Coming Out as Nonbinary at Work
I want to share with you a delightfully, soul-soothingly boring tale of coming out as nonbinary at work. But first I suppose I should speak a few words in favor of boring.
My favorite character on the TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Captain Holt. (If you haven’t watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine before, you really should—go ahead, I’ll wait.) My preference isn’t just because Andre Braugher’s comedic timing is the stuff of legends, or because his ability to maintain the most stoic of deadpans should earn him some sort of gold medal. It’s because his character is gay, and this, like everything else about him, is incredibly, endearingly dry and boring. There are a few dramatic moments where this fact is key to the emotional content of the scene, but on the whole it’s as boring as an hour-long lecture on a brine barrel (which he once delivered, mercifully mostly off-camera). He’s the gay “straight man” to Andy Samberg’s comic.
This speaks to me because while the fact that I’m nonbinary has always been an unalienable part of who I am (even when I didn’t yet have the words to articulate it), I also find it a rather boring part of who I am. I deeply want my coworkers to have the same reaction to learning I’m nonbinary as to finding out which US state I was born in. I want it to be a factoid that maybe makes you go “Huh, I suppose that explains a bit about why you are the person you are!” Then we can move along in our days otherwise unaffected by it. Otherwise unaffected, that is, except for the cases in which it is important to doing business, such as referring to me by the correct pronouns and providing bathroom spaces that are comfortable for me.
What Does It Mean to Identify As Nonbinary?
If you’re not familiar with what being nonbinary means, the short answer is that it’s the category for people who do not fit in the historically prevailing gender binary of women versus men. Nonbinary people can be of any biological sex, and we often see our biological sex and our gender as rather unrelated things. For the long answer, Google will enthusiastically point you to further resources on the various dimensions of gender and queerness therein.
While there are things common to most or all nonbinary people, there is also much diversity and individuality in our experiences. For me, being nonbinary means that in many ways I fit into the world differently from how society might expect either women or men to fit. I feel this difference very deep in my bones, in everything I am, say, and do.
I want to emphasize that you don’t have to have known your whole life that you were nonbinary/trans/gay/etc. in order for that identity to be valid. But it’s also worth noting I really have known I’m nonbinary my whole life, I just didn’t have the words until a few years ago. For almost 3 decades, it was just this low-level distressing thing that was with me all the time, that made me worried I was broken or stupid or, at minimum, unloveably odd.
Then one day I learned about the gender binary and read about other genders and my recognition of what I was reading was immediate, and an absolute relief.
Learning about this concept readily explained, among other memories, why I was absolutely disoriented and heartbroken as my friends split into groups of only girls and only boys as puberty approached. Now among the girls I was “supposed” to be friends with, I felt as though my people had been violently taken away from me. I recall thinking at the time, “Well, maybe I could be a boy instead?,”even though teenage me had no idea how a person might accomplish this. For me, though, that option wasn’t right either because the thought of being exclusively included with boys didn’t fit right either. Both groups of people were my people.
In that and many other instances, I didn’t know what to do with the cognitive dissonance, so I shoved it in a box in a dusty corner of my mind and tried to hobble along with society’s expectations as best I could. Learning “nonbinary” was the word for me suddenly made that—and many other things—make sense. I felt as though I had come home to myself for the very first time.
Once I had experienced being at home with myself, I wanted to feel that way all the time going forward. The prospect of using they/them pronouns was a small but important way I could see myself reflected back accurately by the world.
The problem was how to go about asking friends and coworkers to begin to refer to me differently than they had for years. I was worried I was asking for too much. So I tweeted something to the effect of “Dear friends and coworkers—if I were to ask you to start using they pronouns for me, would that be too much of an imposition?” The response was unanimous: nobody thought it was a big deal at all, and they were happy to make the change even if it took them a little practice.
I was still a bit worried about how it might impact me at work, but I decided there was no way but forward, and that I would just keep the request short and matter-of-fact. That week I mentioned in a team meeting that after giving it some thought, I realized they pronouns are a better fit for me, and I’d be obliged if people could instead refer to me that way from now on. I let my manager know as well, and some people on adjacent teams that I frequently interacted with.
The best part about the whole experience was how much of a non-issue it was. It was mercifully boring. The general response was either “Oh OK, cool! I’ll do my best!” or “That seems easy enough!” and then we all went on with our days. No one peppered me with personal questions or looked askance at me.
The Tedium of Repetition
Yet the adage of “you never stop coming out” held true. Many other coworkers whom I didn’t interact with as frequently didn’t know I had changed my pronouns, and they continued to call me “she.” It felt like a Sisyphean game of whack-a-mole. I would mention it in the moment sometimes, but then other times would decide I didn’t have the energy to do so.
Luckily, sometimes my closer coworkers would pick up the slack and be the ones to speak up instead—“Actually, Kate uses they/them pronouns now!” I was so grateful to them when they did, and I let them know. I also began to look for other ways I could proactively share my pronouns, such as profile fields in our chat client or on our employee bio pages. As a matter of habit, I began to include my pronouns along with my name anytime I was introducing myself to someone new, “Hi I’m Kate, I use they pronouns, and I’m on the platform team!”
I also found that people would ask me for advice on what they should do when they still mistakenly called me “she.” My advice is if you get it wrong and realize in the moment, apologize matter-of-factly, then correct your sentence and move on. Don’t belabor the apology. If you’re close with them and will be communicating with them a lot, a nice thing to do is to ask them directly how they prefer such mistakes to be handled. For me, if it’s a person I work with a lot and I know that they’re already trying, I don’t need an apology every time! Just treat it like a verbal typo: “Kate’s the engineering manager for that team and she told us to expect this project should—I mean they told us to expect this project should…,” and move on.
A Blueprint for Boring
Not everyone has a coming out experience as relatively uneventful as mine. A lot of the credit goes to my open-minded and thoughtful coworkers. It’s also worth noting that while I was indeed coming out as nonbinary, there are dimensions of privilege that I benefit from that likely influenced others’ reactions to me: I’m white, educated, not visibly disabled, and while I don’t present as particularly femme, I am still rather cis-passing.
My purpose in sharing my story isn’t to mislead and suggest that all coming outs will be exactly as uneventful as mine. Rather, it’s my hope to draw a blueprint for how to support people coming out as any sort of genderqueer person at work, regardless of how their blend of privileges intersects.
I’ve moved to new companies a couple of times since that original “coming out,” and I continue to grow more comfortable with the process each time. It’s organic, and effortful, but if you look for a combination of ways to proactively share your pronouns and enlist a few early allies to help spread the word, it can make the whole thing a lot less daunting. Hopefully someday we’ll all normalize the sharing of pronouns along with our names, making all this very happily boring. In the meantime, I’ll proudly continue my part:
“Hi! My name is Kate, I use they pronouns, and I’m so excited to be joining this team!”
Kate has worked in multiple areas of tech over the past decade, ranging from power grid resiliency to fintech to enterprise software. Kate has managed a variety of teams across the devops spectrum at New Relic, Simple, and HashiCorp, and is currently at Stripe helping build Stripe’s API for both internal and external developers. Connect with them on twitter.