This story is part of QnotesCarolinas’ special project “OUTlook: Finding Solutions for LGBTQ Labor and Workplace Equality." It is supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
To learn more about solutions journalism, visit solutionsjournalism.org.
There are various examples of best practices for more inclusive workplaces, but there has been little research that tells the story of transgender and nonbinary people at work.
When Qnotes surveyed the community on the biggest issues facing them in the workplace, one in four said they faced homophobic or transphobic environments. Nearly 30 percent identified gender bias in the workforce as their most pressing issue. And, at our January Qnotes Connect event, we heard additional stories about the challenges nonbinary people face in applying for jobs – about applications that do not acknowledge an identity other than male and female or the fear of background checks in the hiring process.
A recent study led by the University of East Anglia (UEA) in England highlights some of these barriers and shows how the experiences of trans and nonbinary workers can help companies be more receptive to diverse gender identities.
“Our research does not point to the need for trans workers themselves to subvert gender norms,” said Dr. David Watson, associate professor in organizational behavior at UEA’s Norwich Business School. “But rather we need to challenge binary gender norms in the workplace to enable all individuals to freely express their gender identity,”
Greyson Simon came out as nonbinary in 2009, when they were 20 years old. Looking for jobs was more difficult back then for nonbinary people and shortly after coming out, they moved from Pennsylvania to Seattle in hopes of a safer community to be themself.
Simon has made the choice not to update legal identification with their gender identity, even today. Washington became the 17th state in the country to present the option for “X” on driver licenses and identification cards in 2019, recognizing nonbinary gender identities.
“That’s a choice that I’ve made to not pursue because I’ve never gone by my legal name,” they say. But the way people interact with them has changed based on their physical perception at a given time.
For years, Simon went by a nickname based on their middle name. “And then as soon as I came out as trans and started telling people, ‘Oh, I don’t go by this name, I go by this other name’ – suddenly it became like a big issue for people,” they say.
Their confidence today doesn’t slow them down, but that wasn’t always the case.
“In 2009, when I was applying for jobs with very little professional experience and this lack of documentation, it was very difficult to kind of navigate that conversation.” They would often end up interviewing under their legal name and then only disclosing when they got to the point of having to do background checks. “I really only had to disclose once we got to the point where I was in the door, I was already pretty much hired,” says Simon.
Now, they go by the first name Greyson, not a name that’s going to show up on background checks. After going through one, maybe two interviews, and things looked promising, they say that they feel like it’s pretty much assumed at that point. It just becomes kind of a procedural thing, says Simon.
“But I know for a lot of people who are newly out or people who are, you know, our community is kind of chronically underemployed, um, that that can be a very contentious conversation,” reflects Simon. A lot of people are unsure when they should disclose.
Before they had a lot of professional experience, Simon found support from an online group called The Facebook Transgender Alliance. They helped administrate the group for several years and it became a place to turn to for advice and experience.
“Thankfully, we’re getting to a place now where employers have a lot more understanding of the fact that trans people simply exist so there are a lot more HR people that are navigating those conversations in more productive and less stigmatizing ways,” says Simon.
Computerized applications and software create additional barriers. “It’s a problem for everybody at the end of the day,” says Simon who now has a job in human resources. “You will have people that have relevant experience, but because their job titles don’t match what you are looking for, then you are going to miss them.”
For trans people, it often means outing yourself. Computerized systems take out a lot of the benefits that can come from anti-bias training and more robust equity programs. “Chances are they’re going to end up falling into some sort of bias category,” continues Simon.
The way that many job applications gather demographic information is not particularly equitable.
One LinkedIn user in Boston posted on the social media network that they started tallying the number of applications that list “Male” and “Female” as the only gender identity options as they were applying for jobs last year. “Some of them include ‘choose’ not to say’ but I want to say!” expressed the job applicant who preferred to remain anonymous “Also, my gender is not ‘other’ or ‘x.’”
They stated that out of approximately 25 applications, only three included ‘nonbinary’ as an option. Out of those three, one asked for pronouns, including ‘neo-pronouns’ as an option. “But even this handful are missing options for genderfluid, agender, and two-spirit individuals,” they wrote. “I know a lot of companies use third-party hiring software that may just not have those options. No one should have to opt out of sharing their gender when it’s as simple as adding more options or adding a way for folks to self-identify.”
Carrie Moran lives in Asheville and identifies as genderqueer, another identification option that is not often found on job applications. “I’ve been out as queer for over 20 years and finding inclusive workplaces has always been an extra layer of challenge in the job-hunting process,” stated Moran via email. They were laid off from their job in October and had been applying to upwards of 10 jobs a day before finding a job at a nonprofit organization with other nonbinary staff. “I’d estimate that at least 80 percent of the jobs I applied for asked me to identify my gender, and I can only remember a handful that gave me an option other than Male/Female.”
Something heard repeatedly is this feeling of having to lie on a job application. “It also makes me hesitant to want to work at a company that doesn’t recognize the existence of the many genders on the spectrum,” said Moran.
Finding a job can already be stressful. You may be struggling to pay rent or keep up with your bills. Facing the gender question adds another element to an already taxing situation.
“It felt disheartening at times and frustrating at others,” reflected Moran. They were out of work for only six weeks before finding a new job, but for periods they say that they felt invisible. “It added a layer of exhaustion on top of an already tiring process.”
A new report from Business.com found that approximately 1.2 million LGBTQ+ adults in the United States identify as nonbinary in terms of gender and that nonbinary job seekers are facing “clear bias.” Most of these individuals are under 30 years old, which means many are embarking on their professional careers.
In a phantom test, they sent resumes to 180 job postings. “The resumes were identical, except the test resume included they/them pronouns, and the control did not.” According to the report, resumes with pronouns received less interest and fewer interview invitations.
When asked about the biggest thing that trans and nonbinary people need, Simon refers back to that community support system. “So much of the job search is individual and from a hiring perspective, very esoteric and fussy,” they said.
Reviewing someone’s resume to see if it is the right style or best reflects their experience is going to help make sure that trans and nonbinary people get into a position that suits their skillset and builds opportunities for professional growth. For Simon, it can mean the difference between a job in areas like retail and warehouse work where transgender people sometimes get stuck, and more professional positions.
There’s also responsibility for cisgender people. Simon says that cis people need to understand that the culture wars of today have made trans existence into this big issue. “Cis people can choose to have it not be an issue. Asking people their preferred names is something that is going to benefit cis people too.”
“It is an especially overwhelming time to be queer,” said Moran. “I feel less safe today than I did when I first came out in 2022, and that breaks my heart.” Language is so powerful and can create safer spaces for people to accomplish their goals. “Whenever I encountered an application form that allowed me to express my true self, it made me feel ethically better about that organization and more willing to go through the interview process.”
Simon sees glimmers of hope in the future as more and more people come out and break down gender stereotypes and labels. “We’ve always had people invested in our destruction,” they say. “Is it egregious and is it disgusting? Absolutely. But they can’t get rid of us.”
“The kids that are coming out now, you know, they are bringing new understandings of gender.”