Beyond the Binary: Embracing The Nuances of Identity
During Pride month we celebrate various things. It’s not only a time to lift up the identities within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (LGBTQ+*) community, but also to honor this community’s resilience through historical and continued oppression, misunderstanding, and invisibility. All this makes the celebration of Pride a sustained act of resistance, as well as an opportunity to learn, create impact, and build on the progress that’s already been made to create stronger communities, teams, cultures, and organizations.
One area where there is ample opportunity for organizations to continue to learn and drive impact relates to the evolving nature of how we understand identity. Recently, we’ve seen increased visibility for gender diversity as platforms like Instagram and Tik Tok build in pronoun fields, and celebrities and public figures come out as non-binary, or share that they use they/them pronouns. This broader cultural shift towards inclusion acknowledges the critical importance of using people’s correct pronouns — when we use someone’s correct pronouns, we are signaling that we see them, we hear them, and that they belong — AND that we’re moving beyond binary thinking related to gender identity. (If you want a quick refresher on gender identity and how it differs from sexuality and other aspects of a person’s identity, read this helpful blog.)
As non-binary gender identities become more commonly understood and embraced within society and workplaces, there is an opportunity for us to start to explore other parts of identity that might be diminished due to binary (i.e. “it’s either or”) thinking.
Gender Identity Can Be Fluid
Throughout our lives, it’s expected that our relationship to different aspects of our identity will change. Think of how your own awareness of identity has changed over time with regards to your beliefs, the body you’re in, your socio-economic status, your gender identity, your family status, and anything else. The way people think about and express their own gender, sexuality, and pronouns can be fluid and change over time. And some people may choose to embrace more than one identity (e.g. use both they/them and she/her pronouns) — it’s not always either or. There may always be people where you work, live, or spend your time, who are currently figuring out and embracing their own evolving identity. Pronouns are not something that always feel safe to share, and it can be particularly challenging for people whose pronouns change over the course of their time with an organization. So, we continue to see companies who think they have no trans employees or individuals who think they don’t know any trans people — this is not something you can tell by looking at someone or by defaulting to a gender identity they may have shared years ago. Organizations can help support employees’ gender diversity and fluidity by creating norms around sharing pronouns, sharing information about policies and benefits designed to support trans employees, and giving employees the opportunity to share their gender identity in recurring employee surveys.
Don’t Make Binary Assumptions Based on Identities
Identities are intersectional, but we often struggle to embrace unique aspects of identity without assuming they are inherently connected to another — we assume that being one thing means you are not another thing. For example, if a man identifies as bisexual and is married to a woman, you may assume that man to be heterosexual. This assumption devalues and erases the complexity and truth of this person’s actual identity. If a coworker shares that they are partnered, you may make assumptions about the identity of their partner by asking about their husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend — when asking about their significant other, partner, or spouse is more inclusive. Organizations can mitigate the harm caused by these assumptions by modeling gender-inclusive language. We’ve already done this for many professional titles: mail carrier, fire fighter, flight attendant, member of congress, etc. Now, think about the other places gendered language shows up and use alternatives — e.g., parental leave.
When we make an assumption about what we think we know of someone rather than allowing room for change, and when we reduce the world around us to binary categories we undermine people’s very existence. A person’s name, their pronouns, their gender identity, gender expression, and their sexuality are all valid parts of their identity. These things exist independently of one another, and knowing one does not mean you know any of the others.
When we move beyond this binary thinking, we can begin to design experiences that more deeply affirm and account for different identities, and show that no identities are the default or valued as superior — they are just different.
*If you’re curious about the + in LGBTQ+, it refers to various other identities within the community, including Intersex, Pansexual, Two Spirit, and Asexual/Agender.
June 30, 2021