You Need Help: Coming Out as Non-Binary at Work

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Q:

On my paperwork for my new job, I selected the ‘gender non-conforming’ option, which is a legally recognized gender in the state of NY, where I work and live. Everyone I work with is very nice, and it is a very LGBTQ friendly environment. However, I think no one read my paperwork and everyone keeps referring to me as ‘she.’ I keep wanting to correct them but I’m not sure how to do so in a way that will be the most productive and the least awkward (pt. 1 of my question), and I’m also not sure what the best way to point out their error in not reading my paperwork would be, which is important to me mostly in that I don’t want this to happen to someone else (pt. 2 of my question). Although everyone is really sweet, I’m nervous that a) some/all of the people I work with will literally not know what ‘non-binary’ means, b) they will feel distanced/uncomfortable with and around me post me coming out, and c) that they will continue to ask me questions about it/treat me like a encyclopedia long after the initial conversation. While I don’t necessarily mind question-asking, I want to feel like a person at work and not like a giant question mark. What do I do?

-Non-binary worried human

A:

Dear NBWH,

It’s like you are describing a part of my heart years ago. You are talking about a scenario I’ve been in quite a few times now. In fact, I have been in some version of it everytime I start a new job. So, hi, thank you for submitting that question and getting me to think about this in detail. The way I see it, there are four parts to your question. One of them is about how we feel: how we own our identity as non-binary folks. And the other three are strategic: how we engage with the world as out non-binary folks. Let’s start with the feelings part:

How do I as a non-binary person own my identity unapologetically?* There is no silver bullet for this question, and quite honestly my answer changes on the regular. Yet, it is a question I want you to think about. I noticed you doing something I used to do: affirming that everyone is good and sweet while simultaneously being mortified at the thought of inconveniencing these good and sweet people. So, hold this close to your heart as we move forward: any discomfort someone might feel because you are asking for your identity to be acknowledged is their problem, not yours. I’m saying that because I know many of us sometimes hesitate to come out about our non-binary gender because we have done a really good job at internalizing that our gender is a burden (for review, check your a, b, and c points). We often forget that — outside of keeping ourselves safe — people’s reactions are not for us to manage, and that our gender is not for them to process at us. If people are truly kind, then they’ll find a way to process their feelings without encroaching into our emotional wellbeing.

With that in mind, let’s get into strategies:

How to correct coworkers when they misgender us. Bonus points for low awkwardness.

I understand the personal benefit of low awkwardness, and so I want to emphasize that the least awkward way to correct someone is whichever way you feel most comfortable with. We can’t control how they will react, but we can control how we show up for ourselves. I suggest you practice with a friend, to get a feel of what approach feels best for you. Below are my suggestions, according to the setting.

Via Email:
I like to reply to the content in question first and add at the end “Please note that my pronouns are they/them, not she/her.” If the issue persists, I include the same sentence again and make it bold. Now, I know you described your co-workers as nice, but should the situation continue I would recommend raising it to your supervisor in person and then confirming you had that conversation via email. In the worst case scenario this can provide you with proof that you are doing your due diligence, and that whichever coworker insists on misgendering you is creating a hostile environment.

In person:
Now, if you are being misgendered during a conversation, there are a couple of approaches you can take. If it’s a group conversation, you can wait until folks have dispersed to approach a particular colleague in private. You can explain you heard them use she/her when referring to you, and that those are not your pronouns.

For a more immediate approach, and whether it is a group conversation or just a one-on-one, you can say “I just heard you say ‘she’ when referring to me. Those are not my pronouns. I go by ‘they/them.’” You can wait for the person to finish speaking to say your part, or you can just interrupt them to say it. It is 100% okay to interrupt someone when you are not being treated with respect (intentionally or not), and let’s remember that misgendering someone is disrespecting someone. To be clear, my tone is generally amicable in these situations, but it will be more matter-of-fact if the person is a repeat offender.

I also like to model a sentence for these interventions to really drive the point home. After either of the interventions above, I like to add “so if you talk about me, you can say ‘Araguaney is our new hire, they are a kind person, I’m excited to get to know them.’” The content of the sentence is somewhat irrelevant, I just like to make sure to use at least two forms of my pronouns to solidify the example.

For opening lines, if you are approaching someone in private either to share your pronouns or to check in as to why they are not using your pronouns, consider saying “do you have a moment? I want to talk to you about my pronouns.” I encourage you to avoid saying “I’m sorry” because there is nothing for you to apologize about in this situation. You are just showing up for yourself and to help your colleagues get to know you and treat you better. I’m sure you would want them to do the same, if the tables were turned. The opening line above is professional, transparent, and not making a bigger deal of something that should be a totally normal thing. Modeling how normal it could be to check in about pronouns is one way to improve the organizational culture for all, too!

Lastly, you can just interrupt and say “they” the second someone says “she.” I recommend this with folks that already know your pronouns. I do it consistently with people who are “getting used to it” and most times it will cue people to their mistake, so they correct themselves and continue. Barely any interruption and I don’t have to either check out of the conversation or go on with the rest of the conversation hurting quite a bit inside.

In summary: take what works for you from the examples above, find a friend to practice with, and remember that asking people to use your pronouns is nothing to be ashamed about.

How to improve HR practices to be trans-inclusive

So you want your HR department to have and follow a clear protocol around checking for gender markers. Meaning, you want to create institutional change — YES! I am all about that. In fact, I am aggressively all about it. Institutional change matters because we are doing our part in making things easier for the next person, and so the change remains even if we choose to leave the organization. But you already knew that, so how should you go about it?

At one of my previous jobs, I helped institutionalize including our pronouns in our signatures, among other things. For the pronouns in signatures, I first checked in with HR about their current protocol. I suggest you do the same. Perhaps they have a comprehensive protocol in place already, but they have failed to practice it. Brainstorm with them how to avoid that next time. I would also talk to friends and colleagues to get more ideas for it.

I suspect they have a protocol in place but they don’t know to ask for pronouns alongside (or instead of) gender. “Gender non-conforming” can mean a myriad of things, so for them not to ask about pronouns gives me pause — after all, GNC folks can and do use pronouns other than they/them, so clarifying pronouns would be essential here. Ask them directly how they go about pronouns, their response will probably give you an idea for the next step necessary here. I have worked for many well-intentioned HR departments that truly just didn’t know the first thing about trans identities, so a bit of probing will give you more clarity about where they need to improve. If you encounter any resistance, I’d suggest reminding them that having a working system in place will make their jobs more efficient and save them future conversations like the ones you are having right now.

How to have people be normal and chill about us being non-binary

Ah, yes. Some people will indeed not know what non-binary means, some might be weird as hell once you come out, and some will take the path to hell paved with good intentions and an endless amount of questions. The important thing to remember here is that you, precious non-binary babe, have no control over how other people react or feel. What you do have control over is your own boundaries. It is not your responsibility to shrink your identity, or your comfort, on behalf of theirs.

This holds even if one of your colleagues decides to use the angle that they “knew you as ‘she’ for so long it’s hard to switch.” Not only does that angle minimize the respect you deserve, it is also particularly wrong because those were never your pronouns at this job anyway. Still, were that to come up, consider sharing with them a piece I wrote for My Kid Is Gay to support a parent in changing the pronouns they use for their child, which has some 101 guidelines that would be relevant for your coworker, as well.

To your point, if you are concerned that people won’t know what non-binary means, come up with a definition that fits you, and have it ready to share. I just joined a very cis-hetero gym and about a week ago I finally had a chance to come out as genderqueer to my straight, cis guy gym instructor. I mentioned it in passing, he immediately asked “What does that mean?” and for simplicity’s sake I said “I don’t identify as a boy or a girl” to which he replied “Oh, so you are just you.” Of course, my answer is more complicated than that, but this was enough to have him understand the basics. To be honest, his reply surprised me, and I so hope your coworkers’ replies surprise you, too. At one of my jobs, one of my coworkers (a cis woman) didn’t know what non-binary meant, but searched for it online and later sent me an email “Just hoping to confirm these are reputable sources.” Another awesome reply. People know the internet exists, you won’t leave them high and dry if you suggest they do some reading online. If it feels best to you, you can even prepare for these conversations by having some handy links at hand you can refer them to: Everyone Is Gay’s definition of non-binary, or EveryDay Feminism’s article on non-binary trans allyship are both good places to start.

Sometimes I like to give permission to colleagues to ask me questions. This only happens when they are folks I feel have a good grasp of my boundaries, and won’t take it personally if I don’t want to answer one of their questions for any reason whatsoever. Set the boundaries that feel good to you, and remember it is 100% okay to adjust them as you go along.

Regardless of how things go with your colleagues and your HR department, I would encourage your team, supervisor, or HR department to hire a trans facilitator to provide a trans-competency workshop. The workshops can be tailored to their needs, so if they are beyond the basics (which I am not convinced they are), they would still get further in their capacity to hire and retain trans employees. If you have no idea where to start, please feel free to reach me via email and I can give you a couple of names of people in NY.

Finally, if you are still feeling hesitant about creating discomfort in your office, I hope you remember this: discomfort is the gap between what we know and what we need to learn. If any of your co-workers reacts with discomfort, that goes to show they have some room to grow. Their discomfort is not your fault, it is the fault of the lack of education we have about gender diversity in what we call the US. Our gender is not a burden, the binary mainstream society is. You are wonderful, I’m so proud of you for reaching out. Take what works from my suggestions, and know I’ll be hoping it all turns out for the best.

*I’d be remiss not to mention that gender assigned at birth (camab/cafab), ability, race, class, body size, and other identities that inform how much people take us at our word complicate this question in one million ways.

Araguaney has written 15 articles for us.

33 Comments

  1. “discomfort is the gap between what we know and what we need to learn”
    I have sometimes felt discomfort because I am not proficient in english, so even though I wanted to show respect and allyship regarding pronouns, I have felt insecure using the language with the ” right ” gramar/spelling rules.
    I will practice with a friend so I get over the fear of messing up/sounding dumb.
    super good question and useful advice !

  2. I know that pronouns in emails and on nametags are important and I want to be supportive, but I identify as agender and haven’t really found a pronoun that fits me. I don’t mind when others use pronouns for me, but I don’t like to self-identify as anything.

    I am happy that this is becoming a thing in my workplace but I’m not sure how to participate in a way that feels right to me.

    Has anyone else experienced this? Any good ideas?

    • Maybe instead of the pronoun in your email or on your nametag you could write “no pronouns” or “please refer to me by name.” It would likely prompt a lot of questions, but it allows you to be true to how you feel about pronouns.

    • Hi B.! Just like Casey mentioned, you can personalize your email signature to fit *your* needs. I have a colleague who is also agender (let’s call this person “Jazmin”) and Jazmin’s signature says “pronouns: J/Jazmin” because “J” and “Jazmin” are the only words J likes for other people to use in reference to J’s self.

      Alternatively, Jazmin could also put “Jazmin/Jazmin” if only Jazmin’s name works. Hope that is helpful! <3

    • i also identify as agender. not sure if/how i will come out about pronouns at work, but i hear you B., on not liking to self identify as any particular pronoun bc nothing seems to fit.

      but also, great article! will definitely be bringing these points up at my firm’s next lgbtq group meeting. (im slowly making all the cis white gay guys at my company autostraddle fans, muahahahaha)

    • When you say you don’t mind when others use pronouns for you, do you mean you tolerate it or really don’t mind?

      If you truly don’t mind you could put “Any pronouns used with respect are fine.” and change it if you ever discover a preference.

      Other commenters have given suggestions as to what you can say if you don’t want people using pronouns for you.

      I’m in college right now, and everyone working in LGBT areas tend to have their pronouns as part of their email signature, along with their position and name, so it’s just a normal and constant thing. You can do something like that if you want.

  3. Thank you so so much for this amazing and timely article Ara. I’m at my first job where I’m fully out as non-binary and it’s definitely had its ups and downs. Your words were really affirming to read and what I needed right now. <3

  4. Ara, thank you so much for writing this. Not only did you answer the advice-seeker’s question with extreme care and kindness, but you’ve created an amazing resource for all of us (especially cis people looking to be better allies!) to bring into our work places. I am grateful for all the work you do — thank you. <3

  5. This is all really insightful advice!

    Some of my colleagues and I started putting pronouns in email signatures at the beginning of the academic year. I’m always grateful when I receive emails from students that include pronouns in a signature because it helps me avoid misgendering them.

    I am also extremely grateful when someone corrects my pronoun usage. From a linguistic perspective, grammatical use of singular they for what linguists call “specific definite antecedents” is not part of most English-speakers’ learned sense of grammar. Correcting it requires conscious effort over a long period of time. I practice using pronouns for people via recitation whenever I have trouble. This helps in most cases because I know that the responsibility to get it right is mine. I’m also guilty of using the wrong GNP sometimes — I write fiction and use le/lim/ler for beyond-our-gender-binary characters in it, which bleeds into reality because I’ve written over 500K using it. This situation is an outlier, though.

    Linguists love studying things like “why is it so hard for people to correctly gender someone with ‘they’?” because it helps them test grammar rules and develop new conceptual frameworks. The linguistic research is also helpful for those working to normalize GNP. One of the papers in that area is open access: https://www.glossa-journal.org/articles/abstract/10.5334/gjgl.374/

    • I’m cool with any neutral pronouns, and I actually go by they/them pronouns because I find them to be the easiest pronouns for people to adjust to! They can get confusing while writing, but when speaking people already use they as a single gender neutral pronoun to a certain extent, often for strangers, but while speaking I’ve always seen people have an easier time gendering someone with they/them then other neutral pronouns.

      I think people just have trouble adapting to new language in general, but I’ve never seen anyone have particular trouble with single they, so it’s funny to think of people having trouble especially with “they” to me.

      • This is less glamorous and quite embarrassing, but I once was panicking during an anxiety flareup and then started panicking about singular they because I was referring to someone who used they/them and also to several groups of people with “they” and could not cope with antecedent disambiguation. That was the most ridiculous social anxiety attack I have ever had. But I also talk with a similar level of complexity as my writing, but with more ums.

  6. Thank you for this as it is very useful and great information. I do have one suggestion that has had mixed results for me, and that is to wear a they/them pin. I really like my Autostraddle pin a lot, but it a bit on the smaller side and thus not always noticeable as my other one.

  7. I work at a place where many employees include their pronouns in their email signatures, and one thing I’ve realized is that even if everyone in the world were cis and had a normative gender presentation, pronouns in signatures are still super useful for people with ambiguous or unfamiliar names. Of course, everyone’s workplace *should* promote pronoun awareness simply because it creates a better environment for trans people, with no other justification needed, but if your workplace does need more convincing, that’s another argument for it.

  8. Bathrooms… I identify as non-binary but end up using women’s bathrooms often due to lack of gender inclusive and/or single stall availability. I’ve mostly come to terms with it, as its the safest bathroom to use and I’d rather deal with psychological discomfort than be dehydrated or hold it in.
    How do any of yall deal with this? Does anyone feel as if this compromises or negates your identity in the eyes of your peers/co-workers?

    This article highly relevant to my upcoming movement into grad school and a professional career type environment I’ve never experienced before. Quite nervous about this element in particular, so huge thank you for laying advice out so well!

    • I’ve never had to deal with it at work (always had single stall), Penn, and in public I tend to alternate which bathroom I used because I’ve become more genderfluid… and I also try to go with one of my partners anyway.

      So, that being said, along the same lines I did feel for a while that it compromised my identity if I went into one that didn’t align with the way I felt, but I’ve gotten a lot better at accepting it doesn’t matter. What matters is my physical health and not hurting myself by trying to wait. If other people want to judge me for that, it’s going to happen, but at least it’ll happen and I’ll be healthier.

    • The campus where I work is introducing gender neutral signs on unisex bathrooms. There is also a campus map of them. Unfortunately, this is also a legislative issue because the state apparently regulates bathrooms in a way that prevents my uni from changing the signs everywhere. So this is also a legislative fight in some places to correct outdated bathroom codes.

  9. ‘…many of us sometimes hesitate to come out about our non-binary gender because we have done a really good job at internalizing that our gender is a burden’ – I really needed to read this today. Thank you <3

  10. Thank you so much for this. I’ll be going back to working in a few months and I’m scared. I nearly lost my last job and was forced to quit because I advocated for myself in a state where I’m legally protected, but it doesn’t mean they can’t still ignore the law and/or find other ways to harass you. =/

  11. this article made me feel understood.

    Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure nonbinary identities aren’t legally protected in the UK, so I will probably stick with she/her pronouns for now 🙁

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