The Alienation of Being Queer in Corporate America
Entering a new workplace as a trans person is always nerve-wracking. Usually, I wait a few months and get to know my coworkers before I reveal my pronouns, but that approach often left me feeling alienated and uncomfortable. When I started a new position in November, I decided to be out from the inception. In general, I was readily accepted, but I still had to explain what a non-binary identity was to my interviewers. As time passed and I started to relax, I realized just how naïve I had been to assume I could be fully, comfortably myself in any work environment.
I got incredibly lucky in landing this new, remote office job that allowed me to quit the anxious and undervalued work of waiting tables during COVID-19. It’s my first ever non-food service/manual labor position, and it’s been a strange transition from the politics and rag-tag camaraderie of restaurants to remote work with corporate coworkers. I’ve learned that the service industry clouded my view of the workforce. I thought the rest of America’s workers looked like the restaurants I had experienced; everyone had a distinct personality meaning there were constant clashes and at least one breakdown a shift, but everyone experienced it together thereby forming a kind of trauma bond between entirely different people. I thought all workplaces had a common enemy, whether it be the boss, the customer, or the industry itself. I thought my new job would be much more diverse than it is - a white person’s naivete. At the very least, I thought I would be one of several queer people at my new company. I wasn’t.
Instead, I am the only out one. If there are more queers in my company of 70+ people, they have yet to reveal themselves to me. A recent initiative to get my coworkers to add their pronouns to their email signatures affirmed my suspicions that I am the only openly non-cis person there. In other aspects of workplace diversity, I can count the people of color within the company on one hand. None of this should have been surprising to me, and yet it all was.
It’s been a challenge over the past few months to assimilate into the corporate workforce, but also to adjust my identity as a queer non-binary person into something digestible for my position. My company knew my pronouns were they/them when they hired me. Within my first week, a coworker, still a complete stranger to me, asked me why I was non-binary. I wanted to tell her that there both is and isn’t a reason for it, that there are cataclysmic events that create the need to identify this way and at the same time there aren’t any explanations at all. Instead, I fumbled my way through a watered-down version of feeling uncomfortable in femininity.
After that uncomfortable (yet ultimately positive) conversation when I had been there for a few months, we had a Lunch-n-Learn about LGBTQ+ identities. My company paid a group specializing in educating corporate crowds on anti-queer biases within the workplace. I didn’t expect much but was looking forward to having some of the pressure taken off me to explain myself. The panel was all white and cis, speaking to a mostly white and cis audience.
Within the first five minutes, I felt like there was a spotlight shining on my Zoom icon floating among the crowd, signaling me out as The Queer. I was hyper aware of my facial expressions, my reactions, and the feeling that it was too late to turn off my camera - that doing so would be a reaction in and of itself.
The talk continued with informational slides interspersed with whiteboard style interactions. We were instructed through quirky anecdotes like “[Intersex] is a thing too!” and “my brain goes smokey too, gender is hard, haha!” The presenters asked if we thought anti-LGBTQ+ bias existed in our company. We all wrote our answers anonymously on the screen. Some of my colleagues wrote “that could never happen here” and “I don’t think that would occur, we’re all very accepting”, while most wrote “yes, I believe that could happen.” Not many wrote along the lines of “yes, I fully believe we exercise those unconscious biases within the work force.” It was the gamut of responses I expected, but it was still somehow shocking to see. I couldn’t tell if my surprise spoke more to my own liberal bubble or the bubble of corporate America.
After a few introductory slides, about halfway through the hour-long presentation, the slide explaining gender identity came up. Out of the silent Zoom audience, someone’s laughter bubbled up and burst through my speakers. They had forgotten to mute themselves. My stomach dropped into my office chair. They corrected it quickly, but the damage had been done.
I felt frozen. I didn’t know who had laughed, and I didn’t know whether it even was about the slide. Maybe their pet did something stupid at that exact moment. Maybe they had their sound muted but not their mic and hadn’t been paying any attention at all. Or maybe it was exactly as hateful and intentional as my anxiety thinks it is. Regardless, as I sat there, alone in my bedroom and alone in my corporate queerness, I felt scrutinized. The presentation moved on to the heightened statistical probability of trans people experiencing violence, and I finally had to turn off my camera. I broke down crying, feeling unsure if my reaction was blown out of proportion or justified.
After the presentation ended, I felt drained and hollow. I tried to do my work, but when I sent it over to my boss, he told me that it didn’t make sense and to try again. I realized I needed a break. Despite my looming deadlines, I couldn’t jump from feeling simultaneously so closely examined and so isolated to immediately putting out quality work. I excused myself and I took a walk.
No one reached out to me after that presentation, though I’m not sure I would have wanted them to. If they had, I would have continued to feel like I was under the microscope. It would have felt like the only reason they were reaching out was because of my queer identity. But without anyone reaching out, it felt like a switch had been turned from hyper-visible to completely invisible. The difference was immediate and stark and left me reeling.
That experience was still early on in my time at the company. A few months have passed since, and while I don’t feel quite as insecure about my identity in the workplace as I did then, my solution has been to tamper myself down. I actively share less of myself, my personality, and my life with my coworkers, because I am afraid of that burst of laughter. There are some people who reach out and apologize to me when they use incorrect pronouns, and I thank them for the apology. I do not tell them that it’s ok. I keep that boundary for myself and do not excuse their behavior, even when I know it’s what they expect of me. I know that my company does not want to hold these discriminatory beliefs. I know that they want me to feel comfortable being my whole self. But I also know that being a part of a company requires a certain homogeny that I don’t fit into. For now, I can only advocate for increased diversity, and hope that sometime in the near future, I won’t be the only queer.
Words: Jenna Sylvester