When it comes to transitioning at work, there’s almost always a discussion about dress codes and it’s often that policy that can end up unintentionally influencing other transition-related decisions.
When I transitioned awhile back at my bank job, the strictly gendered dress code meant that I’d have to “flip a switch” when I transitioned. Meaning ties and blazers allowed one day, skirts and blouses the next.
I can still remember going over the dress code in orientation. We joked because the male dress code was a single paragraph—basically, a tie or blazer was required except casual Friday—while the ‘ladies’ had four pages of regulations on everything from shoes to hose to skirt length and leggings.
But for me, this lack of dress freedom meant an abrupt change that ended up being more difficult for all concerned.
While many binary trans people prefer the sudden approach, sometimes it’s easier to have an employee ease into their new gender presentation. Trans women can subtly feminize their gender expression and trans men vice versa.
This slower transition can be an easier adjustment for the company, the employee, and the other coworkers, but it depends on a fairly lax dress code that may not be available in more professional settings.
The employees most impacted by a dress code are often the ones who identify as nonbinary and have a more gender neutral or genderqueer expression. For them, life is not simply a matter of choosing between neckties and heels, and workplaces should be prepared to make accommodations.
For Lee, a 25-year-old nonbinary person from Virginia, his company dress code led to embarrassment. To express a more masculine appearance he stopped wearing bras but then a supervisor came up and asked if he was trying to get a [romantic partner] because his “nipples were out.”
“I told her that was inappropriate but she reported me to the manager,” said Lee, whose incident with the supervisor forced him to come out to management before he was ready. “I felt like they forced my hand so I came out and told the truth that this was how I express and that I’m trans.”
However, if not handled appropriately, this sort of gender policing can land an employer in court. Last year, headlines were made when a trans woman sued her employer, a funeral home, over the company’s dress code that enforced dress according to the employee’s assigned sex at birth.
In this case, the employer claimed a religious right to enforce such a dress code and ended up firing trans woman Aimee Stevens for failure to comply with the policy.
A dress code inclusive of nonbinary and trans people would allow for a more androgynous work presentation, ranging from something as simple as just removing sex from an existing dress code, to allowing mixing of traditionally gendered clothing (like allowing skirts and ties at the same time).
Interested employers should find and consult with local trans and LGBT advocacy organizations to work towards a work environment that trans people would feel more comfortable with.
In Lee’s case, what should have been a collaborative effort to settle into a new gender expression morphed into a waking nightmare.
“This started a whole year of headaches,” Lee said. “My managers tried to get me to wear something that would ‘strap me down’ but I was firm that I wasn’t going to wear a bra and that I physically could not wear a binder for ten or more hours on my feet every day.”
It’s important for companies to be aware of the needs of their trans employees, and that includes nonbinary people. Finding a balance between a dress code that prioritizes professionalism and an employee’s efforts to mitigate dysphoria should be the most basic approach.
With any workplace transition, it’s important for employees to lead the discussion, but the burden for educating should not completely fall on the trans employee. Human relations (HR) professionals have a duty to at least understand the trans basics, pronouns, terminology, etc.
Where my employer took an inclusive, employee-led approach to my transition, making effort to understand the real world of trans employment, Lee’s company took a much more malicious approach.
Initial discussions with HR left Lee frustrated when they didn’t understand basic language like “trans woman” and didn’t make an effort to get pronouns right at all. His situation in the workplace didn’t improve at all until he left his job earlier this year.
Unfortunately for trans people like Lee, there aren’t always formal legal avenues to pursue discrimination complaints about dress code enforcement.
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice released a memo stating that discrimination on the basis of gender identity was allowed under federal law, a reversal from the Obama administration’s position.
This leaves the trans community at the mercy of their own geography. Twenty states plus the District of Columbia have trans employment protections on the books, but those living in the other 30 states express their gender completely at the mercy of their employers.
In the meantime, companies should be aware that dress codes neatly splitting into male and female categories could leave some of their employees struggling with dysphoria or, even worse, open themselves up to lawsuits, depending on state law.
At the very least, employers should seek to create a welcoming work environment for all of their employees, trans people included. There’s no reason why, in 2017, companies should find themselves caught off guard by a trans-related HR issue.
Katelyn Burns is an Everyday Feminism Reporting Fellow. Katelyn is a freelance journalist and trans woman. She has previous bylines for The Washington Post, The Establishment, and VICE, among others. She lives in Maine with her two young children. Read her other articles here.