Being non-binary is more than names and pronouns and coming out. It’s about Gender, and changing others’ stereotypes about it. While AJ has not yet come out at work, the small wins are what matters most.
What does coming out really mean, anyway?
I’m a fairly private person. In the normal course of business, I would never discuss my sexuality with my coworkers, even if I were 100% gold-star straight. But identity… that’s a little tougher to avoid, because every person who sees us has an understanding of our identity, usually based on a single glance and a bunch of assumptions at first, then growing through thousands of interactions through the years.
While I am in awe of the folks who have explicitly come out at work with non-binary identities, I’ve never considered the full-frontal approach to my gender at work. Not only does it require disclosure, but also a very personal explanation. Most people outside of progressive communities have never even heard of genders other than “man” and “woman”, so asking for recognition and accommodation requires changing everyone’s entire worldview, and that in turn requires a lot from the ask-er: persistence and eloquence and social capital and time, and especially a lot of energy.
Non-binary genders are pretty much a mind-blower even if you have one yourself— I can only imagine what it might be like for someone who’s never really even considered gender and sexuality as separate entities and who thinks transgender is a joke or a headline, not something that applies to their friends and neighbors. And with my coworkers in particular, starting to explain non-binary identities would be a bit like sending a precocious second grader straight to med school.
I live and work in a community that looks Midwestern on the map but is quite Southern in culture. The place where I have worked for more than a decade is very conservative. Being an out gay man is a crippling career liability; being an out lesbian is worse, since it combines gay-ness with something even more universally unacceptable: female-ness.
When I joined my organization, there were only about 15% female staff, and of those, nearly all were administrative rather than technical. I have no idea what they thought of my “tomboy” presentation, but I suspect it mostly just fit in: everyone (i.e. the male staff) wore blue button-downs and khakis, why should I be different? And I can say pretty confidently that these particular men are not really tuned in to the details of fashion. As long as I kept my hair long, I seemed to get away with mostly whatever I liked to wear, gender-wise.
You might wonder why I stayed at this organization; I frequently do too. The work itself was very interesting, but a big part of why I stayed was the supervisor and mentor I had. He valued my contributions, and patiently taught me both directly and by example, even though on paper I was ill-suited for my role. He also was genuinely respectful, not just of me, but of everyone we encountered. He seemed to relish difference as an opportunity to learn about someone else’s world.
My supervisor was definitely an oasis in a sea of unpleasantness at times. There were others who called me “sweetheart”, asked me to get them coffee, made blatantly sexist remarks, kept bikini calendars on their desks, and looked at porn in my presence. I’ve come to believe being allowed to hear their blatantly sexist comments was a badge of my total unimportance.
I was shocked and hurt by their comments, but I kept my mouth shut. I needed that job (because let’s face it, sometimes economic realities trump issues of identity—and that’s a whole other post!) That atmosphere is much improved, in no small part because the older generation has retired. That experience truly gave me enormous empathy and respect for the incredible first-in-class female scientists, engineers, doctors, and technicians who broke into the boys’ club in the 1970s and 80s.
It was in the midst of that old-boys-club atmosphere that an employee showed up looking to me like a kindred spirit. She was quiet and competent. I knew, because she lived in my neighborhood, that she was married to a woman. One afternoon, a couple of weeks after she started, one of my colleagues took me aside and asked, “That person, is that a man or a woman?” I was flabbergasted. Really? She was not, in my perception, even particularly masculine, just short-haired and fond of argyle. But because of a lack of overt feminine symbology, he was honestly at sea. The question was surprising, but I also remember being sort of proud that he was just asking, without being aggressive, rude, or overly personal. I told him her name and let him draw his own conclusions. It felt like progress, however minimal.
As a result of all that “atmosphere” and a healthy dose of being a very private person myself, I have taken (am taking) a very oblique approach to being out at work. While I didn’t understand that non-binary genders were a Thing until just a few years ago, for many years I’ve been expressing my perspective.
When someone at work says, “Hey, there’s a lady present,” I say, “Where?” and look around confusedly. When there’s a dress code for a client visit or other event, and they ask, “Are we wearing coats and ties?” If they say yes, guess what? (That only happened once, and they were a little horrified when I said, Hey, you guys said coats and ties!). With my male colleagues, I explicitly refuse to be lumped in with “the girls” and try to bust their expectations as much as possible. There’s no more beautiful moment than when a coworker peeks into your office to find you discussing the upcoming deer season, because it forces them to rearrange assumptions they didn’t even realize they had.
All of this is not quite the same as explicitly disclosing my gender and/or asking for a pronoun shift, but it’s definitely changed my life at work. Even though I still try not to go “too far” – whatever that means – I am being more honest every day. When another employee was recently hired with my given name, I lost no time in letting everyone know they should call me by my last name or my initials, which is what my friends and family use. You know, “to avoid confusion.” And if initials are delightfully androgynous, that’s just a bonus. I hope I’m changing worldviews in these moments, helping my coworkers understand that there’s a lot of territory between whatever “appropriate” male and female picture they have in their heads. And that’s good for everybody, trans, non-binary, cis, or just plain different.
To my mind, my success on this somewhat secret mission is measured in microaffirmations. Microaffirmations happen when people ask rather than assume whether I will grill or bring a dish at the annual picnic. When they don’t assume I want to be in the (all-female) “Birthday Club” or when they accept without comment my interest in vintage motorcycles. I knew I was getting my point across when one day my boss was holding the door for a bunch of people coming back from lunch, and he said, “Come on in, ladies and gentlemen,” then paused, “and AJ.”
AJ’s identities include non-binary person, musician, maker, writer, and much to their dismay, office-worker. They live with their partner and daily navigate the strange space at the edge of the closet.
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Follow all Featured Voices post this month as we Come Out at Work.