Maybe they told you over lunch or on a coffee walk. Perhaps they asked everyone to hang on a second just after your team standup. Or you just read the company-wide email they sent.
Regardless of how you heard, the fact is that your coworker, whom you may have known with a different name and/or pronouns, wants you to know what their name and pronouns actually are. So what do you do now?
Understand Where They Came From
The very first and most important thing you can do is be understanding. Your coworker has likely been thinking about this for a long time. They’ve been on a whole journey, and you’re just seeing the end.
Along the way, they’ve had so many doubts, thoughts, and fears. Is this even real? Can I do this? What will people think of me? Will people support me, or am I on my own? What should I even ask people to call me? Will they remember? Do I have to remind people all the time? Will they be upset with me?
It takes a lot of courage for someone to come out, and coming out can take many forms. People come out as gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary, and lots of other things that may not be familiar to you.
Some people have more than one spectrum on which they feel it necessary to come out. Some will choose some of their identities to reveal, keep others secret, and share others only within tight circles. Coming out is deeply personal and presents lots of challenges.
In the case of your coworker, there’s a good chance they decided it was time to come out because being misgendered (having people and social systems treat them as the wrong gender) was bothering them more than the idea of asking people to correct their view. They know they’re going against the grain, but they need to live authentically.
When you finally hear, whether it’s in an intimate setting for just you, or whether it’s something everyone knows, think about what led your coworker here. Remember how intensely personal and important this is for them to have got here.
Respect Their Right to Set the Pace
If you haven’t been given express permission to pass on information, don’t assume anything.
Many LGBTQIA+ communities understand all-too-well the risk of outing (sharing information about someone’s orientation or gender identity without their express permission) someone. They know the risks of going against the norm and how it can affect people’s lives.
But even when they’re surrounded by accepting people, it can be exhausting to talk about themselves. They may feel like they have something to prove, particularly at first. They may feel like a burden on others.
It’s best to let them set their own pace. Stick with what they’ve told you. Don’t tell anyone else unless they’ve said it’s okay. Ask clarifying questions if you’re not sure what’s okay or what they need from you. And absolutely do not ask questions about things they haven’t told you.
Keep at It
Chances are, respecting their name and pronouns will take a lot of effort, and you will slip up.
The best thing you can do if you say the wrong thing is to correct yourself and move on with what you were saying or doing. If you hear someone else say the wrong thing (assuming that person has also been notified—see the last section!), correct that person.
Especially in the beginning, it may take a lot of emotional energy for your coworker to hear their deadname (the name they no longer use) or to be misgendered. Pushing themselves to ask for a correction, or trying to respond to someone who is upset about making a mistake, is also difficult.
Multiply this by all the interactions they will certainly have in a given period of time, and it can become a recipe for really draining someone.
It will take a lot of work, and they know that and are already prepared to put in some of that work. Simple respect and doing your part can go a long way.
Smash the Gender-archy
Whether you know a coworker in this situation or not, there are still plenty of things you can do. (Chances are, they’re out there. Don’t try to guess who they are, but know they’re out there.)
If you’re comfortable, put your own pronouns in your email signature, blog bio, and anywhere where you have personal information about yourself. Work to make that easy for others.
Bella gave me a great idea to link your pronouns to a site like MyPronouns.org. MyPronouns.org is particularly cool because you can link directly to the pronouns you use—e.g. https://www.mypronouns.org/they-them—and get a page explaining why they’re important.
Encourage—but never require—others to do the same. Keep in mind that any of your coworkers may be working on their own gender journey, and they need to be able to do that at their own pace.
Get in the habit of never assuming someone’s gender. Use they/them for anyone whose pronouns you don’t explicitly know. Don’t make a big deal about anyone’s name or pronouns—communicate those two simple facts and move on.
Get educated. What you’re reading right now is a good start, but you can go more in-depth at GLAAD’s Beginner’s Guide to Being an Ally to Trans People.
Along those lines, also remember that it’s not any marginalized person’s job—including your coworker’s—to educate you or anyone else. Listen when they choose to speak, and respect them when they don’t.
Work to create a culture where gender identity and expression are respected simply, not treated as something that is a curiosity or up for debate. And if you’re in a position of power, be sure you’re ready to support those who need it.
Help Build a Better World
If your coworker is the first to come out in their organization, they’re almost certainly paving the way for others who will follow, someday. Stand behind them and show those who may be waiting that you’ll have their back, too.
Together, you all can help make your workplace into a place of respect. And that benefits everyone.