Discrimination in the workplace was a universal reality for all of the gender-diverse people featured in this post, with every interviewee able to speak about at least one experience during their work histories that felt discriminatory.
Many gender-diverse people experienced micromanaging once their gender expression began to change. Rowan, a white nonbinary person in their twenties, described how the respect they received dropped after varying their gender expression at their mobile app company, and how they were more likely to be micromanaged on days they were presenting more feminine at work.
Leslie, a white trans woman in her thirties, described how after transitioning she became a token at her biotech company and felt like others were “looking for slip-ups” from her.
Robin, a white trans woman in her fifties, found that she wasn’t taken as seriously at her union workplace after transitioning. “I wound up spending a lot more time explaining what I am doing and why than I ever did before.”
Rory, a Latinx nonbinary person in their twenties, felt like they were micromanaged at a school they worked at due to their ambiguous gender expression and explained that their boss “would make me do the same job twice or they would have someone else check it.”
All but one of the interviewees who experienced micromanaging in the workplace ended up leaving their place of employment due to feelings of heightened stress and discomfort.
Exclusion from gendered spaces is often a result of transition, especially for nonbinary or genderfluid people. Sawyer and Rowan both discussed the discomfort they feel when surrounded by only cisgender women or cisgender men, as if they belonged to neither group. Parker, a white trans man in his twenties, discussed this feeling of exclusion succinctly in his job as a sales analyst, saying, “There was this kind of men’s space here and women’s space here, I just wasn’t necessarily welcome more or less to either place. So I would kind of sit somewhere in the middle . . . so it was just kind of secret social space, I wasn’t really allowed to bridge either.”
One of the most pervasive experiences, however, was misgendering at work. Cory’s kitchen staff coworkers misgendered them and justified it by arguing that Cory, a white nonbinary person in their twenties, had “masculine energy.” Drew, a white transmasculine person in his twenties, asked explicitly for he/him pronouns while working at an OB/GYN office and was told, “Sorry we’re not going to bother with that.” Taylor, a white trans woman in her thirties, described the impact of misgendering when she explained that “ ‘him,’ ‘she-him,’ ‘sir,’ that bothers me worse than ‘fuck you bitch, tranny whore’ or whatever. Pronoun usage, wrong pronoun usage is much more hurtful to me than curse words.” For genderqueer, genderfluid, or otherwise nonbinary-identifying interviewees, this misgendering was a frequent occurrence. Cory was shouted at by an administrator at a coffee shop, “We’re not going to call you [by the gender-neutral pronouns] ze and hir—it’s an either or world!” Kai, a white transmasculine person in his thirties, was called a “pretend man” by his boss in his current job as a veterinary technician.
For those gender-diverse people who suppress their trans identity at work, or are more selective about letting others know, the threat of being outed in the workplace is a real one. Casey, an indigenous nonbinary person in their twenties, had a manager at the first animal clinic they worked at who outed their trans status to coworkers during a staff meeting, opening Casey up to future harassment. Leslie’s coworker shouted her former name down a hallway within earshot of many people who did not know of Leslie’s transition.
Half of our interviewees faced invasive questioning in their workplaces and explicitly spoke about the discomfort and unhappiness associated with responding to it. After Casey was outed, they were cornered by a co-worker at a time when they were unprepared to educate. “I usually try to answer those [questions] but at that point, I had just broken up with a long-term partner and I started crying and it was really uncomfortable.”
Leslie, a white trans woman in her thirties, found herself educating a coworker who “came off as very insincere and put me on my guard” who asked invasive questions about her plan for surgery. Cory, a white nonbinary person in their twenties, had multiple experiences at the restaurant they work in which coworkers would engage them in trans-related conversations. As Cory put a significant effort into passing, these uninitiated conversations felt invasive and delegitimizing. “One of the delivery guys at work came and was like, ‘Do you ever dance at [a trans nightclub]?’ Like I’m not fucking out to them. I show up to work trying to get people to call me in the binary —just dude, you deliver our lettuce. Where the fuck do you get off asking me if I dance at [that nightclub]? Rory, a Latinx nonbinary person in their twenties, was often directed invasive questions about their body and transition history due to their ambiguous gender expression. At a phone bank, a colleague asked, “What are you?”
Perhaps the most prevalent harassment came in the form of gender policing as co-workers would often exert pressure for participants to adopt a gender expression more in line with conventional gender norms. Cameron, a 40-year-old white genderfluid person, was told to compromise their genderfluid expression in exchange for a job at a temp agency. The hiring manager asked them, “If I get you this cattle call job . . . can you present consistently over the course of the assignment?”
Cassidy, an Asian American transmasculine person in their twenties, had a boss at their law office who told them they sounded like a “valley girl,” and that, as a result, they would not be allowed to take phone calls from clients. “It’s a whole attitude that people just want you to like man up really quickly. If you’re a man this is the way a man is.” Rowan, a white nonbinary person in their twenties, was heavily policed by their boss’s wife and an HR representative while working at a mobile app company, and was told explicitly, “Don’t wear a dress, don’t wear makeup.”
Rory, a Latinx nonbinary person in their twenties, experienced perhaps the highest amount of this kind of discrimination. While organizing for immigrant rights, they were told, “Could you not present yourself as trans when you’re speaking to these immigrant people?” When working as a volunteer substitute teacher, they were reprimanded for their gender-nonconforming appearance and told that they should “set the example . . . and shouldn’t confuse the kids.”
Sometimes verbal harassment was accompanied with sexual harassment. While these experiences were rare, those who experienced it described the intense discomfort and stress these instances caused. During a Bring-Your-Child-to-Work day at the tech company they worked in, Rowan, a white nonbinary person in their twenties, overheard two children of other employees discussing Rowan’s gender. They tried to resolve their debate by looking under the table, presumably to check for Rowan’s genitalia under their kilt. Blake, a mixed trans man in his twenties, described how in his shipment job he had a coworker remark that it was “really sad that the most masculine person here doesn’t have a penis.” Cory, a white nonbinary person in their twenties, had a coworker in the restaurant they worked in who openly discussed her menstrual cycle to emphasize that because Cory did not experience periods they could not be a woman. “She made a point of saying wherever she was bleeding. She’d be like, ‘I’m going to go be a girl now’ [as if to say] you can never touch the fact that your ovaries will never bleed.”
Three of the interviewees experienced physical threats to their well-being. While in Arizona, Kai, a white transmasculine person in his thirties, had “six guys headed towards me yelling, taunting. It was horrible . . . [They] pretty much chased me to my truck. They were calling faggot, lesbian.” Jordan, a 56-year-old white agender person, while working as an electrician, received “murder and rape threats all the time. Mostly murder threats.”
Many of the interviewees shared tense stories about bathrooms and the stress, anxiety, and fear accompanied with seeking them out. While teaching at a middle school, Lee, a white “genderfluid” person in her thirties, made the trek to remote bathrooms to avoid conflict. Parker, before transitioning at work, tried to avoid using work bathrooms altogether. Rowan and Rory were confronted in both men’s and women’s bathrooms, leaving them no remaining facilities to use. Rowan, a white nonbinary person in their twenties, explained that “being asked to leave the men’s restroom was also kind of uncomfortable . . . [yet] I feel some stress when I go to use the women’s washroom, I don’t know what is going to happen.”
Rory, a Latinx nonbinary person in their twenties, once was escorted out of both the women’s and men’s restrooms. “I went into the men’s restroom and the security guard was actually brought into the restroom and escorted me out of the restroom. He says, ‘Excuse me ma’am but I’m going to have to escort you out of the restroom for your safety.’ I was done so I [said] ‘Well all right, fine. Whatever.’ I left . . . this happened Monday and then Wednesday again I’m at the same bus station and I use the women’s restroom wearing the same clothes. The same security guard is brought into the restroom this time by a woman who was fearing for her safety . . . the security guard is at the door saying, ‘Excuse me sir I’m going to have to escort you out of the restroom for this woman’s safety.’ Right. It takes the attendant a little while to kind of register what happens. They see my face and they see that I’m wearing the same clothes and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute are you the same person from a couple of days ago?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, that’s me.’ He’s like, ‘Well, okay. I’m escorting you from both restrooms now.’ ”
Excerpted from Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace (Praeger, May 21, 2018).