June is Pride Month, but for LGBTQ people working in design and engineering, the ongoing culture war around trans rights is impacting workplace safety and the professional opportunities open to them, writes our columnist SJ
As Andrea Gibson, one of my favourite poets of all time, once said, “Fear is only a verb if you let it be.” This is a phrase I often whisper to myself, before I give a big conference presentation, take my longboard down an impossibly steep hill, or ask my wife if it’s my turn to walk the dog again.
But lately, I’ve been chanting it before entering the restroom — which, if you haven’t heard, has become the new battlefront for members of the so-called ‘alphabet mafia’, or the LGBTQ community as it is also known.
Last year, I quit my stable job working for a big energy company to try my hand at sales engineering. Everyone told me that the money was great, it was an invaluable opportunity to hone my soft skills and I’d get a chance to finally travel and see the world a little bit.
I remember I was so excited the first week in, because I’d been asked to travel on my third day on the job. And I also remember how that excitement turned to cold dread as I entered the women’s restroom and heard a distinctive ‘Karen’, monotone voice from behind me say, “I’m sorry, hon. You’re not allowed in here. The men’s room is across the hall.”
In fairness to this woman, I commonly wear masculine clothes and, in a N95 mask, it can be hard to see my softer, more feminine facial features. But I remember being so scared that this woman would cause a scene that I ended up apologising and running out of the restroom with my head down.
This kind of incident is a frequent one for me. But in 2023, a small issue of mistaken gender could have life-threatening consequences as trans and wider LGBTQ rights come under attack. In April, the Equality and Human Rights Commission published a letter recommending the UK Minister for Women and Equalities change the legal definition of ‘sex’, which would strip trans people in the UK of many rights and protections, excluding them from single-sex spaces without the need for proper justification.
In the US, it’s even worse, with many states instituting drag bans, felony charges for providing gender affirming care to both adults and children, and book bans that target literature that “promotes gender fluidity or gender pronouns to groom children.”
I’ve watched in horror as many states passed laws criminalising dressing as a gender that does not align with your biological sex. In my new sales role, one that requires I spend a minimum of 20% of my time travelling, I became increasingly aware of the potential danger associated with not presenting as my affirmed gender. One mistaken bathroom incident could have me not only charged with a minor felony, but also labelled as a paedophile, which might make finding future job opportunities next to impossible.
I’m sad to say that I ended up leaving that sales role. I’m also considering leaving that industry as well. Many conferences are held in conservative, far-right states. And most of those states intent on attracting and fostering manufacturing and big tech companies, new space start-ups and so on.
As companies and the ensuing job market start to concentrate in these conservative regions of the United States, minority voices and representation will inevitably be pushed out. Sadly, much of the progress on diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) made during the pandemic could be lost.
Fear can be a verb, but a verb denotes action — and there are many actions that allies of the LGBTQ community can take, including those companies updating their logos for Pride Month
I want to be very clear that this is a major workplace issue, with important implications for all sectors, including (but by no means specific to) product design and manufacturing.
Fear can be a verb, but a verb denotes action — and there are many actions that allies of the LGBTQ community can take, including those companies in the engineering and manufacturing sector updating their logos for Pride Month.
First, you can make efforts to track where anti-trans legislation is being passed and ensure that you don’t organise your conferences in US states where marginalised groups feel unsafe to travel.
Second, respect people’s pronouns by asking for them during introductions and gracefully correcting yourself if/when you forget or misspeak.
Third, install or provide more access to individual bathrooms in your workplace or at future conferences to prevent any awkward restroom conversations.
And, on a personal note, I’d like to add that if you feel weird or uncomfortable reading this, please be assured I feel even more uncomfortable sharing my awkward restroom interactions here.
But the civil rights movement started with a woman refusing to give up her seat on a bus. The battle for trans rights starts with us refusing to give up not just our place in the restroom, but also in the conference room, the boardroom and other places where major business decisions are made.
This article first appeared in DEVELOP3D Magazine
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