Coming out as transgender at work – I’m a bucket of nerves!

Hey Jane,

I never really told my family that I’m transgender. One of my earliest memories, about six years old, was when I refused to have my hair cut. I didn’t have it cut until I was 14, because having it cut was agonizing to me. I’m glad my parents didn’t try to diagnose me and instead just let me do my thing. These feelings about my gender identity never changed during and after puberty, and now I’m very comfortable as Danielle around my family.

Four months ago, I sought hormone replacement therapy (HRT) following which changes are becoming apparent. I want to get in front of any rumors that might be circulating at work. After starting the name change process I wish to chat with HR about my transition and upcoming name change.

To be fair, the HR has never dealt with a transitioning employee so I want to give them time to figure out their end and update policies.

At the same time, I’m a bucket of nerves. Never again do I want to cross-dress as a man or wear male clothing. I want to be me, all the time, everywhere. I have finally reached the point where I want to stop being afraid and start existing fully.

How do you handle coming out in a professional context without making it seem weird? What laws protect me? What can I do to make the transition easier for my coworkers and me?

Danielle, 23

coming out as transgender at work
For queer people, coming out at work is a deeply personal issue.

Hey Danielle,

There’s no right or wrong way to disclose being a transgender. You have the right and responsibility to decide how, where and when to come out, based on what’s right for you.

It’s important to take a note of the risks involved with coming out as transgender at work. There is no federal law that protects transgender individuals from getting fired from their job. As of July 1, 2019, you can still get fired for being transgender in 30 states. Even in states where you can’t be fired, discrimination can take on a variety of forms, both direct and indirect. Sometimes it looks like the office vibe, the inability to respect one’s preferred pronouns, limited transgender benefits, and beyond.

According to the Transgender Law Center, the following states have anti-harassment and discrimination laws in place:

Coming out as transgender at work states

In addition to state and local laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII) prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on sex, race, color, national origin or religion. Title VII applies to all private sector and state/local government employers with at least 15 employees.

If you’re coming out as transgender at work, the process should take more than navigating questions of terminology, preferred pronouns, bathrooms, and safety. Research finds that an inclusive culture which encourages LGBTQ+ people to be out at work increases their happiness, commitment, and career satisfaction. The good news is that more and more companies are actively championing for LGBTQ equality, despite the lack of legal protection.

Read through the HRC Corporate Equality Index, the annual Stonewall Top 100 Employers guide, and the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list to see if you spot your employers. These lists demonstrate that leading companies in the United States are increasingly committed to building diverse and inclusive workforces.

Here are some general tips for coming out at work:

STEP 1: Speak your truth

When you’re ready to tell that the human resources department at work, give yourself time to think through how you’ll do it and what you’ll say. You may choose to talk about your history with gender identity or keep things in the present. Ask yourself the following questions:

Do I know what to say?

Am I well-informed and willing to answer questions?

Is it safe to disclose?

Be prepared to wait as they digest and accept the new information. A trained and compassionate human resources department may be receptive to how you’re feeling and your desire to come out.

I also recommend one-on-one meetings with the following list of people:

  • Immediate manager
  • Your manager’s manager (if possible)
  • Coworkers with whom you interact on a daily basis

Finally, it’s a good idea to send out a company-wide email explaining your gender identity, preferred pronouns, name choice, and resources for colleagues with more questions. You may want to use this letter as a reply to coworkers you’ve never had a direct conversation with. Some people are more comfortable writing an e-mail rather than coming out in person.

There’s also the option to take a casual approach. If someone asks about your life, you can respond accordingly.

Example:

How was your weekend?”

“It was great! I went dress shopping with my boyfriend. How was yours?”

TIP: Just treat the conversation as if you’re talking with someone who already knows.

 Whatever you decide, remember that you have the right to feel confident and comfortable about who you are at work. Throughout the disclosure process, it’s common to feel:

coming out as transgender at work how to feel

Some perils/considerations of coming out:

You should also sniff out the risks involved with being out as transgender at work. While it’s liberating to be honest with your coworkers, there’s always a risk of the following -

Transphobia: Not everyone will be understanding or accepting

Safety: You may experience harassment, discrimination or violence

Ignorance: Some relationships may change permanently

Ostracism: Your coworkers may be shocked, confused or hostile

Negative Reactions: You may lose your job

But don’t assume that everyone will react negatively to the news of you coming out as transgender. People may surprise you with their acceptance and openness.

 STEP 2: Be informed

One of the most prominent and ongoing issues before, during and after a transition is finding well-meaning coworkers who ask inappropriate questions. You may request the human resources department to implement sensitivity training so that coworkers understand boundaries and limits, and know how to use preferred name and pronouns.

Transgender sensitivity training could also help deal with a variety of issues such as stereotypical thinking, gawking, disapproving stares, and offensive or inappropriate language/jokes about transgender people.

Some workplaces also have a therapist to facilitate a conversation to allow coworkers to ask questions so the transgender employee doesn’t need to answer inappropriate questions.

STEP 3: Legal support and assistance

Many companies have policies in place to protect LGBTQ employees. Find out if you have formal policies in your place of work to back you up - since it’s the best way for you to understand your workplace rights.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Title VII prohibits sex discrimination in employment. This applies to employers with at least 15 employees. Complaints of anti-transgender job discrimination can be filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

State and local laws

Twenty-one states and over 300 municipalities have laws prohibiting transgender bias in the workplace. Many others have issued bulletins prohibiting discrimination among state contractors or within state employee systems.

STEP 4: Common logistical issues

Keep the human resources department informed of major milestones in your transitions such as changing your legal name, appointments and surgery dates, hormonal treatments, etc. It is important to engage HR and IT to support you in changing your name in things like the email, ID card or badge, computer login, medical files, personnel records, and pension plans.

You must also prepare HR in addressing more physical issues such as restrooms and changing rooms. According to the EEOC, you have the right to use a restroom or changing room that corresponds with your affirmed gender.

Suddenly dressing as your authentic gender one day when you’ve been dressing in the attire assigned to your gender at birth may be a shock to your coworkers. Start small to give your coworkers time to adjust. If your workplace has a uniform, you may need a new uniform to match your affirmed gender. At the same time, you should not be expected to continue dressing in a uniform that corresponds with the gender you were assigned at birth.

These tips for coming out as transgender at work are by no means all-inclusive but they are a good starting place for a challenge that may seem impossible.

Do you have ideas and feedback on how to come out as transgender at work? Let us know!

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