How to Encourage a Supportive Environment

Apr 07 2016 Published by under conflict, empathy, empathy gap, LGBT

I read an article recently about casual racism and how the victim didn’t know how to respond. It’s complicated. But what if you are not the victim. I think that someone who is not a victim of the comments has a responsibility to respond. But how?

I was recently talking to a senior professor, let’s call him Prof A. He was commenting on a senior professor at another institution, Prof B. Prof B happens to be a transgender man. The comments had nothing to do with the fact that he’s transgender.

The problem is how Prof A was referring to Prof B. He repeatedly, and not even just once or twice, referred to him as her. He would always eventually correct himself. But then every time he would go back to saying “she.”

Prof B has been transgender for longer than I have been in science. He makes no secret of his status. Why would it be difficult to remember the correct pronoun? Was it purposeful disrespect? Even if it wasn’t, it was disrespectful by lack of trying.

Given the obstacles and issues transgender people face, perhaps this is only a microaggression. However, given all the obstacles and issues transgender people face why would anyone with any empathy want to add to that with microaggressions?

What is my role? Does my silence support this kind of behavior? Would saying something raise awareness and promote respect or just irritate people? Does the power differential between me and the speaker affect how I should react? Workplaces can be respectful of gender transitions. I would like to support that kind of environment but I am not sure of the best way to help others work toward that goal as well.

7 responses so far

  • potnia theron says:

    First off, Prof A probably knows. He *was* flipping back & forth on pronouns. Prof A may/probably/could have some issues with trans people.He may have known Prof B before B changed. But, if he was correcting himself, he's at least trying to get it right. Trying is not the same as getting it right. But its better than resolutely calling B a woman, and using his original pre-trans name.

    Yes, there is a hierarchy of getting things right. We are all not as perfect as we'd like to be. I have a dear, dear trans friend. I sometimes call him by the wrong name. I feel horrible and apologize, and he smiles at me and says "feggabatit". When said friend got married, he & spouse put a paragraph in their wedding program about pronouns, which included something along the lines of: we don't mind if you have trouble with pronouns. It happens. That you love us and accept us is the only thing we really care about.

    I don't know if saying something to Prof A would help. If he knows and is trying, it might just embarrass him, and make him not want to talk about Prof B at all (for fear of making a mistake). Or he might get annoyed with you seeming "holier than thou" about something with which he struggles. Or he might think "wow, what a great, aware student, can I poach them for my lab?".

    Bottom line, you can work towards a respectful workplace. You can interrupt racism/sexism/ageism/abled-ism/etc when you see it. But sometimes, when someone is on the path, and working towards a goal, interruption won't move the person or the workplace forward.

    • SweetScience says:

      If Prof A is *trying* (or even if not) one could try a complimentary way of bringing it up - [after science-related conversation, as a footnote]: "I admire you for correcting yourself on your pronoun use. I'm just curious, do you know why you find yourself switching back? Did you know Prof B before his transition?" Then there can actually be a conversation about it (hopefully about the issue, not Prof B specifically) and perhaps bring more about it to light for everyone. That's the hard part, right? Do we talk about this or not? Talk about it!

  • --bill says:

    Policing someone else's behavior is always a claim to power over that other person.
    Making claims of power over someone can be very touchy.
    Be mindful that your claim that you have both the right and the obligation to police Prof. A's behavior could be contested by Prof. A.

    • peirama says:

      My goal is not to police anyone's behavior. My goal would be to be to make the speaker and the other people in the conversation aware of how their words affect other people. Clearly people can be very touchy about this sort of thing, thus my indecision about how to respond. I believe that it is everyone's obligation and right to make the workplace more welcoming of diversity. Do you have a good strategy for this?

  • ecologist says:

    I can add a personal perspective on this question. I know two transgender individuals, both in a professional capacity. I have known both of them for decades before their respective transitions, and, as you suggest, that does add an element of confusion. If I find myself talking about either of these people in relation to post-transition events, it is easy for me to use the correct pronouns. But when I am speaking of pre-transition events or work, it is easy to slip. This becomes particularly slippery when wanting to refer to work published under the individual's pre-transition name. (Both of these individuals changed their name when they came out and transitioned.)

    I find that it helps me to remember that although the transition appeared as an abrupt change in sex to me, it was not a change in sex from their point of view; it was something that they had been aware of for a very long time. If I imagine myself talking to, or about, the internal person rather than the person as they appeared externally pre-transition, it is easy to use the right pronoun. I suppose the bibliographic problem can probably be best handled explicitly ("this person published a great paper on that topic back in year yyyy; if you go back to look for it, it was published under the name X instead of name Y") but I haven't tried that yet.

    My point is that when one has known someone for a very long time before their transition, mistakes in pronouns may easily occur without any ill intent.

    (Without going into detail, I will say that I have been completely supportive of both individuals at every opportunity.)

  • Ola says:

    Quick question - did Prof A know Prof B before he changed gender? If so, it's possible he (A) is just using the historical term, from the time back when B was female. Those kind of ingrained things are difficult to untrain, similar to the way kids never get used to calling their mom's new husband "daddy".

    There are 2 kinds of people - those who go through life caring deeply about what other people think about them, versus those who just get on and live their lives and fuck what anyone else thinks. A colleague of mine insists on being called Michael and goes apeshit when you call him Mike. He's a regular douche (kinda guy who'll stiff the waitress on a tip given the opportunity). Another colleague has 2 first names, not hyphenated, and goes by her middle name in spoken use. Every single last time she interacts with a business in some form, they screw up the names. She learned long ago that there's a lot of energy to be wasted (and a lot of "ooh little miss bitchy" comments to be made), by insisting people re-do paperwork so the names match.

    • peirama says:

      I don't know Prof A's relationship history with Prof B. That is a good question.

      I would think there is a big difference between a business getting one's name wrong and someone who knows you getting your gender wrong. However, like many have said, context certainly shapes how to interpret a situation like this.

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