How To Be A Trans Ally At Work : Life Kit How can your workplace be truly equitable to transgender people? Gender Reveal host Tuck Woodstock answers questions about making the workplace safer and more inclusive for trans people and provides simple ideas to help you be a trans ally at work and beyond. (This episode first ran in June 2020.)

Making The Workplace More Equitable For Trans People

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I'm Tuck Woodstock, host of the podcast "Gender Reveal," and this is NPR's LIFE KIT.


WOODSTOCK: No matter where you work, being openly trans on the job can be tough, especially if you don't feel like you're in a safe position to advocate for yourself. Up until summer 2020, workers could be fired for being trans in 26 states. On June 15, the Supreme Court ruled that all LGBTQ folks are protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While we're celebrating this ruling as a victory, it doesn't change the fact that for decades, trans people have lived and worked in perpetual fear that they'd be fired for being trans. And it's important to note that the ruling doesn't mean workplace discrimination against trans folks just magically disappears. It just means that we can sue for it now if we have the resources to do so.


WOODSTOCK: This LIFE KIT, we're tackling real questions about making work a safer and more equitable place for trans people. Of course, these issues compound when trans employees are facing other forms of discrimination at work, such as sexism, ableism or racism. So as you work to become a better trans ally, make sure you're also educating yourself on topics like anti-racism. You can start by listening to podcasts like Code Switch or LIFE KIT's recent episode on microaggressions and by following the work of black trans journalists like Raquel Willis, Tyler Ford, Imara Jones and Monica Roberts.

In this episode, I'll have help from author and journalist Meredith Talusan, who in 2018 became the first trans person in an executive position at Conde Nast, and from Chase Strangio, the deputy director for trans justice with the LGBT & HIV Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, also known as the ACLU. Their advice is relevant for physical and virtual workspaces alike. In fact, you might even find it useful for tackling other forms of discrimination in your workplace as well.

Before we dive in, let's go over two terms that you'll hear a lot in this episode - trans and cis. The word trans includes transgender women, transgender men, nonbinary people and anyone else whose gender doesn't strictly match the sex they were assigned at birth. The words cis and cisgender describe men and women whose gender does match the sex they were assigned at birth. In other words, if you're not transgender, you're cisgender. And if you are cis, this episode is full of simple ways for you to be a great trans ally at work and beyond. If you're trans, there's plenty of advice for you here, too, or you can just send this episode to all the clueless cis people in your life.


WOODSTOCK: Our first question is one that I hear all the time from marginalized folks. How can we learn to forgive ourselves when a conversation with co-workers doesn't go as planned? For example, what if a colleague asks something intrusive about my gender transition, and instead of drawing a boundary or telling them that it's an inappropriate question, I panic and blurt out something personal and embarrassing that I immediately regret?

CHASE STRANGIO: I think one of the really challenging things about being an out trans person in the workplace is that you are holding so much as a representative of a community in the minds of your cis colleagues when the reality is that no one person can represent the entirety of a community.

WOODSTOCK: That's Chase from the ACLU. Fun fact - Chase is kind of a big deal. He was part of the legal team arguing for trans rights in the Supreme Court case we mentioned earlier.

STRANGIO: And so I think the first thing is just to be kind and patient with ourselves as trans people. You know, when we're navigating these spaces in the workplace from a place of, you know, both trauma and marginalization and tokenization, you know, it's never going to feel exactly right, and so that is something that I try to remind myself.

WOODSTOCK: Be kind with yourself. That's great advice for anyone facing awkward personal questions from co-workers or customers. But what if you're a cis person who just really wants to know what it's like to be trans?

STRANGIO: I think it's a reminder to cis people when you have trans colleagues, they are not the only people who can answer questions for you about transness. And it can be really tempting because it feels like this direct access to a source of information.

WOODSTOCK: But it's important to remember that there are other, better ways to get that information. For example, Google exists. You can also read a book by a trans person, watch YouTube or TikTok or visit a trans organization's website and browse their resources.

STRANGIO: A lot of times, cis people put the burden on trans people in the same way that, you know, white people put the burden on people of color in the workplace and men put the burden on women in the workplace. Those are reminders to people who are allies to really be conscious of how much of other people's time, emotional labor and then substantive expertise outside their actual job responsibilities you're asking of them.


WOODSTOCK: And that's our first takeaway - do your homework. Even if you mean well, it's not appropriate to ask people to share personal details with you in a workplace setting. If someone wants to share something personal with you, they will. Otherwise, you're probably just being nosy. If you're genuinely curious about trans experiences, check out the wealth of books, videos, podcasts and other resources created by trans people. We'll have links and suggestions on our episode page.


WOODSTOCK: In my work as a trans educator, I hear a lot of questions about how to navigate gendered language. On one hand, many people aren't even sure what words to use in order to be inclusive and respectful, which, by the way, is understandable if these concepts are new to you. And on the other hand, we have folks like Eboneigh Harris, who is struggling to have their pronouns and gender identity respected by their co-workers.

EBONEIGH HARRIS: How do I have conversations about pronouns with people in my office? I have them listed in my email signature and I'm vocally queer, but my boss and co-workers still refer to me as she and include me in women's stuff - for example, a women's empowerment email chain or workshops for women leaders.

WOODSTOCK: This question gets at our second takeaway - language matters. So let's take this question in two parts.


WOODSTOCK: First, if you're a cis person who is running a group for women at your workplace and you have a co-worker who's nonbinary or whose gender you're actually not 100% sure about, what's the best way to approach that situation?

MEREDITH TALUSAN: Well, I think, first of all, regardless of whether or not there is a trans or nonbinary person within your organization, in 2020, that organization should be inclusive of nonbinary people.

WOODSTOCK: That's journalist Meredith Talusan.

TALUSAN: You know, because you don't want a situation where you have, like, a new nonbinary employee, and then all of a sudden, you're just like, oh, like, we have to change the name of our group. The fact of the matter is that women's groups, women's affinity groups exist in workplaces in large part because of the fact that women historically have been oppressed by our Western patriarchal gender system, right? Nonbinary people are also oppressed in different ways but are certainly not in a position of power relative to women. And so it makes perfect sense for nonbinary people to be included in those types of affinity groups.

WOODSTOCK: So if you're part of an affinity group for women, it might make sense to open it up to all marginalized genders, including nonbinary people.


WOODSTOCK: But then there's the other part of Eboneigh's question - what should we do when someone gets misgendered?

STRANGIO: Often, what I will do is ask the person, you know, I think I heard you get misgendered in this meeting, but it was your boss. In that situation, do you want me to intervene or, you know, are you concerned for whatever retaliation reason? And then if you know that the person is struggling and needs support, then I think it can and should be a very simple and straightforward intervention - at least, you know, the first time - which is so and so uses they/them pronouns.

WOODSTOCK: Look; I get it. Correcting someone at work can feel awkward or even rude, but I promise you that it is much ruder to misgender someone or to let that mistake go unacknowledged than it is to quickly remind someone of your co-worker's pronouns. So if someone said, I liked her podcast, you could just say, oh, you mean you like their podcast? And that's it. Easy, right? But what if you're the person who accidentally misgenders your co-worker? In that case, Meredith and Chase agree that the secret is to correct yourself without making it into a dramatic moment.

TALUSAN: The other thing that cis people do a lot is they get over-apologetic, which then creates a situation that is actually more awkward for the trans person and creates a situation where it almost seems like the trans person is the one who is left in a position to make the cis person feel comfortable and not bad, right? It becomes about the cis person's remorse over using the wrong pronouns. And I think the best way to handle it is to just say, oh, hey, like, you made a mistake, so then make a really conscious effort to not make that mistake again.


WOODSTOCK: So just remember takeaway No. 2 - language matters. Be intentional about the words you're using to describe groups of people as well as individuals. If you hear someone misgender your co-worker, that's usually your cue to politely but firmly correct them. And if you make a mistake, model good behavior by apologizing and gracefully correcting yourself. Remember; it might be embarrassing to be corrected, but you're not the person being hurt in the scenario, so try to not make it all about you.


WOODSTOCK: Of course, all of this advice assumes that your co-workers are receptive to feedback, but what if they don't even recognize that there's an issue in the first place? That leads us to this question from Maddy Jennewein.

MADDY JENNEWEIN: How do you convince your workplace that engaging with personal identity is important to the work that we do? So I'm a scientist, and a common theme I see in the world of science is that scientists think science is a perfect meritocracy and the work that we do is completely removed from the identity of the scientist. This makes it really hard to deal with issues of identity and discrimination in the workplace.

WOODSTOCK: What can you do when your colleagues refuse to even acknowledge that bias might exist in your workplace? It can feel like an impossible situation, but this is actually a perfect question for Meredith, who, as it happened, transitioned while working in a cognitive science lab at MIT. Meredith's suggestion here is to point out the issue by using the tools of the environment that you're in. For example, Meredith's work at MIT involved a lot of data and statistics, so when her boss began treating her differently after she transitioned, Meredith was able to use data to bring attention to that behavior.

TALUSAN: Before I transitioned, our check-ins used to be, like, 15 minutes long, right? But after I transitioned, our meetings got longer because he would question and ask me to confirm every aspect of all of my decision-making in ways that he didn't before I transitioned. And the most tangible way that I could express that to him was to say, look; look at our calendar. Our meetings used to be 15 minutes long, and now they're at least 30 minutes long and sometimes 45 minutes long, and the only reason for that is because you question my authority now in ways that you didn't before I transitioned.

And, like, bringing up those examples I think will help in terms of people understanding that we don't live, you know, in this vacuum where we're just minds floating in ether, right? Like, we're deeply, deeply affected by our social environment. If we are not in a workplace where we acknowledge and try to address those inequities, then it becomes very difficult for people from marginalized backgrounds to work there.

WOODSTOCK: This brings us to our next takeaway - trans rights are human rights. In other words, trans allyship doesn't mean that we give preferential treatment to trans people. It simply means observing the basic accommodations that cisgender people are given and assuring that trans people have access to those same resources. After all, just because everyone is being included doesn't mean that they're being treated equitably. And as Meredith said, if we don't acknowledge and try to address those inequities, it becomes very difficult for people from marginalized backgrounds to work there.

For example, many cis people probably can't imagine going an entire day without access to a restroom, but that's the reality for many trans and gender-nonconforming people across the country. And that leads us to this question from Cam, who asked us to use their middle name out of concern for their future career.

CAM: I'm a nonbinary graduate student, and my university has started adding some gender-neutral bathrooms, but only to public-facing buildings heavily trafficked by the larger undergraduate population. How do we convince the campus to invest in gender-neutral bathrooms for all of the graduate students, staff and faculty spread out around campus?

WOODSTOCK: Ah, yes, bathrooms. If you've heard of one trans equity talking point, it's probably this one. So why are gender-neutral bathrooms such a big deal anyway? Well, for one thing, if you don't have anywhere to safely use the restroom, you probably won't be able to focus on your work. And as it turns out, there are a lot of reasons why trans people might not feel safe in single-sex restrooms.

STRANGIO: Other co-workers may either make remarks or look at people in ways that feel dismissive or questioning of people's right to be in certain spaces. And the ACLU, where I work now, has all-gender bathrooms, which was a huge and important victory of internal advocacy within the organization. But I spent the first few years of my time at the ACLU going to a bathroom on a different floor than the floor that I worked on where we had a single-user, all-gender bathroom. So really being conscious of, well, what does it mean for a person to enter the workplace and what access to resources do they have and how much do they have to struggle in order to sort of experience the workday on equal footing as their colleagues?

WOODSTOCK: OK. Got it. Equity is important, and so is access to all-gender restrooms. So if you work in a place that only has single-sex restrooms, it's probably a good idea to start pushing for all-gender options, even if you personally feel safe and comfortable in the men's room or women's room.

But that leads us to another question. Generally speaking, should cis allies take it upon themselves to improve trans equity at work or should they let trans people take the lead? It's our last takeaway, and it's something you learned in grade school. Teamwork is key.


TALUSAN: I do think that cis people can obviously, like, super contribute to an environment that is conducive and friendly towards trans people. And I think that they should be proactive. But at the same time, they always have to involve and consult with trans people because I've also seen situations where well-meaning cis people have taken actions that they think would be beneficial to trans people but the trans people don't necessarily actually want.

WOODSTOCK: Absolutely. And that actually reminded me of a couple examples from my own life and my own experiences. One is just that in an effort to be inclusive, cis people overexplaining a trans person's identity and outing them in a way that's not productive. Like, say you're going to a meeting with a client, and someone in your office might be like, oh, this is Joe; he is trans, and his pronouns are he/him because he is a trans...

TALUSAN: (Laughter).

WOODSTOCK: ...Boy, which is, like, you know, well-meaning but is incredibly harmful to that person, when in reality, a more appropriate thing might be for that person - say it's a cis person whose name is Shelly. Maybe she just says, hi, I'm Shelly; my pronouns are she/her, when she's introducing herself to the client, and that gives everyone else an excuse and a context in which to share their names and pronouns so that the trans person is not the only person...


WOODSTOCK: ...Sharing their name and pronoun.

TALUSAN: Absolutely.

WOODSTOCK: Making your work environment equitable takes teamwork. It's great to be proactive about making your workplace more inclusive, and it's also important to get input from trans people to make sure that the work you're doing is actually helpful.


WOODSTOCK: But, wait, I hear you say, didn't Chase say that we should be conscious of how much extra time and emotional labor we're asking of trans employees? Yes, great catch. So instead of asking your trans co-workers to do extra work, you can ask your HR department to bring in a professional trans consultant who can help you make sure that your workplace is truly equitable. Full disclosure - I have my own equity consulting company, but don't take my word for it.

TALUSAN: In many cases, trans consultants are invaluable, especially in situations where a company is dealing with these issues for the first time, especially with the knowledge that so many practices around being able to treat trans people equitably in the workplace are really just evolving and being developed.

WOODSTOCK: I do a lot of equity trainings, and people often come to me and say, well, I feel like the moment has already passed, so I can't go back and address it.

TALUSAN: One of the things that has really helped me navigate through these situations is the realization that it's actually OK to discuss these things after they happen, not just regret that they happened in the first place.


WOODSTOCK: I understand that all this work can feel daunting, but remember that your efforts can make a huge difference, so just do your best, even though you probably won't be perfect. Keep educating yourself, and share what you've learned with folks around you.


WOODSTOCK: So to recap, takeaway one - do your homework. If you have questions about marginalized identities, seek out books, podcasts and other resources created by people with those identities. To get you started, I'd personally suggest "Gender Reveal," a podcast hosted by me. We also have other resources on our episode page, including a list of organizations that specifically support trans people of color.


WOODSTOCK: Takeaway two - language matters, so be intentional about the words you use to describe people. If you hear someone slip up, that's your cue to politely but firmly correct them. And if you slip up, correct yourself and apologize gracefully.

Takeaway three - trans rights are human rights, so make sure that trans people have access to safe restrooms and other basic accommodations that other workers take for granted.

And takeaway four - teamwork is key. Be proactive about making your workplace more equitable, but make sure to involve actual trans people, whether that's a co-worker or a professional equity consultant.


WOODSTOCK: To hear more conversations with trans artists, activists and educators, subscribe to my podcast "Gender Reveal." You can find it at, and you can also follow us on social media. It's @gendereveal on Twitter and Instagram.


WOODSTOCK: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out their other episodes. They have one on how to start a garden and how to write a novel. You can find those at And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to their newsletter at If you've got a good tip, leave them a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email them at


WOODSTOCK: This episode was produced by Sam Leeds and Audrey Nguyen. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. The digital editor is Beck Harlan, and the editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Tuck Woodstock. Thanks for listening.


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