Working with Non-Gender-Normative Clients and Coworkers: An Interview

When I was younger, the word “queer” was considered derogatory. It meant weird, strange or different and was flung like hot tar at those who weren’t quite “normal”, to stick, stain and burn for all to see. Now “queer” is a word that has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ community and is a blanket term that covers most “non-normative” expressions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Keeping up with what is culturally appropriate can be difficult. It’s all too easy to react with anger or frustration when you aren’t sure how to interact with someone whose gender expression is different from your own. You may even be afraid of being labeled bigoted or homophobic if you do or say the wrong thing. However, according to a GLAAD survey, 20% of Millennials identify as LGBTQ, so this is something you’re going to have to get used to.

I am exceptionally fortunate to have an older sibling who is both non-gender-normative and extremely open to letting me ask all the ridiculous questions a cisgender girl who never thinks outside of her own experiences can come up with. On top of being non-gender-normative and an amazing sibling, Vern Cooper is also a Ph.D. candidate in American Culture Studies at Bowling Green State University, studying gender and sexuality in media, served as the Interim Coordinator for LGBT Programs and Services at BGSU and is currently Coordinator of the LGBTQ Resource Center at Southern Illinois University.

Because not everyone is as fortunate as I am, I decided to interview Vern about the LGBTQ experience in America today. Below we discuss various challenges and opportunities attorneys and other professionals may encounter when helping or working with members of the LGBTQ community.

For more information about LGBTQ rights in Ohio, Attorney Cathy Cook will be hosting a CLE on Thursday, November 16th on Unique Issues in Same Sex Divorce, which will be recorded and made available for viewing upon request.

 

Q: Tell me a little about what it’s like to live in America today as a person who identifies as LGBTQ. What are some of your biggest challenges?

A: A lot of the daily challenges are ones most people may be able to guess for themselves, such as bigotry, general safety, being misgendered, dysphoria, and access to public restrooms. But it’s because of these daily challenges that LGBTQ people find themselves in need of emotional and literal support. The most amenable and direct form of this is community. Since LGBTQ people may not always find themselves in close proximity to others like themselves, such as those who live in rural or conservative areas, they can find themselves isolated within all of their daily struggles.

 

Q: You’ve mentioned in the past threats of violence by complete strangers on the street. How does that affect your everyday life? How does that color your interactions with new people?

A: It of course imbues a necessary caution and reservation about interaction with those with whom one is unfamiliar. But more broadly, this engenders anxiety and a general reduction in the quality of one’s life. A reduction in the feeling of being a whole and unrestrained citizen of the country of one’s birth. A depletion of the emotional resources necessary to be a happy and productive member of society.

 

Q: What challenges have you or others in the LGBTQ community faced when beginning a new job that a person who identifies as cisgender might not have to face? What would you like your coworkers to know about working/interacting with you?

A: For transgender people in particular, it can be daunting to operate at their job if they haven’t changed their name or don’t intend to. When you start a new job you are meeting so many new people so having to have that conversation about pronouns and preferred name can be exhausting. It can override all the already difficult things about starting in a new workplace. For cisgender people in the community there are other challenges such as stigma, an increased interest in your sex life, being the punchline of jokes that aren’t meant to be collegial, being expected to justify your personal life and dating habits.

 

Q: I feel like there could be a lot of these, but tell me one every day thing that is more stressful or complicated if you identify as LGBTQ.

A: Knowing who to trust with your full self. I run in and out of the closet all day every day. I have to decide where to be out based on what the context is and how safe. I work in student affairs so often my job is to be of use. Something weird happens when your job is also yourself. You have to decide if your identity is of use to the situation because everyone is going to be expecting you to bring it up. I spent a lot of time working up to coming out and sometimes I’m thankful for the times I can slide back under the radar, which makes me feel like a bad LGBTQ advocate.

 

Q: What experiences with the law might a person who identifies as LGBTQ have had that are different from someone who identifies as cisgender and how might that affect their perception of the law in the future? (Not just police but also judges, attorneys, jails and etc.)

A: The most common instances of discomfort are to do with past names (what transgender people call “dead names”). Often, especially a person who decides to change legal documents later in their adult life, will have a long history of documentation under a name that the not only no longer identify with but also can find somewhat triggering to hear. And of course these names come loaded with linguistic genderings.

 

Q: Are there things attorneys should know about LGBTQ culture, community or experiences to help them better serve their clients? Are there good resources or blogs that you would recommend?

A: I don’t know that I can speak to law particularly, but in my experience from working with students and as person who identifies as well, many members of this community have often found themselves subject to unwarranted social stigma and every day injuries as I mentioned earlier. I’m sure people who don’t even socialize regularly with members of this community can guess that. But what that makes for is a community that learns not to trust outsiders—to be wary of an attack of injury at any time, no matter how often the person assures them of their good intentions. One thing we’ve learned is that most people don’t wake up in the morning going “I’d love to do a homophobic thing today” but that doesn’t stop them doing it unintentionally. My advice for dealing with this is the same as my advice to my writing students: show don’t tell. Rather than spending your time with the client explaining how much you accept their identity (which WILL make them uncomfortable and even more suspicious), focus your energy on looking for ways to protect them, to act as the ally they would hope to be able to expect in you.

 

It’s also important for attorneys who are working with the LGBTQ community, especially in criminal matters, to be aware of the school to prison pipeline and how it effects LGBTQ youth recidivism. There are some great resources on that here: https://www.glsen.org/article/dropout-push-out-and-school-prison-pipeline  and https://gsanetwork.org/files/resources/STPPdiagram.pdf

 

There are several online resources I recommend to people. The Advocate has a blog and website. The advocate is the oldest and largest LGBTQ publication in the US. I’m also becoming more and more impressed with Buzzfeed LGBT. There are also foundation blogs such as GLSEN, GLAAD, The Lambda Legal Blog is a great resource for legal professionals. They’re a great resource in general for consultation and resources.

 

Q: In your opinion, what is the worst thing a professional in any field can do while working with a member of the LGBTQ community? What is the best thing?

A: I believe the basic rule of working with any marginalized or vulnerable community is “do no harm.” In attempting to keep this rule, it is essential for professionals to know that allyship is not easy. It’s not something you say to feel good about yourself but quit when it gets hard. Being an ally means interrogating your own assumptions and unlearning those messy things you, like everyone else, have learned without knowing it. Therefore a common way of doing harm to an LGBTQ person is to present yourself as an ally to gain their trust (and maybe even mean every word) but to let things go by because you aren’t sure how to handle it. If you know you don’t have the facility for full allyship, simply tell your client and ask that if they experience anything that you could have helped them with or they would like your help with, all they need do is ask. One does not need to be an experienced advocate to aid a community. A legal professional has a great deal of social privilege and can be of great use to any marginalized community.

 

Q: What advice would you give to someone who feels uncomfortable interacting with people who identify as LGBTQ? Not just from an ideological standpoint, but also just from lack of experience, ignorance or fear of making a mistake?

A: My truthful answer is that you have to learn the ropes by battling yourself off of them a few times. To gain facility with the needs and experiences of this community you have to be willing to make a mistake and be called out for it. If you learned anything else in your life you learned it the same way. However, another thing you can do to speed this process is to find a center which offers Safe Zone trainings (www.thesafezoneproject.com) or some analog. Many University or community LGBTQ Centers will offer these. There is also a bevy of scholarly research on the community so the library is your friend.

 

Q: Is it ever OK to ask someone for their gender preference if you don’t know what it is? How do you safely navigate that situation while still being respectful?

A: The standard answer, for people who only interact with transgender people socially or as colleagues, is that, no it is rude and invasive to do so. However, as in the case of the attorney client relationship, if the information is essential to the project to move forward, the issue is respect, as you rightly point out. I’ve adapted the advice I’m about to give from surgeons who work with transgender patients who must ask them to display a part of their body which may cause them some degree of discomfort or dysphoria to plan the next move. I would recommend opening the subject with the disclosure that you would not normally be invasive in this manner, but that the information you are about to request is essential to move forward. As you receive or record the information avoid interrupting or making any kinds of active listening noises or gestures (head nodding, sighs, gasps, groans, etc) which you may intend as a form of commiseration or support but may seem patronizing. Jut allow them to get through the task and then, once you’ve got what you need, apologize for needing to ask and close the topic in a way that signals you will avoid the topic being reopened in the future if possible. Also, be prepared that they may be upset about you having to ask. Understand that what you’ve had to put them through can be a very embarrassing and traumatic thing. This can be another moment for you to gain the client’s trust by navigating a difficult situation in a way that allows them to control the pace and tone of the event.

 

Q: Should I apologize if I say something wrong or accidentally call someone the wrong pronoun or should I just walk away awkwardly and hide in a corner while furiously looking for new jobs?

A: Ha, I think this is one of those learning moments. I get this question a ton in Safe Zone trainings. I always tell people to look them in the eye and apologize in an even toned and serious way. No histrionics such as “Oh I’m the WORST! Oh I’m sooooo sorry!” because this makes it about you rather than the hurt you’ve caused. A concise apology consists of “I’m very sorry about that and I’ll do better in the future.”

 

Q: What advice would you give to students or young professionals who identify as LGBTQ who are just entering the professional workforce? What do you wish you had known when you were their age?

A: I remember the horror of deciding whether to disclose my difference. An LGBTQ identity can be invisible in a way that a racialized identity cannot. Folks of color have no option but to go out every day and move through the world wearing their difference. But the concept of coming out for LGBTQ people exists because we all have to decide how much of ourselves to disclose. This also results in a rhetoric within the community of “it’s every LGBTQ person’s responsibility to come out” and I just don’t agree with that. Yes I hope you are fortunate enough to find people and places to be your full and open self, but if it doesn’t feel right, don’t let anyone guilt you into doing it prematurely. Also, you’re gonna be ok. You’re doing just fine.

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of the Hamilton County Law Library, Bowling Green State University or Southern Illinois University.