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How do I come out at work?

Updated: Mar 13

Q: I'm a pre-everything trans man who works at a medium-sized tech company. I'd say most of my coworkers are aware of my existence because I occasionally get a shoutout in the company-wide meetings for fixing this or that problem. Obviously at some point I'm going to need to go, hey, I'm the person who used to go by Stacy, I'm actually Stephen now - but I genuinely don't know what that coming-out process should look like. All the advice online is for out trans people starting at a new workplace, but I'm five years into my professional career! Help?

K: There isn't really a way the coming out process should look, but there are plenty of ways that it can look to come out as trans somewhere you've been working for a while. Depending on your comfort levels, the knowledge levels of people you work with, and how supportive (or not) of an environment you work in, the coming out process can vary a lot. To be upfront, I've never been in this position before. I've always been out before starting a job. So, while I haven't had to do this before, this is how I imagine I would go about it. I would probably start by trying to review any materials produced by HR, diversity offices, etc. around trans inclusion and/or non-discrimination policies more broadly in my workplace. These types of materials might tell you logistical things, such as how to go about changing your name in different systems your workplace uses, and it may also tell you what kind of expectations your workplace claims to have for employee behavior. For example, my workplace considers it a violation of our code of conduct to call someone by names and pronouns they do not use. While I don't think policies can or will save us, I do think it is helpful to remember that people's personal feelings or beliefs about gender and pronouns aren't your problem to solve. It's easy to fall into a trap (or be led into a trap) where it feels like the task at hand is to educate someone or convince someone to care, but if you have documentation (in anti-harassment policies, in your code of conduct, etc.) you can instead focus on being like, look, it doesn't matter what you think, these are the expectations our workplace has for how you communicate and refer to me. Or, even better, that conversation can be left up to HR, someone's supervisor, etc. But I'm kind of getting ahead of myself. So, once I'd know what policies I do or don't have backing me up, and once I know how to do things like update my name in various systems, my next step would be to think about who I want to come out to and how I want to handle it. There's a few options here, and the option you choose depends a lot on your personal relationships and your workplace culture. You could come out to your manager and discuss how to inform the rest of the team (your manager informing everyone, you informing everyone and your manager offering support, etc.), you could come out to team members one-on-one or in a group setting, you could come out to one person and ask them to spread the word, etc. These conversations could be carried out virtually (over email, Slack, etc.) or in-person, depending on your comfort level. I've known people to talk to their manager and immediate team/department first, and then send an email out to the whole staff list informing them of their new name and pronouns. Keep in mind that you do not need to share any information beyond how you should be referred to, unless you'd like to. It's all really up to you, but I do encourage you to choose the easiest route for yourself, and don't shy away from asking others to help with the heavy lifting. For example, I would ask my supervisor to pass the information up the administrative chain instead of taking that on myself.

The way I would start is probably by coming out to coworkers I trust to be helpful, so that when I do come out to the rest of work, I already have allies who are down to remind/correct people. I would then come out to my supervisor, either in person or over email. If I did it in person, I would probably send a follow-up email stating what we talked about (just in case I need that documentation). If my workplace did consider it a violation of some sort of policy for someone to keep using the wrong name and pronouns for me, I would probably check with HR or my supervisor about that. I would ask how the issue would be dealt with if and when it came up, as well as the timeline my workplace would consider to be learning/adjusting versus like, okay, they should know by now. I would do this over email so I have it in writing, or I'd send a follow up email after the in-person talk to confirm I had the details right. This is maybe overkill, but I find that it is better to have this established before the issue comes up, that way it's harder to give excuses or leeway depending on who the perpetrator is.

As far as handling mistakes people make, I tend to correct people in person during the first month or so, and after that, I like to send people emails reminding them of my pronouns, that way I have documentation, and to avoid the uncomfortable ways people react to being told they're misgendering or mispronouning someone. Overall, my advice is to divide things up into logistics (what needs to be done in various systems, if you need a new ID, etc.), policies (what support you do or do not have), and the people element (who you tell and how you tell them, who you ask for support from, who is responsible for enforcing policies, and keeping documentation), and go from there. I hope this helps!

S: Yes to all of this. As K says above, there is no one correct way to come out, and you should feel free to pick and choose based on your situation and personal preferences. With that in mind, think about what you need other people to know in order for you to feel comfortable. This includes who and when: if your primary need is for people you work with on a daily basis to use your name and pronouns properly, you can start there and share the information further as needed. If you want to minimize the likelihood that someone who rarely interacts with you calls you by the wrong name, maybe you do want to make a broader announcement, or maybe that's more about talking to HR and/or admins who regularly send out group communications and ensuring that they know about the change. If you'd feel uncomfortable making an announcement to everyone, then don't! There is no requirement that everyone who has ever heard of you (as well as everyone who hasn't) be told, and there's also nothing wrong with letting everyone there know if you want to.

In terms of what to tell people, start with what you actually need them to know, which is probably just how to refer to you: name, pronouns, maybe other language shifts. It's totally fine to send an email to your boss/your team/everyone saying something like "Hi all, I wanted to let you know that I'm now going by Stephen and using he/him pronouns. Please use these for me in future." That can be it! If you want, you can add more information (like that you're a man, transgender, or anything else), but you really don't have to--this is a workplace, and all they need to know is how to respectfully refer to you. If you've made a legal name change, you'll definitely need to let HR know that; you may also need to update your gender if your job has health insurance, but HR should be able to tell you the specifics. Tailoring the message based on the recipient(s) is fine--maybe your team shares personal information with each other so you'd like to let them know more. If you're asking for something specific, like for a new ID or a name change in the staff directory, you can make those requests to the appropriate people at the same time; it doesn't hurt to copy your boss/HR/someone else if you're not sure how the person you're asking will react or think they might need guidance on what to do.

Ideally, people will know how to respond (which is just to make the change, and maybe reply with a very normal "Great, thanks for letting us know" or something. FYI, if any readers get an announcement like this from a colleague, this is a perfectly good way to respond). But be prepared for some weirdness because people are so overwhelmingly ignorant about trans and gender diverse everything. Maybe all your coworkers are great and none of this will come up! But if it does, it's a good idea to have a plan for what to say. Some possible responses:

  • Nothing. This could be a good thing, but it can also feel deeply hurtful to share something that is important and perhaps stressful to you, and then have nobody respond at all. There's not a whole lot you can do about this except to know that it's not unusual. In a workplace, especially if you're telling people who don't know you well, don't take it personally if people don't acknowledge your coming out (unless they misgender and mispronoun you after, which is its own issue).

  • Borderline creepy levels of approval and interest. Even if it's well-intended, this can feel super weird and uncomfortable. Self-identified "allies" often center their own need to feel good about themselves by expressing support over the preferences of actual trans and gender diverse people to be treated normally at work. How you respond depends on what you are comfortable talking about--maybe some of these conversations will feel good, or maybe you want to prepare some language to remove yourself from them. In the case of email, Slack, etc., you are well within your rights to just ignore messages that feel strange.

  • Confusion/questions. There's a lot of ignorance around all this stuff, and some people don't realize that it's wildly inappropriate to demand education from the first trans person they realize they know. You can ignore this too, but you can also refer them to existing resources for self-education. If you have the sense that the people you're telling will probably be confused, you could recommend these in your initial message ("I know there can be a lot of questions about trans identities; some resources I've found useful for learning are..."). I once had a coworker ask me in the break room about whether I'd had top surgery, so be prepared for that sort of (sometimes well-meaning, still weird) boundary-crossing as well. If you want to answer some people's questions about gender in general and your experiences in particular, go for it; if not, have some wording ready to change the subject.

  • Misgendering/mispronouning. This isn't okay, but it's so, so common that you should think about if/how you'll respond if someone uses the wrong name or pronouns or other language for you. Maybe you don't care, or maybe you want to correct people yourself, or maybe you want to ask coworkers to do it for you. Whatever you decide, it's not a bad idea to let coworkers know how you'd like them to respond if they hear someone else make a mistake (or if they meet someone who just doesn't know about your new name and pronouns).

  • Connection. This comes in different forms, and how you feel about this depends on what you want from your workplace; it's fine to not want to talk to anyone there about gender (yours or other people's). In that case, be prepared to say something like "I really prefer not to talk about this stuff at work" or something similar. However, if you do want to connect with people about this, you may find that there's space to do that. Maybe you send a company-wide email and get invited to a weekly lunch with the other trans and gender diverse folks there. Maybe a coworker has a trans kid who just came out and desperately wants to talk about it (this one has happened to me a lot and it can be pretty uncomfortable or can be fine, depending on a lot of different factors). There's no right or wrong way to respond (or not) to any of this; it's purely about your own preference in each instance.

  • Labor. It's pretty common for trans and gender diverse people who are out at work to be approached by individuals (or even HR) looking for guidance and education about gender. This is (presumably) not your job to provide and you may or may not have the expertise to do it even if you do want to, so be ready to stop those conversations and/or redirect them to more appropriate sources (which isn't your responsibility to do, but it may help get them to stop asking you).

We've written a whole lot of words and I hope at least some of them are helpful! Please reach out to us again if you want clarification on anything we've said.

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