How to be an ally to your gender-nonconforming coworkers

Everyone wants to be able to bring their whole self to work. These five tips will help you support your gender-nonconforming coworkers and friends

In the aftermath of World Pride 2019, it’s easy for companies and individuals to slip back into autopilot and rely on rainbow flags and LGBTQIA+-friendly merchandise to convey support of this community. But it’s even more meaningful to follow up June’s outpouring of support with systemic changes that make the lives of those folks safer every day of the year. One way to do that is to learn how to best support those who don’t fit neatly into the normative versions of a female-male binary. 

As a nonbinary human, I, like anyone else, want to feel a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and connection—not only in my personal life, but also at work. With work being where I spend a majority of my time, it is perhaps the most important place to have allies. 

My experience of myself has never ticked all the boxes on either side of the male-female gender binary. All my life, I have had no other official option but to check off one gender or the other, despite going through my day-to-day life never fully “passing” as either one—being “sir”-ed and “ma’am”-ed where neither apply, or fielding suspicious looks from those who are double-checking my body to make sure I’m in the “right” room when I walk into a restroom. From a young age, I asked questions like, “What makes me a girl or a boy?” but was never fully satisfied with the answers I got.

As a person who openly identifies as nonbinary in the workplace, it’s been a relief to experience the receptivity of my they/them/theirs pronouns from coworkers and to know that I have the option to use a gender-neutral washroom. These changes may seem small to some, but the effect is deeply felt by those of us to whom they matter. This simple shift has allowed me to exist outside the traditional gender binary, where I have always experienced myself and where many others experience themselves. (According to a 2018 study published in the journal Pediatrics, almost 3 percent of Minnesota teens, for example, did not identify with traditional gender labels.)

We can all take steps to make sure our systems and spaces include and welcome trans, nonbinary, two-spirited folks (“2S” in the LGBQTIA2S+ acronym, specific to some First Nations tribes), and anyone who experiences themselves as gender nonconforming. To move toward a more welcoming environment, people in many roles need to get involved, including architects, building-code inspectors for bathrooms, and government officials who create official forms. Inclusivity is more than maintaining good intentions. True inclusivity is achieved in the way we construct our spaces to include others’ orientation to the world and to communicate “you are welcome here.” 

Here are five other ways to make your workplace more supportive of gender-nonconforming coworkers, and supporting them to be their full selves at work. 

1. Use our pronouns correctly 

Using the right pronouns is essential. Wondering why? Just imagine someone who is assigned the male sex at birth, and who goes through life experiencing himself as a man and identifying with the pronoun he (a person like this is referred to as “cis-gendered”). Now imagine that this man gets referred to as “she” one day, because, perhaps, he has an ambiguity in the way he expresses his gender. That “she” is jarring; it doesn’t reflect how he experiences himself. Similarly, for nonbinary folks, being “he”-d or “she”-d takes a mental toll—we’re forced to correct people and/or spend the mental energy “brushing it off” as it happens each day. Like everyone else, gender nonconforming, gender fluid, and nonbinary people want to be ourselves at work, focusing on the work and being part of a team, without the distractions of being misgendered. If you’re not sure what someone’s correct pronouns are, just ask. A general rule of thumb is to use the pronouns people use to refer to themselves with. 

2. Self-correct without making a big deal about it

It is inevitable that you will use the wrong pronoun while you are getting used to the change. It’s OK to be in a process of learning. Even if a person hasn’t said anything to correct an incorrect pronoun someone has used with them, they still notice being misgendered—so feel free to correct yourself if you notice that you’ve used the wrong pronoun.

3. Connect with us 

Get to know your gender-nonconforming and nonbinary colleagues. You can talk to us like you would anyone else. We like movies, have hobbies, and our own styles of humor that we’d like to share with you. “Whether you’re planning an event or attending one, make sure all voices are included and heard,” recommends Out in Tech, a nonprofit that represents the LGBTQ+ community in tech and a member at WeWork 500 7th Ave in New York. “You can do this by creating physical and conversational space for others, especially queer people of color, womxn, trans, nonbinary, and disabled folks.”

4. Don’t be a stickler for grammar at our expense 

Folks who use they/them/theirs pronouns often come across people who use the rebuttal, “But they is plural.” Traditionally, yes, but language isn’t static—it evolves. In the past few years, several official style guides have changed their rules to accommodate they/them/theirs as singular pronouns. And we already use they in reference to a gender-neutral singular all the time. In a recent opinion column in the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo argues that there’s no social benefit to using gender-specific pronouns—and he invites everyone to refer to him as “they” and “them” going forward. Rebuttals in the name of grammar are often experienced as a microaggressive behavior with the aim to delegitimize someone’s use of they pronouns. 

5. Uncover your unconscious bias 

Try to be aware of holding people from marginalized communities to double standards when you wouldn’t hold someone else to a similar standard. There are a lot of examples of transgender people experiencing shifts in the way they’re treated by others post-transition, and even being fired for things that before would have been overlooked. If you do notice your sentiments or expectations of that person shifting in circumstances such as post-transition, disclaiming GNC pronouns, or pronouns that vary from their assigned sex, then you might be coming up against areas of unconscious bias. 

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