Reader Ramblings: Non-Binary Transition At Work

Someone on the non-binary spectrum emailed me looking for resources on how to navigate their professional life, specifically in a conservative job environment where gender comes with certain expectations.

Constantly policing your presentation, as I’m sure you know, is not fun. I’m still young enough to hope there’s a way to live with my gender that’s more authentic and more sustainable, without getting me fired.

Do you just suck it up? What are the compromises one has to make? Where is the balance?

Social Transitioning

My solution to unisex gendered bathrooms at work.
My solution to unisex gendered bathrooms at work.

There are a lot of non-binary trans folk out there, each navigating it at their own pace, in various stages of transition. You didn’t say how old you are, but I’m in my late 20’s, and I’ve talked to people in their 30’s, 40’s, 50, and 60’s – spanning pretty much every decade – from all walks of life, with all sorts of identities and histories and goals.

I recommend reading through a few blogs first. Jamie is in their 50’s, identifies as butch and trans, and is still figuring out transition. KT is in their early 30’s and works as a school janitor. Meike, a younger 20-something out of college, also talks about transitioning and being stealth at work. There are many many others who have successfully transitioned on the job, even in a more conservative environment like academia, such as Ezekiel, who identifies as a trans man, from

However, “fully transitioned” tends to imply a binary transition. At least socially. This was definitely the case for me. I had my fair share of murky waters; trying to stay in the middle was just too stressful. I imagine there are those who have managed to maintain a fully non-binary identity on the outside in their professional life, but I do not know their stories. (If you are one of them, please share your experience in the comments.)

Outer Identity, Inner Identity, and Disclosure

This is not because our inner core gender identity necessarily changes, though sometimes it takes a while to figure that out. What changes is how we’re dealing with and presenting it to the outside world.

I also want to emphasize that what you do physically or medically does not necessarily dictate what you should do socially.

Another person recently asked me whether they could take T without socially transitioning. Absolutely! You can take T without anybody really noticing for quite a while, especially early on or at a sustained low dose. You can even have top surgery and people still won’t notice. If testosterone or having top surgery were magical indicators that I’m not female, then strangers would’ve stopped seeing me as a “she” a long time ago…

Now would also be a good time to interject also that disclosure is a spectrum. You don’t necessarily have to tell everyone (or anyone) what is going on. Every person or social circle you come out to is separate from the other. Granted, it can get a little tricky or tiresome, but it’s entirely possible to inhabit multiple outer identities at once.

I haven’t explicitly told my acquaintances about my transition. When I do, I rarely share details, especially not with co-workers. Most of those that knew me from “before” and meet me again surprisingly don’t notice anything different. (Then again, there was an old classmate who did not even recognize me at all…) Only a handful of folks have commented on changes. How I respond to their questions also varies depending on how much I want to open up about it. I might say “I have a cold” or just stare back and say “yeah, and?” or even “yeah, that’s the point!” and let them figure it out from there. Being trans is generally not something on people’s radar.

Transition at Work

But back to original question of your job. Everyone has a different experience with jobs, their gender, and discrimination or lack thereof. Some of us don’t have to compromise on our looks for our job, others are not willing, others do so out of necessity. It is still a reality in many places that you can be fired solely because someone has an issue with your gender identity and how you express it.

There was a recent post on Butch Wonders that reminds me of this. She exchanges her usual masculine apparel for a slightly more womanly outfit in order to avoid being rejected or discriminated at a job interview purely for her looks. As I was reading, I thought to myself: this is not a compromise I’d be willing to make.
This makes it sound like I can afford to snub a potential job or lose my current one, which in most cases, nobody can. So I hypothetically put myself in BW’s situation, where I absolutely had to sacrifice some gender non-conformity for the job.

My next thought was: I’d rather compromise my inner non-binary identity than my clothes. I prefer to be perceived as fully male than to have to wear anything remotely feminine. Whereas someone else – like BW, maybe – would be more comfortable wearing something different for the sake of getting the job than be thought of and seen as and treated as a man in everyday life.

Of course, it is not always as simple as that. Everybody has a different threshold for each of these components, which may even change over time, and some have less choice in the matter of binary-gendered looks just based on their body or what resources are available to them. That’s why identity and transition are so complicated.

My blogging environment is business un-casual.
My blogging environment is business un-casual.

Open Options

An important lesson I’ve learned being non-binary, or for anyone who transgresses gender norms, is that sometimes the ideal is often not within reach (yet…) and all the options left pretty much suck. Unfortunately, society only recognizes two genders, and it comes down to choosing the least worst option that makes your day-to-day less painful.

Conversely, there are a lot of choices we can make to bring us in line with our identity. Some options suck less than others; some options are even waiting to be discovered. What you choose depends on who you are at that point in time, what will bring you closer to who you see yourself to be, and what will lead to a better life.

15 thoughts on “Reader Ramblings: Non-Binary Transition At Work

  1. When this came up in my genderqueer dicussion/support group there was ONE person who said zie is actually out to zir co-workers as genderqueer. It seems to work pretty well zem but when zie asked co-workers to use gender-neutral pronouns the response of said co-workers was to avoid using pronouns at all because it was just too difficult a concept for them. I’m not out at work and it is a source of stress for me and for quite some time I have been contemplating whether being out would reduce stress or just create new stress that’s even worse than the existing stress. Work still knows me by my gendered name and I’ve been considering at least asking them for my new gender-neutral name and while I know that I could just say “I’m changing my name for personal reasons” and leave it at that, that seems like it would be missing an opportunity to broach the gender-queer issue so I’ve been putting it off. It also seems like it would be easier to change my name at work and legally at the same time and I’m still not totally 100% decided on the legal change (I’m currently hoping to decide by July but it’s not a hard and fast deadline). Presentation-wise I’m actually pretty happy with my work look – I don’t feel like I’ve had to sacrifice anything that’s important to me to create a professional look that is consistent with my feelings about my gender. Yes, it’s different from my more authentic off-the-job personal style but I do think of it as an aspect of myself, a persona that I inhabit that makes me FEEL professional. There are jobs for which I would have to compromise more. I would not take those jobs unless I was much more desperate than I have experienced yet. Most of what upsets me at work is the gendered pronouns and gendered forms of address. Each one is like a tiny papercut and I get so many of them they never have a change to fully heal. I am fortunate that gender-discrimination IS illegal where I live, but a law can’t make my co-workers respect me and I worry that coming out as genderqueer and asking for non-gendered language to be used for me would make my work situation awkward and ultimately untenable. It’s so hard to tell how people would react. I imagine some would be cool with it but even a couple of un-cool reactions would be terrible, especially if one of them came from my boss. I feel like it would put my entire performance under a microscope and even if I were not fired for my gender they could find some other reason. I know that sort of thing happens. I might be wrong, it might be fine, but it’s so hard to know. I HAVE asked people not to call me the gendered forms I find most upsetting (ma’am and lady) because there should be no need for them but without any explanation as to WHY those bother me I feel I have just confused people.

    1. Changing my legal name helped me gather the courage to change my name and pronouns at work. Until I was 100% confident about it, I wasn’t ready to come out, no matter how much I wanted to.

      Laws can protect you in theory, but as you say, they may still fire you for purportedly other reasons and there’s not a lot you can do. If you don’t have a job, presumably you don’t have the resources to pursue a very expensive legal battle to prove they fired you due to gender identity. At the very least, laws discourage employers from discriminating.

  2. Reblogged this on One HuMan's Journey and commented:
    “Disclosure is a spectrum” does sum up the reality I face as Trans that is very different from just being “out” … As I recall once I came “out” as a lesbian there was a sense of relief. A kind of finality. People just knew and it wasn’t a topic for discussion. And because people knew there was a certain insulation – people were much less likely to engage in homophobic discussions in my presence.

    Now, as Trans (and perceived consistently male), it’s a constant struggle deciding when it is relevant and when it is not. And if it is relevant, dealing with diplomatically setting boundaries when uncomfortable questions come up.

    There is a more constant psychological resource drain going on that isn’t as acute as dysphoria but a reality I hadn’t fully anticipated pre-transition.

    1. I know what you mean… I freeze up whenever a “trans” issue comes up. My coping strategy is to make a joke out of it.

      Thankfully it doesn’t come up too often for me. I imagine in a larger company or one where you constantly interact with clients there are more opportunities for awkwardness to come up.

  3. Very good article. I’m looking for a job right now and facing the frustrating, somewhat problematic fact that my name now is different than any legal documentation or past employer has on record. There are a lot of compromises, unexpected ones sometimes, between dysphoria and the outside world.

    1. I just went through something similar, where I asked an old co-worker who knew me from “before” to be my reference. I decided to give my ex-coworker a heads up about the name and pronoun change, rather than my potential employer. It is was necessary to come out once I was hired (for documentation purposes), but easier because at least I’d been hired already!

    2. Yeah, I’m having that problem too. I think I’m going to tell my references that I’m changing my name but not that I’m using they/them pronouns… then at least I can interview for jobs with the right name and then let them know about the name change and proper pronouns if/when I get hired. Not the ideal solution but the best I can come up with under the circumstances.

  4. So far my middle ground is “go with the flow.” Where dress standards call for men to wear a tie I wear one. Last fall when working with clients in a legal clinic, I asked my supervisor to not correct the clients about my gender. This summer, I’ve decided ahead of time that unless there are gender neutral restrooms, I’ll start using the men’s there. I’m still on the fence about pronouns.

    1. It’s good that you can be open about this with your supervisor. I had the same “go with the flow” attitude, taking small steps when I was ready to take them.

  5. I recently had a lucky break–another person with my birth name became a coworker, so “to differentiate” I have been asking people to call me by my initials, which happen to also be what I was called growing up, and all through college. Painless name transition, no explanation required. Beautiful, and, problem solved.

    What you said about being unwilling to go feminine really resonated with me. I think it’s really important for your mental health to avoid the things that make your stomach churn, whatever they are. They’re different for everybody. For me, like you, that’s feminine dress more than anything. I can live with more hair (if it’s long it’s just in a ponytail anyway), but I can’t wear femmey clothing without literal, physical nausea.

  6. Great article! 🙂

    I used to wear a suit for job interviews but ended up having to change my look for future interviews to appear more ‘feminine’, since I ended up receiving negative hints about my neutral or masculine outfits on more than one occasion. I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t for the fact that most of the smart wear in the womens section of the shop seem to focus a lot on the chest area; which unfortunately for me is the one area on my body that makes me feel uneasy on an average day – and having to wear something that centers attention there makes me want to cry (the worst being low-cut shirts and tailored blazers). Hopefully, if I do get employed some where in the future, the work wear won’t have to be as gendered as the ideal for the average interview.

  7. Writing years after the main article, but in case it might be relevant for someone…
    I have the chance to work for a (relatively small) company that is very very open-minded, so when I came out (as agender) to my friends and told them about my new name, I decided that I would also do it at work, thinking there was no way it could turn bad – plus, I know I have a very hard time not being the same person at work than in reality, which made me for instance talk with colleagues about unusual topics for work, even long before I started consciously questionning my gender. Anyway, I want to see my boss, asked him about coming out to the whole company (therefore coming out to him then), and he told me that if it makes me feel better, I should absolutely do it ! So I did, sending an email to everybody. In the afternoon I had lots of positive emails of support which felt very relieving : even if I was thinking it could not turn badly, it felt good to actually see it happening ! anyway, to link this to the heart of the subject, I am (and has been some time before actually) coming to work in skirts and feminine tops (I am amab), and nobody cared about – as somebody said, it is not a subject, meant in the good way : I am who I am and people accept it no questions asked (except to get some insight or ask me if “mister is ok”, which isn’t, or what to use instead). And everybody is using my new name with only very very few mistakes – even if the change is not yet legal, only for people around me and not official stuff (my company even created me a new email with the new name, while I had not even thought about it, even less asked for it) !
    Still (there are always drawbacks), only one person is really using the neutral pronouns (agender themself…), some people said in their support email something on the line of “nice of you to have said it dude” ; and, concerning my own behaviour, I still feel uneasy to dress as myself when working at clients’ offices or giving training courses – especially clients I already had before coming out. But I am seriously thinking about dressing as I like, in a relatively feminine way, when meeting new clients, so that they see it from start, and see if it is a subject… I kind of did something like this some monthes before my coming out, when I came to a job interview in suit but with nail varnish, with the idea that if they did not take me because of it, so much the better actually (I had absolutely no answer or anything after this interview though…). But for future interviews (even I for now i don’t plan to change company at all) I am still wondering what i would do…

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