Coming out as trans at work
March 5, 2020 4:04 PM   Subscribe

I have finally admitted to myself that I'm trans, and it's becoming quite apparent that I will need to fully transition in order to be psychologically healthy. I am looking for advice about how to handle this at work. I'm interested in hearing from trans people who have done this, but also supervisors or co-workers: what could I do (or not do) that would make this as easy as possible for all of us?

There's of course a long personal story to the realisation that I'm trans, but for the purposes of this question the important information is the following:

a) I'm AFAB and wanting to transition to male. I work in a very male-dominated area of science and me transitioning would really hurt our already pathetic level of female representation. This shouldn't matter but I do feel really guilty about it.

b) I am an associate professor with a good career and although the last year has been somewhat rocky I don't feel in any real danger of losing my job. That said, I'm the sole wage-earner in my family so I really don't want to put that to the test.

c) I live in Melbourne, Australia, which is a pretty progressive city with a good social safety net. Since I work in a university environment my colleagues are reasonably progressive and I don't think any of them would have any huge issues with this. I've told a few of the colleagues that I'm closest to and they've been universally supportive. I think my supervisor will be similar (and so do they). That said, they're pretty much all cis and straight as far as I know so don't have much personal experience with this sort of thing.

d) In addition, trans folks are of course a rarity and I can't think of any academic staff who are actually trans at my institution. Moreover, there are a few outspoken anti-trans academics here (not in my department, not anybody who anyone I know interacts with or takes seriously, but still, that sets a tone and may possibly reveal something about the priorities of the university-level leadership). I have no idea if this matters but it does make me want to tread delicately. I'm relatively new here (about 2.5 years) so I am not an expert at all the political ins-and-outs.

e) I'm 99% certain I'm trans and 90% certain that fully transitioning (taking hormones, changing my name, going by he/him) is what I want to do. The remaining uncertainty is just that I haven't started on hormones and there's some possibility that they will really not agree with me or something. I don't know what I'll do in that case, honestly, but I'm hoping it won't come to that.

f) The overall timeline of my transition is uncertain because I have to go through various levels of gatekeeping with uncertain timelines. I have a therapist and psychiatrist right now but neither has the credentials to diagnose me with gender dysphoria, so I'm on multiple waiting lists for the (very few) clinical psychologists with those credentials. This diagnosis is required before I can go to see an endocrinologist to get on hormones. I am uncertain about the waiting list length for the diagnosis and the endocrinologist. In all probability I'll be able to start seeing the clinical psychologist starting in April, have gone through enough sessions for the diagnosis by say June, and maybe start on hormones in August or September? But these are just guesses with substantial variability.

Okay, that's the background. The situation is that my performance review is coming up, along with a discussion about my trajectory and plans for the next year or two. I want to bring this situation up with my supervisor during this discussion so we can talk about how to manage the timeline, how I come out, etc. Here are the questions I'm not sure about when it comes to handling this conversation.

1. Given the uncertainty in the timeline, I am not sure how best to time the coming out process. My current thought is to make no public or official announcements until I have the diagnosis and know when I'll be starting on hormones, but continue to tell individuals quietly as I see fit until then. Once I know when I'll be starting hormones but before I've actually started, then I tell everyone and ask them to start using a different pronoun and name. I'm thinking of doing it in this order as that will minimise the awkwardness of people noticing that I'm physically changing but not being told what's going on. However, it does create the awkwardness of making people use a name and pronoun that doesn't appear to "fit" (I do appear very butch and have even gotten yelled at before for being in women's restrooms, but my voice is clearly female and people know me that way so this will be awkward). Given that awkwardness is inevitable, I think this order makes sense? But I am not at all sure and I would love to hear from people who have been there and done that. I am sure this timeline is one of the main things my supervisor might want to discuss so I want to be sure I've considered all of the issues, as he is sure to want to follow my guidance to some extent.

2. My supervisor is a very decent and supportive white cis straight guy in his 50s. If you were him, what information would you like and when? What concerns would you have (e.g., about how this might impact my performance, interactions with coworkers, how you should address it with the head of school??) and are there any actions I could take that would help you navigate those concerns?

3. If you were my coworkers, what information would you like and when? What concerns would you have and what would help you navigate them?

4. I have multiple supervisees (e.g., honours students, PhD students, and postdocs) with whom I work closely. For all of them we have a collegial and friendly relationship, but since I'm their supervisor that creates a certain professional distance. If you were one of my students, how and when would you prefer I tell you? Most of me thinks they'd appreciate being told before the official announcement, given how closely we work together, but I also worry that would be weird given the professional distance of our relationship. Do I do this one-on-one? As a general announcement in lab meeting? UGH. Again, if you're a student or have been in this situation, I'd love some insight as to how you'd prefer me to handle this.

Thanks for all your help!
posted by forza to Work & Money (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: As a cis person, if I were a one of the trusted coworkers who you tell before your official, public announcement, I would want to know:

1. If I may use your male pronouns and name privately with you before your public announcement

2. How I can best support you (including if there are specific things I can do at different points in your coming out process)

Congratulations! I wish you a wonderful and supported transition.
posted by mcduff at 4:30 PM on March 5, 2020 [4 favorites]

Best answer:
  1. While you can wait until you start HRT to come out, that is by no means a necessity. It really comes down to what you are comfortable with. I know people who were living full-time as themselves for more than a year before hormones, and people who have been on hormones for more than a year without going full-time. There's no right way, only the right way for you.
  2. Even though four and a half years ago I thought I was a supportive white male in my fifties, I don't think I can answer this one.
  3. Not for me
  4. I think telling them in person ahead of the announcement would be the right thing to do. Maybe over lunch or coffee.
Here's how I handled my situation:
I started by telling my supervisor, then HR, then my supervisor's supervisor. I was careful not to ask permission. I just informed them what to expect and when. Since I was in a client facing position, I did ask if they had any requests about how I told my clients (they didn't), but that was the only part I offered them any control over.

The week before my big day, I had lunch with the co-workers I wanted to tell in person and told them (except one who worked remotely, who I called). Then, that Friday I worked from home and sent an email telling my team what to expect on Monday. I also sent an email to each of my clients (except one, who I called, because I liked her). Monday I showed up to work as myself. That was it.

All told, it was about three weeks from telling my supervisor to showing up to work as myself.
posted by Tabitha Someday at 4:50 PM on March 5, 2020 [9 favorites]

If you want to change your name and pronouns, you can just go ahead and do that. You don’t need to wait for meds or a diagnosis.
posted by Sterros at 6:00 PM on March 5, 2020

Best answer: The main thing my coworkers wanted to know, when I transitioned, was what they needed to do. In my case, that was name, pronouns, "I'm still the same person I was before," "call me this even when you're talking about things that happened before I transitioned," and "if you mess up, just apologize and move on."

I also said some things about what being trans meant to me and how transitioning was going to make me happier. But I don't think that really had as much of an impact. Thinking about it now, I feel like if they'd been on board with trans rights before, then they just needed instructions on how to live up to their ideals; and if they'd been opposed before, I wasn't about to change their mind, but they at least needed instructions on how to be polite and not make trouble. So either way, the instructions were the important part.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:26 PM on March 5, 2020 [5 favorites]

It's entirely anecdotal, but as an academic in a techy, very male-dominated field at a university in the urban US, I've been really surprised by the response of my colleagues to a member of our department who is in the middle of a transition. (In this case, from outwardly male to gender-fluid with many noticibly feminine traits.) Both their experience, as they've relayed it to me, and the chatter around the dinner table among a group solely consisting cis het old boys has been amazingly positive. It ranges from disinterest to active support. Even the old codgers who I disagree with on many issues that touch on gender and race have been universally not-bad. When they whisper about it, it's only to explain how to use new pronouns to each other. The worst I've ever seen is a slight smirk followed by acceptance. Maybe I just got lucky with colleagues. But, I suspect there's a real tendency to treat people you already know and like with respect, no matter how you vote.

It's easy for me to say, but you don't owe anyone anything. Come out when and how you want to. Put that tenure to good use. Also, expect people to screw up your name and pronouns for years. Even people of good will who should know better. They're just thinking about you a whole lot less than you are. (Like all of us.) Giving people who are introducing talks a heads up isn't a bad idea, just to avoid embarrassing them in public. Best wishes and congratulations!
posted by eotvos at 6:34 PM on March 5, 2020

Best answer: I just recently did this. I talked to a close coworker and my boss to get their input on how I should come out. And a few weeks later, I just wrote an email to the whole team (it's a small organization) and said "hey, I'm changing my name and these are my pronouns." I didn't use the words trans or non-binary (for silly reasons), though several of my coworkers are friends/followers on social media, and I used those terms when I came out there. For my coming out email, I just gave people the information they needed.

The org is progressive, but AFAIK I'm the only person who is not cis and straight. So there's definitely been some slightly uncomfortable Performative Cis Allyship, but that's bearable. People have been pretty good about remembering my pronouns, and will usually correct themselves when they don't.

One thing I will say is that the close coworker I confided in at the beginning did accidentally out me by using they/them pronouns for me before I came out to everyone, which created a bit of a ripple of curiosity, and I wish that hadn't happened, so you may want to keep that in mind when thinking about how and when to come out to your supervisor. Cis people who want to be allies can sometimes be a bit overeager and I wouldn't necessarily come out until you're ready for the person you come out to to start using he/him pronouns for you.

I also know people who have waited to come out until they've started taking hormones for a while. It's a totally reasonable approach if it's bearable (It was not for me). But, as I'm sure you know, hormones don't dictate gender. So if you want to be called by your correct name and pronouns now-ish, then go for it. The fact that you're already frequently gendered as male will help you there as well. Oh also, I understand wanting to come out before people start wondering about changes but ... I've been on T for 4 months and honestly, the changes so far are only noticeable to me and people who are looking for them. (Still 100% worth it though, T makes me feel so much better in my body)

I also just want to say: I see a lot of myself pre-coming out in your post, especially in terms of wanting to make things as easy and comfortable as possible for everyone around me. Which makes sense - being trans is a marginalized identity, and it's one we're both new to, so it's understandable to feel like you need to make this easier for cis people. What I was kind of surprised to realize was how easily the cis people around me took to it. It's a huge deal for us, but for the people around us, they usually just want clear instructions on what to do. What you want (to be called by your name and be treated as a man) is completely reasonable, and it's fine for you to ask for that on whatever timeline works for you.

Good luck!
posted by lunasol at 7:29 PM on March 5, 2020

Best answer: Sharing the experience of a close friend of mine.

She is AMAB and wanted to transition to female. She was a grad student at the time, so also in an academic environment, but on the other side so to speak.

She started hormones first, and then announced her transition to her department about 6 months later, once she was sure she was happy with how she felt on the hormones. Her physical changes were visible to her close friends by that point, but subtle enough that anyone not “in the know” wouldn’t have been likely to notice. She timed her public announcement to fall between semesters, which minimized the awkwardness for the classes she was teaching.

It’s perfectly valid to wait to come out until after you’ve started HRT, especially if you have some anxiety about whether taking hormones will work well for you.

FWIW everyone in her department was very supportive.
posted by mekily at 9:32 PM on March 5, 2020

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone. This is really useful and reassuring and I kind of want to just come all of the way out now!

... Well, that's practically infeasible for a number of very good reasons but I'm definitely more seriously considering moving some of this timeline up, or at least making it not so contingent on the hormones. There's a lot of other personal and life factors going into the timing so unfortunately I can't really do much for a least a few months but still... You're right that I don't really have to wait till I'm on T, or at least that I can let that decision be shaped by things other than what makes other folks most comfortable.

Anyway, that was a huge takeaway I got from this but the other overall one was that most of the time people are awesome and just being clear about what you want from them is the main thing. That's reassuring too.

And mostly just thanks for being cool and chill. This is the most public I've been about this yet and it's made me so happy to see the reactions I've gotten.
posted by forza at 1:54 AM on March 6, 2020 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Another thing to keep in mind is that a lot of "how to transition at work" advice is less about what you will find supportive and more about what HR will find convenient.

I've seen a bunch of friends who get told, you know, "Inform HR of your intent to transition. Prepare an announcement with their help, consulting with Legal if necessary. Wait until they've had a chance to put together diversity training for all staff. Then, once those trainings are scheduled, agree on a transition date that all parties can agree to, commit to changing your presentation dramatically on that date, and never change back."

And some of them have found that sort of process helpful and supportive, but some of them have found it shitty, constraining, and humiliating.

So, in case you needed to hear it: You're allowed to ignore HR's needs. You're allowed to just tell people like you'd tell them about a pregnancy or a new relationship — starting with the ones you like and trust, letting information go where it will, and not scheduling anything. You're allowed to tell them way before or way after you change your presentation. You're allowed to have your presentation all over the map. You're allowed to ask for different pronouns and not tell anyone the rest of your plans. You're allowed to confuse people about what your personal life looks like, though it's kinder not to confuse them too much about how to interact with you at work.

And, having done any or all of those things, you're still allowed to expect good treatment from your coworkers — though, as always, you may or may not get it, and the chance HR will have your back in that situation may go down if they weren't notified early. But… that's a tradeoff you're allowed to make if you want to.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:34 AM on March 6, 2020 [2 favorites]

(One particular strategy I've seen work well is to tell HR early on "I'm going to transition. I need X and Y and Z from you for bureaucratic reasons. But I don't need you to be involved in announcing or scheduling anything, and I don't see this as something I need your permission to mention to coworkers. I'll tell people when I'm ready. If that changes, I'll let you know.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:46 AM on March 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think people unfamiliar with transness feel better if they know what you’d like them to do if they, or someone else, accidentally misgenders you or uses the wrong name. If you feel comfortable, maybe you could either explicitly say how you’d like those moments handled, or send an article around.

And I don’t think you making pronoun or name changes has to be contingent on physical changes, if you wantEd to start rolling that out earlier. I have some acquaintances who announced they were using a different pronoun or name on FB without any physical changes, and it was no big deal. One trans woman I know started wearing more jewellery when she came out- which was a good visual reminder that her name was different- but otherwise her appearance didn’t really change, and it was totally fine. Admittedly this was in the arts so people were a bit more familiar maybe? But I would think academia would be ok too.

posted by nouvelle-personne at 6:03 AM on March 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think the thing that would be challenging for me as a supervisor and colleague would be if you told me that you - for example - wanted to transition personally and within our team/department but not to the larger organization. Obviously, if that is what you wanted, I would do my best to make it happen, but I would worry about what would happen if I or someone else on the team slipped up and used the wrong pronoun at the wrong time. That is different, of course, from telling you supervisor "I am planning on transitioning in the future, and I will let you know when I do, but for now everything can stay the same." From a strictly bureaucratic and - as someone who often calls people I have known for years by the wrong first name - practical standpoint, making the transition all at once would be easier.

Also, I'm really happy for you, and I hope everything goes super well.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:14 AM on March 6, 2020

There was a post at Ask a Manager last month, asking the readers about how transitions have been handled in their workplace -- what was done well, what could have been better. I'm not sure how much will be helpful for you, but there may be some nuggets of great there. Congratulations and all the best!
posted by themissy at 2:10 PM on March 6, 2020

Congrats! Here’s a thread from Ask a Manager if you haven’t seen it already.
posted by matildaben at 6:55 PM on March 6, 2020

Sorry if this is too late, but thought it might be worth it.

The specific lab and department cultures can be so different within a country/state, much less across the board in the field. Sometimes, people believe others are supportive but you find the truth when the rubber meets the road (And, I am not even talking about LGBT yet.). Sometimes, everything you know about colleagues tells you that they are supportive but people see others' and their own role in workplace responsibility and etiquette differently. I've had one person I have known for the last few years whose complete lack of moral courage (in a leadership role) came to my attention in the last 2-3 months. I have learned that my idea of what the workplace should be and what it really is, are two different things. As is what people are as scientists and as individuals. Its a joy when these two are consistent, for sure but is that always the case? I have, however, picked up a ton on whose is bound to react how to what, and that has been what helped me not waste energy on this front anymore.

I think if you don't already have a good vibe about the answers to the questions, then you just can't know, much less by asking strangers. What I find really disturbing is that all the questions are about certain people from complete strangers, who know neither you and especially not your supervisor/colleagues/subordinates. This has the possibility to backfire pretty badly in an academic setting and perhaps should be pause for some reflection. 100x more since you are the sole breadwinner.

You must have heard of Ben Barres? I would track people around such scientists and talk to them for the questions you have. If Barres was as great a mentor and scientist, the people who knew him (bosses and subordinates) will likely be more than happy to talk and provide much insight. You really need to do your due diligence here, like one would for an interview or high stakes project. I would also keep the upcoming promotion and disclosure to colleagues separate, the latter much after the former.

I am sorry I do not have answers for you, and like scientific endeavours, maybe I am leaving you with more uncertainty and questions. But, you are trained for this. You have to come out the other side without being capsized. And when you have come out the other side, your experience will be invaluable for the community, academia and society at large, and helping others in this situation.

I wish you the very best.
posted by xm at 2:56 PM on April 21, 2020 [1 favorite]

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