Support, not commitment, or something
November 9, 2011 7:47 PM   Subscribe

I think my dotted-line boss is going to come out to me as a transgendered person. The idea of introducing gender and sexuality into professional relationships is anathema to me. I will not deny her any support. I am genderqueer but don't trouble to make it obvious at work: work is a place I go to be engaged and interested, not a place for emotional entanglements. So what do I do?

This lady is really fun, really cool, and transgender, but she doesn't know I know. She also doesn't know I identify as GQ. I think sexuality issues just don't belong in the work place: never ever have I dated or even discussed issues of gender or sexuality at work, changing the subject if it came up. If my suspicions are right, this is going to change. I want to a) support her; b) make clear that she is welcome to come out; c) that I am proud of her, d) that it is a situation that has nothing to do with me personally and won't at least as long as I work there. Maybe I am asking what a straight person would do to support someone coming out without committing myself, but that seems like a cop-out and I think I'd be ashamed to do that. There is a very delicate line to walk here and I lack the subtlety to do it. Please, advise me. I would not hurt this person, whom in a non-work situation I would consider a sister to celebrate and welcome, just because it's work: best case scenario is she is welcomed and validated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would not hurt this person, whom in a non-work situation I would consider a sister to celebrate and welcome, just because it's work

So why don't treat it like 2 environments -- continue to keep your sexuality out of the workplace, while befriending her outside of work and thus celebrate and welcome her.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:53 PM on November 9, 2011

I think you can just say what you said here, just a little streamlined. When she tells you, tell her awesome, let her know that you are also genderqueer and support her, but don't talk about sexuality at work, but you'd be happy to talk it over at lunch or after work. That's plenty of reassurance with a minimum of change to your personal code of work conduct.

The big assumption here is that you would actually like to talk to her a bit outside of work, though.

On preview, seconding DoubleLune.
posted by ignignokt at 7:54 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I'd recommend saying (after she comes out to you) something like:

"I really appreciate that you feel close enough with me to share such an intimate part of you. I entirely support you and if you ever need any support at work to please let me know."

Other than that, treat her like the woman she is. I can't imagine she wants to be treated differently anyway.
posted by kylej at 7:56 PM on November 9, 2011 [14 favorites]

Why do you need to come out to her? "That's wonderful Phyllis, I'm so happy for you and I really appreciate your trust in me. I'll help you however I can." It's not about you, it's about her, and it should stay that way if that's how you want things.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:56 PM on November 9, 2011 [16 favorites]

Celebrate and welcome her. I mean, you don't have to bake her a cake, but you can be supportive and work appropriate at the same time.

If she tells you, "Anon, I feel it's time for you to know that I'm transgender," or something like that, you can say something like, "Boss, I'm glad that you feel comfortable sharing that with me. I happen to think you're really fun and really cool. I really respect what you must have gone through to get to where you are now," and then you can get back to work: "Now, how about these TPS reports?"
posted by ocherdraco at 7:57 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I have a staffer who's transgendered everywhere but work, we all know it, and I really wish she would just make the transition at work too, as it gets complicated when people who know her from outside interface with us in the business, but that's her decision to make.

Ultimately, sexuality may not belong in the workplace, but identity kind of has to. You need to know how someone wants to be named and what pronounce to use, and if you are among the first to be told you are a model for how the community will receive the news. In a contemporary workplace it should not be a huge deal but it's a process people will have to go through, no different than any other change in an employee due to pregnancy, illness, marital/family changes, etc. there are some dimensions in which work relationships are impacted and gender changes are among those.

I think my reaction is fairly uncomplicated because it doesn't have anything to do with how I feel about my own gender identity. I think the fact that you are also negotiating this makes it seem to you as though you need to take some special stance. You don't. You can remain totally neutral and just focus on what this means for your workplace life and relations. This is someone else's life and it doesn't have to connect to or reflect on anything about your own life. You should not view this as an opportunity to open up your own self-revelations or talk about your own identity. if she's choosing to bring this to you, this moment is about her and her negotiation of new workplace relationships. That's all. There's nothing else to it. just maintain your own boundaries. You don't even need to add that you're proud of her, unless you personally want to. That's kind of a separate and more personal part of your reaction. Would you be proud of someone if they came to you and said they were pregnant, or getting cosmetic surgery? You might say 'congratulations' but that's probably about it. I don't mean to trivialize all this, but it's a personal decision that has workplace dimensions but is basically not all about the workplace. the person will likely welcome your good wishes but doesn't need your blessing or kudos or pride to be part of that.

I think your attitude toward work is totally appropriate, and there you are. That's about all you need to think about. Listen, congratulate her, let her know you want to know how you can best support her in the workplace, and leave it at that . Nothing more to say at this time.
posted by Miko at 8:03 PM on November 9, 2011 [14 favorites]

Are you worried that she has fallen in love with you? Frankly, she is not asking for a relationship then by all means be her friend for a moment. If you feel threatened then contact HR. I really despise people who entertain people but for one moment they do not. Clearly you are not a flake to obligations so why are you letting your own orientation stop you from enjoying a moment that is, now, only alive in your own brain?
posted by parmanparman at 8:12 PM on November 9, 2011

I don't see why sexuality needs to enter into this conversation at all. Presumably she's not going to tell you that she's transgender and also that she likes kinks A, B and C with her lover. As Miko said, this is likely going to be a conversation about pronouns and support in the workplace, not a time for talking about sex, hormones and surgery and the like.

Other people gave some great opening lines, but I'd suggest asking a few follow-up questions. Done right, these can get the point across that you're supportive and interested, but also intend to keep things along very professional lines. That is, you should ask workplace-related questions, like, is she out at work? Does anyone else know? How has she been received thus far? What pronouns are acceptable? How can you support her at work?
posted by cranberrymonger at 8:13 PM on November 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would react the same way I'd react to someone telling me they succeeded in their goal of losing 30 pounds. "Oh, cool!" If someone does something they wanted to do, I'm happy for them; end of story. This has also been my reaction to people who have let me know they're gay or bisexual. I have nothing more to say than "Oh" or "That's cool." After all, I don't expect them to be fascinated by the fact that I'm male or heterosexual; why should I put on a show of being fascinated with other people's gender or sexuality? If you're not interested in getting into a protracted or soul-baring conversation in the workplace, don't. No one can object to you politely acknowledging this without adding some profound insight of your own. As you said, it's a workplace. It isn't a college seminar on gender studies.
posted by John Cohen at 8:16 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a coworker come out to me (a straight person) as gay on National Coming Out Day when I was a college intern. I was a gender studies major and many (most?) of my close friends in college were GLBT-identified, but I still felt a little awkward because I didn't really know her (I think it was like my second week) and I didn't know what to say. I didn't want to be all "oh that's awesome!" like an overeager-to-show-I-was-down-with-the-gays straight girl but I didn't want her to think I was disapproving.

I think I just said "cool, thank you for telling me that!" She smiled and it was all good. Later on we talked more about GLBT politics (which was appropriate because it was at a political organization).
posted by lunasol at 8:23 PM on November 9, 2011

I would probably thank Boss for trusting me and tell them that I had much compassion and respect for their journey, all true for me.

It's possible that the reason they want to out to you in particular is that they perceive that you're GQ and expect that you will be particularly receptive. To me, it seems not inappropriate to meet confidence with confidence, if it feels okay to you to do so.
posted by Occula at 8:33 PM on November 9, 2011

When you think about this particular scenario, is it possible to divorce talking about gender identity in the workplace from talking about sexuality in the workplace? I mean, for us strangers, knowing she's transgender doesn't tell us anything about who she's attracted to. Are you afraid of this turning into a slippery slope kind of deal where she starts telling you more than you want to know or tries to invite you to bars or something, or do you think maybe she wants to come out to you in order to gauge your interest in her, or...?
posted by Adventurer at 8:45 PM on November 9, 2011

There's a difference between "discussing sexuality" where that means "talking about sex" and "discussing sexuality" where that means "acknowledging and accepting a person's sexuality as one of their many facets".

For example, I mention my sexuality all the time at work. "My husband" this. "Yesterday my husband and I" that. "I was talking to my in-laws and they" whatever whatever. It's just that because I'm a cisgendered heterosexual woman, this doesn't register for most folks as "talking about my sexuality".

Similarly, when one of my college professors began one class period by saying "And one quick announcement: although my name was David before, it will be Jennifer from now on" that didn't feel like it was an inappropriately intimate discussion of private sexuality, it was letting us know that from now on we should address Professor B as Jennifer and use the pronouns "she" and "her" not "he" and "him".

As others have suggested, you don't need to feel any obligation to discuss or disclose anything about yourself. Since it sounds like you like and respect your boss, I'd suggest going with your points a, b, and c, but leaving out d. Speaking as a straight person (if I may address the question you say you feel uncomfortable about asking directly), that's how it would be for me. Because really, it wouldn't have any more to do with me personally than when het male friend D broke up with his girlfriend, or het female friend G met the guy she's now married to, or... I do care, because they're my friends and I care about them, but as far as affecting me personally? No, not really.
posted by Lexica at 9:30 PM on November 9, 2011 [11 favorites]

You are making this about you when it's not about you. Unless you know otherwise and aren't saying, this person's gender identity has jack shit to do with their sexual orientation, your sexual orientation, your gender identity, or your relationships with this person or anyone else. Why do you keep talking about "commitment" as if you're expected to engage sexually or romantically with this person? (If you think you are, that's totally not okay and you have every right to feel like your boundaries are being violated and you should pursue whatever action will best handle that situation. But your description does not sound like this is the case.)

You're clearly knee-jerking about something here, and I sympathize because it's really hard when something nails you right in the reaction core like that, but you need to worry more about helping/not hindering this person living their truth than what it means about you. Do you feel like it's a criticism of you for not living more "out"? That's still your problem, but I think it's one you could probably discuss with them gently, just to establish comfortable boundaries for yourself.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:32 PM on November 9, 2011 [4 favorites]

I work in the airline industry and fully 50% of my male co-workers are gay (not just the flight attendants). No one mentions it or makes a big deal of it - anyone who is Facebook friends knows anyway. If a co-worker were to approach me directly and say, "Hey, I'm gay," I would be totally cool with that. But sexuality is different from gender - I can totally accept that Sean is gay and that Joe used to be a woman, but I don't want to hear anything about their sex lives, any more than I want to share any details of mine.

I guess the bottom line is that who you are as a person is relevant in the work place, but your behavior or your actions or your bedroom wishes are not. I see you as a co-worker and as a person. Just as I know that Dean is married and likes women, I may know that George is gay and likes men or that Terry is (now?) a man and likes people with brown hair. But, I would totally draw the line at anything related to an experience. For example:

Terry: Last night I was with Sam and that was the blondest partner I have ever had. It was intense. They did censored things with their mouth that I had only imagined.
Me: Hi, I'm working here.


Sean: Hey, my partner is turning 30 and he's running 30 miles to celebrate. So, I'll be out tomorrow.
Me: So awesome! Wish him luck for me!

I dunno, I guess it's an individual choice, how much you want to hear or know. I think a huge part of it is figuring out your relationship "level" with that person. Are you BFFs? Are you "casual work acquaintances?" Are you drunken best friends? Then just set the boundaries based on your relationship.
posted by bendy at 9:39 PM on November 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

The idea of introducing gender and sexuality into professional relationships is anathema to me.

No offense, but gender is already involved in professional relationships. I mean, I assume you have some kind of awareness of what gender you perceive other people as having. I assume you sometimes use gendered pronouns for other people. Most people do those two things, after all.

If I come out as transgender to a person, it is so that they will be able to adjust their awareness of what gender they perceive me to be, and so that they will use the gendered pronouns I prefer. I fail to see how those things are inappropriate for a workplace environment in any way when they are standard for all human interactions.
posted by titus n. owl at 9:53 PM on November 9, 2011 [10 favorites]

"Thanks for telling me. I'm glad you feel comfortable enough to share that with me. You're still the same person you've always been, as far as I'm concerned, and I'm still just as glad you're part of the team. Let's keep doing the great work we've been doing!"
posted by amtho at 10:07 PM on November 9, 2011

I am a woman who changed sex some 25 odd years or so ago. I am also a woman who is smacking her forehead really hard right now. Did you ever meet a recovering alcoholic who took great pains to tell anyone she met within a few minutes of meeting that she was a recovering alcoholic? "Really? I just met you .... why are you telling me this?" Some transgendered people are the same way. They are in a stage where they are still looking for external affirmation of their choices . It's inappropriate for a boss to lay this on you as an employee.

If you really think this is going to happen and you really don;t wish to enter into this kind of relationship then I suggest that you cut the behavior off before it happens by speaking to her privately and saying something like, "Jane, I really value our work relationship and I think that your are a fantastic boss . I just want you to know that I would like to continue to keep our working relationship professional and I hope that you will respect that I am the kind of person who doesn't believe in mixing work and personal relationships as that makes me feel very uncomfortable. Is that OK with you? "

Best of luck with this.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 10:10 PM on November 9, 2011

I dunno, I am super-private at work to a point where it's a bit ridiculous. (I have never told anyone at work the names of the people I live with) I am also genderqueer, and I dress that way at work because I can't be bothered to do anything else. I don't feel like I am sharing very much of myself by doing this. It's just gender, and I have to watch other colleagues exaggerated gender performance (hey lay-deez, how about we all eat chocolate! vs I-am-a-man-I-don't-know-the-names-of-flowers) all the time, as I'm sure you do. For most people, their gender is not a deeply personal thing.

I am assuming from the way you described it that this woman was assigned male at birth. The standards for 'professionalism' that you are describing - essentially that she remain stealth with everyone, for ever - would make it difficult for her to share stories about her life pre-transition, tell people "Oh yeah, I worked with [person you've also met] ten years ago on Project X", or talk about various other aspects of her life that for most people are not private. Basically you are expecting them to keep a massive amount of their life a secret. A lot of people prefer to do that anyway, but it can be pretty exhausting and it sounds like this woman would like the chance to relax around you a bit and stop having to cover-up all the time. This probably won't amount to talking to you about her sex life; it just means she could drop things in like "Ah yes, rice pudding. I used to eat it all the time at my all-boys boarding school when I was growing up". This wouldn't have to amount to a Deep Personal Bond.

There is a note of anxiety in your talk about separating gender and professional relationships that reminds me a bit of people who get super-complicated about their sexuality and are all 'my sexuality is private/complex/doesn't need labels', when really they're just in the closet. I do wonder whether part of what's going on here isn't that you try really hard to keep your genderqueerness away from the workplace, in part because of really legitimate concerns about discrimination, and in part because you haven't quite figured out for yourself what it means. If you're trying really hard to keep something like that up, particularly if it's because you feel like it's what society or your parents or the Pope is requiring you to do, it can be difficult to see someone else ignore those demands. You get a bit resentful, you get a bit defensive, you worry that this person's actions might make yours seem cowardly rather than heroic.

I don't mean this in an accusing way, at all; partly it's because I've been there in some ways, and because I understand that this stuff is difficult. But at the same time, all I think this woman needs is for you to say 'Cool, I am OK with that part of your life history and am fine with you not pretending it never happened'. And I think what you need is to relax enough that you're able to do that.
posted by Acheman at 12:33 AM on November 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

As a not-quite straight person, if a person who was born to a different gender than the one I knew them as 'came out' to me, I'd be like 'uh ok' and continue as normal, if I already suspected, I would never mention that to them (that's like saying they're not passing very well!). I don't see why people who have already transitioned need to tell anyone other than potential partners. Why is it anyone else's business? If a co-worker 'came out' to me about something like this.

If your boss was born a woman then obviously, that's a different situation and her (or his) motivation in 'coming out' to you would be presumably for your advice and support in potentially transitioning. Give as much as you're comfortable with and don't be afraid to set boundaries. Don't feel compelled to share your own gender identity/sexuality issues if you don't want to.
posted by missmagenta at 4:02 AM on November 10, 2011

I'm a heterosexual female and the gender norm I use at work is "nerdy tomboy" with occasional moments of "mother hen" when younger/junior people are in crisis. No one cares and there's no reason for them to. I'm part of my oganization's GLBT networking group because they tend to do charity events that appeal to me. No one cares.

If this co-worker wants to reveal something to you, I'm with the say-cool-and-move-on camp. It's nice to trusted but that doesn't mean you can't go back to TPS reports.

If you're wrong and nobody is coming out, well, those TPS won't report themselves.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:22 AM on November 10, 2011

The idea of introducing gender and sexuality into professional relationships is anathema to me.

but it's already there. every time someone talks about their kid, or they're getting engaged, or so-and-so went on a vacation with her husband to ...

i think you're appropriate in saying that you support her, you're glad she's happy with herself, etc. but if she wants to draw you into a conversation about gender and sexuality, politely say you're not comfortable with conversations about that topic in the work place.
posted by cupcake1337 at 10:46 AM on November 10, 2011

I'm so pleased that you wanted to share this with me. You know you have my support. If it become a subject that she brings up too often, and it makes you uncomfortable, I'm uncomfortable mixing sexuality and work. Too much mixing of sexuality and work can make quite a mess, and you are both better off to have good boundaries.
posted by theora55 at 5:04 PM on November 10, 2011

Yeah don't mention that you "already knew" and just be cool to her. In most states it's totally legal to fire someone just for being transgender, so she's taking a big risk in telling you, so just appreciate that and let her know how much you are glad she respected your relationship enough to tell you, and that you are 150% behind her. And then move on :)
posted by manicure12 at 9:31 PM on November 13, 2011

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