As soon as I came out as non-binary at work and told my colleagues that I use ‘they’ and ‘them’ pronouns, many of them made a real effort to embrace this right away.
In fact, some even told me how they practised using these descriptors at home with their family.
Watching their language evolve to the point where they started to notice using the wrong pronouns and correct themselves was a beautiful thing. For me, witnessing my colleagues do this made me feel not just respected, but also seen for who I really am.
Enabling employees to bring their authentic selves to work is an important part of creating an inclusive, welcoming workplace for all.
But, for transgender and non-binary employees like me, being out at work means dealing with new conversations, new challenges, and new concerns that can be quite intimidating.
As someone who now chooses to be out at both home and at work, I can tell you that that was not an easy decision to make.
Outside of work, I’m lucky that my community of close friends and family have been overwhelmingly supportive of my transition, both in terms of my gender identity and the pronouns that I use.
I’ve always felt different from other people, and even before I understood the language of gender identity, I’d always marched to the beat of my own drum.
For me, realising I was non-binary in 2018 was more about developing a vocabulary to articulate the difference I felt to myself and to other people, rather than a big announcement.
Like any change, it took a while to get used to.
In fact, to help themselves adjust and hold each other accountable for change, they made it a game. Every time someone got my pronouns wrong, they either had to give me £1 or pay me a compliment. So far, I’ve received around £40 and been given countless compliments!
I felt really loved and supported through this. Not just from the compliments and cash, but from the real effort they were making to get it right.
At work, it was a slightly different story.
I chose to come out as non-binary slowly to my colleagues in 2020, testing the waters with new groups of people to gauge if my professional relationships would change.
I went by ‘they’ or ‘she’ at work, accepting both sets of pronouns from people that didn’t know me well. At the time, I described this as a ‘preference’.
I held back because I worried that this change would distract people from my professional capabilities, the ideas I was trying to communicate, and even the content of my character.
Like many trans and non-binary employees, I feared that there would be negative consequences to being out at work – whether that was uncomfortable conversations, discrimination in hiring and promotional decisions, or even just changes to the workplace relationships and dynamics I had built.
That was, until I had a negative interaction with a new executive, who refused to recognise my identity. When I explained what being non-binary meant and why my pronouns were important, he laughed at me.
He told me that he believed everyone was either a man or a woman – that there was ‘no such thing’ as a non-binary person. He told me that I would always be a ‘she’ to him, and he flat-out refused to try to use any other term for me.
I realised then that positioning my they/them as a ‘preference’ had accidentally conveyed a sense that seeing the real me, respecting my identity, and using my pronouns was optional, rather than required.
While tremendously challenging, this experience helped me to see that I wanted to fully transition at work and embrace living as my authentic self across all aspects of my life. An exciting prospect, but easier said than done.
Across my career, I’ve had people who are supportive and some who are inevitably not. I’ve been laughed at. I’ve been told that I shouldn’t exist. I’ve been told my identity doesn’t matter, and that people who don’t see the world the way I do shouldn’t have to respect me.
I’ve been called a distraction. I’ve been told that adopting gender-neutral language is hard, and that it’s not a priority when we need to be ‘focused on the business’.
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And I was told all these things as a corporate vice president – someone who you’d assume would have a certain amount of safety and privilege associated with my title. It made me think about what is said to people just starting their careers.
My experience is illustrative of the fact that 68% of trans and non-binary people don’t feel comfortable being fully out at work. I want to change that experience. I want to navigate the resistance now to make the decision easier for those entering the workplace and growing their careers.
Pronouns are not a distraction. They represent who someone is.
Would you be OK if someone said: ‘I know your name is Sally, but you look like a Susan to me. I think – if we’re all being honest – we can tell you were assigned Susan at birth, so I’m going to call you Susan?’ You’d correct them, because it’s absurd. It’s the exact same thing for pronouns.
I started at my current job as chief marketing officer at HR platform, HiBob, earlier this year, coming in as an openly trans, non-binary executive. Joining the business as my authentic self enables me to fully engage in all aspects of my work and life, without having to worry about what I’m hiding or showing to the world.
I’m able to connect with what I’m doing and the people I work with without constantly self-censuring. It makes me a better leader and a better person.
People see me – the whole and real me – and they respect me for it.
If you work in a business, it’s time to ensure the systems, processes and policies are in place to support employees transitioning proactively.
My main piece of advice is not to wait until you have an employee transitioning at work to be proactive. Train employees. Embed support measures. Advocate for change.
Businesses who are proactive will build stronger cultures. And employees that work in a truly inclusive culture will feel safe and supported, inspiring productivity, creativity and more.
Pride and Joy
Pride and Joy is a weekly series spotlighting the first-person positive, affirming and joyful stories of transgender, non-binary, gender fluid and gender non-conforming people. Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]
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