Transgender Employee - From Vulnerable to Exploited
I love working in tech. But being an "other," there's always an overwhelming feeling that I need to find safety in an unfamiliar environment. And no, it isn't always because I'm Black.
I'm transgender, too. Sometimes this makes me more vulnerable than my Blackness does. At least it did at my first tech job.
Backstory: When I started my first tech job, I had only been on testosterone for about a month, which isn't really long enough for physical changes to start. But I was still able to "pass" (appear to have been born a cisgender male) in many instances. I figured that as long as I took the lead and referred to myself as a man, people would just take my word for it.
This blog is about how my gender identity was used against me to slow my professional development. We'll be covering the following:
I was afraid of facing transphobia (and having to explain gender identity to a bunch of cis white men), so any act of friendship from coworkers overjoyed me. This caused a major issue:
I was so focused on the approval of the group that I never thought to consider the character of the individuals.
This was my first tech job and my first time being an actively-transitioning transgender employee. I was new to hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and emotionally vulnerable. Imagine going through puberty again, but at the start of a new career.
This all led me to think my coworkers were better friends than they actually were. I never stopped to think about how bad I felt after spending time with them, or how I felt like I had to hide parts of myself in order to be accepted.
It was just a relief to have their acceptance. I wasn't sure that I'd get my coworkers' approval at first, but more on that later. When I finally took a step back, I realized that most of my coworkers weren't even the kind of people that I wanted to be friends with; we just didn't have that much in common.
So why did I really want to be friends with my coworkers? Because I started this job on the defensive thanks to some mishandling by HR. I was in survival mode.
Soon after starting, my manager "Steve" told me that the entire team already knew that I was transgender...because the HR Department had told them so. This news horrified me. I had specifically asked the HR Department to use discretion regarding my transgender status.
As a new employee, I felt it was imperative that I controlled the narrative. After all, this was my career.
If something about my identity could jeopardize my career, I need to have total control over how, when, and why that information is released to coworkers.
That control was deliberately taken from me.
Anyway, Steve postured himself to be an ally, which meant a lot to me at the time. He told me that I needed to stick with him because other people were likely to discriminate. In fact, he reported that he had already heard employees talking behind my back. Remember when I said that I wasn’t sure if I would get my coworkers’ approval? This was why.
To recap: as if we were in high school, Steve told me that some of the other employees on the team didn't like that I was transgender. How was I to work in an environment like that?!
Steve immediately isolated me from the rest of the team so that I would be dependent on him. This caused me to believe that his approval would be more important than my work performance when it came to my employment, and I really needed to keep this job. The tech industry is competitive; it could be irrecoverable if I was fired from my first job. I'd need him to vouch for me until I had enough time at the company to find another job more easily.
Just like that, less than 90 days into my new career, something other than my skill set was determining the fate of my employment.
Before I even had a chance to prove what kind of employee I could be, I was (allegedly) already discounted by some.
To make it even worse, Steve gave me little feedback on my job performance. When I requested feedback on my work, he would say that I was "doing great" without any further guidance. I spent less time focusing on how to be the best engineer I could be, because it was becoming less and less relevant to my employment status.
Instead, I focused on being "one of the guys" as much as possible. I had to.
In fact, I focused on being "one of the guys" so much that I forgot to notice that I was the only Black guy. This proved to be a critical error, because I was also experiencing organizational racism. Yay, intersectionality!
Eventually, every single one of my coworkers initiated conversations that made it obvious they didn't have a problem with me being transgender. When I no longer needed Steve's personal approval, I realized that being vulnerable had also caused me to be exploited in another way. Steve had been using me as his personal assistant—or, rather, his spy.
In Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, President Obama relayed a lesson he learned from his step-father, Lolo:
“If you can’t be strong, be clever and make peace with someone who’s strong. But always better to be strong yourself. Always.”
I was raised similarly. I have a strong work ethic, and I work especially hard when I feel like someone put their neck on the line for me. Because Steve had convinced me that he was the only one looking out for me, and because the power dynamics of our workplace made him the "strong" one by default, I felt obligated to him.
So that's why, when asked, I agreed to be Steve's "spy," for lack of a better term. If one of my coworkers was upset or underperforming, instead of dealing with that employee directly, Steve would ask me to find out what was wrong with them.
Being the only transgender employee in a team full of tech bros made it hard to relate at times, but I was still expected to be the one to improve team morale in Steve's absence.
If my lead had a bad attitude, it was my job to determine the cause and report back to Steve. If my other coworker was thinking about quitting, I was to inform Steve so that then (and only then) would he be offered a well-deserved raise. I told myself that I did this to better my chances at a promotion, but I didn't.
My actions were fear-driven.
I was fearful that being the only transgender employee meant that my job was more vulnerable, because that was exactly what I was told when I started. Labor laws provide a way to fight back if something happens, but I didn't want a lawsuit; I just needed to pay the bills. Doing Steve's bidding when asked felt like the only way that I could guarantee that my job would be safe.
I wasn't going to let my own workload suffer because of these extra tasks. I knew that my work performance still mattered a great deal. In addition to increasingly serving as Steve's personal assistant, I was still doing all of my own work. I was exploited to the point where my work ethic established a stricter precedent for me than that of my coworkers.
It should be noted that I was promised to be rewarded for these efforts, but that never materialized.
Despite pretending to protect me, it was Steve who had been discriminating against me all along. He used my gender identity to lie to me and keep me separated from the group, then used that separation to his advantage. Leaving that job was one of the greatest decisions I ever made.
While I should have been more careful, I can't blame myself too harshly. It was never my responsibility to ensure that my working environment was free of abuse.
One of the reasons I wrote this blog was so that I wouldn't be able to hide anymore. Unlike being Black, being transgender isn't immediately obvious to people when they meet me. This causes a lot of anxiety, trying to determine if it would be dangerous for me to come out (all while still trying to learn a new job). If someone doesn't want a transgender employee, they're unlikely to call me if they see this—it's a win-win!
I control the narrative now.
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