When the world slowed down at the start of the pandemic, 36-year-old Jo Parcell had more time to contemplate their gender identity. They turned to books to make sense of how they personally identified. Parcell read stacks of memoirs and essay collections by LBGTQ+ authors who identified as trans masculine (people assigned female at birth and identify with masculinity) and non-binary (those who do not feel they have a solely female or male identity).
“I had a lot of time in my own apartment to really read through a lot of experiences of people who had been thinking about gender and presentation,” says Parcell. “It allowed me to really reflect more deeply about how I wanted to be moving through the world.”
Parcell, a children’s librarian in Washington, DC, who uses ‘they/them’ pronouns, realised they were non-binary. Throughout the next few months, while working from home, Parcell explored their gender presentation by changing their hair and wardrobe, and taking a walk around their neighbourhood to see if it felt comfortable. They felt more in control of their process because social distancing and remote work meant they didn’t have to explain themselves to others.
And while Parcell led literacy programmes for children and parents on Zoom, they were able to introduce themselves with a new name and pronouns, and also include this information on the screen for patrons to remember. “It definitely felt a lot safer to be able to get very comfortable with this change for myself, and in my own space and in my own way, and being able to control how I was interacting with the public,” they say.
Due to the safe space the pandemic provided, Parcell is one of a group of people who came out as transgender or non-binary while working remotely during the pandemic (not all transitions to non-binary pronouns and gender identity indicate a person is transgender, although this is how Parcell identifies). Time away from the office, with little to no in-person interactions, allowed for more privacy and freedom to explore gender identities in the safety of home.
But now, as office occupancy steadily increases, people who transitioned during the pandemic are re-emerging sometimes with different physical features and pronouns than when they left two years ago. According to trans workers and experts interviewed by BBC Worklife, not only do they report a lack of comprehensive trans-inclusive policies around name and gender changes, but some now also say they face social challenges that may arise from colleagues disrespecting their new name and gender. The issue is particularly pertinent in the US, where conversations around gender identity and transgender visibility have increased in recent years.
Jo Parcell, 36, was able to use the safe space of remote work "to control how I was interacting with the public" (Credit: Courtesy of Jo Parcell)
Confidence in the privacy of home
Transitioning from one’s sex assigned at birth to another gender looks different for every trans person, but it can include changing names, pronouns and gender presentation; some also undertake cosmetic procedures and surgeries. People who have recently transitioned report working from home offered opportunities for more control, such as when to appear on camera during video calls, meaning trans people could be more comfortable in their own spaces.
Parcell says, for them, transitioning was like “a second puberty” that included a trial-and-error period to figure out what worked best. “I think getting to do some of that floundering out of the public eye allowed me to just build more confidence and be more creative in what I was trying out,” says Parcell, who eventually grew a beard and got top surgery (a procedure to remove breast or chest tissue). “It was a process that got to be more personal, because I wasn’t having to explain myself as I went. I was able to feel things out and try things out.”
Alex Keaney Solaas, a 30-year-old trans woman from Boston, came out at her former workplace in January 2020. The dozens of colleagues she worked with closely were supportive of her transition. Overall, she says the 180-person company was LGBTQ-friendly with several out gay and lesbian employees, including Solaas, who used to identify as a gay man.
But she says as the first out trans employee to transition at her office, there wasn’t any established protocol. “[Management] didn’t really know what to do,” says Solaas. “So, it was kind of like, ‘We support you, but we’ll be learning with you’ sort of thing.” Solaas says she felt the burden fell on her to lead. “And I just didn’t really feel like teaching them,” she says.
Solaas began hormone therapy on the last day everyone was in the office before the pandemic closed workplaces down. She was grateful to be working from home early on in her transition, when she didn’t want to be seen in-person as her physical appearance changed. As she got laser hair removal and experimented with clothes, she felt she could present herself “on her own terms” during video calls.
“I didn’t have to worry about like if people thought that I was looking weird,” says Solaas. “I just didn’t have to face any direct judgments.”
Back to the office
Now, however, some trans people who transitioned in a safe space report they are returning to the office with different identities and grappling with policy hurdles and social shifts.
S Leigh Thompson, a New York-based diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consultant, says trans people who transitioned while working from home now have to reprocess their transition with the colleagues as they return to the office. “So, not being able to actually do that work in the social space means that the trans, non-binary person may be really in a different place and not ready for all of the people kind of viewing them for the first time,” says Thompson. “They may have just kind of gotten over it already, and don’t want to go through it again.”
I was afraid of my name or pronouns not being respected. I was afraid that there would be difficult conversations, or that I would have to justify my existence – Jo Parcell
As Parcell transitioned and returned to a hybrid work model in early 2021, a handful of fears bubbled to the surface. “From a co-worker perspective, I was afraid of my name or pronouns not being respected,” says Parcell. “I was afraid that there would be difficult conversations, or that I would have to justify my existence.”
In addition, Parcell says they were concerned about how they would be received following the passage of several US state laws restricting gender-confirming treatment of transgender youth and discussion of LGBTQ issues in younger school grades. “Stepping back into working with the public as a visibly trans person was pretty scary,” they say. “You never really know where somebody's coming from, or what's going on in their lives.”
In Parcell’s case, they lived and worked in a LGBTQ-friendly environment, so their colleagues accepted and supported them. But one of the biggest obstacles at Parcell’s workplace has been changing their name across systems and platforms the library uses. Up until recently, Parcell’s email address was connected to their former name, which led to people frequently dead-naming them (using their former name).
“There's been a weight of having to write that name 40 times a day to sign into everything,” says Parcell. “It's not exactly a pleasant experience to have to identify with that name so consistently throughout the day.”
Parcell first requested the change nine months ago, but their employer hasn’t yet been able to make the updates everywhere. “It would be really helpful if there was more of a direct process – ‘and this is how you request a name change, and this is what we need from you’,” says Parcell. “I have not legally changed my name yet, so I had a lot of questions around what HR even could change my name on and if it was worth trying to get that done across the board.”
Additionally, being misgendered by a stranger, says Parcell, puts them on high alert because it’s a reminder they’re being seen as “different or confusing”, which some people can feel threatened by. When a colleague occasionally does it, they say it feels like a “bruise or a papercut”. “It doesn’t last long but it hurts and is distracting,” they say. “Sometimes, it can get me down for a while, especially when it feels like the person is invalidating my existence.”
Alex Keaney Solaas, 30, came out as trans to her workplace in January 2020, but worked from home early on in her transition (Credit: Courtesy of Alex Keaney Solaas)
For Solaas, the lack of face-to-face interactions with her colleagues caused them to misgender her many times. “It wasn’t necessarily malicious,” she says. “It was just careless.” She says her colleagues’ mistakes annoyed her as she became more visibly transitioned. A year and half after going by her new name, Solaas remembers receiving an email from a colleague who used her former name. She was surprised, especially since she was friends with them on Facebook. “It was a one-off, so I know it was an accident,” says Solaas.
Other times, she would get misgendered while colleagues introduced her to new people on a call. “It just hurts others don’t see me how I see myself,” she says. “Early on, I get it. Occasional slips are one thing; I didn’t look super femme. But now? It feels like they’re trying to hurt me.”
Thompson says reprocessing a person’s transition with colleagues is extra work “on someone’s social emotional space or psyche” that makes it more difficult for them to effectively do their job. “It’s not to say that trans people are not capable of doing our work,” says Thompson. “It's just to name the additional labour that often isn't seen that marginalised people have to go through when they're struggling with the stigmas that show up in the workplace.”
Despite the name mistakes, Solaas says her colleagues were happy for her because she was more comfortable with herself. During the pandemic, Solaas had to return to the office once a week to sort mail and would run into a few colleagues, who remarked on how much happier she looked. “I just overall felt less bitter and angry,” she says. “So, I was able to just be lighter and easier to get along with. I was more open to talking.”
While Parcell and Solaas came out in supportive workplaces, that’s not the case for many trans people.
According to a report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, trans people experience higher rates of employment discrimination and harassment than cisgender lesbian, gay and bisexual employees – people whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex. Only 32% of trans respondents in a survey by McKinsey & Company say they are comfortable being fully out at work. And while many workplaces have increased DEI efforts in recent years, it doesn’t necessarily translate to true inclusion for all. The reality is transgender workers are navigating “significant anti-trans bias in the world”, explains Thompson.
CV Viverito, deputy director of global programmes at Out & Equal, a US non-profit organisation dedicated to LGBTQ workplace equality, says implementing trans-inclusive policies and practices is necessary as younger generations increasingly identify as LGBTQ and more employees feel comfortable coming out. “If you want the best talent, you’re going to have to make space for everybody,” says Viverito. “The best talent is diverse.”
I just overall felt less bitter and angry. So, I was able to just be lighter and easier to get along with. I was more open to talking – Alex Keaney Solaas
Viverito identifies three areas for employers to improve inclusion efforts: policy, practices and culture. Ways to enhance policies include adopting non-discrimination protections, offering trans-inclusive health coverage, updating dress codes to remove gendered language and adding gender-neutral facilities. But, says Viverito, creating gender-transition guidelines to support an employee’s transition in the workplace is key.
These guidelines include how colleagues should handle name changes and new identification. So, it’s communicating that “we have this name on the documents for tax purposes, but this person goes by this name”, says Viverito. “It provides guidance to teams and to managers saying, ‘This person uses this name, regardless of what’s on their ID. This is the name that we should respect.’” Guidelines should also include how to revise names and gender markers on internal documents and platforms as well as things like name cards and badges.
Inclusive language also plays a major role in building and sustaining an inclusive work culture, adds Viverito. That means respecting people’s pronouns around the office. When allies “leverage their privilege” and advocate in the workplace, Viverito says it often leads to change. “When a straight, cisgender person is telling a straight, cisgender executive, ‘No, this is important. This is something that we need to do. Here's some steps that I think that we can take.’ Although that shouldn't change the dynamic, it often does.”
Solass says these guidelines and advocacy steps would have helped amid her transition. She was the first one at her former company to start using pronouns in her email signature. She’s recently started a new job in the education industry, in a move aimed at advancing her career.
She’s most excited by a fresh start. “None of them ever knew me before,” says Solaas. “So, to them, I'm only Alex.”