Understanding Gender Identity Without Making Our Transgender Colleagues Uncomfortable

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Understanding Gender Identity Without Making Our Transgender Colleagues Uncomfortable

Hello My Pronouns Are

In 2016, advertiser Chris Edwards published a deeply personal memoir detailing his transition from female to male. In “Balls: It Takes Some to Get Some,” Chris discussed his very public transition from Kristin to Chris while working as an advertising professional at the Boston-based advertising firm Arnold Worldwide. Chris’ refreshing take on his transition, which occured while his father, Ed Eskandarian, was CEO of Arnold Worldwide in the mid-1990s, marries humor with heartfelt observations about being a transgender man.

Chris shares provocative stories from the workplace, including using the men’s restroom and reactions to changing pronouns and his legal name. A central tenet of the book is the anxiety of being a transgender person in a cisgender world. The tense conversations, embarrassing lack of knowledge, and discomfort felt by so many cisgender people is an unfortunate reality in our society, particularly in the workplace. Quite frankly, many people are puzzled by a colleague who is transitioning, but struggle to ask questions or educate themselves on the concept of gender identity.

While it is a fair point that collectively many cisgender people struggle to understand what it means to be transgender, it is a common understanding that transgender people are not obligated to educate the people in their lives about their transition. We all owe it to members of the trans community to educate ourselves about these issues, approaching this education with a generosity of spirit and an open mind.

So, what are some key questions that cisgender people have about transgender identities? Here are a few:

What does it mean to be transgender?

A person who identifies as transgender has a medically-recognized condition called gender dysphoria. This condition is when a person feels genuine and prolonged discomfort with their sex assigned at birth or the anatomical characteristics of the sex they were born into. This condition was initially called gender identity disorder. In 2012, the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) officially changed the designation from “disorder” to “dysphoria” to address the stigma that the former word conveyed about the mental health of transgender people.

What are the different gender identities?

There are a range of gender identities out there. The most common gender identity is “cisgender,” or when a person identifies with the sex they were assigned at birth. Transgender means that a person does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Agender people don’t identify with any gender; they are also referred to as gender neutral. Bigender people identify as having two genders. Someone who is defined as genderqueer has an identity that does not adhere to common conceptions of what gender is or isn’t. A person who identifies as non-binary does not experience their gender identity on the spectrum of male to female, but outside of the binary understanding of gender. You can learn more about different forms of gender identity here.

What is the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity?

Simply put, sexual orientation is the romantic, sexual, and emotional attractions that human beings feel toward other people. Gender identity is the conception that each of us has regarding whether we identify as male, female, both, or neither.

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the same. The term LGBTQ refers to lesbian, gay, and bisexual identities sexual orientations while transgender and queer refer to gender identity. If a cisgender man identifies as gay, this does not mean that he is transgender. His sexual orientation—attraction to other male identified people—is not the same as how he expresses or sees his gender. Candidly speaking, sexual orientation is about what attracts you while gender identity is about how you see yourself.

There are also people who are intersex. Intersex identities are not a form of gender identity. Rather, intersex people have physical characteristics that may not match the common understanding of male and female. For example, a person who physically presents as female may have male genitalia. Sometimes, in rare circumstances, children can be born with ambiguous genitalia, which is also a characteristic of intersex identities. People who are intersex can be cisgender, transgender, gay, straight, bisexual or any other gender or sexual identity. Their intersex identity does not mean that they can be placed in one sexual or gender category.

Why are pronouns important?

Every human being is entitled to use pronouns that most closely match their gender identity. We often make assumptions about a person’s gender identity based on how they physically present themselves. We all have the intrinsic right to be identified on our own terms and using incorrect pronouns may cause harm. Using correct pronouns honors our personhood and conveys respect. Click here to read more on why pronouns matter.

What does “transitioning” entail?

A colleague who comes out as transgender has the agency to choose how they will live out their gender identity. For example, if a male colleague announces that he is transgender and desires to transition into a female identity, she is not obligated to change her genitals, wear women’s clothes, or undergo surgical procedures to make her look more feminine. A transgender person has the inherent right to transition on their own terms. It is not incumbent upon anyone else to dictate to a transgender person what they should or should not do to live their truth.

If a colleague comes out as transgender, they should be treated with just as much respect as anyone else. Use the pronouns they specify, avoid asking invasive and deeply personal questions, and, most importantly, treat them as you would treat any other colleague. Transgender people have the right to work in an environment where they are fully accepted. They are not obligated to explain or defend their transition, nor are they obliged to listen to your opinions about their gender identity. Simply put, they should be treated with the same respect and dignity that you’d give to any other colleague.