Part 3: How coworkers can serve as allies to transgender counterparts

For the final installment in this three part series, we wanted to focus on how coworkers and others in the workplace can serve as allies to their transgender counterparts.  The following are some tips on how to address these issues in the workplace to foster a safe and inclusive working environment.

Use the Right Name and Pronouns

The simplest thing you can do in the workplace to ensure that your transgender coworkers feel included and respected is to refer to them by the name they have chosen and the appropriate pronouns.  For many, it takes an awful lot of bravery to come out to the world as transgender and one of the strongest ways you can validate that individual’s decision is to use language that conforms to their appropriate gender identity.  Sometimes this includes using a new name, sometimes it merely means using the male pronouns (he, him, his) where you had previously used female (she, her, hers) or vice versa, and sometimes it may mean using plural pronouns (they, them,  their) where the individual does not conform to a binary gender identity.

Using the appropriate language tells your coworkers that you accept them for who they are, you respect their transition, and you see them as an equal member of your workplace community.  You may find these changes a little difficult to remember initially and you may, at times, revert back to old habits.  But make the effort.  It doesn’t take much on your part and it makes a world of difference.

Don’t Make Assumptions/Ask Appropriate Questions

We suspect that gender identity issues may be new to many people.  Although they may have known many transgender folks in their lifetimes, they may never have been aware of it.  But with new legal protections, campaigns focused on inclusion and equal rights, celebrities identifying publicly as transgender and, in some cases documenting their transitions on the cover of magazines, more and more people are coming out as transgender.  This may mean that people have a lot of legitimate questions.  That’s to be expected.  But rather than guessing at the answers or making assumptions, ask appropriate questions.

It is perfectly acceptable to ask what it means to be transgender or to talk to a coworker who has confided their gender identity with you about the basics about their transition.  This does not, however, give you a free pass to ask obviously inappropriate questions.  You should not be asking anyone in the workplace about their sexual preferences or genitals or about their restroom usage – and that is equally true of your transgender coworkers.  We think most people know when they are crossing boundaries like this, but if you need a simple guide, just remember the golden rule.

Don’t Make a Joke out of your Discomfort

Similarly, don’t dismiss that which you don’t understand by cracking a joke or clowning around about the issue.  Resist that natural tendency to make a joke out of gender identity issues simply because you don’t understand it or it makes you uncomfortable.  No matter how awkward you may feel discussing a transgender policy or transition, remember that your transgender colleagues are feeling even more vulnerable.  And every joke or inappropriate comment made in the workplace regarding the transgender community may compel a transgender employee to remain in the closet a little longer out of fear of isolation, harassment, and other forms of discrimination.  If you don’t know what to say about the matter, just don’t say anything at all.  And if you’re uncomfortable because you’re simply uneducated, do a little research.  There are a myriad of resources out there to answer any questions you may have.  We recommend you start here:

Take a Stand Against Harassment and Discrimination

Finally, if you hear anyone in your workplace make an insensitive wisecrack or ask an entirely inappropriate question or say or do anything else that seems discriminatory or offensive toward the transgender community, stand up and say something about it.  Tell your colleagues that they’re being offensive and likely acting in violation of company policy.  Remind them that everyone in the workplace deserves respect and that their behavior can serve to isolate people who are in need of support and community.  Ask them to keep in mind that gender identity is fluid and that they may have transgender colleagues or colleagues with close transgender friends or family whom they are disrespecting with their conduct.  And if none of that works and your peers continue to engage in discriminatory conduct or conversation, make a complaint to your company’s human resources department.

For newly transitioned employees as well as those who have not yet come out publically, the idea of reporting gender identity discrimination or harassment may be daunting.  There is a real and justified fear of retaliation and also a history of violence against the transgender community that can make people wary of standing up for their rights.  So if you, as a coworker and ally, can take that step for them, you should.  And remember, retaliation against an employee who reports unlawful gender identity discrimination may violate a number of state and local laws and ordinances.  These protections apply equally to transgender and non-transgender employees alike.  So if you make a complaint on a coworker’s behalf and feel as though you are being retaliated against as a result, you may want to consult an attorney.

Our workplaces will be far safer and more inclusive communities if transgender employees, their employers, and their allied colleagues can work together to weed out ignorance and bias.  We hope that this three-part piece on gender identity in the workplace has provided some useful tips and tools to reach that goal.