Should I reach out to a coworker whose gender presentation is changing?
May 10, 2017 7:10 AM   Subscribe

I have a colleague and friend who I've known for quite a few years. For a long time this person's gender identify and presentation matched their assigned gender, but lately this person has been dressing in ways that suggest greater fluidity, and I'm wondering whether it would be helpful or hurtful for me to reach out in some way.

To be clear: I entirely support this individual regardless of what's going on, and want to be a good ally to transgender and non-binary people in general, but I don't happen to have other people in my life that I would feel comfortable asking about this.

I think my colleague would have reasonable confidence that I would be supportive if they came out to me, but as a cis-gendered straight person I have no experience with the stresses someone might feel in that situation. When talking about my colleague I want to always use the name and pronouns they prefer, but is it my place to ask about this or should I leave it to them to tell me if there's anything they'd like me to change?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you should leave it to them. If they are wearing something that you like, maybe say that, but otherwise, let that person be in charge.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:13 AM on May 10, 2017 [36 favorites]

I think you should leave it to them to tell you if there's anything they'd like you to change. It sounds like you don't even know if they consider themselves to be transgender.
posted by thelonius at 7:14 AM on May 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Etiquette dictates you not bring it up. Follow your colleague's cues.

If you want to quietly signal that you are a trans/non-binary ally, add your pronouns to your email signature (which is something all people can do to help).
posted by ejs at 7:19 AM on May 10, 2017 [14 favorites]

I identify as non-binary. If you were to reach out to me before I started a conversation with you about my gender identity, I would be simultaneously touched by the gesture and weirded out. I would advise more subtle ways of showing support, such as (if this is a thing in your org) displaying an ally card/flag, or adding your preferred pronouns to your email signature. Otherwise, treat them with kindness and consideration so they feel safe to share with you when they are ready.
posted by lieber hair at 7:21 AM on May 10, 2017 [14 favorites]

I would recommend leaving it to them to determine how, when, or whether they wish to tell you anything about their gender identity beyond what you already know. But it might be a kindness to find other ways to be supportive that would be appropriate whether or not you've guessed correctly, such as: complimenting a clothing or hair choice, being supportive of trans/nb folks if there should be an appropriate time to do so in a conversation (not manufacturing such a time), learning to embrace the singular "they" not for this person but more generally where appropriate, seeing if your workplace has any sort of allyship training/program that you might go through and display a sign from, etc. (Although sometimes those programs are kind of terrible even if they're well-intentioned, but it might be worth looking at.)

The correct name and pronouns to use are the ones you have been told in the past to use, until/unless that person tells you otherwise. Your intentions here are good but your feelings about wanting to be a good ally do not trump your colleague's right to determine the pace and unfolding of any future coming-out that they may be considering. (Or may not be! Sometimes playing with gender expression is just that and doesn't actually signify gender identity. )

FWIW so you can assess how much you want to take this particular bit of advice into account: I am a cis person, but have a variety of trans and nb friends who have spoken with me about their workplace coming-out experiences, including a couple of people who were pretty upset and off-balance when a well-intentioned coworker drove them to come out faster than they'd wanted to.
posted by Stacey at 7:34 AM on May 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

... lately this person has been dressing in ways that suggest...

You say this person is a friend as well as a colleague. If historically you and this friend have said "love the haircut!" or "great shoes, where'd you get them?" etc. to each other, then keep doing that in the same casual way. Otherwise wait for them to bring it up in whatever way they choose.
posted by headnsouth at 8:21 AM on May 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

I am a trans man and OMG NO, do not say anything to the coworker. Especially do not say anything to other coworkers! If you want to show your allyship to the coworker, put a rainbow flag and/or trans flag and/or HRC sticker on your cubicle. They will probably feel relieved but since you're not already close they're probably not ever gonna say anything to you about it.

If you want to BE an ally and not just signal it:

- Challenge your cis coworkers if they make a transphobic joke or comment
- Keep track of any harassment of the possibly-trans coworker but ask them before reporting
- If someone challenges them in a bathroom, affirm their right to use whichever one they wish
- Check that your company's non-discrimination policy includes gender identity/presentation and if it's not in there, ask that it be added
- Ask the LGBT center in your area if there's a person who presents on diversity issues and suggest this to HR (only if you can do this in a way that is not obviously tied to the coworker)
- Donate money to trans groups
posted by AFABulous at 10:53 AM on May 10, 2017 [14 favorites]

Okay, I missed that you are also friends. As in, friends outside of work? How close? This depends on so many factors that I'd err on the side of not saying anything. If they want/need your help they will ask for it; they would probably not be friends with someone they thought was uncool with gender nonconformity.
posted by AFABulous at 10:57 AM on May 10, 2017

Everyone above is right; you have to wait for them to approach you and that's when you change your language and directly support them if that's what they ask of you. Keep in mind that there's a huge range of gender presentation and they could very well just be changing up their aesthetic and not be transitioning in any way at all. I think there's a sense of, like, essentialism among cis allies that is reinforced through the (very compelling) typical trans narrative when it's always a lot more ambiguous and variable than that. Try to be comfortable with your colleague's ambiguity until they clear it up for you, if they do at all.

I promise that this person is already going through every person they know and categorizing everyone as an ally, an unknown, or a roadblock, even if they are just shifting their wardrobe and totally comfortable with their gender as it is. Do some legwork as an ally and think about areas of interest you have in common with them, and find trans and nonbinary folks doing cool stuff in those areas. Then mention those people to your colleague in the natural course of conversation.

A really easy one is the Wachowski sisters, both of whom have publicly transitioned and whose filmography often displays a lot of trans narratives when you're looking for it. But I guarantee you that no matter the niche interests you guys share there will be trans and nb people who are contributing to that niche. Sometimes you have to look a little harder, but that's your job as an ally. You only need one or two instances of conversation where you mention your enthusiasm about the work/art/whatever of a trans person along with their correct pronouns and name and whatever else for your colleague to categorize you as someone who won't be a roadblock, and that's all you should be going for.

Please be careful about accidentally or even falsely outing them to coworkers, other friends or god forbid bosses. Challenge transphobic "jokes" and policies but never bring up your colleague in relation to that and don't come to them all "look what I did!" about any of it.
posted by Mizu at 11:04 AM on May 10, 2017

I think the polite move is to leave it to them to bring up. On top of everything mentioned, this person may not identify as nonbinary or trans, and your question could be construed as a suggestion that they cannot, for example, wear makeup and be a man. Treat this person with respect and support them if/when they choose to tell you more.
posted by noxperpetua at 12:01 PM on May 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm nonbinary. I know everyone else has pretty much said that no, leave them up to decide down the line how to come out. But I want to point to another posibility (or two) there may not ever be a "coming out". LGBT+ are not required to "come out" as it were. Especially if their pronouns aren't affected, there's no real reason to tell other people. Or, there may not be a "coming out", because a person's gender expression is not their gender identity.
posted by FirstMateKate at 12:20 PM on May 10, 2017 [11 favorites]

I know someone who identifies as unquestionably male who likes to wear pink and would just love to have the chance to lecture someone on their prejudices if they asked him something like "Are you gay/trans?" Similarly, I identify as unquestionably female and I like feminine fashion, but I have cut my hair short and dressed more butch in recent years for reasons wholly unrelated to my gender identity.

You don't know that anything is going on. Them dressing differently may not say what you think it says. Announcing your assumption that it does could get awkward and weird.

If you really are friends, you could ask if it says anything. But don't assume this specific person is in need of an "ally." Consider doing volunteer work to get your own emotional need to make a difference met. Hanging your assumptions on other people can be actively harmful.
posted by Michele in California at 12:53 PM on May 10, 2017

No, don't ask directly, but I do agree with this earlier comment.
You say this person is a friend as well as a colleague. If historically you and this friend have said "love the haircut!" or "great shoes, where'd you get them?" etc. to each other, then keep doing that in the same casual way. Otherwise wait for them to bring it up in whatever way they choose.
posted by Ruki at 1:23 PM on May 10, 2017

My experience as a tries-to-be-an-ally cis person has been that people who are transitioning know the people in their life who will be supportive and will reach out to you in their own time. I can't say that the folks who have done the "so, hey, wanted to tell you..." to me would have been put out if I had noticed and commented. I can't say they wouldn't have been delighted if I'd spotted what was going on in their life and broached the subject. But the way this has shaken out in my own life leads me to think that I will continue to basically use headnsouth's suggested approach of being friendly and supportive to exterior signs and let them say what they want to say in their own time.
posted by phearlez at 10:51 AM on May 11, 2017

After I came out at work, I had a few office friends who came to me and said, basically, that they'd suspected something but didn't feel like it'd be their place to say anything.

Frankly, I would have welcomed them saying something. Transitioning at work can be pretty difficult, depending on HR staff and the like, and general anxiety .. and it would have been pretty special to have someone ask if there was something going on that I wanted to talk about.

Please understand that I am a pretty quiet person .. so there's that. If this person is not normally really quiet about themself (?), maybe just wait it out ...
posted by dwbrant at 11:48 AM on May 11, 2017

I'm in the middle of transitioning at work. I'll second Forza('s friend's) entire comment - especially the parts about it being more awkward to ignore your coworker's changing presentation than to make a quiet supportive comment about it.
I "came out" formally to my team (local and remote) but didn't make any official announcement about my transition to the rest of the local office. However, I have changed my email address etc, to my new name and literally no one has said anything to me. It is super weird.
posted by martinX's bellbottoms at 2:33 PM on May 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

- I've had people sometimes say things like "oh, I really like those boots" or something similar, where boots in question are pretty obviously not men's footwear. For me, that's a helpful low-key way of indicating that you've noticed the femme thing I'm doing and are supportive.

- People who I haven't seen in a while have occasionally said things like "you've changed your look - I like it!" I almost never say anything about the gendered aspect to this, but I do pay attention to these things and find it reassuring.
I was coming in here to say the same thing. Like, yes, endeavor to be an ally in real, concrete ways too. But I also love it when I hear people voice kind appreciation like this — not "OH COOL ARE YOU TRANS AWESOME I SUPPORT YOU!" but "you look great in that" or "you seem really happy lately" or whatever.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:15 AM on May 13, 2017

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