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Did I need the law to be my non-binary self at work?

14 July 2021

7 mins

To mark International Non-binary Day 2021, David Wilson reflects on their own experiences and where non-binary people find themselves in the UK in 2021.

Can there be a bigger cliché in queer circles than “I wasn’t like the other kids at school”?  Maybe not.  But it’s true.  First I grew my hair long, inspired by heavy metal and grunge bands. But I cut it again under social pressure.  A few years later I discovered gender non-conforming musicians like Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal of Placebo, and Nicky Wire and Richey Edwards of Manic Street Preachers and I started wearing makeup and clothes classed as feminine.

Image shows the bands Placebo and Manic Street Preachers with members wearing makeup and clothes classed as feminine
Placebo (left) and Manic Street Preachers (right) subverting gender norms in the mid 90s

I reined it in again when I started university – worried about alienating the people I’d meet and failing to make friends.  It became a “nights out only” look.  When I started working I wanted to seem grown up and responsible which, particularly for someone read as male, means quite a conservative appearance.  Arists such as David Bowie had been pushing boundaries on stage and screen for decades, but even today there’s not much latitude in “male” office wear.

In their autobiography, “Sissy.  A coming of gender story”, Jacob Tobia writes of entering the workplace “A first glance professionalism tries to convince you it’s a neutral word purely meant to signify a collection of behaviours, clothing and norms, appropriate for the workplace.  “We just ask that everyone be professional” the cis white men will say, smiles on their faces, as if they’re not asking for much. “Uh, we try to maintain a professional office environment…” but never has a word been so loaded with racism, sexism, heteronormativity or trans exclusion.  Whenever someone is telling you to “be professional” they’re really saying “be more like me”.”

“I wish I could dress like that at work” I’d think. Every time. For years.

Image shows a photo of Jacob Tobia wearing makeup and clothes classed as feminine and the cover of their autobiography
Jacob Tobia

Nobody told me I had to dress that way, but that’s not how social norms work.  You just pick them up.  I’d see women coming to work in all sorts of outfits, all sorts of fabrics and colours, some with makeup, some with none.  “I wish I could dress like that at work” I’d think, every time I saw them.  Every time. For years.

Then in 2016 I learned a few key things:
The Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination based on “gender-reassignment”.
Gender re-assignment covers social transition (how we present, changes in names, pronouns etc.) as well as medical transition (e.g. hormones or surgery).
While it hadn’t been tested in court, it was very likely this protection extended identities that fell outside the gender binary – not just trans men and trans women. (This has since been established in an employment tribunal).

I brought this information to my manager and assertively informed her I’d be coming to work looking different from now on.  She was a little taken aback, but supportive.  I started coming to work in dresses, skirts, heels, makeup, and in the hoop earrings for which I’ve become known.  I wore these things to the office, to meetings, to negotiate with senior university managers on behalf of UCU and I waited for the backlash, the snide comments, the laughter.  They never came.  I asked for IT systems to be changed, and for the University to establish a working group to improve support for trans and non-binary staff and students, and the requests were granted. The irony of working in IT and pushing against binaries was not lost on me.

In 2016 we were riding a wave of interest about transgender people.  The Transgender Tipping Point was declared in 2014 when Laverne Cox, star of Orange Is The New Black, appeared on the cover of Time magazine.  Caitlin Jenner had followed in Vanity Fair in 2015.  Recognition and acceptance were here.  But from progress comes a backlash and now far too much time and energy is spent on a confected war between the trans community and so-called “gender-critical” women fearful that increased rights for trans women decreases their protections from men.  These groups, natural allies in the face of patriarchy, have been turned against each other in order to maintain the status quo. 

Image shows Laverne Cox on the cover of Time magazine
Laverne Cox on the cover of Time in 2014
Image shows Caitlyn Janner on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine
Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2015

Stonewall, the LGBT+ charity founded by national treasures such as Ian McKellen, has been vilified by the press and the government for supporting the vulnerable trans community and organisations have come under pressure, including from Equalities Minister Liz Truss, to dissociate from them.  At Loughborough however we have made steady progress towards better understanding and inclusion of the trans and non-binary members of our community and we have remained a member of the Stonewall Diversity Champion program. 

Image shows thumbnail of a Stonewall poster featuring David Wilson
My Stonewall poster

This week to celebrate International Non-Binary People’s Day, Stonewall have released posters for schools and colleges featuring a range of non-binary folk talking about their work and their interests in order to help normalise our existence and increase our visibility for the next generation.  I am proud to have been invited to participate in this campaign, proud to be a poster child for Stonewall during their rough ride.   Just as I’m proud to be seen around campus and in the rest of the world because as much as I still fear the backlash might come at any moment, I am no longer prepared to repress who I am.  I want to be seen and make it easier for others to be themselves and be seen.

The Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee urged government in 2016 to “look into the need to create a legal category for those people with a gender identity outside that which is binary…” noting several countries had already done so. In 2020 the UK Government decided to shelve plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act, and in May 2021 responded to a petition to asking for legal recognition for non-binary gender saying it had no plans for this, and that it would have “complex practical consequences”.  Consequences which countries such as New Zealand, Malta and Pakistan and others have been able to overcome.

Did I need legal protection to be my non-binary self at work? 

Did I need legal protection to be my non-binary self at work?  Would anyone have stopped me if I’d just come in dressed how I wanted to years earlier?  We’ll never know.  But I didn’t feel able to do it, so in that sense yes, I needed the legal protection.  In 2016 I thought we were on a one-way street to greater acceptance and legal recognition. Now I fear that progress is stagnating and may even be reversed as we see in Poland and Hungary.  I hope that I’m wrong. But most of all I hope that whatever happens in law we heal the wounds in public opinion and work together to address gender-based violence and oppression in all its forms.

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

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