These Researchers Are Trying to Make the Workplace More Trans-Friendly

This piece has been republished after the initial source was taken down. Interview by Eli Erlick in May 2018.

In October, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared that federal civil rights laws don’t protect transgender workers. Transgender organizations and activists quickly scrambled to pick up the pieces from decades-long campaigns for basic dignity in the workplace. “Although federal law, including Title VII, provides various protections to transgender individuals, Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on gender identity per se,” Sessions’ memo stated, “Title VII expressly prohibits discrimination ‘because of sex…’ and several other protected traits, but it does not refer to gender identity. ‘Sex’ is ordinarily defined to mean biologically male or female.”

While Sessions is trying to make employment more difficult for transgender people, Alison Ash Fogarty and Lily Zheng have something else in mind: a workplace embracing of people of all genders. In their new book, Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination, Fogarty and Zheng share 25 stories from trans and gender nonconforming people who blur gender lines. They reveal often-overlooked patterns of discrimination in the workplace through long-term interviews with a wide range of trans workers.

Investigative and insightful, Gender Ambiguity seeks to educate employers, co-workers, trans leaders, nonprofits, and many more with recommendations for creating a healthier environment for trans people everywhere. Co-author Lily Zheng spoke with Eli Erlick about her project and provided even more insight into transgender issues in the workplace:

What drew you into this project?

As a young trans women in academia, it was difficult to “see myself” in the research I was learning about. This was at a time when trans visibility still felt far away, and even seeing a trans person mentioned in an academic context–even as exotic, bizarre subjects of study – felt gratifying. When the open call for research assistants on a dissertation centering trans people landed in my inbox, I couldn’t believe it. The initial research was an extraordinarily deep dive into the trans community, and the dozens of interviews humanized their participants in a way I didn’t believe academia could do. As a research assistant, and later Head Research Assistant, I poured my time and energy into this project because I knew how important this work was, both for me and the trans community at large. After the dissertation was published, I knew that to turn this work into impact, the next step would involve translating this academic work for general audiences. While still a student at that time, I volunteered to lead the adaptation and publishing efforts to turn this work into a book. Three years later, I’m proud of the work my coauthor and I have put into this important work, and am thrilled to see where it goes!

What were some common threads you found about your diverse set of interviewees?

This is always a hard question to answer given the extreme volume of experiences we learned about through the interviews, but there were a few striking themes we found. One was that discrimination experiences seemed to share a set of unspoken rules: “cis is better than trans” (trans status discrimination), “movement toward dominant masculinity is rewarded, movement away from it is punished” (hegemonic masculinity is superior), and “just pick one” (and pressure to identify within the gender binary). Another was the ubiquitous nature of discrimination: we found it in every industry, in entry-level positions and among upper-level management, and among trans people of all kinds. Finally, we found that every interviewee talked about their experiences and strategies navigating and dealing with discrimination, whether or not they were successful–the resilience and continued effort of interviewees to resist discrimination in any way they could was striking.

What surprised you about the research?

One of the most surprising things to me was finding out that our predictions of what kind of people would get discriminated against “more” were often wrong. While it’s often short-sighted to try and quantify discrimination, we couldn’t help but notice that many people who identified as women had more positive stories, while many people who identified as men did not. This took us down the rabbit hole to uncover just how and why things like gender performance, hegemonic masculinity, sex categorization and other complex processes contributed to discrimination. It led us to an idea that I mentioned above, that the dominance of masculinity is not always a dominance of “men.” It’s a little more complicated: when people’s gender identities or expressions move toward the “ideal” version of masculinity, they are rewarded regardless of whether they are a man or a woman. And when their gender identities or expressions move away from this ideal, they are punished–again regardless of whether they are a man or a woman. This is just one of the surprising findings from the research! I could talk at length about how we were surprised by the notion of doing ambiguity, the brazenness of trans status discrimination, or the success of particular discrimination-reducing strategies over others.

What do you think the future looks like for transgender workers?

We live in times of great change already, and it’s all but given that our workplaces, the people in them, and even the nature of paid work itself are all going to change substantially in our lifetimes. Despite all this, I really do believe that the future will look better for transgender workers. I say this not because I believe that the future will automatically be more progressive than the present, or because I believe that our society’s treatment of trans people will undergo a paradigm shift. I do believe that the future will be better for trans workers because to survive, the workplaces of the future need to be able to deal with ambiguity. They need to be able to deal with change. They need to be flexible, see things from multiple perspectives, move away from binary thinking, and harness the power of their workforce. Workplaces that can’t do this, in the long run, won’t make it.

Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination will be released on May 18th, 2018. You can pre-order it from Amazon or ABC-CLIO.