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Trans/non-binary students reflect on workplace experiences at Grinnell

Jax Seiler, a non-binary student employee at the Spencer Grill, says that they are often misgendered at work despite displaying their pronouns on their name tag. Photo by Liz Paik

By Kelly Page

Across jobs at Grinnell, it seems that many transgender student employees do not feel accepted in their workplaces. Some feel more comfortable going by the pronouns they were assigned at birth rather than risking awkwardness and non-acceptance from supervisors. Others who opt to choose gender-affirming pronouns in the workplace often find that they are frequently misgendered. Some trans individuals have reported hearing transphobic comments from workplace supervisors. It appears that Grinnell needs to try harder to create more comfortable work environments for its transgender student employees.

“More often than respected, I feel my trans identity is mostly just tolerated, in pretty much every campus job I’ve had,” wrote Cassidy Christiansen ’19 in an email to the S&B. Christiansen currently works for Student Government Association (SGA) as the Concerts Chair, and in the past, they have also worked as a concerts committee member, a Community Advisor (CA) and CA at Large, and at various positions in the Dining Hall.

“I didn’t come out to the non-student staff at D-hall about my pronouns because I was just too nervous, and it was a very gendered atmosphere — I’m glad that workers there are sometimes choosing to wear their pronouns on a pin, but it doesn’t really get at the issue of assuming you need to know or have the right to know anyone’s gender identity,” they wrote in an email to The S&B.

Christiansen continued, “There are several wonderful women working in the bakery and I just couldn’t know if they would accept me or not, and it seemed like less of a hassle to just be misgendered.”

Another student employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, also chooses to use the pronouns they were assigned at birth rather than risk potential othering from their colleagues.

“The place where I work is mostly middle-aged white ladies, some of whom have made explicit transphobic comments to me,” they said, “so there’s that aspect of it that I know some of them are actively transphobic. Also, I just don’t want this part of my identity to be such a big thing in my interactions with people at the workplace. I think it’s easier for me in the classroom, like if I say my pronouns are they/them it’s just easily incorporated … and if I did that in the workplace people would try but it would just be like a whole thing and I don’t want it to be a whole thing, and people would mess up a lot, and I feel like it would just become central to some of my interactions and I just don’t want that.”

That student was left feeling uncomfortable after a coworker recently asked them what their pronouns are.

“It was like they were saying, your gender isn’t legible to me, please come out to me,” they said. “For me, I don’t like that question. I feel like if people are referring to me in a way that’s different from how I want to be referred to, I feel like I can say something, but I don’t like being confronted. I saw the other day on Twitter, someone said instead of asking what are your pronouns, you should ask what are your pronouns in this space.”

Among students who choose to use gender-affirming pronouns in the workplace, it is a common experience to be continually misgendered. Jax Seiler, who works in the Spencer Grill, wears their pronouns on their nametag but still gets misgendered by supervisors.

“I get misgendered with pronouns even though I have them on my hat with the name tag, but I haven’t really said anything, so I feel like that’s kind of ignored … It’s a little like, okay you’re wrong and it’s a little uncomfortable but I’m gonna move on because that’s life,” they said.

Harley Rivers ‘19 has worked as a CA for three years. Initially, ze felt that zir nonbinary identity was not accepted by other CAs during training.

“I was nominally out as non-binary but could never talk about it or dress in an affirming way without feeling uncomfortable stares during training from a staff of many who’d never seen ‘someone like me’ before,” ze wrote in an email to The S&B.

Rivers was also surprised to find that zir previous struggles with mental health issues and anxiety, common for trans and nonbinary individuals, were seen as weaknesses within the position.

“With the empathy and crisis aversion and anti-oppressive work I had learned through my gender identity and associated emotions, I thought that I could bring more to the table; instead I stayed silent on this point out of fear of judgment and performance evaluations,” ze wrote.

In the last two years ze has worked as a CA, Rivers has seen improvements in how the CA system treats trans students, for instance by adding places to write pronouns on door decorations. However, ze still wishes that the CA system could become more accepting to transgender applicants.

“I yearn for more representation and for the wonderful transgender applicants to this job to be accepted into a more welcoming space,” ze wrote.

Making work environments more welcoming to transgender students is a bigger issue than simply telling supervisors to forcibly ask for their employees’ pronouns. It would mean restructuring entire workplace cultures to be less gendered and more welcoming of transgender individuals.

“If there were other trans and nonbinary people in a certain space, that could help. Or if people had some kind of training. Because there’s some conversation around it, enough that people would think to ask what my pronouns are, but there’s maybe not enough of a conversation, or maybe it’s not quite the right conversation,” the anonymous student said.

Christiansen suggested allyship to trans students as an important way to make them feel safe and supported at work.

“If it’s okay with your trans colleagues, call out people, staff/administration (and even professors!) because when you speak up for us we feel so much safer knowing there’s an ally in the room,” they wrote.

Christiansen also highlighted the importance of intersectionality in addressing problems facing transgender student-workers.

“As a white nonbinary trans person, my experiences with transphobia are not the same of those of trans people of color on campus and I can only hope that we begin to highlight those voices and experiences while taking seriously radical bias training across all employees of Grinnell College. This is certainly not just an issue of gender bias, but bias of race, class, and sexuality as well.”

Jax Seiler, a non-binary student employee at the Spencer Grill, says that they are often misgendered at work despite displaying their pronouns on their name tag.
Photo by Liz Paik
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