Navigating Professional Settings as a Nonbinary Person

Coming out as non-binary or trans can be uncomfortable in straight, cis-normative settings - especially the workplace.

Navigating Professional Settings as a Non-Binary/Trans* Person

Coming out as non-binary or trans* can be uncomfortable in straight, cis-normative settings – especially the workplace. At work, we may not feel we can speak up when we are uncomfortable, defend ourselves from inappropriate comments, or express ourselves in the same way would if we were off the clock. We may not have LGBTQ+ colleagues or friends at work who can relate to our experiences or allies we can turn to for support when we need help. We may fear potential consequences of coming out such as discrimination, harassment, or disciplinary action.

Coming out has been an important and deeply personal part of my journey to live an authentic and meaningful life, and when I share this aspect of my identity with others, I hope to feel respected and embraced. I have recently had the privilege to work for an organization that prioritizes diversity, but even then, introducing and normalizing non-binary pronouns has been a challenge. As a non-binary person with fluid gender expression, I find myself coming out over and over again as I continue to meet new people. Because my physical features tend to appear feminine no matter how I express myself, many of my non-LGBTQ+ colleagues have needed ongoing reminders and explanations to help them learn my pronouns. 

The emotional labor and weight of having to repeatedly come out at work, correct colleagues when incorrect pronouns are used, or serve as a token non-binary or trans* person can feel hurtful and exhausting at times. Most of my youth and adult life has been lived trying to navigate being queer in straight and cis-normative spaces. Perhaps you can relate. Having navigated professional settings as a non-binary trans* person many times, I’ve finally found a few strategies that have greatly helped remove some of this burden from my shoulders, and I hope they might benefit you too. 

Wearing a Pronoun Pin

Wearing a pin or button has been the most helpful strategy I have used to help encourage my colleagues to remember to use my pronouns at work. Some days, mine will say “They/Them” and other days it will say “Non-Binary”. Sometimes I wear it on my suit jacket or shirt, and other times I’ll wear it on my lanyard if I’m wearing my ID badge. Pins have been a discreet, professional, and effective way to provide others a visual clue to use correct gender pronouns. Pins are also affordable and can be ordered easily online, but they only work when you’re speaking to your colleagues in person. 

Listing your Pronouns on your Email Signature and Business Cards

Including your pronouns in your email signature is a helpful way to both let your colleagues know what your gender pronouns are when you’re working virtually and normalize diverse gender pronouns within your organization. You can use this same principle by printing your pronouns on your business cards. Businesses can benefit from implementing this as a routine practice to help current LGBTQ+ employees feel safer and to help the organization be more inclusive to new employees and the clientele it serves. 

Welcoming Images and Items in your Personal Office Space

Displaying LGBTQ+, non-binary, or trans* imagery in your personal workspace can help show others that you are supportive and welcoming of LGBTQ+ clients and colleagues, and often inspires allies to follow suit. It can also remind others that you personally identify as LGBTQ+ and can help serve as a visual reminder of your pronouns if you have come out at work.

Make a Small Lending Library Available to Your Colleagues

Having books and reference guides available to be borrowed can be an accommodating way to help colleagues who may feel too shy or don’t have the time to have a lengthy conversation with you about how to help make LGBTQ+ people feel safer in the workplace. A text they can bring home can help them learn privately and at their own pace. One text I personally like to keep on my desk for this purpose is  A Quick and Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns. I wouldn’t say it’s a perfect text, but it’s written as a graphic novel and uses a casual and humorous tone, which I like because it makes for a quick and easy read for busy people. If you choose to start a lending library at your office, make sure you’ve read the entirety of each text you make available to ensure the content is appropriate for the workplace. 

State Your Pronouns When You Introduce Yourself

Each time you have the opportunity to introduce yourself to a new person or even a group of familiar people, take the opportunity to state your pronouns – even if no one follows your lead at first. This helps remind the group of your pronouns, models how to be inclusive of diverse gender identity, and invites them to help normalize diverse gender pronouns in the organization and perhaps even in their personal lives. 

Correct Others When They Misgender You 

This can be a tough one. If you feel comfortable and safe enough to do so, correct others when they misgender you – to the extent possible. You can choose to do this immediately after it happens, or privately at a later time. However, sometimes being mis-gendered can happen so many times a day that it may not feel possible or reasonable to correct every person you come across. Only do what feels right and is comfortable for you. 

If An Ally Wants to Support You, Let Them Know What You Need

Having allies at work can be tremendously helpful to make the workplace safer for LGBTQ+ people. However, sometimes allies may not know how to support non-binary or trans* people, and may have questions they’re too nervous to ask. They may be unsure how to respond when they overhear a peer use incorrect gender pronouns, or what they should do if they mis-gender someone by accident. Asking these questions can be so uncomfortable for some that it can be easier not to engage or show support at all.

In these situations, I have found success in being vulnerable and inviting about asking uncomfortable questions from the start. When someone expresses support for me, I thank them and let them know how happy and safe it makes me feel when they help me correct my peers about my gender pronouns. I let them know precisely what I would be comfortable with them sharing about me if they find themselves in a situation where they want to help correct others about my pronouns, and let them know that if they ever have questions, they may feel free to ask me about it. I also let them know that it’s okay to mess up, because what matters most to me is just a consistent effort to get it right. 

While I recognize the strategies I listed above may not be applicable or possible in all work environments, I hope that they bring you some relief and tangible tactics to help improve your experience at work. I also recognize we may not always feel safe or generous enough to want to help our colleagues learn about how to be more inclusive toward LGBTQ+ people, and would sometimes prefer others take initiative to do the research on their own. If one thing is certain, however, it is that we all deserve to feel safe, respected, and valued at work and in our personal lives. To my surprise, I have been fortunate to find more allies and friends by coming out at work than I had originally expected. 

What has helped you navigate professional settings as an LGBTQ+ person?


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