Published on November 12th, 2012 | by Wild Gender0
The Paradoxical Problem of Passing, Pronouns and ‘Coming Out’ at Work
In starting this new, non-profit, food justice job I said to myself that I would bring all of me to the table. I said that now that I’ve got a position that I really care about and am doing work that I’m committed to in the community, I wouldn’t hide parts of me. I would be who I am. I stressed about this for days before I went to my first day of work. I thought about it constantly throughout that first day of training. I couldn’t figure out how to say, ‘by the way…I’m trans.’ Speaking up didn’t seem to lend itself well to learning about food systems and food justice programming.
“Hey, do you have any trans people that come to your farmer’s market? Because…I’m trans.”
“Interesting thing that you should mention local food insecurity, I’m genderqueer.”
So, I waited until the last possible moment as I was leaving work to catch my supervisor and basically blurt it out. I think what I said was coherent for the most part. I told myself that I was going to do this on the first day and that I wasn’t going to wait around. As I began to talk about wanting my co-workers to know who I am and not wanting to have to leave parts of me at the door, I wondered what he thought I was going to say before I blurted out that I was gender non-conforming/ transgender. I saw his eyes kind of glaze over when I said gender non-conforming so I also volunteered the word “transgender.” He sat back in his chair as I continued to tell him my preferred pronouns–anything but “she.” His eyes were still glazed so I said, “I prefer for folks to call me ‘he,’ ‘they,’ or just by my name.” He mulled it over in his mind for a few moments and I didn’t know how it had been received. He then thanked me for being comfortable enough to come out to him and said he would ask a co-worker for guidance about how to deal with this as a director/supervisor.
Then he said something that would continue to stress me out for the next two weeks. He said that he was going to follow my lead and leave it up to me to come out to the other 21 staff members. At first, the idea seemed great. But it took me a week to realize it was a lot of pressure to navigate communicating my gender identity to my coworkers on my own. I thought about sending a mass email–
“Hey guys- I’m trans! Call me ‘he’ or ‘they.’ Thanks in advance!”
No, that wouldn’t work.
I thought about telling one department at a time or maybe one person at a time. The more I thought about this, the more tedious it seemed. And really stressful. Having to come out to one person at a time, anticipating their reaction, wondering if they were going to tell others, which would be welcomed if it would speed the process up a bit.
Last week, my supervisor dashed to my desk to say that he wanted to walk me out of the office building. Hm. He walked me to the bus stop and we talked about my ‘coming out process’ and how he could support. I said that I knew it was my responsibility to provide resources after coming out, and that I was working on that but that I had no idea how I was going to come out to 21 people. I went over my ideas with him and he agreed that coming out through email wasn’t a good idea and that there might be some legal issues with that. I told him that I had also thought about coming out at the going away/welcoming party that didn’t end up happening or possibly at a staff meeting, but that I felt that that would be awkward. I’d be completely on the spot and I’m sure I’d have so many questions directed toward me, which could eaisly be overwhelming.
We left possibilities floating in the air. He reiterated his support. And as I sat waiting for the bus, I felt really alone. As I talked to friend after friend and continued to feel alone because who can fully understand how crushing it feels not to be recognized for who you are (your actual gender!) day in and day out?
Some days during meetings I am what I call ‘she’d’ to death. She she she…her…blah blah…and I zone out. I zone out and shut down because I know that I should have just come out that first day to everyone so that I wouldn’t have to deal. In my mind, I have this inner dialogue about where I went wrong and then I say that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself and that I’m doing alright, at least I’m out to two people and that I should be patient with myself. A few of my friends have said the same thing. But it’s still hard to have two of 21 who know that I’m not down with being called ‘she.’ And even the ones who know my preferred pronoun(s) use the wrong pronoun(s) when we’re in mixed company, though they stay away from any pronouns when it’s just us. And my supervisor does try hard when referring to me in phone conversations to just use my name and no pronoun. When talking to a friend about pronouns and letting folks use the wrong pronouns, we talked about how it can be contagious in a conversation. Here’s an example of this phenomenon:
Three people are talking, one person knows the correct pronoun of the person they’re talking about. One person uses the incorrect pronoun consistently and is corrected a few times by the person who knows the correct one. But, by the end of the conversation, all people have begun using the wrong pronoun. Sigh.
This has happened numerous times in front of me.
I know that it’s going to take time and that I’m going to have to educate people if I want to create a safe space for myself. I feel overwhelmed with having to figure out how to come out to everyone and having to provide resources on top of training and gauging the office politics.
I also feel at times that I’m asking too much of the staff or like I’m inviting them to join me in my fairytale or something. I say this because I know I’m not what the average person would expect a trans person to look like. (I’m not on testosterone and I have a “feminine” face). I know it’s a stretch for them to call me ‘he’ and that asking them to use ‘they’ is also a stretch because it’s not considered ‘proper English.’ I’m asking 23 people to step out of their comfort zone so that I can be comfortable. I’m potentially creating an awkward atmosphere, at least when I’m in the office. I know that it could be a good learning experience full of teachable moments leading to more understanding about diversity or whatever, but seriously, I just want to do this social justice work and go home sometimes. It seems daunting, but I know I have to do this. I can’t go on being ‘she’d to death’ and not being my complete self. Living two lives. It’s not just about proper pronouns, it’s about me being whole in this place that I spend the majority of my time. It’s about, for once, not feeling like I have this big secret that is weighing me down and trying not to wince when people make assumptions about my gender and who I am.
I think it’s important to blog about these types of battles because some people truly don’t realize how difficult this is, even for organizers, activists, and other folks who may be out to so many others. It’s not about just doing ‘x, y, or z.’ There are real threats in coming out at your workplace. I am fortunate in that my workplace is a non-profit (in a somewhat liberal capitol city with a major university) that employs at least one queer person (other than me). And from what I hear from my supervisor, the staff is generally open/liberal/progressive. But we’ve heard that before. I never really know how anyone is going to react, keeping optimistic about their reactions doesn’t exactly curb my anxiety.
For everyone who is dealing with this right now, I just want you to know I stand in solidarity with you and I know how difficult it can be, though I realize that my situation is not a worst case scenario. I hope that you have support from friends, family, or created family or some other support group. Feel free to reach out to me at gqstreetpoet at gmail.com, maybe we can reach a solution together.
**Update: I’m now out to two more people at work due to a trusted friend and ally who I work with. Apparently she used the right pronoun for me a couple of times in a conversation and the other two women in her department became curious as to what that was about. So, she outed me and it’s actually a relief. I got an email from one of the women using the proper pronoun and wrote an email jokingly to my ally saying, “Did she just accidentally use the right pronoun?!” My ally said, “No. That was on purpose. Your pronouns slipped out during a conversation, so I told her.” I then said, “One down…one more to go.” Since there are three people in her department. This is when she told me she had told the other woman. While I did feel some slight anxiety about not being able to tell them myself in the way that I wanted, I felt comfortable enough with these two women and my ally that the anxiety quickly turned to relief. So, two more down…19 to go. And I’m not really invested in telling everyone since I don’t work with everyone all that closely. We’ll see how it goes.