Expressing Your Gender as Non-Binary At Work
By Mark Swartz
Time to get dressed for work. Do you put on slacks and a sports coat, but paint your nails? Maybe you pick out androgynous clothes that are neither male nor female.
Choosing what to wear is one sensitive issue when expressing non-binary gender. Each day in the workplace poses challenges to your identity. People may look at you different. Try to pigeonhole you. Or ask inappropriate questions. All because your appearance differs from traditional gender stereotypes.
Whether you identify as gender fluid, neutral, agender or non-binary, people at your job may not quite get you. That could present an alphabet of concerns you’ll have to face.
When you don’t consider yourself either male or female – or if your gender identity varies recurringly – others may draw untrue inferences. That’s one of the ways they cope with their uncertainty.
Some people will assume that you’re also lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual. Some will tell themselves you’re probably just confused or going through a phase. A few will figure you’re looking for attention. One or two may even regard you as mentally unbalanced.
Is your workplace enlightened? It may well be, yet tensions could mount around restroom use. There are relatively few gender-neutral washrooms in buildings, especially at smaller employers with only two restrooms.
Though that situation is changing, for now you may be forced to choose one or the other. Inquire about company policy on this delicate matter. Consider the feelings and privacy of workmates. Keep in mind that a recent Angus-Reid poll showed that 84 per cent of Canadians supported transgender rights, but only 41 per cent supported those rights when it came to bathroom access.
When a workplace doesn’t take into account possible gender dysmorphia, the term is “cis-normativity.” Everyone’s supposed to abide by the gender identity that matches their sex at birth.
But here you are refusing to be boxed-in. You don’t accept being labelled male or female by others. That can make your boss and co-workers scratch their respective heads. It’s especially confusing if you don’t look distinctively like one or the other.
Older employees in particular may not understand what drives your behaviour. So they act warily. Millennials and city dwellers are more used to diversity. To them you’re mainly a new addition to the gender spectrum.
By default, people at work may come to you on matters of gender dysphoria. If you’re the only member of the minority there, it’s almost sure to happen.
Expect that some will approach you with their own gender issues. They may come out to you, ask your advice, or see if you know of local resources. This can become a burden when you’re shy or really busy. Set boundaries that enable you to guard yourself and get your work done first.
From a career viewpoint, you could voluntarily become the office specialist on gender issues. It might make you more valuable and raise your profile (if you’re up for the exposure).
At times you’ll experience pressure to accept cis-normativity. On employee enrollment and benefits forms that only let you check male or female. When people call you sir, miss, Mr. or Ms. for the millionth time – despite pleading with them not to.
Do you suspect you’re being passed up for promotion due to your non-binariness? Do male or female colleagues avoid you because they’re uncomfortable around you? Those are powerful forces toward blending in.
The alphabet of concerns don’t stop there. Here are several more to anticipate:
- Harassment Hassles. You may get teased, insulted or physically bullied.
- Quivers of Questions. You’re the object of curiosity. So what are you anyway, a boy or girl? What’s it feel like being you? Can’t you simply select one gender and be happy?
- Terminology Tussles. You want to be referred to as “they” or xe/xim/xir. Few people do so.
With the exception of getting harassed or discriminated against, keep calm. Most people mean well and want to learn more. Show them that you’re willing to connect in mutually respectful ways. And be cheered by the new powerful protections of Canada’s Bill C-16. It amended the Human Rights Act and Criminal Code.
Now gender identity and expression enjoy the same legal status as race, colour, ethnicity, age and sex!