Being accepted for who you are shouldn’t be a revolutionary concept. But for our siblings in the LGBTQIA+ community, the fight against gender discrimination continues in the workplace. Trans and nonbinary professionals have long been fighting for inclusivity in society and, unfortunately, not every office is a safe space. Discrimination in the workplace can take many forms, from employers rejecting job applicants based on their gender identities and expressions to cases of harassment by ignorant colleagues.
Six young professionals shared their stories on what it’s like navigating the workplace. In a conversation hosted by the Preen Team’s Amrie Cruz and Zofiya Acosta, both nonbinary writers, the group spilled work horror stories and gave snippets of advice to fellow queer professionals struggling in conservative workplaces.
Stef: It was a very long and complicated journey to become a woman. [I came out twice]. When I was younger, I thought I was a gay man so that was my first. Luckily, accepting naman ’yung family ko. In college, [when I became] more aware of the different identities on the spectrum, I was able to reconcile who I really am. That’s [when] I learned that I am a woman, a transgender woman.
I guess when you tell people that you’re gay, gets na nila ’yun eh. It’s a more immediate and digestible concept. There’s [much less] awareness regarding the nuances of being trans—what [it means and] how you [should] refer to [a trans person]. [Mayroong] malaking learning curve with my family and my friends as well. I say this a lot: It was a transition, not only for me but for everyone.
“Every person that you meet, you have to figure out parang ‘Is this a person that I can come out to?'” – James
James: I came out very young. Not as trans but as bi when I was 14. When you come out as bi, there’s a lot of microaggressions attached to that. If you’re with someone, whether short term or long term, people think, “Oh, so you’re in a lesbian relationship,” or something like that.
When I realized that I was trans, I [didn’t immediately identify] as a trans man. Dati kasi ’yung definition ng trans was “born in the wrong body.” I never had that kind of relationship with my body so I never really considered myself trans. When I heard of the definition na parang hindi nag-aalign ’yung sex mo sa gender identity mo, that’s when I knew na, “Ah OK, I’m trans.” But then settling dun sa trans man label ko ngayon took very long, like I’m gender-nonconforming din kasi so I don’t see myself as entirely masculine. I don’t have plans to medically transition.
Kapag wala kang [ganung plans, people ask], “OK, so what kind of trans person are you?” Dati noong nag-out ako sa UP Babaylan as genderqueer and nonbinary, I was trying to fit in a bunch of labels that didn’t really resonate with me until early 2018 [when I realized] na trans man talaga ’yung label ko. It was a lot of unpacking, a lot of existential philosophizing
’Yung coming out process ko is repetitive. It’s a chore most of the time and it’s so mentally and emotionally taxing. Every person that you meet, you have to figure out parang “Is this a person that I can come out to?” Unless it’s to someone that I know I’ll be interacting with significantly, I just don’t bother coming out to people. Maswerte ako that it doesn’t bother me as much [kapag natatawag akong] ma’am or nadedeadname [ako], but for so many trans people, it’s a lot more violent of an experience.
Maria: [Coming out was] something that really gave me trouble whenever people were involved. For the longest time, I had identified as a pansexual person. It was only until I started dating another nonbinary person when I came to think of it as a better description for the way I experience things. Ako ’yung pretentious college student na nagbasa ng Judith Butler once, you know?
I tried to not push it at home kasi alam ko naman na, regardless of how I present myself, I’ll be accepted kasi nagiisa lang ako. I also understand din that not everyone is [as privileged] because while my folks are conservative, there are others who are very militant about it. There are people who wind up developing severe [trauma] because of having to [go in the] closet or being in an environment that’s abusive over their orientation and gender identity.
How can you tell if a company or industry would accept you during the job application or onboarding process? Are there some signals you watch out for?
James: When I was applying to work as a lecturer, I was already a graduate student in the same department and that was in the middle of me figuring things out. Some of the people in the hiring committee knew me as Jamie, while some knew me as James. Before the interview started, one of them asked me which name I preferred more so I went with James. At that point, alam na nila. I didn’t have to disclose anything.
They knew that I was heavily involved in LGBT advocacy. I’m not their first trans graduate student, but I was probably the first trans faculty member. It helps na very supportive and affirming ’yung department ko.
Pep: At first, I was [the kind of person who wanted to] convince everyone to like, love and accept me. But I learned that I shouldn’t have to force people to like [me]. I’m a trans woman and I don’t dress up like a man to get accepted for a job. You need to choose a company talaga na right for you. As early as the hiring process pa lang you’ll be able to know if they will support you or not.
Before I landed [my current job], I experienced discrimination. I didn’t expect to experience it sa mas “open” [na] industry and it was [at] an advertising agency, a big one. It happened during a job [interview.] As I was about to leave our house, I got a call from the HR na na-cancel ’yung interview. They said na may sudden emergency meeting daw but days later, they called me and said na the owner doesn’t recognize people like me. It was really depressing, bumaba self-esteem ko. Nagkaroon ako ng fear to apply to other companies because I was scared na ma-experience ko [’yun ulit].
Stef: There was a time when I was active in local gigs before I came out as trans. During that time I identified more as genderqueer. [I’ve experienced] a lot of deadnaming and misgendering, and I’m very lucky that [I don’t] anymore. I’m very vocal on my social media about trans rights, about my identity and about my truth so I tend to work with people I already know and people who already understand that.
It does say a lot that I don’t necessarily have any contemporaries right now in the music scene. I don’t think that’s due to a lack of talent—there’s so much trans talent there. I guess not enough trans girls have access to producers and to resources to further hone their talents or collaborate with people. But I am so thankful to see so many other queer women though. I’m so glad they are in the scene and are very visible as well. I just wish there were more people like me.
“At what cost ’yung pag-suck up mo sa tao if you’re going to be stuck in an environment that denies you your humanity.” – Maria
Maria: OK, so let me tell you a very bad story. For the most part, I’ve been working in the creative industry, but for a short period of time I worked in the HR department of a relatively conservative real estate company. I know I already have masculine privilege from presenting like I did, pero even I felt unsafe in that workplace because it was run by fratbros [and] I saw them actively discriminate against [the LGBTQIA+ community]. For example, a gay applicant reached the interview stage with the executive vice president of HR and look fairly qualified. Off the bat, ang sabi ng EVP sa staff niya, “We can’t afford to bring gay people into the team because gay people are incapable of deciding and we need decisive people on our team.” Another time, I saw the same boss with all these fratbros laughing at a butch lesbian in the company for having the nerve to ask if he had car loans because, “What would a lesbian want with a car?” I have no idea how that logic works.
I’ve been working as a writer and a freelancer [since then and] you’d think, creative people would be more open-minded, but one time I worked at this agency with [people] who refused to use [correct] pronouns or acknowledge na I had a preferred name. There’s still quite a bit to go [when it comes to] mainstreaming non-cishet identities.
It’s been like a policy of mine to not apply to companies that I know will be intolerant. If tagilid ’yung mga nag-interview sa akin or if I get an inkling na medyo restrictive ’yung company culture nila, I bail or bomb the interview. It’s a super privileged thing to do pero, at the same time, at what cost ’yung pag-suck up mo sa tao if you’re going to be stuck in an environment that denies you your humanity.
“There are spaces that you think wouldn’t discriminate against you and when they do, there’s a betrayal there that makes it even more painful. Like if a frat bro rejects you, it’s “Whatever, f*ck you,” but if a “feminist” rejects you it’s kind of like, ‘What the f*ck? I think you should know better.'” – Zofiya
Zofiya: I have horror stories, too. I had a different job before and [the company] seemed extremely feminist. [My boss] only employed women, but then the flip side is that she only employed cis women. She didn’t like lesbians, either. If there was a lesbian applicant, [my co-workers would say], “Yeah, I get why you wouldn’t want to hire them.” That made me feel unsafe and I never disclosed I was queer in that office.
To me, it’s really troubling because I feel like it’s not an uncommon case. There are spaces that you think wouldn’t discriminate against you and when they do, there’s a betrayal there that makes it even more painful. Like if a frat bro rejects you, it’s “Whatever, f*ck you,” but if a “feminist” rejects you it’s kind of like, “What the f*ck? I think you should know better.”
When it comes to colleagues curious about your gender identity and expression, how can they be respectful in bringing up that conversation?
Stef: Well for me, especially with trans women, we kind of have to deal with them all the time. If I see that it comes from a place of respect and if I see that it comes from a place of genuine curiosity, then I am willing to engage.
James: Yes, the question has to be coming from good faith or else I won’t engage. (Laughs)
Stef: Yes, we have better things to talk about than my genitals or what pills I take. I explain why that’s an intrusive question and wait for them to back off.
Amrie: Can I ask what steps a certain industry can take to be more gender exclusive? Personally for me, I’ve been dreaming of having dysmorphia as a valid reason to take a leave. I would just type in dysmorphia and sick leave na ’yun automatically.
Zofiya: Amrie, wait, you know I would approve that, right? Just tell me. (Laughs)
Amrie: (Laughs) OK, yay! What about the others?
“Universities have to have their own anti-discrimination policies, the same way that industries and companies have to have an anti-discrimination policy.” – James
James: I think that crosses over with mental health advocacy din. As a society, we don’t see mental illness or mental stress as a valid excuse kasi kailangan physical [’yung] illness para makapag-sick leave ka. That’s a different issue, but there is that intersection. I feel like the academe is not inclusive enough. This is something that I’m working on at the UP Center for Women’s and Gender Studies. Universities have to have their own anti-discrimination policies, the same way that industries and companies have to have an anti-discrimination policy.
Hindi pa napapasa ang SOGIE Equality Bill so wala tayong national protection and not all local government units have anti-discrimination ordinances. In my line of work, I’ve also worked with other companies as a consultant for their anti-discrimination policies. I think it’s very similar, say, to how most companies have anti-sexual harassment policies. Kailangan bawat institution mayroong ganoon.
Pep: Whenever people ask me about my sexual orientation, you can feel na may sensitivity, which I’m really thankful for. I have a big voice kasi and if I’m not speaking, people will think talaga na I am a [cis] woman. Kapag nagsasalita ako, [some] people [say] na, “I thought babae ka.” It’s awkward for me to act normal after that sentiment. It’s so hard, especially as a project manager who always does presentations in front of clients.
There were clients na hindi nga discrimination lang, minsan sexual harassment pa. They message you, ’yung iba in public magsi-strip.
What do you think your industry needs to improve on when it comes to gender inclusivity?
Zofiya: All industries should have safeguards for all its employees, period. [But on the smaller scale,] I brought up having pronoun guides at our office because giving out your pronouns [as a trans or nonbinary person] is such an inherently awkward experience. It’s so awkward to decide if this is the right time or is this the right moment. And you kind of also don’t want to *have* to do it? I’m super non-confrontational. I don’t want to be “the bitch at work who wants to impose their identity,” even though I know that’s wrong. If we normalize saying your pronouns regardless of your SOGIE, it makes it easier for people who aren’t cisgender to say theirs. It’s so weird how [companies] see that as a revolutionary thing [when] it really isn’t.
Amrie: There’s a big difference between being accepting and really acting towards being more gender inclusive. How far are we to a future when most companies are gender inclusive from the bat? Do you see a future when all companies have SOGIE educational discussions as part of their first day orientation or something similar?
“It’s one thing kapag maisabatas ’yung mga SOGIE-related stuff pero it also needs social reinforcement from the bottom up. And as much as I’d like to just feel safe among other queer people and not have to explain, I don’t think my work is done yet because there are people who still don’t understand.” – Maria
Maria: I think it might take like five to 10 years for it to gain any significant traction. We’re still at the beginning of a change of social paradigms when it comes to gender and sexuality. I mean like people don’t even have their heads wrapped around being gay as a perfectly natural thing. People need to be able to educate and ground inclusive practices. The only way we’re going to make it out alive is to be advocates ourselves. No one’s going to speak up for us kundi tayo.
For example, in [the music scene], you get to construct your own communities and ’yung tonality ng community spaces that you move in will change based on how you act in it.
It’s one thing kapag maisabatas ’yung mga SOGIE-related stuff pero it also needs social reinforcement from the bottom up. And as much as I’d like to just feel safe among other queer people and not have to explain, I don’t think my work is done yet because there are people who still don’t understand. I’m one of the nerds who like spending time to learn about queer theory and a massive pile of references [so people who still doubt can] bask at me being valid. [When] people attempt to speak on behalf of LGBTQIA+ community, oftentimes they are either super patronizing or get it flat out wrong. Self-advocacy is something we need, on top of the greater legal battles we have to wage to shift the tide of LGBTQIA+ acceptance.
What is your advice to fellow trans and nonbinary professionals who are struggling to be themselves in the workplace? And, as colleagues, what do you think we can do to support them?
James: Baka pwedeng may titles (Ms., Mr. or Mx.) sa display name and/or pronouns. I find that it helps make navigating digital spaces easier.
Stef: If you’re unfortunately in a workplace that doesn’t necessarily speak for you, it is the trans burden to explain your identity or to assert.
Maria: Holy sh*t. [Yeah.]
Stef: There are so many factors that go into play. You’re not always on camera and you don’t necessarily have the luxury of time, especially if you have to have a deal made or deadlines to meet. As a trans person in a professional situation, [I] have to choose [my] battles and assess whether or not it’s worth spending my time. We are fortunate to be in spaces where people can speak for us or if we have personalities that are very firm and very vocal about who they are, as in my case at least. But I can’t really say the same for other trans women or trans people who are in circumstances where they have to be mum about it or whose positions would be jeopardized if they spoke up about their identities.
Pep: Kapag sa Zoom or sa Viber, may nag-sir sayo at ang next message na nila sayo nagbago na, it means your friends or your colleagues explained it [privately]. Super na-appreciate ko ’yung mga ganung action because, for me, it’s awkward [kapag] harap-harapan sasabihin nila, “Oh transgender ‘yan huwag mo siyang tawaging ganyan.” Mas insensitive ‘yun.
“I think support groups are so important. They may not be the people you’re working with or you may not [be in] the same industry, but it’s that shared experience or knowing that you have people to commiserate with [that] goes a long way.” – James
James: Truly! Lucky na lang talaga ako that I have colleagues that step up or else it’s so tiring. I think support groups are so important. They may not be the people you’re working with or you may not [be in] the same industry, but it’s that shared experience or knowing that you have people to commiserate with [that] goes a long way. Other than the emotional support, they can also give you practical support. They’ll direct you to where to apply, where not to apply and so on. Being trans and nonbinary can be very isolating. It’s such a unique experience and you know we are prone to isolating ourselves, lalo na ngayon there’s a pandemic. Digitally, that kind of support group would be super important. I find recently that online friendships are blooming ulit and not out of convenience sometimes, but out of necessity.
Zofiya: I agree that having a support group that understands helps a lot—they don’t have to be nonbinary and trans either, they can still be cis as long as they’re incredibly aware and are not horrible. If I didn’t have my friends like the lesbians and bisexual women propping me up and going, “Yes, I believe in you,” I probably would have had a harder time understanding [what I’m going through] and I can’t imagine how much worse it could have been.
You know, it’s so hard for me to imagine a queer-friendly future, but then in Philippine history, the precolonial Filipino would be what you would call progressive now. That’s something that always gets to me: the fact that I can’t imagine a queer future, but I can imagine and visualize a queer past. I feel like our support circles or queer Filipino families are kind of our link to that queer past.
Maria: True. I could’ve been a healer, teacher, or shaman instead of a disappointment to my folks. Joke. Agree talaga ako na it’s super important to have a space to be able to practice and play around with your identity and stuff. For lack of options people kasi [are] drawn to the internet because of the anonymity it gives [and because] you’re not limited by your geographic location or your immediate affinity groups.
One phrase I see in trans and nonbinary groups that I really like is, “Hey, can I try this on?” Someone [who] wants to try new pronouns [would say,] “Hey, I’m new here pero is it okay if I try this to see if it’s something that fits me?” People do that with pronouns, gender presentation and [even sa] literal na mga names nila. [Sa] tingin ko it’ll at some point spill out din kasi people are growing up in an increasingly decentralized milieu for discussion. It’s a non-zero probability [for] the future. The most we can do siguro is be there for people who might not otherwise have any means of discussing it. I really try to leverage my masculine-passing privilege to be able to reach other people who otherwise wouldn’t have anyone to ask. A lot of the time, being in a niche community that’s punk and hardcore [with] a machismo problem, I’m often the first person people ask [questions] like “I have a trans friend, but I don’t know how to approach them. What do I do to not piss him off?”
Pakikibaka talaga siya eh kasi you’re fighting a very longitudinal cultural pattern here. Adopting a more systemic view of queer issues helps situate where you are and what you need to do to move forward and how we can help each other more.
“My advice for those who haven’t come out yet, for those who are still [figuring out] kung sino ba talaga sila, is that it has to start from within. You have to accept yourself for other people to accept you. You don’t have to please everyone.” – Pep
Pep: My advice for those who haven’t come out yet, for those who are still [figuring out] kung sino ba talaga sila, is that it has to start from within. You have to accept yourself for other people to accept you. You don’t have to please everyone.
I want to empower people, not just the people within our group, but also the youth in general. [At work], I spend time with the interns because they’re the ones seeking guidance talaga. I always take time to talk to them (on things) na hindi [work-related] because I want to hear their stories [and] I want to share my stories as well [so] we can learn from each other.
I think all of us naman, we don’t want to argue with people kasi [minsan] sayang yung efforts mo [kung] hindi ka pa rin naman nila maiintindihan or matatanggap. Nakakalungkot because that’s the reality and we still have a long way to go. I don’t think na simply by educating people, [they’ll] really understand and learn to accept us genuinely.
There will be people na kunwari susuportahan ka, but they still have actions that are unconsciously against [you]. Medyo gasgas na yung line, but the next generation [is] our hope. If we educate them and guide them, doon pa lang tayo magkakaroon ng progressive country.
Stef: Find a safe space kasi [it’s] going to be your sanity and your lifeline while you traverse work and your professional life.
In line with what Pep was saying, choose your battles. If you know it’s a losing battle and you’re talking to a bigot, say what you can and leave. It’s also important to have these conversations about identity and SOGIE with your family if it’s practical and something na will [amount] to something. We have so much work to do to shift this super binary-obsessed patriarchal culture. We’re lucky that dumadami na yung woke people in the workforce, but at the same time those are people who are in the entry level jobs, malayo pa tayo from being the generation sitting in the seats of power. I guess, we kind of have to be practical and lobby for the SOGIE Equality bill.
Author’s note: This interview has been edited for brevity