Headlines have been dominated by Caitlyn Jenner this week. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this week Caitlyn - the Olympian and father of half the Kardashian clan formerly known as Bruce - made her debut via this Vanity Fair cover shoot, just over a month after her interview with ABC’s Dianne Sawyer where - as Bruce - she declared herself a woman and announced her intention to make that outward transition.
There is much to celebrate: the fact that Jenner held media court while still in a state of transition (i.e. still using male pronouns, but using female signifiers in dress and self-presentation); the media’s reaction to the story, that while not entirely unproblematic, has been largely positive; there has been the odd gaffe with using “Bruce” and the incorrect pronouns, but nothing compared to the pushback around Chelsea Manning’s name change in 2013; the growing visibility of trans* individuals in the public eye; and, of course, the personal happiness that comes from a person being able to live as her authentic self.
As a former colleague of mine wrote at the time of Jenner’s ABC interview, “Bruce Jenner [sic] can be more than water cooler talk around the office”. Jenner can be a starting point for anyone who runs a workplace space to think about how accessible - and beyond that, how supportive - that space is for queer or trans* people. The HRC Transgender Report noted that the majority of submissions to their inquiry described some form of discrimination focused on the area of employment, and that “trans* people experience significant difficulties finding employment, particularly if they seek employment while in the process of transitioning”. The report goes on to note the important role that supportive employers and colleagues play in helping individuals successfully transition. (It’s important to note that not all trans* people wish to transition; some people don’t claim their gender as simply man or woman and may not feel the need to identify themselves entirely with either.)
The most fundamental question to ask is “How are people like Caitlyn Jenner being talked about here?”. What kind of tone is being set by your staff, residents, or clients? Like queer individuals, many trans* people spend a prolonged period of time ‘in the closet’ - and if the dialogue around a prominent news story like Caitlyn is dominated by derision or mockery, it doesn’t exactly encourage someone to disclose their sexuality or gender identity as something other than the norm. This is particularly pertinent in a coworking space that has a high number of people coming through on a casual basis and constant exposure to new individuals - after all, we’re not talking about a tight-knit team of five staff who know everything about eachother.
This is not to say that discomfort or confusion isn’t allowed. In fact, given that the gender binary is such a fundamental way in which we organise the world, it’s to be expected. Being open about confusion or lack of knowledge and addressing it respectfully is key. If you need a primer on terminology or the difference between transsexual, transgender, cisgender, genderqueer, or even just the difference between sex and gender (and who doesn’t need to brush up every once in a while?!)…this one’s for you.
Beyond that, there’s another thing that trans* people overwhelmingly, repeatedly cite as a source of anxiety and tension, and every workplace has them: bathrooms. Gender segregated bathrooms, for any trans* person who doesn’t fully ‘pass’ (either by choice or because they’re transitioning), force a fraught choice: no matter which option they choose, they risk being outed as trans* and being forced into a conversation about their identity or, at worst, assaulted. I could say more but Kat Callahan does a much better job of summing up the trans* experience with bathrooms here.
When we were renovating our Wellington space last year, I raised the issue with our Wellington staff, asking why - if our bathrooms were all individual units, and not stalls - we needed to mark them as male and female. (Don’t even get me started on the skirt/pant icons we still use to indicate male and female on bathroom stalls… no matter how cute they are, they still irk me.) A few concerns were around cleanliness (the assumption that the mens’ bathroom would be dirtier) and outside clients who might book the event space (that this choice might offend conservative sensibilities). But more than anything else, it seemed like the choice to segregate the bathrooms was simply grounded in habit. I left Wellington uncertain of what the team would choose to do, but when I returned a month later, my heart nearly burst seeing both the male and female icons on each bathroom door.
I’m not exaggerating about that reaction, either. There are undoubtedly some readers who will question why on earth something like bathrooms is so important. But I promise you, talk to a trans* person about the small confrontations they face on a daily basis - the impact of which a cisgendered person simply cannot empathise with - and then you might understand how such a small change to the ‘usual’ way of doing things can have a massive impact on someone’s daily life.
In short… Caitlyn Jenner can, and should, be more than just fodder for the watercooler.
Notes on terminology:
- Rather than using the LGBTQQI-alphabet-soup terminology, I’ve opted for the term ‘queer’, which is an accepted and positive umbrella term to describe the non-heterosexual, non-cisgendered community.
- The addition of an asterix to the end of the word ‘trans’ is - as Rainbow Youth describes - “a special effort to indicate that the term functions as an umbrella term for an extremely varied range of identities, including culturally specific ones. We use the term trans* to indicate that they include identities such as: whakawahine, tangata ira tane, FtM, MtF, transsexual, fa’afafine, transgender, whakawahine, transmen, transwomen, akava’ine, leiti, genderqueer and gender-neutral people.”
Sarin Moddle is the Community Manager for BizDojo Auckland. Follow her on Twitter.