I was on Frenchmen Street, hanging out with three local HR execs. They each grew up in New Orleans and knew every local haunt. If you know anyone from New Orleans, you know that means they also had seven stories to tell about every single bar.
I was having the time of my life. The music. The food. Plenty of drinks, too. It is New Orleans after all.
After a few jokes and a few more rum punches, I went to the bathroom. It was down a dark hallway. If you’ve been in a bathroom in a dimly lit bar, you can imagine it. Dirty. Stickers all over the walls. Graffiti that says things I won’t repeat here.
As I turned into the women’s bathroom, I felt hands on both of my shoulders and a quick jerk. “Wrong bathroom,” I heard as I fell backward into the arms of a huge man. It was the bouncer.
I didn’t know what to say or do. The shock of having someone grab me was setting in as I realized I was being misgendered. The bouncer thought I was a man creeping into the women’s bathroom.
I think what I said next was just “no.” The panicked look on his face said everything. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “All I saw was your hair. I’m so sorry,” he repeated over and over. I assured him it was OK.
As I closed the stall door, I noticed my hands shaking. Then my shoulders started to shake. Even with all the alcohol in my system, I was having a trauma reaction. I didn’t feel safe in that bathroom or anywhere at that moment.
Ironically, just earlier that day, I spoke to local HR leaders about the LGBT community and being gay at work. I tried to explain what it feels like to be the only one and be scared of people discovering your life. I was having a panic attack in the bathroom because of the same type of trauma I presented.
Trigger Point: Misgendering is Trauma
That’s what most people don’t realize. It’s traumatic to be misgendered if you get physically assaulted in the process or not. Whether that means the wrong pleasantries at a restaurant (hello, sir!) or the wrong pronouns at work, these are moments you can’t easily forget. Fight or flight kicks in.
What do I do? Where do I go? Do they even see me?
Now try to exist at work with that flooding stream of consciousness. How can you survive or thrive in a place where people don’t even see you?
On the other side, straight allies are starting to ask “how do I help?” I know this conversation is coming up more at work because I’m being asked about it so often. People want to know my perspective on pronouns and how to be more accepting. They want to know small and big ways they can create safer spaces. It started a few months back with a call from a friend about pronouns at work.
I love those calls, by the way. Always call me when you have questions about how to make the world a little better. I want to help. Making this planet a little more human and humane for the people around you will always be at the top of my list.
Safe space: ALLY Do’s and Don’ts for Pronouns at work
In all of these interactions, I’ve created a bit of a do-this, not-that. I don’t pretend to know everything about this or the lived experience. I hope you’ll take a chance to educate me in the comments if you have something to add or I missed something significant to you.
- Don’t assume your workplace is safe. Ask first: Do you feel safe? It’s an important preliminary question.
- Use gender-neutral language first. Sir and Ma’am aren’t polite when you’re misgendering someone. I’ll see the Southerners in the comments. I grew up there. I know.
- Take the lead. Lead meetings by announcing your pronouns. Set a tone of acceptance.
- Correct people when they use the wrong pronouns.
- Add your pronouns to your email signature.
- Update your zoom name with your pronouns—the same concept.
- Design your office. For example, add a pride flag. You can subtly show your support all the time.
- Read books. Educate yourself about other lives.
Don’t do this:
- Ask weird questions about relationships or private parts. It’s not OK with anyone else.
- Don’t assume it’s binary. It’s not just he or she anymore. Don’t write that in your job postings or say it anywhere else.
- Don’t make jokes about pronouns. Grammar jokes are not funny in the context of someone’s life.
- Don’t be pushy. If someone doesn’t want to answer your questions, let them be.
Have something to add?
I hope you won’t hesitate to comment or reach out privately to make this more of a conversation. Let’s make the world a little more accepting of (and for) each other.
Katrina Kibben is the Founder and Principal Consultant of Three Ears Media. For most of Katrina’s career, she has been a marketer living in a recruiter’s world – listening to both sides of the talent equation to understand the real issues and find solutions for engaging and hiring better people. Today, she uses her technical marketing know-how and way with words to help both established and emerging brands develop and deliver content that fuels smart recruitment marketing that makes the right people apply.
Katrina has written for Monster.com, HR.com, RecruitingDaily and many other digital publications. She is a recognized leader in recruiting and employer branding who speaks regularly at conferences around the world.