How can allies make the process of transitioning at work easier?

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Identifying as transgender or gender-nonconforming can be a really tough gig.

If you are an aspiring ally and you know this to be true, then you are off to a great start.

Transgender women and men (as well as other trans folk) are at a high risk of developing depression or anxiety relative to the cis-gender population (i.e., those whose assigned sex at birth, or biological sex, matches their gender identity) (Budge, Adelsen, & Howard, 2013). An estimated one in two trans youth attempt suicide (Carmody, 2017).

In addition, past research has determined that instances of emotional abuse, physical threats and job loss as a result of gender identity are common (Budge, et al, 2010).

For those going through a process of identity transition, the journey can be frustratingly long, and a large part of this process may be invisible to most. Those going through transition are also aware of stigma against transgender people. While many are excited and hopeful about finally getting to live publicly in a way that matches their gender identity, large amounts of fear, hesitation, and concerns around rejection (not to mention violence) often also characterise this time. For those wanting to offer support for their transgender friends and colleagues, research can help us understand the pitfalls to avoid and the steps we can take – both as individuals and organizations – to make the experience of transition less daunting.

Things to avoid

The experience of coming out is often quite unique; rarely will the journeys of two trans people be identical.

There are there are still some common themes and challenges to be mindful of, however (Budge, et al,2010). Particularly in a workplace, many trans people will go through the process of choosing who to tell, how to dress, and how to prepare for the potential consequences of coming-out.

As a starting point, it may seem obvious, but be mindful not to out someone on their behalf (Budge, et al, 2010). Outing someone may not necessary come with malicious intent, and in fact, sometimes people may out their trans friends and colleagues in an effort to protect them. It is, however, vital that the individual going through a transition be the one with sole authority and control over who they decide to tell.

Don’t use outdated and harmful terminology to describe trans people – it signals disrespect, and can undermine people’s identity, not to mention sense of self-worth. Often, transgender people will tell you what pronoun they prefer, or how they identify (e.g., do they identify as a ‘trans-woman’, ‘woman’, ‘gender queer’?). Use the terms that your friend or colleague tells you to, or seek further information about appropriate terms.

Do not buy into stereotypes of transgender people. Traditionally, media portrayals of trans and gender-conforming people tend to be woefully off the mark (Kelsey-Sugg, 2018). While there is evidence that this is now changing, with more nuanced portrayals of trans characters on our screens (McIntyre, 2017), don’t assume that you know what trans people are like from single shows or interviews.

And finally, don’t freak out if you “mess up” and accidentally refer to someone by the wrong name or gender. This is a reality of transitioning and will happen countless times, so don’t make it worse by projecting your own awkwardness. People are generally kind, and if your heart is in the right place they will get it (we are all just human!). Just keep trying, and it will become completely natural over time.

Ways we can all improve

When it comes to the status of trans people in society there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.

There has been no better time in history to be a trans or gender-nonconforming person in Australia. That being said, we still have a long way to go before the stigma is completely washed away, and there are some simple ways in which we as individuals and organizations can improve.

Organisations must recognise the role they have to play in creating a positive environment and a culture of acceptance for those going through a transition.

Merely introducing or acknowledging the existence of trans individuals in the workplace is not sufficient to reduce negative stereotypes and promote positive outcomes (Schilt & Connell, 2007). Instead, organisations must ensure HR departments are knowledgeable about transgender experiences and associated employment issues, and have practises in place for the effective communication of changes if required.

One of the best ways organisations can help transitioning individuals is to have visible allies that are available to offer advice and support (Budge, et al, 2010). The UQ Ally Network program is a great option for those wanting to become active allies (or even just learn a bit more about LGBT+ issues).

Public statements of acceptance declaring trans and gender-nonconforming individuals are welcome and valued can also make a huge difference. UQ flying the rainbow flag is a great example of this.

As individuals, we can familiarise ourselves with the colourful, diverse, and wonderful rainbow that is gender identity. There are plenty of helpful resources online.

Pay attention to and respect preferred gender pronouns and names; and if the person is not completely “out” yet, get clear rules about when and where to use them. If you are unsure and you feel comfortable, just ask.

Perhaps most importantly, social support is absolutely crucial. Reduced social support leads to an increase in destructive avoidant coping for trans people, and in turn, greater depression and anxiety (Budge et al., 2013). Research has found that support from colleagues can be particularly helpful during the transition process (Budge et al., 2010). So if you want to make a difference, become a visible ally.

Finally, don’t forget, though it is a difficult process with many roadblocks, overwhelmingly the process of transitioning is a positive one. For those coming out the other side, it means they can finally live as their true selves.

Places lucky enough to have the unique perspectives of trans and gender-nonconforming members within their ranks should value and celebrate this element of diversity. Like all diversity, it only serves to make us stronger.

Works cited

Budge, S. L., Adelson, J. L., & Howard, K. A. (2013). Anxiety and depression in transgender individuals: the roles of transition status, loss, social support, and coping. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 81(3), 545.

Carmody, 2017, ABC News.

Budge, et al. (2010). The work experiences of transgender individuals: Negotiating the transition and career decision-making processes. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 57(4), 377.

Kelsey-Sugg, 2018, ABC News.

McIntyre, 2017, The Conversation.

Schilt, K., & Connell, C. (2007). Do workplace gender transitions make gender trouble?. Gender, Work & Organization, 14(6), 596-618.