The first time I came out as genderqueer at work, I made a snap decision on my first day of a new job.
I was feeling bold, partly because, at the time, Bill C-16, a new federal bill to protect trans people from discrimination based on gender identity and expression, had recently been introduced in the House of Commons. While the bill, which is still inching its way through Senate hearings nearly a year later, does not specify details around pronoun use, the Ontario Human Rights Commission states that misgendering is a form of discrimination, especially in social areas including school, housing and work.
I was just beginning to come out as genderqueer (a gender identity that acts as an umbrella term for genders that exist outside of the male-female binary) to my friends, so it seemed like as good of a time as any to come out at work and assert my pronouns (they/them). Hearing people address me with she/her pronouns is frustrating, since femininity describes only part of my gender identity, not all of it.
I was ready to be recognized by my coworkers as my true self.
On my first day on the job, the human resources manager and the office manager gave me a formal hiring run-through which included an office tour and introductions to my coworkers. Not wanting to have to go through the introductory process hearing incorrect pronouns as a closeted genderqueer, I decided in, a split second, to come out to the two managers, who would be leading my introductions.
My heart hammered away as horrible scenarios flashed through my head. I imagined being immediately thrown out onto the street, my job over before it even started.
What actually happened was far less severe, yet equally disheartening. I was met with confusion and a blank stare by my two managers. They asked me what “genderqueer” meant. I hadn’t prepared for this.
Incorrectly, I assumed that the word “genderqueer” would incite knowing glances. It was 2016, after all. At best, I hoped for immediate acceptance of myself and my pronouns, and at worst, the aforementioned street scenario. I didn’t expect to be thrust into the emotionally exhausting roles of educator, caregiver, and office genderqueer activist — a role I didn’t want.
Suddenly, I had to fight for visibility when all I wanted to do was learn the ropes of my challenging new job.
Immediately after teaching my managers how to use “they” and “them” to describe a singular person (I explained that it’s the same way you speak when describing plural groups, eg “they like food, I’ll bring food to them”), the office manager introduced me to the rest of the staff as genderless, omitting pronouns entirely during my introductions.
As time passed, I noticed that my coworkers were cleverly able to modify their speech to omit pronouns entirely when referring to me by using my name only, but they were incapable of using “they” as a singular pronoun. Many still referred to me with she/her pronouns, while others omitted pronouns and referred to me solely as “Katy”.
When I brought this issue to my manager, I was told it would take time. Silently, I asked how much time.
I’m lucky to live in Manitoba where workplace discrimination based on gender identity is prohibited by provincial law. I kept this knowledge in my back pocket for months, hoping I wouldn’t have to use it. I was wrong.
A few months into the job, when little to no language modifications had been made, I reminded HR that I was afforded this protection and that the language of the office staff needed to change. While HR was supportive and in agreement with me, I was again told that it would take time.
I waited for change to happen. In almost a year of working there, I heard “they” used only a handful of times, and “she/her,” nearly every day. It was a stark contrast to what I frequently felt was a generally supportive, familial office environment. I wasn’t an outcast, but I was invisible.
Even if the Senate comes through to pass legislation protecting our rights via Bill C-16, change moves slowly and we still have to manage our day-to-day lives. For some, that might mean coming out at work.
Here are five things I wish someone had told me before I came out as genderqueer in my workplace, and what I learned from my experience.
You might break a glass ceiling
A gender that exists outside of the commonly understood gender binary of male and female is still new for many people. Outside of queer circles, it’s easy to find people who have never heard of the term “gender binary,” let alone a gender that exists outside of that. It’s very possible that your coworkers have never met a person who identifies as genderqueer.
Becoming the first out genderqueer person at my workplace was not at all something I expected. Be prepared to carve out a path of your own, because you might be the first.
Misgendering will happen daily
The colloquialism “Nothing happens overnight” may be voiced when you point out misgendering. It’s a cop-out. I truly believe that if our peers made an effort to be more mindful of their language, they would find it is a relatively quick process to learn.
If your experience is like mine, many of your coworkers will not make an effort to modify their language. Many will make a small effort in their own way that intends to be supportive while still misgendering you (like mentioning their queer friends around you while still misgendering you).
If you feel comfortable to do so, it’s helpful to remind coworkers immediately or shortly after they speak in error, as they may not notice their mistake. Saying, “I use they/them, not (insert wrong pronoun here)” is definitive and firm without being antagonistic.
Incorrect pronouns sound like nails on a chalkboard. It might be a good idea to get headphones.
You will be placed in the role of caregiver for other people’s feelings
Some coworkers who misgender you will notice their mistake immediately, then feel ashamed. They will want you to know how horrible they feel. They will send you apology emails and then apologize profusely in person. You will unintentionally become a caregiver for their feelings.
It doesn’t matter how many times you say it’s okay and ask to move on, you will still be made to feel like it’s your job to take care of them and make them feel better. This has the dual effect of reassuring you that your coworkers do care, while also causing you to expend unnecessary emotional energy.
The best way to deal with this is to come up with a catch-all phrase to use regardless of the coworker or situation, such as, “Thank you for your apology. Let’s move on,” or, ”Water under the bridge.” Avoid phrases that minimize your feelings, like, “It’s no big deal.”
You will have to fight for your right to be seen
People tend to avoid the things they fear, and fear is often rooted in lack of knowledge. Your coworkers might decide that it’s okay to refer to you by name only, without pronouns. This is confusing, because it’s only half correct. It doesn’t misgender you, but it purposefully ignores and minimizes your gender through avoidance of your pronouns. You are more than a name, and you deserve to be spoken to and about through language that reflects who you are.
This invisibility might be forced on you, and you must force your way out of it. You exist, and you deserve to be seen. If the law is on your side provincially, correct people whenever possible. You deserve to show up to work and be referred to and treated as your true self.
You will find solace in other coworkers
The second a coworker uses your correct pronoun for the first time, your heart will sing, and the validation that results can carry you through another day of misgendering and excessive apologetics. Near the end of my time at that workplace, one of my coworkers began using they/them, though irregularly. This coworker’s recognition proved meaningful and significant after months of misgendering by the rest of the office.
Even in a sea of fearful, confused or otherwise unsupportive coworkers, there will be some who renew your faith in the world. As Bill C-16 sits in parliamentary limbo it is essential, now more than ever, that we fight for our visibility. We exist, and we cannot be silenced.