Regularly experiencing implicit bias at work can make a workplace feel uncomfortable and unsafe even if a worker is never explicitly bullied. This is Emory’s experience with implicit bias at work as a trans man.

“So, have you had the surgery?”

She blurted out this question out of nowhere. It feels like the wind had been knocked out of me and suddenly I can’t think straight.

It’s almost midnight and she sits cross-legged in the swivel chair in front of the desk. It has just begun to quiet down at the shelter and there isn’t too much to do. She had just started her day, so she sips on a coffee as she flips through the notes I’d written from my shift. I yawn.

When she arrived fifteen minutes earlier, my shift partner and I were talking about preparing for pride, or some other queer event. I’d been working with my shift partner since the beginning of the shelter season; this new girl I’d only known for a handful of weeks. So, I don’t know exactly how the conversation started, funny how that seems to go- remembering the one thing that’s impossible to forget but having no idea how you actually got there.

This isn’t the first time I’ve gotten a question like this from a co-worker. And until we start educating workplaces, leaders, and individuals, these kinds of questions are likely to continue.

What is implicit bias?

Implicit biases are the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases affect how we interact with our co-workers often those who we perceive as different from ourselves.

My experience with bias as a trans man

I’m generally fairly open about being transgender. I am open about it for a number of reasons. (1) I don’t always pass and I want to make sure people use my name and pronouns (no, Emory is not my birth name and please don’t ask what it was and my pronouns are he/him or they/them); (2) I want to be an advocate for transgender rights and be a role model for trans youth; (3) I’m proud to be trans, I value the person it has made me and how it has informed my masculinity. But just because I am open about being trans, this does not invite inappropriate questions. I mean, maybe people think it does – but it shouldn’t.

I know that questions don’t always come from a place of malice, but regardless of the intent they generally have a negative impact on the person you’re asking.

If you’re reading this and suddenly feel bad about a question you’ve asked someone in the LGBTQ+ community – don’t. Take the time to consider your intent, know that we are all learning and do better next time.

Addressing Your Implicit Bias

How do we do better? Before asking questions such as these, consider a few things:

  1. Is the intent of the question to simply satisfy your own curiosity? If yes, don’t ask it.
  2. Would you ask the same, or similar, questions to a heterosexual or cisgender person? If no, don’t ask it.
  3. Is it a question you could Google first? If yes, do that first.
  4. Is this the appropriate person to ask and the appropriate setting to ask? Consider your relationship with this person and whether or not they are the appropriate person to be asking this question, and think about how personal the question is. And consider the setting – the person you’re asking should have enough time to provide a thoughtful answer to the question. Often the workplace is not the place for these types of questions.
  5. Did you get consent to ask? It is always important to get consent before asking questions such as these. Getting consent is as simple as “Can I ask you a question about X?” and waiting for (and respecting) the answer.

Considering the two questions I mentioned I’d been asked at work, asking about whether or not I’ve had surgery is personal and has no relevance to my work or who I am as a person. It is essentially asking me about my genitals, which is inappropriate to ask in any setting, particularly in the workplace. Asking about a name is less invasive but consider why a trans person changes their name. Many feel uncomfortable and dysphoric about their birth name (many call it their dead name) and have chosen a name that makes them happier. This is the same as a cisgender person choosing to go by their middle name or a version of their first name because they prefer it.

Also, it’s interesting to note that the few times I’ve caved and told people my birth name, they’ve slipped up and used it and it was really triggering for me.

Final Thoughts

Thankfully I’ve never been explicitly harassed or bullied at work, but the implicit biases do have a lasting impact. It’s not just the questions I’ve been asked – though these are the most obvious instances – I also notice the double-takes or the puzzled looks I get when I mention my boyfriend. It’s just enough to make me feel like I’m different, or weird, or don’t belong. And for the record, gender and sexuality are two different things. I absolutely can be transgender and gay.

For educational information about the LGBTQ+ community check out our LGBTQ+ resources.

Originally published by Emory Oakley. Emory is a writer and LGBTQ+ educator who regularly discusses the intersections of queer identities and mental health.