Welcoming Your Trans or Non-binary Colleague – Workplace Inclusion
Written by S. Bear Bergman
There are many things it can mean to create an environment that anticipates and welcomes trans and non-binary colleagues, clients, or participants, but regardless of context all of them begin with understanding some key cultural pieces about trans and non-binary people’s experiences – including exploding some common myths and considering how to push back against misconceptions. While it would be days of learning to fully grasp the complexity and nuance of trans and non-binary needs and issues, there are a few significant overarching pieces that can form the knowledge keystones to create and support that welcoming space.
1. Trans and non-binary people aren’t new to the world, at all. It only seems that way because colonization violently suppressed that knowledge and sought to erase our history.
People who today we would understand as transgender or non-binary have provably existed for thousands of years. Nearly every indigenous society in the world, pre-colonization, had neutral to positive language and social roles for people we would today name, trans or non-binary. There are also a considerable number of other proofs, from legal decisions to poetry to government documents to artwork and so much more that prove trans and non-binary people have existed and been a part of daily life for at least 2500 years.
So why don’t we know more about this? The answer, unfortunately, is “colonization.“ The colonial project, undertaken by Britain, France, and Spain, sought to enforce their religious and legal and cultural values on every population they encountered, usually through a combination of wholesale murder and brutal cultural suppression or attempted erasure. 2SLGBTQ+ people were killed, language, ceremonies and social roles for them were eliminated under the new, cultural and religious structures imposed upon indigenous people of many regions, and the stories of them were forbidden to be recorded, except by the colonizers who painted them as moral stains on the fabric of society.
As the world has reckoned with the evils of colonization, efforts are being made to restore language, social roles, and cultural practices that were part of cultural genocide – sometimes this knowledge is referred to as having been “lost,“ but that word suggests a carelessness that is inappropriate in this context. The scraps and shreds of information we have today about 2SLGBTQ plus people were saved and protected from the colonizing forces at considerable risk to individuals and groups, and every remaining piece of information we can refer back to represents an individual or collective act of bravery.
The result of this particular facet of colonization is that transgender and non-binary people today stand stripped of their rightful lineage and history. Their stories are not taught or known widely, and there historical value, and in some cases, great honour is disrespectful – but that does not mean that they did not exist, and were not an integral part of the societies in which they lived for hundreds of years.
2. Having medical interventions, like hormones and surgeries related to one’s gender does not make a person “more trans” or “really trans.”
Beginning in the mid-1950s, under the supervision of Dr. Harry Benjamin, a medical protocol was established to provide a very limited number of trans women (people who may have been assigned male at birth, but whose gender identity and expression are girl or woman) with some access to medical interventions in support of their gender identity. The process was extremely onerous, and heavily influenced by both misogyny and white supremacy. The doctors sat in judgement of whether they believed a potential applicant would make “a successful woman,“ a process that included evaluating whether they found her sexually desirable when dressed as a woman and whether the 80 page questionnaire she filled out at their requirement indicated a set of values and sensibilities that matched their values of what a woman should like and how a woman should be – including that she should be heterosexual but not especially interested in sex, interested in motherhood but accepting of the fact that she could never be a mother (and would, in fact be required to cut off all contact with her children if she had them), Christian, able bodied, “modest,” and much more. She also would have had to share a narrative of her gender-identity development that included having known since the age of 4 or 5 that she wished to be a girl and grow up to be a woman.
Because only people who told this exact story, and answered the doctors’ questions in the way that satisfied them were allowed to access medical interventions around their gender for some time in North America and Europe, this became the only narrative about trans identity that most people were aware of, if they were aware of trans people at all. This has had the effect of making it seem as though there is one way to be trans, and that this way includes every available medical intervention as soon as possible.
In fact, people may understand their genders at a variety of ages – four or five is common, but so is the onset of puberty, and it is not at all uncommon that people (especially those who have existed in repressive environments) aren’t able to fully acknowledge their own gender identity until much later in life. It is also increasingly common, as information about historical or cultural practices around gender identity and expression become more widely known, that people choose to engage in their gender transitions through ceremony, in consultation with elders, through community acclaim, and in other ways. Medical intervention is also prohibitively expensive for some people, and presents health challenges for others.
In fact, someone is trans or non-binary if they say they are. Every person is the expert in their own identity and experiences, and no number of medical interventions are required in order to affirm or validate someone’s gender identity or expression. Some people still choose to engage in medical intervention around their gender, some as soon as possible, and some over the course of time, which is also a valid way to be trans or non-binary, but absolutely no one’s gender identity can be validated or invalidated based on what medical interventions they may have undertaken or hope to undertake in the future. The medical model of trans people’s gender intervention is fairly new in historical terms, and while it is safe and well-studied – and has been a great boon to some people – it is absolutely not the only way to hold or express a trans or non-binary identity.
3. Words matter, and they matter a lot.
You may have heard a lot of conversation about names and pronouns, and you may already have been asked to use different names or pronouns for someone you work with, go to school with, or know in other contexts. Sometimes people use the language of “preferred” name or pronouns, but in fact current best practice is to just ask “what pronouns do you use?” or “what is that person’s name?” without the adjective of ‘preferred’, which unfortunately allows some people to feel comfortable in ignoring or minimising the importance of someone’s stated name and pronouns. At the same time, while it goes without saying that there’s no reason to ever question the name or pronouns someone offers when you meet, you may feel some anxiety about forgetting to use the right name or pronouns for someone in your life who has recently made a change. There’s a fairly easy three-step process to get that right very quickly, to wit:
- Step 1: Hold yourself accountable to use the correct name and pronoun at all times, even if the person isn’t there to hear you. If you make a mistake, do the following: apologise, correct, move on. If you’ve accidentally said Matthew about someone whose name is now Petunia, this means that any or every time you use their former name you say, aloud, “Sorry, Petunia will know when the Q3 breakdown figures will be available.”
- Note: this is not the time to explain, in any way, why you think you might have made a mistake. Those are your feelings to have on your own time, not to share with someone you have just misnamed or misgendered. Just say “sorry,” correct yourself, continue. If you do it three times in a conversation, apologise and correct it three times. This is how you teach your brain to make a change.
- Step 2: Empower everyone around you to hold you accountable also. If you’re in a meeting and someone refers to a person who used to be Heather and is now Cooper by his former name, everyone should feel completely comfortable saying “You mean Cooper.” At which point, continue as above. “Sorry, Cooper is coming Friday from head office to upgrade our client contact system so if you have questions please email them to him by Wednesday.” If you are a supervisor or people leader of some kind with people who report to you and may feel reticent about correcting you, encourage them specifically to correct you as many times as it takes.
- Step 3: Practice. If you’re concerned about making a mistake, say (out loud) at least three times “I am going to go ask Casey whether they can take on a new client.” If you have to, say it every time you’re going to see that person or talk to them before you go.
- Bonus step: you might hear suggestions to set your autocorrect to change James to Lucille in order to avoid digital mixups, but I do not actually recommend that – from a neuroscience perspective, it doesn’t help you learn. Instead, set it to change James to NAME CHANGE so you have to type out Lucille every time, that’s much more helpful. Do go ahead and immediately change your contact card in your address book/email program/etc and (if it’s within your purview) help the person to change their email display name, email address if needed, name in any directories, et cetera.
Keeping these three pieces firmly top of mind and engaging others in learning them if you hear misinformation or myths being circulated will help any organisation to begin providing a more welcoming environment for trans and non-binary people. Further learning is of course available as you begin to fully own this information and feel ready for more – a great way to begin a journey of allyship with trans and non-binary people.
This article was developed as part of CICan’s 50 – 30 Challenge Ecosystem partnership with ISED. Interested in learning more? We encourage you to visit our website for resources, personalized one-on-one support and training to support your organization on their EDI journey. Keep up to date by signing up for our mailing list.