EYNTK about navigating your non-binary identity at work

·9-min read
Photo credit: Tara Moore - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tara Moore - Getty Images

"I walked into the tattoo studio, threw my arms out and announced that I'd like to be referred to with the pronouns they/them from now on."

For the past few years, as an "older millennial," Drew Linden – a 38-year-old tattooer in Brooklyn – has had their eyes opened to a new world of gender identity and language. "About a year ago, I started using she/they pronouns, but I started to find it invalidating when people exclusively used she – and the heteronormative label of a cis woman has never been my jam. Gender is so much more than the genitals you were born with. It's an identity."

As defined by Stonewall, non-binary is "an umbrella term for people whose gender identity doesn’t sit comfortably with ‘man’ or ‘woman’." And sadly, not every non-binary individual has felt as comfortable as Drew in their place of work. According to new research by employee review site, Glassdoor, just 2 in 5 (40%) LGBTQ+ workers feel comfortable expressing their identity at work. And research by Stonewall shows that almost a third of non-binary people don’t feel able to wear work attire representing their gender expression.

So we chatted to four non-binary people about how they've fought against structural and gendered barriers in their places of work, and got their words of advice about coming out, being misgendered, navigating gendered spaces, and so much more.

Coming out as non-binary to colleagues

"It does really help to find an ally on your team," says Ben Pechey, author of The Book of Non-Binary Joy. So find someone you can trust to confide in. "Once you have that, then tell someone else, perhaps a team leader." Let them know that you're changing your pronouns and perhaps you can get them to email everyone in the office – so that takes the pressure off you to let everyone else know. "It can also be used as a reminder that all staff should consider using pronouns in email bios too," says Ben.

Drew told us that they've always been vocal about LGBTQ+ issues on social media, so they wanted to announce they had changed their pronouns publicly. But Drew was still nervous about coming out. "I had a long discussion with my partner – who is a cis man – about my feelings," they explain, "but with his support I felt excited – and I wanted to share that with my followers on Instagram."

Any advice for other people who may want to change their pronouns and don't know how to go about it? "I had no idea. I didn’t want to leave the femme things about me in the past and not think of them, but I also didn’t feel like I wanted to be a man – this is binary thinking. And I felt more than a woman and more than a man and that lead me out of the binary," explains Drew. "I got advice from a friend, they told me to just try it on. You don’t know what fits until you try." So start as big or as small as you feel comfortable with.

For Laila Woozeer, author of Not Quite White (Simon &Schuster, out 23 June), it wasn't a coming out so much as a shift into a different labelling system for the outside world. "I felt the same internally as I always had but I felt like this provided a more accurate system for society to label me," they explain. "Ideally there would be no need to label or come out but unfortunately that's the structure we're in." As Laila works freelance, they didn't explicitly "come out" in a place of work, but they have gender markers and pronouns listed on their website and across social media.

Photo credit: Gingagi - Getty Images
Photo credit: Gingagi - Getty Images

For Alex*, who works in media, they've been identifying as non-binary since 2018, so they always let people know before they go into the hiring process. "There's always the worry that you're shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to making it clear that you're non-binary," they explain, "and I'm lucky to work in the creative industries where people are more liberal, but I always put my pronouns in my signature, on cover letters, sometimes on my CV next to my name, or I might mention my identity subtly during interview and to the HR recruiter. It helps you gauge how your identity would be received by that employer."

Dealing with being misgendered

So what if someone misgenders you, once you've told colleagues, put out an email or announced it on Instagram? "Pronouns are important as they're the language form of our identity," says Ben. "The reason people don’t assume them to be important is that they've probably never been misgendered. Misgendering is where someone is referred to by the wrong pronouns. From my perspective, it asserts that you don’t respect my gender, or you've ignored the conversations we've had."

It's something that Laila has had to contend with too. "I've been consistently misgendered across the workplace – by colleagues and collaborators. I don't think cis people recognise the true weight of their actions: cis people like to write this off as a 'mistake' or 'miscommunication' – what's actually happening is you are failing to see the person on a fundamental level, that of their core identity."

Laila says that they also have to deal with racism. "People misspelling my name, not seeing me as British occupies a similar space of dismissal – it's an implicit failure to acknowledge who I am as a person. It erases my full existence."

For Drew, they're still figuring this bit out. "But it's bound to happen," they say. "My coming out is new, my gender queerness isn't, but my pronouns are." On a practical level, Drew wears a pin that displays their pronouns: they/them. But slip-ups still happen. "This is an on-going process so it's not easy," they say.

And if you're the person who made the mistake? "Don’t make a big thing of it," advises Ben. "A huge apology makes things worse, and places more pressure on the gender diverse person in the interaction. Say sorry, correct the pronoun and move on."

Gendered clothing and what that means at work

There's no one way to be non-binary – and that includes how someone chooses to dress. Some people might wear clothes that are androgynous, but others might not. Dressing can be a way to express your identity, but it also doesn't have to be, so never assume that what someone is wearing is a marker for their gender.

Alex currently works in a team of women, which they've struggled with. "Working in such a gendered environment has been tough, as my presentation can change from day to day, so it can feel like I need to be the femme side of me all the time to in-keep with the expectations of the team," they explain.

"When you're perceived as a woman, looking 'professional' is basically equated with dressing femme and wearing make-up and having your hair a certain way," they continue. "If you don't wear make-up or you wear loose silhouettes, it can be perceived as sloppy. So it can be hard when you want to explore a less gendered way of dressing."

Photo credit: kelly bowden - Getty Images
Photo credit: kelly bowden - Getty Images

Navigating gendered spaces

Non-binary individuals often experience significant rates of discrimination in the workplace – almost a third experienced discrimination in the hiring process alone. Before they went freelance, it was something Ben struggled with. "I always noticed that if I went for a job interview, people would struggle to get the full measure of me," they explain. "It would impact my ability to move through the process. Now I'm a freelancer, there's also been many opportunities hampered because I have educate people on my basic needs, which can lead to awkward moments in meetings that play havoc with my mental health."

When navigating the physical office environment, there's so much to think about – specifically toilets, as some offices don't have a gender-neutral option. Ben offers up this advice: "When office spaces fail to offer gender-neutral spaces, try to find alternatives that work for you – in terms of safety and comfort," they say. "In my world of work, I get by using disabled facilities where possible."

How to be an ally in the workplace

  • De-binary your mind. "Don't assume anybody's gender unless they have specifically told you and enter every new situation offering your pronouns and identity," says Laila.

  • Put your pronouns in your email signature and on your social media profiles. This means before you've even met someone you know more about their identity

  • If someone has told you they are non-binary, make them feel safe and seen, and be friendly about it as pronouns are often about externalising how people want to be perceived.

  • Don't use someone's old name – that's "deadnaming" and as part of the process of coming out as non-binary someone may have changed their name.

  • If someone corrects you when you misgender them say thank you, not sorry. Quickly move on using the right pronouns and don't make a big deal of it, as that centres your discomfort. "If you make a big deal out of apologising, it can makes things so awkward," explains Alex.

  • Educate yourself. Our guide to pronouns is ever so helpful. But listen to people, ask about their experiences and don't let saying the wrong thing put you off.

  • Don't address groups with binary language – for example ‘ladies and gentlemen’, try more an inclusive alternative like ‘everyone.'

  • Use words that define the relationship rather than gender – for example ‘parents’, ‘partner’, ‘children’ or ‘siblings.'

  • Don't assume someone's gender based on what they choose to wear – femme clothes don't have to mean female.

*some names have been changed

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