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Trans etiquette: nosy person edition
June 13, 2014 5:58 AM   Subscribe

I googled my new supervisor at my volunteer gig and found out that this person is trans and doesn't identify with a binary gender. I don't know how I should refer to my supervisor now. Some questions about how to proceed.

I recently started a new volunteer gig. I'll be volunteering once or twice a week for a couple of hours at a time. A few days ago, a new person was hired on to supervise volunteers. This person will be my primary contact from here on out, although I will mostly work independently. When I met my new supervisor, I assumed, I think for no good reason, that my new supervisor was a woman. (That is to say, I don't think that anyone said anything to make me think my supervisor was a woman, and my supervisor has a totally gender-neutral name, looks androgynous, and was wearing neutral clothes. Nothing I have found out subsequently has made me think that my supervisor has ever identified as a woman.) I was curious about this new person who I would be working with, again for no good reason, so I googled. The first hit was a recent article in an LGBT publication in which my volunteer supervisor talks about being trans and not identifying as either male or female. The little author blurb used the pronoun "they." It also linked to my supervisor's personal blog, which is pretty personal. There's nothing there that's at all embarrassing, but there's stuff about struggles with body image that I could see someone not feeling comfortable sharing with some random lady from work. On the other hand, the article was published under my supervisor's full name, and the author blurb on the article linked to the blog. I don't think anyone's making any efforts to be anonymous.

So now I have to figure out how to proceed. I can think of two choices. The first is not to say anything, try not to use any pronouns until someone else does (which could get awkward, as the previous paragraph probably demonstrates), and to see if my supervisor or someone else addresses it. The second is to send my supervisor an email, say "hey, I hope this doesn't seem too creepy, but I googled you and found this article. Is it ok if I ask you what pronouns you would prefer I used?" Or I guess I could just not mention google and ask about pronouns, but I think that might be weird, because it honestly would never have occurred to me to ask if I hadn't googled.

Because I'm sure someone will ask: I am 100% sure that the author of the article is the same person as my volunteer supervisor. There was an accompanying photo, and the author bio mentioned some pretty uncommon identifying details.

Short version: I don't want to misgender anyone, but I also don't want to out anyone, and I don't want to seem like a creepy google stalker. Also, I have social anxiety and tend to overthink things and generally act like a dingbat in awkward social situations, and I hate the thought that my awkwardness would cause unpleasantness for my new volunteer supervisor. Thoughts about what, if anything, I should do?
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious to Human Relations (34 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you are overestimating the mental energy entailed by avoiding pronouns in this circumstance. Try that.
posted by Mr. Justice at 6:06 AM on June 13 [8 favorites]


Don't say anything about it unless and until your new supervisor does. That could be awkward and potentially hurtful for your supervisor.

If your new supervisor tells you that [insert correct pronoun here] is trans, and does not offer any further information, you ask:

"What name and pronouns do you prefer?"

This is general trans etiquette. Although the question of which name to use would seem to be already settled, so you could probably just ask "What pronouns do you prefer?"

Your supervisor may offer a set of pronouns for you to use without you asking.

If your new supervisor doesn't mention anything about being trans, then I'm really not sure. I would to refer to your supervisor by name whenever possible in that case, though that could make for some awkward language.
posted by tckma at 6:08 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


I think it's pretty clear they've already made their preference obvious to those (like you) who have read that article. Basically you want to know a shortcut on how to incorporate this information without letting them know you creeped on them online.

So just ask privately. If you'd rather do it in an email, then do it that way. Politely and with respect. You don't have to tell them that you read the article.

"Dear New Supervisor,

Congratulations on the new post! I look forward to working with you.

I just wanted to introduce myself. I am ArbitraryAndCapricious and I prefer the pronouns her and she. Which pronouns do you prefer?

Again, I can't wait to work with you and do some good!

Regards,

ArbitraryAndCapricious"
posted by inturnaround at 6:17 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


I think I'd refer to them as "they" for now. What will happen will either be that someone will correct you or someone will ask and you can say "I just don't know what pronoun they use".

While it's a bad idea to use "they" when you know that someone prefers another pronoun (in particular don't "they" a trans woman who uses "she") I think it's acceptable in most circles to say "they" both if you don't know and if the person prefers "they".

(What I'd really like? A new "blank" pronoun that is specifically for "I don't know this person's gender identity" because sometimes you want to make that clear.)

Although I would not ask as this point, as a non-standardly-gendered person, I think that if someone has a substantial online trans/nonbinary presence under their real name and you're interacting with them in a volunteer or social environment, it's pretty reasonable to ask what pronouns they prefer.

I personally would not say "I googled you" because although we all google some of our peers sometimes, it would feel really awkward even though I think "how can I gender this person correctly, perhaps google will tell me" is an okay reason for googling.

But if you're in a group, ask the whole group for their pronouns. For one thing, they may surprise you - some people who "look" nonbinary are totally binary! Some people who "look" very straight/cis/etc may be non-binary! For another, it cues the group that they themselves might need to ask.

Honestly, this is what I'd probably do if I were going to ask: I'd have a couple of positive interactions with this person to develop a little sense of their personality. I'd refer to them as "they" if I needed to use a pronoun, because that's pretty non-obvious in many settings. Then I'd decide whether it was better to ask folks in a group setting or ask them one-on-one. And it's quite possible that after a week or two, the people who made the hiring decision will drop it into conversation anyway.

When you have the conversation, lead with your pronouns. "Hey there, person, I like to check in about pronouns - I use she/her (or whatever you use)...What would you like me to use for you?"

I think we're in a weird moment, and it's okay to feel a little weird about this. Because there's this sense that only "visibly non-binary" (whatever that means) people use "non-standard" pronouns, and therefore a lot of the time people only ask if someone looks "non-standard", which feels really awkward, right? Because what does "nonbinary" even look like?

There's also the possibility that you'll run into a conservative queer person or radical feminist who will flip out on you if you ask. Which, if it happens, is them being a jerk, and hopefully would not happen in a professional setting.

I think it's okay to google in this context, actually, because there's so many ways you can offend people at this particular historical moment.

This is why, to me, the best way to deal with this situation is to have everyone share an acceptable pronoun - assuming a queer/trans/nonbinary friendly environment. You're absolutely right to be cautious about outing people!
posted by Frowner at 6:19 AM on June 13 [8 favorites]


I'd go with the singular "they". Both because of that article and because it would rarely stick out in spoken conversation, thus lessening the risk of outing (although that doesn't seem like it would be much of an issue here.) And also, I love the singular "they" and wish it would lose any remaining stigma, already. After spending some time working with them, I think it would be completely fine to say "Hey, I've been using "they" for your pronouns, is that what you prefer?" especially since you're in the subordinate position, here, and they can correct you without feeling demanding.
posted by Mizu at 6:25 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Be cautious of anything that might "out" your supervisor to the group. Some of my coworkers have unintentionally outed themselves to me just because they so consistently avoid gendered language when talking about vacations and home. Eventually I notice that they always say "we" and never say "boyfriend / girlfriend / wife / husband / she / he," and I figure they aren't comfortable being open.

I'd suggest using the name as much as possible, avoiding pronouns and using "they" very occasionally." "Pat asked if we could schedule these training events for Saturday afternoons in July."

Of course, so much depends on the setting and the risk to your supervisor of being outed. The more corporate and conservative the group, the more cautious you should be. CPAs of Mobile Alabama? Radical Feminists of Portland? So use your judgment. In my east-coast corporate office, even though it's technically GLBT-friendly, I would absolutely NEVER ask anyone at all what pronoun they preferred, unless they were openly out as trans. In another setting that might be very acceptable and common. Use your judgment.

Hopefully this is an environment where your supervisor feels comfortable being open and will soon just let you all know, what they prefer.
posted by bunderful at 6:42 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


My preferences (as someone who is trans but binary) are:

1) If you're going to ask my pronouns, don't fall over yourself apologizing and making elaborate excuses and explaining why the question came up, just ask. "I'm sorry, what pronouns do you prefer?" is all you need to say, in the same tone as you'd ask "I'm sorry, how do you spell your last name?"

2) If it's feasible, I'd much rather you ask in private. If it comes up in front of a group, it's not the end of the world, but it's awkward.

3) If you guess my pronoun wrong and I correct you, or if you slip and use the wrong one after you've asked, I'd really rather you not make a big hairy deal out of it. Apologize quickly, correct yourself and move on — act like you'd misspelled my name, not like you'd run over my dog. Making a big stink about it embarrasses me, and pressures me to drop what I'm doing to reassure you, neither of which is fun.

4) In my corner of the trans/queer community it is normal and okay to use "they" as a pronoun for someone whose preferences you don't know or have forgotten. This varies a lot, but if your supervisor's preferred pronoun is "they" in their private life then they are probably at least okay with hearing it at work.

If I were in your shoes with a new supervisor, I would listen closely for the pronouns that other coworkers use for them. If I couldn't detect a clear consensus I would default to "they," and ask them privately if that was okay as soon as it was convenient, without making a fuss over it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:46 AM on June 13 [34 favorites]


Does your supervisor accept comments on their blog? If so, you could post the question there without identifying yourself.
posted by Dragonness at 6:47 AM on June 13 [6 favorites]


Approximately 0.2% of Americans are transgender. Hence, statistically, you have a 99.8% chance that a given person is accurately, correctly, and appropriately referred to as "he" or "she" matching their biological sexual identity. As a result, asking someone what gender pronouns they ask is definitely outing them, because for 99.8% of people, the answer is obvious. If you do it in public, you are outing them in public, which is definitely not okay. You can do it in private, because in this particular instance, you have pretty good proof the person is transgender. A corollary result is that using the term "they" is also implicitly outing them. Unless you use the term "they" for everyone, if you use the term "they" for one individual person, you are indicating that person is transgender or that you can't identify their sex.

I'm sorta surprised by the answers here that suggest that asking someone what pronouns they prefer is a completely normal question. For 99.8% of people, it'd at least be an odd question, if not a bit offensive. I strongly suspect more than 0.2% of people would be offended by asking about their preferred gender identity.
posted by saeculorum at 6:50 AM on June 13 [13 favorites]


I like the approach of volunteering what pronouns you prefer without asking in return what pronouns they prefer, because it gives them an out. If they then come back with 'Oh, okay' then you're stuck with avoiding pronouns, but there's always the possibility they come back with their preferred pronouns.
posted by winna at 6:57 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Some nonbinary people prefer nonstandard pronouns, but I have been interacting more extensively with other nonbinary people of late and the general consensus as far as I can see is that nobody is ever offended by someone using "them" unless that person has been made aware that the individual prefers a non-them pronoun previously. And even there, "they" is massively less of a problem than "he" or "she" when the person has not previously expressed that they are okay with those. The chances of someone actively being upset with a stranger using the singular they is microscopic. And nobody sane expects you to talk about them without using pronouns at all, trust me. It may be that this person is still okay with using their birth pronouns (I am) but someone having taken the time to actually ask around about it and use anything gender neutral would be massively complimentary as far as I was concerned.
posted by Sequence at 7:01 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


I wouldn't do this in an email as those are not private and you don't know who in the office has access.

I would wait until you have a private moment with this supervisor and use a script like:

"So I ran across the article that you wrote for XXXX, and I just wanted to be clear on which pronouns you prefer in the office setting."

That gives your supervisor a chance to just say "he, she, zie or them", and leave it at that without having to go into whether your supervisor is out at work or whatever.

And then I wouldn't stress about it. I'm not trans, but I am a minority, and nothing is more annoying than majority types who seem all consumed with trying not to offend me. It makes me feel like I am somehow inconveniencing them with my existence, which is annoying and uncomfortable (even though they mean well).

So yeah, good for you for doing your best to be respectful - maybe avoid doing quite so much google snooping in the future?
posted by sparklemotion at 7:03 AM on June 13 [8 favorites]


Approximately 0.2% of Americans are transgender. Hence, statistically, you have a 99.8% chance that a given person is accurately, correctly, and appropriately referred to as "he" or "she" matching their biological sexual identity.
The thing is, people's "biological sexual identity" (whatever that is) isn't actually visible unless you're doing a medical exam.

As a result, trans people are not the only ones who get misgendered. There are a lot of cis people who get misgendered all the time. (Butch women! Unusually tall or muscular femme women! Short men with long hair! Anyone with a vocal range that's unusual for their sex! Etcetera!)

Honestly, the number of cis people in this country who get semi-regularly misgendered is probably higher than the number of trans people, just because the total number of trans people is so low.
However, I'm sorta surprised by the answers here that suggest that asking someone what pronouns they prefer is a completely normal question.
It's not that it is a normal question. It's that I wish it were more normal, because it is so much less awkward than all the other things people do when they're confused about my gender identity.

If the choices were "new person asks my pronouns" or "new person magically gets my pronouns right without asking," then I'd prefer the latter.

But having people magically get my pronouns right is not an option. Realistically, my options look like: "new person asks my pronouns," "new person gets my pronouns wrong and then I have to worry about whether they'll throw a fit when I correct them," "new person laughs awkwardly and blushes beet red every time my name is mentioned, and pointedly refuses to mention me at all," "new person tries to surreptitiously take cell phone pictures of me so they can ask their friends' opinions on my gender," "new person loudly stage-whispers 'IS THAT A MAN OR WHAT?' to the guy sitting next to them" and so on. Given those options — yes, please ask.
I strongly suspect more than 0.2% of people would be offended by asking about their preferred gender identity.
They'll live.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:19 AM on June 13 [36 favorites]


Just pick a pronoun and go with it. You are not going to be the first person to call them a 'him' or 'her', and I'm sure they will have a response ready to go if they don't like it. They may not even have a preference and might be okay with either 'he' or 'she'.
posted by empath at 7:28 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


I'm with Mr. Justice. When I'm talking to my boss, I say "you." It's rare that I'm talking about my boss and need to use a pronoun.

If you do find yourself needing to refer to your supervisor in the third person, I like sparklemotion's suggestion because it's open and straightforward. I think it would be totally weird to say, "Hi, my name is AandC and here is my preferred pronoun! What's yours?" as if that's how you introduce yourself to everybody you meet.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:47 AM on June 13


I strongly suspect more than 0.2% of people would be offended by asking about their preferred gender identity.

They'll live.


I think that second comment is missing the point. The point is not that you're going to kill anyone by asking their gender. The point is that while we're focusing on the trans issue for purposes of responding to this question, meanwhile, the OP is still a real person and presumably doesn't want to be rude to people in her workplace. There's no way around it: asking someone what their gender is, is flat-out rude.
posted by John Cohen at 7:54 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


Refer to your supervisor in whatever way they want to be referred to. When you meet them, they will probably introduce themselves. Just go with that.

On the off chance that you don't pick up what pronouns to use via context, ask. I probably would not ask by saying, "I found out Taylor is trans, so...", but just "what pronouns does Taylor prefer?" Since you're not going to be using third person pronouns in a one on one situation with this person ("you" is gender neutral), I wouldn't worry so much about misgendering them to their face.
posted by Sara C. at 8:14 AM on June 13


The point is that while we're focusing on the trans issue for purposes of responding to this question, meanwhile, the OP is still a real person and presumably doesn't want to be rude to people in her workplace.

"The trans issue" is relevant to the OP, because the OP's boss (who is also "a real person") is openly trans, but it's unclear what pronouns she uses at work.

I'll admit that I'm skeptical of the answers that say "Just ask everyone in the room their pronouns." This can go surprisingly well, even in fairly conservative settings. But it can also misfire spectacularly, because once in a blue moon someone will throw a huge fit over being asked. This is one of the reasons I am a fan of asking the pronoun question privately whenever possible — it minimizes the awkwardness for visibly-trans or gender-nonconforming people who appreciate the question but don't want to talk about it publicly, and for stealthily trans people or gender-conforming cis people who are upset that the question would ever come up.

But your blanket statement that it's always rude to ask someone's gender is simply false. There are situations where asking (privately, respectfully and discreetly) is likely to be the best-received option. "I am talking to an androgynously-presenting nonbinary trans person who has gone on public record about all those things" is pretty damn likely to be one of those situations.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:22 AM on June 13 [10 favorites]


I'm unambiguously female but during the early 90s I wore my hair very short and dressed like a boy just because. On several occasions a salesperson seeing me from behind would say "Can I help you, young man?" (this was in Europe). I'd turn around and show my made-up face and smile and say, "Thanks, I'm just browsing." I was always amused they took me, an adult woman, for a boy.

Is there any way a deliberately ambiguous-looking trans person could be equally amused at the confusion? After all, it's a choice they made to look ambiguous.
posted by Dragonness at 8:25 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


I probably wouldn't ask someone else about someone's pronouns unless it's a situation where EVERYONE involved is pretty well-versed in gender stuff and talking about pronouns is no bigger a deal than, I dunno, someone's favorite color, and where I know for sure they'd give me the same answer as the person themself.

Otherwise that kind of veers into gossip and who knows whether you'll get a helpful answer.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:26 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


But presumably there are other volunteers and staff at this organization that will already have been working with this person when ArbitraryAndCapricious arrives on the scene. It's possible that all of those people are a bunch of dicks who don't care at all how the supervisor prefers to be referred to, and deliberately misgender them at every opportunity. But it's more likely that there is already some convention in place. In which case ArbitraryAndCapricious should do that.

I would only ask the supervisor personally if there's no way to glean this from context, or if there's reason to believe that nobody else in the organization would be operating in good faith on the pronoun front.
posted by Sara C. at 8:48 AM on June 13


Authors generally write their own little author blurb, in my experience, or at least have input into it. I think that the use of singular they in the blurb is a pretty clear tip that they/them is a Just Fine way to refer to your supervisor. If you still want to clarify, you can pull them aside and ask, but in the meantime, I would 100% go with they.
posted by MeghanC at 8:50 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


But presumably there are other volunteers and staff at this organization that will already have been working with this person when ArbitraryAndCapricious arrives on the scene. It's possible that all of those people are a bunch of dicks who don't care at all how the supervisor prefers to be referred to, and deliberately misgender them at every opportunity. But it's more likely that there is already some convention in place. In which case ArbitraryAndCapricious should do that.

The supervisor is new, so the other staff don't know any better than AandC in this case.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:24 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


I don't see why you would need to use pronouns at all. You're volunteering once or twice a week for a few hours. You'll either speak directly with "Supervisor" ("good morning Supervisor") or you'll speak directly about Supervisor ("Supervisor told me to unload these boxes"). I just can't see how there would be so much conversation about Supervisor that you'd have to toss your own eggshells around the floor to tiptoe around.
posted by headnsouth at 10:27 AM on June 13 [4 favorites]


I would bring it up privately. Since there is an article, this person should not be shocked that you read it. I have had websites online for years. It is not totally unheard of for people to have an idea who I am when I have no idea who they are. This is only a problem if they are ugly about it. I am well aware that there is information about me publicly available. This is not some shocking revelation to me and I don't expect people to pretend that the information they know about me is totally 100% limited to what they learn from me directly in conversation with me. So I think it is reasonable to assume this person really should not be all shocked that you read the article.

I would privately say something like "I have social anxiety so I wanted to ask you how best to handle this. I tripped across x article in which it indicates you are trans. I don't want to accidentally out you or even act weird around you. It is really stressing me out as to which pronouns to use because I know that can be a thing that outs you and this little detail can touch on some very big issues. So I was hoping you would clarify for me what pronoun you prefer?"

I would also try to feel out (without asking directly) just how out they are. I would plan on respecting their privacy but if they are very open about it IRL versus pretty closeted, there would still be differences in how careful to be, basically.
posted by Michele in California at 10:41 AM on June 13


I think people are over-complicating this. After you've interacted with them a bit, and gotten a feel for their personality, if you haven't picked up what pronoun to use, I think it would be just fine to privately say "I happened to come across the article you wrote for xxxx. It was really interesting/whatever. I'm just wondering, what pronouns do you prefer to use?"

Also, perhaps look at their blog for clues? I also like the idea of a comment there if you are really uncomfortable asking in person. Don't send an email or involve any other people.
posted by catatethebird at 11:02 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Your supervisor has a lot more experience dealing with this than you do, they're living it. Let them take the lead--I'm sure they know what to say and how to say it.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:08 AM on June 13 [2 favorites]


I didn't read any of the language in your question as awkward, though it may have felt that way to you as you were making a concerted effort not to use gendered pronouns in your writing. Therefore, I would say go ahead and just use "they" or the supervisor's name or continue doing what you are doing with language in your question. It may feel awkward to you but likely others will not notice if you don't make a big deal of it. You bringing up gender identity and pronouns bluntly in your earliest interactions with someone seems intrusive, even though you mean well.

If (down the line) you still feel the need to get specific confirmation from your supervisor, I think it is OK to casually ask in private. I like this approach: "I came across this article your wrote blah blah. It was really great. It made me wonder what pronouns you prefer?"

It sounds like you are cisgendered and prefer the pronouns which people generally assign to you on their own. For that reason, it might seem a little disingenous to use the "I prefer she and her, what about you?" because when have you ever had to clarify that before? Or your supervisor might appreciate that your are attempting be considerate of them, but I would personally feel awkward using that particular approach to the question.
posted by dahliachewswell at 12:49 PM on June 13


I don't see why you would need to use pronouns at all. You're volunteering once or twice a week for a few hours. You'll either speak directly with "Supervisor" ("good morning Supervisor") or you'll speak directly about Supervisor ("Supervisor told me to unload these boxes"). I just can't see how there would be so much conversation about Supervisor that you'd have to toss your own eggshells around the floor to tiptoe around.
I sometimes have to express sentiments that are more complicated than "Supervisor told me to unload these boxes," though. I'm not really doing box-unloading type stuff, but what if I had to say "Supervisor told me not to unload these boxes until Supervisor heard back from the people at the central office about whether we could use them this week"? In writing, I could pretty easily figure out how to express that without using pronouns, but it's not so easy when I'm speaking.

I think my current plan is to try to avoid using pronouns, use "they" if it comes up, see if I get any cues from my supervisor, and if not ask in a few weeks when we've hopefully established more of a rapport.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:58 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


"We" is highly useful in the scenario you mention.
posted by Sara C. at 1:00 PM on June 13 [3 favorites]


do you know who brought on the new supervisor? If you do, listen very closely to them as they will probably use a pronoun for "Alex" soon and you can adapt that pronoun for your use.
posted by WeekendJen at 2:14 PM on June 13


Your supervisor has already gone on record, both in a publication and in their blog, as not identifying with a gender, and used the pronoun "they" in their blurb. There's your answer.
posted by storminator7 at 10:49 PM on June 13


Well, some people use "they" or other gender-neutral pronouns personally but stick to "he" or "she" and Mr./Ms. professionally, depending on the industry and the attitude toward gender stuff in their area. One of my genderqueer/trans* friends uses "he" or "they" personally but was "Ms. LastName" when teaching high school.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:18 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


Hi all! I have an update. It turns out that I didn't need to worry about this, because the next time I went in to volunteer, another employee referred to my supervisor using the proper pronoun. It turns out that my supervisor is not using "they" these days, at least not at work. However, I'm glad that I was aware that my supervisor is trans, because later on I was training a new volunteer who it turned out had known the volunteer supervisor either pre-transition or at an earlier stage of transition. The new volunteer discreetly asked me which pronoun to use, and because I understood the question, I was able to answer it quickly and without making a big deal of it. So everything is good, and now I can go back to angsting about all the social stuff that I usually angst about.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:02 AM on July 5 [8 favorites]


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