Feeling anxious around language and gender is normal, especially during a time of evolution. Getting closer to how we envision a gender-expansive workspace—one that celebrates Transgender and Non-binary people—helps us find a pathway to bringing this dream to reality.
The truth about gender
I use the term gender-diverse to encompass trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, gender-variant, and intersex people. Yes, I also realize that labels within the conversation of gender are kinda paradoxical. The truth about gender is that it represents a broad multi-verse of ways we know, feel, define and express ourselves combined with the ways that our knowings, feelings, and definitions interact with and bounce off of our everyday experiences.
Born from White Supremacy
Ok but back to anxiety. It’s very easy to understand that individuals should be able to use a restroom that aligns with their gender or that normalizing pronoun use is a baseline act of respect and inclusion that should have been standardized a long time ago. On the other hand, we consciously and unconsciously realize that in the process of opening these conversations we are not only challenging and defying very deep and very serious societal rules but we are also challenging the people who knowingly and unknowingly wrote the rules, enforced the rules and benefited from the rules. There’s an entire concrete pillar in the foundation of our lives that has “GENDER NORMS” stamped into it and for many leaders, if you even take one swing at this pillar, the whole house might come crashing down.
To be more specific, gender has always been about social, political, and economic control. White, European nations, in their quest to prove with a deadly certainty that the white race was superior to all other races, introduced a number of “scientific” theories claiming that concrete sex and gender differences were hallmarks of more developed races, having moved past their barbaric roots. Other races that celebrated and uplifted different ideas about gender were then of course subhuman and less evolved. In 1886, German sexologist Krafft-Ebbing wrote: “The higher the development of the race, the stronger the contrasts between man and woman.” And in 1897, William Thomas echoed: “the less civilized the race the less is the physical differences of the sexes.” In short, gender binary = good. Gender expansiveness = bad.
Do you think it’s a coincidence that numerous African and Indigenous acknowledged much more gender-expansive truths? Or that many of these cultures honored and uplifted queer and two-spirit (the term most used by indigenous cultures to describe LGBTQ individuals) folks? The gender binary was inextricably tied to the framework of white supremacy that said white is good, pure, civilized, and advanced and any other color was primitive, barbaric, subhuman, and in need of correction. Under these rules, only white people—white men, specifically—were deserving of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone else was fair game for subjugation, slavery, and genocide. These forces are alive today, which brings me back to the anxiety…
Challenging an entire global power structure with your pronouns policy should feel a little scary! You are literally helping to chart a new path forward for humanity, or rather a return to truths about humanity that BIPOC cultures have been acknowledging since time immemorial.
Sheesh! So if you’re reading this you probably didn’t have much control over how we got here but you are wondering what your responsibility is moving forward. I am happy you are having these thoughts because the issue of developing gender-expansive workplaces–where all people can be free of the limitations and subjugation of the gender binary–is incredibly urgent and important if we are to move society in a more just direction. So, what can you do?
- Think about your own gender. As a kid, how did your people affirm or reject the ways that your gender naturally developed? Think everything from the clothes you wore to the activities you participated to the ways you were rewarded (or punished) for adhering to societal definitions of what boys and girls do.
- Think about how you reinforce gender norms at work. Do you take steps to adhere to unspoken gender rules? Do you engage in “gender apprenticeship” or “gender policing” or other subtle or overt acts of promoting conformity among your colleagues to specific gender norms
- Watch your leaders: How are they writing and enforcing rules and ideas about gender? Do those rules and ideas feel good? Can you see anyone walking into your organization and feeling free to express themselves freely within the guidelines.
- Stop misgendering people. Make it easy to reference people’s correct gender by normalizing pronouns and getting them in the employee directory and ensuring that employees can efficiently make name changes.
- Give Transgender people good health care. Don’t just throw a health care plan at your trans employees and make them sift through hundreds of pages of information. Really know how the system works, how your trans employees can safely and effectively access their benefits, and know the limitations of the health care plans (they all have them). Put pressure on healthcare providers to step up their game and develop more comprehensive and inclusive plans. You’re the customer in this situation and the customer is always right 🙂
- Give gender-diverse folks space and recognize when they need help. A quick tap on the shoulder and a “hey, how are you” to an individual taking on the massive burden of exploring their gender at work goes such a long way. Was a Transgender or Nonbinary person the victim of a micro or macro aggression recently? Did you catch someone misgendering them? Is it possible to bend a deadline a little bit or make a mandatory meeting optional so that they can get a little space to process and fill their cup back up? Nobody is ever asking for their entire position description to be suspended, but being different is taxing. We want to do our jobs at the highest level possible but too often our queer siblings are burning out under the pressure to be exceptional at their jobs while juggling the intense work that is gender exploration.
- Then get to dismantling and rewriting outdated systems and policies. We are talking about a total redo on your:
- Dress Codes
- Bathrooms and Locker Rooms
- Transition Guidelines and Support
- Systems of accountability for reporting and managing instances of trans and nonbinary discrimination as well as sexual harassment
- Healthcare (mental and physical) and Prescription access
- Philanthropic Giving
- Supplier Diversity
- Finally, and most importantly, be kind. Kindness is the thread that connects all of these things and without it, an organization is gender-inclusive in name only. Kindness fills all of the inevitable cracks and potholes that exist within even the most gender-inclusive policies and systems. Perfection is not the goal here, but a commitment to constantly reevaluating your gender inclusion systems supported by kindness is the bar we must all meet.
Acknowledging our current societal rules around gender, how they were adopted and how your organization reflects them is a key step before you move to policy and system change conversations. Most of us have never thought about our gender or how it formed in any serious way, and that’s ok. But your freedom, the freedom of gender-diverse peoples and the vision we all share of a world where we can freely express and honor our own truth depends on us picking up the shovel and starting to excavate four hundred years of a failed and deadly philosophy around gender.
Want more great facts, tips, and strategies to become a super-strong gender inclusion advocate? Check out these great leaders and resources:
- National Center for Transgender Equality 2015 Survey – see chapter 10 for workplace issues
- Transgender workplace leaders such as Ellie Krug, Lily Zheng, Eli Rigatuso, Vanessa Sheridan
- Alok Vaid-Menon, their Instagram is on the cutting edge of this conversation. Definitely check out their book “Beyond the Gender Binary.”
- Jacob Tobia, another insta influencer in this space, their memoir “Sissy” is super great for understanding the life of a trans and nonbinary individual
- This GLAAD article has a list of other great YouTubers and folks to follow. For me, I just try to follow the right folks so that my feed is keeping me up to date with the evolution of this conversation. And the conversation is evolving super fast.