“I have tried to be supportive of each phase of the transition, but my coworker has made it increasingly difficult. Each phase was a surprise – no notice, no explanation, no communication on what was happening.
“At one point I asked HR to please keep us informed so that we would have some time to adjust to the idea before needing to act on it. No change. ‘It is too embarrassing’ to have all these details aired publicly, yet I have asked this person not to engage in detailed conversations regarding surgical procedures, her new perspective on religion (very one-sided) or sex life, and yet they go on. These conversations are entirely inappropriate for the workplace (I don’t want to hear about my non-trans coworker’s surgery, religion or sex life in the lunch room, either!).
“She also dresses completely inappropriately for work. I have discussed these issues with management and HR, but everyone seems too afraid of getting on the wrong side of a harassment issue to insist this person look and behave like a 50ish professional woman rather than a sorority girl heading out to the frat houses. Is there anything I can do that I haven’t already tried?”
I have a feeling that this letter will get a variety of responses from readers, and not all of them are likely to be friendly, so I will address this from the assumption that you really are trying to be supportive while attempting to maintain professionalism in the workplace. There are a lot of issues here, so I’m going to deal with them one at a time.
1. “I have tried to be supportive of each phase of the transition, but my coworker has made it increasingly difficult. … I have asked this person not to engage in detailed conversations regarding surgical procedures, her new perspective on religion (very one-sided) or sex life, and yet they go on.”
First of all, thank you for your desire to be supportive of your coworker. This is always a positive thing. But be aware that being supportive doesn’t mean that you have to sit and listen to every detail of this person’s life, including her religion, surgeries, and sex life. As you say, you would not want to know these details about a non-trans coworker’s life, either.
One of the things that often happens when a person transitions is that he or she becomes unusually self-absorbed. Transition is an all-consuming process – at least in the beginning. It takes up a lot of time, energy, and thought, and it frequently becomes more important than anything else in that person’s life.
It makes sense that this would happen, because the process is so involved and so centered on self – the person is changing his or her physical appearance, name, legal paperwork, social habits, behaviors, and sometimes even friends and community. It is literally a 24/7/365 “event.”
Not only that, but once a person has made the decision to transition, it usually trumps everything else as far as excitement and significance. Seeing Mount Rushmore or attending a Broadway show kinda pales in comparison. So what you have is a person who, after years of struggle and misery, is finally realizing his or her lifelong “dream” – to present to the world the person that he or she has always been and has been forced to hide.
It is truly an incredible feat of self-actualization. The problem is that the people around us don’t necessarily experience it in the same way that we do – and our endless focus on ourselves can wear down even the most ardent supporter. Luckily, our fascination with all things us eventually wears off – usually long before the four-year mark. But since it hasn’t happened yet for your coworker, and because you have let her know that you are not interested in these conversations and she persists, it’s time to remove yourself from the equation.
If she comes to your desk and starts an inappropriate conversation, you can say, “Excuse me, but I have to get this report finished by noon.” If she sits down at your table in the break room and starts up, you can say, “Oops, look at the time. Got to get back to work.” Since you are not her boss, and you are not HR, how other people handle this situation is up to them – you can walk away.
It’s unfortunate that HR is “afraid” of this woman or of a potential lawsuit, if that is the case. That attitude makes it rough on trans people in the workplace, because it implies that we are just waiting for some reason to file a discrimination complaint, and that we expect “special” consideration and treatment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The reality is that trans people should be treated no differently in the workplace than non-trans people are. In most workplace settings, conversations about religion, bodies, and sex lives are considered inappropriate and can even lead to sexual harassment complaints. Trans people should be held to the same standards and expectations as non-trans people, and in my opinion, to do otherwise is offensive to us, indicating that we are somehow “different” from everyone else, with an inability to conduct ourselves professionally.
2. “She also dresses completely inappropriately for work.”
During transition, many trans people go through a “second adolescence.” Not only are hormones causing a type of physical adolescence, but the freedom of self-discovery can result in an emotional adolescence, along with the need to make up for lost time. You might see a transitioning person dress inappropriately for a number of reasons, including:
> He or she might be figuring out what to wear, just like a teenager tries on different outfits and different personas to see what “fits.” When I transitioned, I had no idea what middle-aged men were supposed to wear. Once I found out, I didn’t like it. So even at age fifty-six, and fourteen years after transition, I still dress in clothes that might be considered too “young” for me. I really couldn’t care less. Clothes are clothes. As long as they cover my body, I’m okay.
> He or she might be attempting to live out the adolescence that was missed the first time around, along with the fun, stylish, hot, or sexy clothes that he/she wanted to wear at the time, but was unable to.
> He or she is just like anyone else who dresses “inappropriately” for the workplace – the person has a preferred style and wants to wear it, and it might not fit in with the company standards. This is what corporate dress codes are for.
What you have to ask yourself is this: “How do this person’s clothing choices negatively affect me and my job? Does her clothing turn off customers and cause the company to lose business, thus affecting my salary or commissions? Is her clothing so distracting that I literally cannot focus on my job? Does her clothing pose a health or safety hazard that could affect me? Is there a dress code that I am forced to follow but that she is not, so I am disciplined for wearing similar clothing, while she gets away with it?” Any of these things would be reason to continue your complaints to HR. If none of these things is true, and you simply don’t “approve” of her clothing choices, it’s not your concern.
3. “Each phase was a surprise – no notice, no explanation, no communication on what was happening. At one point I asked HR to please keep us informed so that we would have some time to adjust to the idea before needing to act on it.”
Sorry. As employees, you should be advised that a coworker is transitioning and that, after a certain date, you are expected to refer to this person as “Mary” and “she” or “John” and “he.” Anything else you get is gravy.
In my opinion, it is ideal for the employer to bring in a trainer who explains the situation in a very general way to the workforce and answers general questions about transition so that the staff will know what’s happening, what to expect, and what name and pronouns to use. But this apparently did not happen in your workplace. Since it did not, the correct name and pronoun is all you need to worry about. Your support is greatly appreciated by the transitioning person, even if it is not acknowledged.
4. “Is there anything I can do that I haven’t already tried?”
Again, sorry. You are not the boss or HR. You are not in a position to do anything, nor should it be your mission or goal. If any person, trans or not, is interfering with your ability to do your job, or affecting your paycheck in any way, you need to document it and present it to HR, then go through the complaint procedures set forth by your company. If not, it’s none of your business.
I suggest that you return to work with the goal of focusing on your job, your friends there, and what you are getting out of being there. Let this person do the same. And let things be as they are unless they are truly damaging or hindering you in some tangible way – at which point, you have a legitimate complaint for HR, just like you would with any other coworker.