Transgender people are everywhere. They are part of every industry, in every city, in every country. At least 1 in 100 people identify as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth (Williams Institute, 2016), and 56% of Generation Z knows someone who uses gender neutral pronouns (J Walter Thompson Intelligence, 2016).
Successful organizations know that welcoming transgender employees, clients, and community members is not simply about doing the right thing. It also boosts bottom line productivity and innovation, with gender-diverse companies outperforming their peers by 15% (McKinsey & Co, 2015). When people of all genders can show up as their authentic selves, everyone is more engaged, creative, and productive.
Industry leaders now create inclusive environments even before the first out transgender person walks through the door. And creating trans-inclusive environments not only allows trans people to collaborate and create within their teams, it also makes space for everyone to show up more authentically. The following are powerful steps you can take to increase your capacity to welcome trans and gender-nonconforming people into your work.
1. Understand your own nuanced gender story.
We all have an evolving relationship to gender, whether or not we are transgender. We have all navigated society’s expectations for our gender, in big and small ways. Reflect on how you've been restricted or pressured to fulfill certain gender roles, however small they might be. Think about the first time you were corrected as a child, for crying as a boy, for not crossing your legs as a girl, etc. Honor your journey and celebrate what makes you you. Supporting visibly gender-nonconforming people makes more room for all of us to live fully as our authentic selves.
Action Step: Reflect on your gender and celebrate what you love about it. What was your experience growing up into yourself? What do you appreciate about your gender now? You may love that you’re a strong and nurturing partner, or that you let yourself enjoy getting dressed up, or that you let your kids paint your toenails in the summer. You may simply notice that cozy awesome feeling you get when wearing your favorite outfit and receiving a compliment. You may send some love to the younger version of yourself who was pressured to act or dress in a certain way. Whatever it is, name it and claim it!
2. Move from assumption to connection.
Practice not assuming people's gender identity or pronouns when you meet them. Instead seek to form an authentic connection in which you get to know them over time. Physical presentation does not indicate internal identity. Sex is in the body. Gender is in the heart / soul / mind. We live in a world that still reinforces the gender binary. It’s natural to meet someone and immediately put them in the man or woman box. We all assume pronouns to some extent, but we also have the opportunity to train our brains to react in a new way. Practice pausing and waiting for other context clues about someone’s pronouns and identity. Practice introducing yourself in a way that invites another person to share more about themselves. “Hi, I’m Joey, I use he/him pronouns” is a great way to make space for the other person to share the same info.
The more you practice, the better you’ll get at this. Trans people’s reactions to being misgendered are less about “taking offense” and more about the natural reaction to not being seen as yourself. Being misgendered can feel like a punch in the gut. It doesn’t matter what someone’s intent is, it still hurts. When someone uses the wrong pronoun, it can make a trans person feel like they aren’t really seen as their true identity. It can make them feel embarrassed or like they can’t trust someone. Seek to connect authentically and give people the space to tell you what’s true about their experience.
Action Step: The next time you aren’t sure of someone’s pronouns or gender identity, practice bringing more awareness to the situation. If you find yourself feeling nervous, fearful, or judgmental, ask yourself, What is this person triggering in me? Are you scared of messing up and getting in trouble? Are you feeling resentful that this person is being allowed a space to express themselves that you were never given? Have compassion for the origin of your response. Creating a little space between your immediate reaction and your intentional response can lead to greater ease and connection for everyone involved.
3. Honor names, pronouns, and gendered language preferences.
Use the language that most honors someone’s identity. Make checking in about pronouns, names, and gendered language a company norm. You will undoubtedly find that people who are not trans still have preferences, such as a woman who prefers to be called “dude” instead of “lady” in casual greetings with coworkers.
Keep legal name and gender marker information confidential. It’s no one’s business but the HR person who manages legal paperwork. Changing legal documentation is costly and time-intensive, and an employee’s ability to use their real name should not be contingent on their ID status.
People often ask me: Why are you so focused on language? Can’t we all just be whoever we are without so many labels? It’s a great question. I too experience moments where I want my only identifying word to be “human.” However, we cannot move into a label-free future until we first bring more understanding and awareness to our current experiences. Labels help us do that. For example, a word like ’nonbinary’ helps create more understanding that there are people who live outside traditional male and female boxes.
Action Step: Update your intake forms and cultural policies regarding names and pronouns. Leave space for people to distinguish between their names and what their legal paperwork says. Make check-ins about names and pronouns a regular part of your culture. If you can ask people in an icebreaker what animal best captures their personality, you can ask them about their pronouns!
4. Move your spaces and policies beyond the binary.
Take a look at your physical spaces and institutional policies. Consider how they might welcome or exclude transgender people or people who live outside the binary of male and female. Greet customers as "friends" "folks" or with a simple "Welcome!" rather than defaulting to fitting everyone into "sir" or "ma'am." Create gender neutral bathrooms or locker rooms so that everyone can access all of your facilities.
Ensure that all employees have equal access to health care. Many health insurance policies - both public and private - still explicitly exclude transgender health care. Switching to a trans- inclusive policy will make it possible for employees of all genders to care for their health and stay focused on their work. It’s as simple as inquiring with your insurance broker about the plan’s blanket exclusions.
Action Step: Audit your physical space and policies. How can you make more space for transgender and gender non-conforming people? If you’d like more comprehensive support, you can reach out to me here.
5. Embrace lifelong learning. Seek out trans stories.
Every trans person’s experience is different. Seek out a variety of trans stories and commit to immersing yourself in new perspectives. Look to trans media to educate you about trans experience, rather than relying on trans colleagues to answer your queries. There’s a subtle but clear difference between reaching out to show support and create space for listening, and reaching out to ask for resources, information, or work. Focus on making sure TGNC people have opportunities to speak up, and listen to them when they choose to do so. Ask yourself: what is the goal of my question? If it is to provide a better experience for this employee, then ask away. If it is to gain access to more general information about TGNC experience, look for other resources before turning to your employee.
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