When I was hired for my first office job a few months after graduating from college, I was still in deep denial about my gender identity and was presenting as a stereotypically feminine woman.
When I realized a year later that I really wasn’t a woman and needed to transition, I was stuck in an awkward, but not that unusual position.
There are a few guides out there for coming out at work as transgender, but the ones I found were limited in scope and assumed a binary transition.
As a nonbinary transgender person, I struggled with how to present myself and how to come out.
Despite my best efforts to prepare, I botched some parts of the process, but others went smoothly.
If I could do it all over again, here’s what I would do differently:
1. I would be clear about gender and pronouns.
I’m a nonbinary person, which made coming out particularly tricky.
While nowadays most people know about trans men and trans women, a lot of folks are still unfamiliar with the concept of being nonbinary or genderqueer.
I had to decide if I wanted to come out as a nonbinary person and use ze/zir or they/them pronouns, or if I wanted to come out as a transgender man and use he/him pronouns.
I told the first few people that I came out to at work that I was nonbinary.
More than one of my coworkers expressed support for my transition to male, but looked confused when I tried to explain that I identified as neither male nor female.
I quickly realized that for me, it wasn’t worth trying to explain the concept of nonbinary or to teach everyone new pronouns in my professional life.
I wish that I had just told people from the start that I was a transgender man and avoided some of the confusion.
Unfortunately, we’re often faced with only two boxes: male and female.
Trans man isn’t my identity, but it’s a much more accurate and comfortable identity for me than cisgender woman.
That said, I have nonbinary friends who have successfully come out as nonbinary and advocated for they/them pronouns.
Ultimately, you have to consider the best way to represent your identity in a way that’s comfortable and authentic, all while still being practical professionally.
2. I would pick a better-fitting name.
Picking a new name that fits with your gender can be a very daunting process.
The first name I picked was a gender-neutral variant on my old name.
I liked it a lot, but people often mispronounced it.
Even worse, they assumed it was a feminine name.
It wasn’t much of an issue in my personal life, as people listened when I corrected them, but it was much more frustrating at work.
Next time, I would pick a name that clearly fit the image I wanted at work, which for me was unambiguously male.
If you’re not sure about how a name fits or how strangers will react to it, you could try it out by using it at coffee shops.
You’ll get to see how you feel when your name is called, and you can figure out the common mispronunciations, if any.
Your employer will probably need to keep your legal name in your records (until or unless you legally change it), so that the company can pay you and report your income to the IRS.
Even so, your employer should be able to use your chosen name for your email and other communications that take place outside of HR and payroll.
3. I would make a plan for communicating my new name and pronouns.
This was my biggest mistake.
While I worked with my coworkers and supervisor to ensure my new name and pronouns were communicated appropriately within the organization, I never put together a plan to tell all of our contacts at other companies.
I regretted this through the rest of my time at the organization.
When I left, some people were still referring to me by feminine pronouns, even though my coworkers and people who met me more recently used he/him.
I should have worked with my supervisor to devise a plan to communicate my name change and, where appropriate, pronouns to those outside of the organization.
If you’re coming out at work, I’d encourage you to work with a trusted supervisor, coworker or HR contact to discuss how your transition and new name and pronouns should be communicated to your contacts.
This may be helpful for your boss or HR to read, if you feel comfortable sending it their way.
Coming out at work wasn’t a complete disaster, though.
There were a few things I did in the process that I would absolutely do again:
1. I talked with the people I was most comfortable with first
Coming out at work can be scary because you often don’t know how everyone will react.
I decided to ease into it by coming out to the coworkers I was most friendly with first.
While this could have potentially backfired if one of my coworkers was transphobic, I had spent the months before testing the waters by seeing how they reacted to casual mentions of gender and sexual orientation issues that came up in the news and popular culture.
There’s no way to be entirely sure how everyone will react, but it made it a lot easier to come out to my supervisor — and then my supervisor’s supervisor — knowing I already had a couple of coworkers on my side.
2. I came out after I had been dressing consistently masculine for six months and had started hormone treatment.
Consistent presentation helped me a lot.
Even though in my personal life my style is a little more gender-ambiguous, I decided to present in stereotypically masculine fashion at work for over six months before I came out to my coworkers.
I also started hormone treatment prior to coming out, which increased my confidence and helped me look less feminine.
While gendered norms of appearance can be tiring and potentially oppressive for transgender people, I did my best to use them to my advantage to ease the coming out process.
For me, it felt more natural to slowly shift into wearing men’s clothing and presenting in a more “butch” fashion before coming out as transgender.
That said, my approach was what worked best for me, but other trans people might be more comfortable with a different approach.
One of my friends, who is a transgender woman, came out to her employer before she changed her work wardrobe.
After coming out, she continued presenting mostly masculine until a specific date, after which she markedly switched to presenting very feminine.
She found this approach more comfortable and safer for her than if she had started wearing dresses or obvious makeup before coming out to her boss and coworkers.
Either way, it’s important to remember your medical transition is your personal business.
You don’t have to be on hormones to come out as transgender, and you’re under no obligation to tell your employer where you are in your medical transition.
3. I checked state laws and organizational policy.
Before coming out, I did some research into anti-discrimination laws surrounding gender identity.
In Massachusetts, it’s explicitly illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of gender or gender identity.
There is also precedent set by the courts that discrimination against trans employees is covered by Title VII, and is therefore illegal*.
While this doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be fired or not hired for being transgender, this information did give me a little more peace of mind.
My company was quite small and only listed “gender,” not “gender identity,” in their nondiscrimination policy.
However, many larger companies may list gender identity or even have specific policies regarding transgender employees.
Overall, my gender transition at work was really awkward, but not terrible.
I stayed at the organization for over a year and a half after coming out, and no one ever made a fuss about it.
I do want to acknowledge that I did have several advantages that not everyone has when coming out at work.
I worked at a relatively liberal nonprofit, I lived in a relatively liberal city and I was transitioning to male and could reasonably “pass” as male after several months on hormones.
Not everyone will have the same advantages, and it’s important to consider your safety when considering whether to come out in the workplace.
If you’re in a position where you feel that you can come out, I wish you the best!
Coming out is a big step, but if it’s safe for you to do so, it can help you lead a happier life, both in and out of work.
*I am not a lawyer, and this should not be construed as legal advice.