on why everyone always forgets to invite so-and-so. Maybe it’s because people aren’t sure what to say to or about someone, or it’s because people aren’t sure someone would “fit in.”
These impulses are code for lots of different things, but one way to make sure this isn’t happening because your awesome coworker is trans is to make a point of opening the door. We might not walk through the first time, or ever, but try a few times before you resolve to leave your budding friendship at work, especially if your workplace is a very social one. Then give it some time, and try again.
Lee Airton, PhD is the author of Gender: Your Guide, out this month in paperback. They are an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University, the creator of the long-running gender-neutral pronoun blog They Is My Pronoun, and founder of the No Big Deal Campaign.