How to Encourage a Supportive Environment

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.

This entry was posted in conflict, empathy, empathy gap, LGBT. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to How to Encourage a Supportive Environment

  1. Lirael says:

    I think it’s great that you’re trying to create a more supportive environment. There was recently a report released on the experiences of LGBTQ people, and the specific experiences of trans/gender nonconforming people, in physics, that really underlined what an important issues this is for scientists to address.

    What I do with friends when this comes up is simply correct them, in friendly fashion, the same way I might do if they got some other relevant detail about a person wrong. “I see Chris said she’s coming to the party.” “They.” “Hmm?” “Chris uses ‘they’.” “Oh right…they said that they’ll probably be there about an hour in and that they’ll bring some chips and dip.” When I’m with friends, I assume that we all understand the basics of respect for people regardless of gender experience (I would guess that about 10% of my friends are somewhere on the trans/genderqueer spectrum – including me, though as someone who is fine with either “they” or “she” and is kind of fluid between woman and nonbinary, I’m on the periphery of it) and that the speaker simply forgot the person’s pronouns, especially if the person switched pronouns recently or the speaker doesn’t know them that well. Nothing accusatory involved.

    I’ve found that a modified form of this approach can also work with people who are familiar with the concepts of trans people and shifts in pronoun usage, but either not quite there yet when it comes to respect for trans people, or not practiced – model the right behavior, hope they’ll rise to the occasion. In this version, there’s likely to be a few more rounds, that are slightly more frustrating. “They.” “What?” “Chris uses ‘they’ as a pronoun, not ‘she’.” “Um, okay. Anyway, she said that she’ll be there at 8.” “Ah, got it, so they said they’re showing up an hour after the start.” I am usually pretty good at keeping a pleasant and matter-of-fact tone about it, though after enough screwups I sometimes get impatient even if I don’t think the person is screwing up maliciously. If they are malicious, it still sometimes works better to pretend like I think they mean well and are just having a brain fart. If nothing else, it may deter them from attempting to argue with me about whether they should respect trans people, though if they want to go there I can go there.

    For someone who isn’t familiar with the basic concepts of trans identity and pronoun shifts, that requires a whole other conversation.

    Does your institution have SafeSpace/SafeZone/LGBTQ Ally 101/[other name for that concept] trainings? At mine, faculty and staff can attend the trainings, not just students. You could try to get several people in your department, including Prof A, to go.


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