Transsexual–Co-workers Don’t Treat Me As A Person

Question:

I really enjoy your website and the information contained herein. So far, so great! And that said, I have a question I did not see covered here which I would like to ask.

I am a transsexual woman of color who works in an office where the people can talk freely amongst themselves. Yet will barely speak with me as a co-worker but not speak to me as a person. Some personally go out of their way NOT to speak to me. Even if I am there to work, I still do not receive the respect as a person I deserve as opposed to others who freely talk amongst themselves as professionals and persons–but will not ever do me that kind of courtesy. The managers who immediately work with me are great, but the rank-and-file leave an awful lot to be desired.

Some of these people, who have worked there with me since I got back in 2002, –I was already long out by then–barely speak to me, but for some recent hires get along as if they are old friends. Oh sure, I have few I can speak with, but that’s about it! And I KNOW I can get along with ANYBODY! I have participated in office functions and gatherings, and I try to get along professionally and socially, yet, this makes no difference. And when I try to speak or compliment someone, all I seem to get is a monosyllabic response–if that! I feel as if I am clearly an outsider who is not welcome as a whole person like others are, but rather as just a professional.

I have tried to take this up with the head manager there, but she seems indifferent to being able to do anything about it except to parrot the “We’re here to work and do a job professionally” party line. She listens, but is, in reality, neutral on this matter.

Often times, I admit, it has affected my work and my well-being. Lately, I am beginning to move past it to where it is no longer the problem it previously was. As a result, my work has improved and my concentration is better. However, I still see this around me daily, and I am at the point where I am on the verge of withdrawing from these people I work with. I am just shy of telling some of them where to go. Yes, I know I am there to work and that it is just a job; however, these are people here and I am a person too–and not just workers. What is your take on this matter, please?

Signed,

T in California


Answer:

Dear T in California:

First, I would suggest, if you are not already a member, that you find local and national organizations that might provide insight about questions such as yours. California has several such groups I believe. Begin by contacting www.batlaw.org, a legal focus group. They will almost certainly be able to provide you with other links. http://sandystone.com/trans.html might also provide assistance. The issues of transgender (using that term to refer to anything not covered specifically by “man” or “woman”) are complex and are handled so differently by everyone that it is difficult to apply a general answer to the questions that arise.

I must confess my lack of knowledge and insight about the impact of those issues on the lives of people who are transgender. What I can do is provide the kind of advice I would give to anyone who feels left out at work. And for what it’s worth, there are many of those!

We get letters every day from people who feel that no matter what they do they are made to feel like outsiders–and that is without the uniqueness of your situation! I could take your letter and leave out the part about being transsexual and it would sound like many of the letters we receive from men and women who wonder what they can do to feel better about work! Work is often a place of conflict or at best peaceful co-existence. Many employees find that their best friends are those who work in adjacent offices or buildings because they don’t have the stress of too much closeness. Others find that they must treat work as work and be content with civil behavior even though there is no friendship. Not optimal, but tolerable. I say all of that not to minimize your concerns and issues but to let you know that you are not alone in the challenge.

1. Consider your personal situation and the affect this has on the comfort level of others. Employees can insist on a workplace free of discrimination under Civil Rights protection, but friendships and camaraderie cannot be mandated. Nevertheless, a helpful, pleasant person who is generally comfortable to be around will nearly always develop some positive relationships.

There are many issues that could impact your work relationships: The kind of office setting, the gender of those you work with, the kind of work you do, the personalities of everyone involved, your own comfort level with your situation and what actions you have taken to respond to your gender identity feelings.

*A transsexual who is identifiable as a man or woman, but who dresses as the other sex, may get reactions according to the attire, accessories or make-up and jewelry chosen. Communication can be iffy at best. It is very difficult to communicate with someone who appears to be in a costume rather than business clothes. A transsexual male commented, in an article on the subject, that he finally gave up very high heels because not only did they look excessive but also they were uncomfortable! A transsexual female said, in the same article, that she got tired of wearing men’s suits and found a woman’s style that was tailored enough for her to be comfortable but that didn’t look strange on her small physique. That may not at all be an issue for you and you did not indicate the degree to which you show your gender identity at work. My goal is to try to be as helpful as possible about issues that could affect others in adjusting to an openly transgender person.

*You may want to consider asking your supervisor if there is some aspect of your behavior or actions that create even more of a distance than otherwise. You apparently have an open and honest relationship with your managers–use that to ask for their input. They are as aware as you are that your situation has the potential for uneasiness by those around you because of the unique aspect of it culturally. Ask if they can think of something you might be doing that contributes to that or if there is something you could do to reduce it. It doesn’t seem fair for you to make it your responsibility, but you are the only one you can have any control over! You don’t have to feel burdened by that responsibility, simply ensure that you’ve done all you can do. That advice is true for anyone in any challenging situation.

I recently counseled with someone who wears a turban and other unusual items of clothing as part of his faith, so his faith becomes an obvious part of his persona. He evaluated his own situation and decided that he had said and done some things that created a distance between him and others. He was not solely responsible for the awkwardness that some of his co-workers seemed to feel about his different appearance, but he felt he should go the extra mile to remove obstacles to effective communications. I really admired him for that. All of us are in the same boat in that respect! Each of us has something about us that we cling to as part of “the way we are”–but that we have to control to be more effective in the larger world. We don’t have to change, we just adapt as part of living in the world.

2. There is also the issue that co-workers may be concerned about getting in trouble over something they inadvertently say or do when communicating with you–so they think the easiest thing is to not communicate. In one workplace a gay employee who often made light-hearted remarks about his sexuality (on the lines of some popular sitcoms!) was dismayed when a co-worker was disciplined and threatened with firing, after he was overheard responding to the remarks in a similarly joking way. When the gay employee expressed those concerns he was also reprimanded and told to stop making sexual remarks, since none could be considered appropriate at work. That is true under the law–but makes adult communication rather difficult sometimes. I don’t know of an office that doesn’t occasionally have conversation about sexual issues of one kind or another–all-female offices are no exception!

Nevertheless, the abiding rule is that the less said about sex, gender, religion, race and similar topics, the better. So, except for the most obvious work conversations, everything else is often considered to have potential for problems. Men feel it about talking to women in some cases. Many feel it about talking to those of other ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations. Whether or not it SHOULD be that way is something else! That’s why you will likely have to persevere and continue to make conversation about things other than the tasks at work as a way to let others know that they can relax and talk.

The best way to do that may be to find things that most can feel comfortable discussing. Keep the conversations general rather than personal. (Food, movies, sports, local events, etc. rather than appearance, relationships, weight, health, etc.) If your office participates in charitable activities, consider volunteering to help with those. Be the most effective team member possible. Thank people for their assistance to you and offer it when you can.

There is a communication barrier right now that may never be completely overcome. The barrier will need to be reduced by both you and others–neither of you can do it alone. It will probably take many efforts, over even more time, to achieve it. Make friendly, appropriately cheerful greetings and conversation part of your personality and regular behavior–not something you do to get something in return or that you do in a forced way. If you are already doing that, continue it. Find the person in the office who seems to have the most positive relationships and if necessary model your communication after that person’s style until you find an approach that gains the response you are seeking.

You say that you have a good relationship with some co-workers. Express your appreciation to them for their friendship. You don’t have to mention the gender issue, just their friendship. You can bet that they discuss aspects of their relationship with you to others. So, by thanking them for their friendship you give them something to discuss that is positive and shows others what kind of person you are.

3. What your co-workers have been told by managers and supervisors may also impact reactions. In the efforts of management to ensure that you are not mistreated, they may have set you apart in a way that they did not intend. You say that you are told, “we’re here to work and do a job.” That is not only a “company line” but also the best policy for most companies. The policy of being neutral is also wise. A supervisor is, under the law, not supposed to consider your gender, gender preference, or non-gender preference, except as it relates to Civil Rights violations or violations of company policy. So, what may seem uncaring may be a sincere effort to walk a fine line and follow HR guidance.

A well-meaning supervisor in an office with which I consulted on another matter, talked to employees before a transgender female was hired. The new employee did not display many traits that would considered feminine and many that might be considered masculine, and the supervisor didn’t want anyone to make remarks about that–either to her face or behind her back. It was a tough workplace, and he knew his crew! A few months after she worked there, someone told her about the supervisor’s efforts and it upset the employee very much because she felt he stirred up an issue that shouldn’t have been mentioned at all. Then, upon reflection she said she could understand why he did it–and she said that actually she had been pleasantly surprised at how quickly she seemed to be accepted by the group, so perhaps his method worked. But, many might say that under the law he should not have commented on it. It’s difficult to know what to do sometimes since humans are all pretty much a mess! 🙂

4. I often teach that the way to know if something should be tackled as a supervisory problem is this: Does it detract from the focus on work and is work suffering because of it? It could be that work is going well and your supervisors want to keep it that way with minimum disruption. I’m glad that you are finding a way to renew your concentration on the job. That is often the best way to resolve such issues. When people are focused on work, the rest of it starts happening naturally because usually effective interactions are necessary to get work done.

Are you a role model for effective work? In most work situations, it is easier to feel positive about someone who is a great worker–who does work correctly and efficiently. It sounds as though you are focused on that, so that may not be an issue. But, it is always worthwhile to continue to gain skills and be the best employee possible.

5. None of these thoughts solve the problem of how to establish a more friendly work environment and friendlier relationships–they only point to areas that affect it. There is no easy solution. What a hackneyed but true phrase THAT is. Our experience has been that if an employee contributes positively to work, if she dresses neatly and appropriately, is clean and fresh smelling and looking, behaves in a way that is appropriate for the setting and is kind and courteous to others, she will establish enough positive relationships to make work more enjoyable. I believe that can be the case in your situation as well and I hope you will find it to be so in the near future.

Best wishes as you work with this challenge. Be sure to seek support and insight from others who have had similar experiences and let us know how things develop if you wish to do so.

WEGO is a symbol of cooperation and respect that is worth working to achieve.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.