Meet the Trans, Chinese-American Activist Who's Fighting 'Cultural Homelessness' At Work

Lily Zheng

AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
Since graduating Stanford University, Lily Zheng ’17 M.A. ’18 has worked for the DGen Office and as a diversity consultant, and she’ll soon be publishing her first book, coauthored with Alison Ash Fogarty Ph.D. ’15, Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination. The book analyzes the struggles that transgender and gender-diverse individuals face in the workplace, drawing on interviews within the trans community.
Zheng has been named one of the 10 most influential students in campus politics by Stanford Politics, as she offers practical steps to help create a more trans-inclusive workplace and positive strategies to help trans employees minimize both overt and unintentional discrimination. She's even given workshops at Google and other organizations on the topic.
I caught up with Zheng to learn more about the general state of workplaces for the trans community and the recommendations she shares in her book. 
1. Can you tell me a little about yourself?

"I see myself as a designer, an advocate, and a boundary-spanner. In my life and in my work, I’ve become a trans person who works with cis people, a woman who works with men, a queer person who works with straight people, etc. I’m always thinking about my work through of lens of not 'what do I want?' but instead, 'where am I needed most?' My answers to that question have taken me into organizations large and small where I can help create change that results in more effective, inclusive, and equitable systems.

"I came out in 2012, just on the cusp of the 'Transgender Tipping Point.' In the absence of other visible trans people in my community, my coming out was always a struggle between becoming the person I wanted to be and fulfilling people’s expectations for what a 'good' trans person should be like. It wasn’t until I found a trans community at Stanford that I stopped coming out for other people’s sake and began to think about who it was that I needed to be for my own sake. It was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

"Being a queer and trans Asian-American person is like constantly living between worlds. In high school, the students who had the easiest time accepting me were the white LGBTQ+ students. The conflict I was experiencing with my family led me to reject the Asian-American side of me, which felt like a necessarily tradeoff to have my queer and trans identities validated. However, by college I began feeling like my white LGBTQ+ peers couldn’t begin to understand my Chinese-American background. That sense of cultural homelessness — that I belonged in neither Asian-American spaces nor LGBTQ+ spaces — is still one that I struggle with today."

2. Can you share some of the particular examples of marginalization, humiliation, bigotry and hostility trans and gender-fluid people experience on the job?
"There’s such a wide range of discrimination experiences that it’s hard to know where to start. Some of the people we heard stories from spoke about having their trans status shared with others without their permission. Others were denied jobs or fired explicitly because they were trans — one trans woman was told that headhunters 'wouldn’t touch her' because they were instructed to avoid candidates with 'deficiencies.' Those who were visibly gender-nonconforming shared stories of overt harassment and hostility: One person received rape and death threats. Another, who worked as a teacher, was confronted by parents and accused of trying to brainwash their children. Almost every person talked about microaggressions: sidelong glances, micromanaging, 'accidental' misgendering and other little things that cumulatively created a hostile workplace.

"Many trans people shared that, to escape this discrimination, they chose to hide their trans identities in the workplace. While it often worked, the costs of this strategy fell squarely on the trans person’s emotional and mental well-being." 
3. Have you personally experienced workplace discrimination/hostility and, if so, are you comfortable sharing a personal anecdote(s) with our readers?

"I’ve been misgendered in every single workplace I’ve worked at. In one workplace, it was a slip of the tongue by a manager that I might not have noticed had it not happened again 10 minutes later. And again 10 minutes after that. In another workplace, it was from a coworker who spent three times as much time apologizing as he did misgendering me. This isn’t to say that either of these coworkers had malicious intentions — quite the opposite. But neither of them were equipped to deal with a trans employee, and their learning experience was my discrimination experience."
4. How did you/your workplace handle the situation?

"I resolved the situation in the way that would cause me the least trouble moving forward. Each time I assured the person who misgendered me that I wasn’t angry, that I didn’t hold it personally, and that they weren’t a bad person. Moving forward, I corrected them matter-of-factly each time they misgendered me in the future and cut off any more conversation on the topic beyond an apology. It was the right thing to do, not because it made me feel great (on the contrary, it took extra work to manage the other person’s feelings on top of my own) but because it was the most convenient way to get through the situation and get back to my day. While I know as a trans advocate that putting in this kind of extra work isn’t my responsibility, it’s what I’ve learned to do to get through the day. These kinds of everyday compromises are common across many trans people’s work experiences."

5. Your book finds common patterns of workplace discrimination — what are some of those patterns or commonalities?

"When looking for common patterns across the many varied stories of workplace discrimination, we prioritized understanding not only what happened, but why it happened. We observed at least three major themes that drove discrimination: 'hegemonic masculinity is superior,' 'trans status discrimination' and 'just pick one.'

"The first theme is perhaps the most interesting but takes a bit of explanation to understand. Imagine society’s idea of peak masculinity. Maybe to one person it looks like Schwarzenegger, maybe to another it looks like Chris Evans, but across the board a few characteristics stay consistent: physically strong, virile, dominant, conventionally attractive, intelligent and wealthy. In the workplace, we see that people who move toward this standard get rewarded in social status, prestige, and respect, while people who move away from it are punished. For example, if someone perceived by others as a feminine woman in the workplace were to get a short haircut and behave in more masculine ways, that person might suddenly start being included in men’s conversations. That person might no longer be interrupted during team meetings or overlooked for promotion. On the flip side, if someone perceived by others as a man in the workplace began wearing nail polish, makeup, and dresses to work, that person might suddenly start being ignored in conversations. That person might receive more harassment and discrimination or be considered less fit for respected roles in the organization. Why is this relevant? Anyone whose appearance or behavior in the workplaces changes (whether gender transition, new motherhood, midlife crisis, etc.) might be evaluated by and discriminated against according to these hidden rules."

"The next theme, 'trans status discrimination,' refers simply to the idea that in the workplace being trans is seen as a disadvantage. Some of the people we spoke to told stories of mentioning their trans identities and suddenly having an interview go south or having a previously-friendly manager becoming hostile. Some people told stories where they were explicitly told that being open about their trans identity would hurt them in the workplace, and that they should hide that aspect of themselves. One person, Kai, told us how he had been formally offered a job, only to have that offer rescinded to his face when his employer found his legal gender to read 'F.'"
"The last theme, 'just pick one,' describes the power of the gender binary in the workplace. Trans and gender-diverse people who don’t appear to be firmly on one side or the other of the binary receive extraordinary pressure to 'pick' either man or woman, and conform to strict ideas of manhood and womanhood. One person we spoke to, Sawyer, was told by a hiring manager that he needed to pick a set of pronouns to be referred to by — either 'he/him' or 'she/her.' When Sawyer shrugged and answered, 'either is fine,' the hiring manager was unyielding. 'You need to pick one,' she said."
6. What tolls does this kind of discrimination take on gender non-binary people and their workplaces?

"For people who identify as neither men nor women, including genderfluid people who may identify as both at some point or another, discrimination typically takes the form of gender policing — when others in the workplace pressure trans and gender-diverse people to change the way they look or act to conform with the gender binary. We talked to a genderqueer person named Rowan who described how they were constantly needled by their HR manager to avoid wearing dresses at company functions, to the point Rowan decided to leave that workplace. Rowan’s story is indicative of a major challenge faced by those who identify as or appear to be gender-nonconforming: balancing authenticity with the need to keep a job. Those who choose authenticity must deal with prejudice and discrimination that restricts their job opportunities, while those who choose their jobs must deal with the frustration, anxiety, and other mental health challenges that come from suppressing an important part of themselves. When organizations are unable to create inclusive environments for their trans and gender-diverse employees, lose-lose choices become the norm."

 7. In your book you identify some of the problems and also offer steps to help create a more trans-inclusive workplace — can you share some of those steps with our readers?

"A trans-inclusive workplace is able to do several things, including: 1) effectively support employees whose needs vary/change over time through policy, 2) empower and respect self-expression, boundary-setting, and individual needs, and 3) evolve in response to changing social, cultural, economic, and political conditions in a way that is transparent and integrates employee feedback. To achieve these things, a workplace must invest in both inclusive leadership and inclusive culture on every level of the organization.
"C-Level executives have a key role of championing diversity and inclusion from the top-down, and modeling inclusive behavior in the way they represent the organization to others. C-Level executives know they are succeeding when they have created a brand and a reputation that draws trans people to the organization. Human Resources have the role of creating inclusion from the bottom-up through the hiring process, orientation, and community-building. HR knows it is succeeding when new hires exit the orientation process feeling excited to contribute to the organization’s culture.
"What is less obvious is that neither C-Level execs or HR do the heavy lifting when it comes to inclusion culture. The unsung heroes of inclusion work are the middle managers. Middle managers’ role is especially powerful because of how unglamorous it is. When employees are immersed in the everyday functioning of their team or unit, the razzle-dazzle of new employee orientation or an external talk are gone. In these moments, an inclusive manager has the incredible power to signal whether the organization’s inclusion culture is the real deal, or nothing more than hot air. In the experiences of people we spoke to, the most effective way to counter the everyday reality of discrimination was with an everyday reality of inclusion. The small acts of friendship, kindness, camaraderie and allyship — enabled by a manager who cared—were some of the most impactful factors in creating an inclusive workplace environment. An organization knows it is succeeding when its middle managers are succeeding."
9. What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
"I hope readers will look closely at the stories. Too often our only exposure to the reality of trans and gender-diverse discrimination is through numbers and percentages, grim statistics that can’t portray the complex narratives behind trans discrimination. When we see the three-dimension portrayals of the real people behind every experience of discrimination, we start to understand why inclusion is so important. This layer of humanity also gives new meaning to efforts to creating social change. I found that, while I could easily articulate some of the major problems facing trans communities, it was harder for me to answer the question: 'How would Jessie’s workplace have needed to act differently for Jessie to still be employed there?' Or 'How might Casey’s approach to work differed if all of his past workplaces had treated him well?'"
"Finally, I hope readers read this book not only to understand more about the trans and gender-diverse community, but also to understand more about themselves. Gender is by no means an experience unique to the people we talk about in this book; it’s a global experience that connects all of us. I want readers to know that when they’re reading about trans men, trans women, nonbinary people, and others, they’re stories of people dealing with the very same gendered systems we all are, every day. We’ve all, at some point or another, questioned what it means to be a man, or a woman, or whatever we are. It is my hope that these stories can be conduits for not only empathy but also introspection."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at by night.