How to spot and deal with microaggressions against transgender staff

Microaggressions can be just as damaging to mental health as other forms of discrimination

It is International Transgender Day of Visibility on 31st March, but visibility is difficult when trans people are still facing prejudice and microaggressions on a daily basis.

In a way, some things are a lot better. The trajectory is that trans people are more commonplace in everyday society. There isn’t the same secrecy surrounding trans people anymore and we can be more open about our identities because the discrimination against us is maybe less overt to some extent. The general population is becoming more aware of trans etiquette and there are many important allies in and out of the spotlight.

However, there is still a bow wave of negativity and discrimination via social media, the Gender Critical Movement, the media and more, which can easily grow into microaggressions in the general population. These microaggressions affect mental health, relationships, self-esteem and work opportunities almost as much as overt aggression would.

Microaggressions usually come in three forms. Firstly verbal which is usually subtle and covert such as repeatedly misgendering or deadnaming. Behavioural exclusion occurs when trans people are turned away from gyms or not allowed to access the right toilet or they might appear to be more minor or subtle and covert such as a trans joke on tv is deemed to still be ok. Environmental microaggressions mean trans people are not represented in the mainstream, for example by a trans MP or newsreader, which means they are not seen in positive roles. So perhaps there are fewer insults and assaults, but trans people still feel invalidated and excluded, subtle micro-aggressions are compounding, and our defences always have to be up which can be exhausting.

The best ways to deal with microaggressions on a personal level

When someone has made a genuine error and doesn’t have bad intentions, I tend to appreciate it when they correct themselves even if I feel inadvertently insulted. Sometimes these comments or slip-ups are just down to habit but when that mistake is repeated over and are more likely to become a microaggression. Remember this is also often repeated by other people so there is a cumulative effect, not just in relation to one person.

If you are confident and have strong mental health and resilience you can be prepared and have an answer in your back pocket, perhaps asking them to correct the language, or repeat or check what they meant. I have been known to ask to speak to the manager of a restaurant for example and to very politely advise them that someone in their organisation has misgendered me so please could they consider doing more training around that. If the apology doesn’t feel authentic that can feel even worse.

We need to support, empower, increase awareness and ensure inclusion. So how can we ensure our workplace is trans-inclusive and stop microaggressions? Here are six steps:

1) We need to keep creating positive debate and awareness where the outcome is fair and people can be heard. I look forward to the day when there is no need for the constant discussions about how trans people can be helped to be fully part of society and the workplace, we just are, but in the meanwhile when you are trying to do your best by trans people, make sure they are involved in the discussion about what is needed for best practice. You can’t have any sort of impactful change without trans people being involved and in the room as an active part of the discussion.

2) We need allies and leadership mentors and visible, high-profile trans people just doing their job well.

3) We need total clarity about the company’s stance and values with a clear respect and fairness policy. Trans inclusion policies and procedures need closer review – be that in language, in recruitment or within teams. In order to strive for equity, we need to put in the systems to level the playing field.

4) There needs to be a culture of zero tolerance for any sort of gender, or any other sort of, discrimination. We need to create workplace cultures that value individuals and the differences between them for the benefit of the individual, organisations, communities and society.

5) We need far more robust training, particularly around language. I like people to respect and use my name and pronoun as a woman. Misgendering me and not including me as a woman makes me feel like I continue to fail to be allowed to be who I am. How you treat me or speak to me determines if I feel accepted, validated and included.

6) I get asked about toilets all of the time and get frustrated that conversations around trans people always seem to end up talking about toilets or changing rooms, but businesses do need to provide facilities that are inclusive to ensure respect, dignity and comfort. Remove gendered terms where possible. Call it a toilet so it is gender-neutral. It is just a toilet.

By Joanne Lockwood, the Founder and CEO of SEE Change Happen and an Inclusion and Belonging specialist who works with organisations throughout the UK and globally to bring culture change that allows people to thrive and perform at their best from pre-hire to retire.

In this article, you learned that:

  • Microaggressions can be just as damaging to mental health and career progression as overt discrimination
  • Microaggressions usually come in three forms; verbal, behavioural and environmental
  • In the office, remove gendered terms for toilets to ensure inclusivity for all
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