84

I'm a female software engineer at a medium sized startup in the USA and I've always been a bit masculine[1]. It's never really bothered me.

I recently started working on a new project with another team in the company. I got to know one of the colleagues that I've been tasked to work with pretty well. We work a lot together and she was initially, for the most part, nice to everyone. She's more junior than me in the company (and significantly younger, I believe).

One day we went out to lunch together and she confided in me that she is a transgender woman, thinks I am a transgender man who just doesn't know it yet, and she's in love with me (at least, me as a man, as far as I understand). I was, understandably, flabbergasted. I tried my best explain nicely that I am not trans[2], I am a bit of a tomboy but am perfectly happy with myself as I am. She was not convinced, and is determined to prove that I'm a man.

Needless to say, things have been awkward since. I brushed it off and hoped she'd never bring it up again and we'd get over this little incident and move on with our lives.

Unfortunately she's bought it up every single time we're vaguely alone in conversation (which is quite a lot because we're working together on the same project). I've resorted to avoiding her, or making sure someone else is around.

I was happy to just ignore her and move on with my life (I'm married, and she knows that!), and I really just want to do my work. But now she's resorting to making comments to my colleagues, (like "don't you think Stacey acts a lot like a guy?" and "Maybe we should call Stacey 'He' or 'They'") and people are starting to notice.

I asked her politely to please stop this, and she got really defensive and said that she was just trying to help me, and I'm "brainwashed by the patriarchy". I got more stern and said my gender is none of her business, and she called me a bigot and anti-trans and "if I was for trans people I would be proud to come out and say I was one".

I'm really stuck for what to do now.

  • I really really don't want rumours going around that I'm a guy. Because I'm not. And some people have already started to ask me about this.
  • I don't want to come across as some bigot and make a big issue out of this. She obviously has some issues and I really just don't want to be part of them.
  • She's making things more and more uncomfortable and I'm feeling harassed by her and I don't know what to do about it. She's threatening to tell people about my "dirty little secret".
  • I'm really hesitant to go to HR (we have one) because I know that the world is really pro-trans these days (which is fine) and I don't know how the company will handle it ("HR is not your friend" and all).

How can I make her stop?


[1] I was a tomboy growing up and it's just how I am and I've come to terms with it. I don't wear makeup and usually just simple clothes but it's very obvious I'm female (I have long hair and obviously feminine characteristics).

[2] I have nothing against the trans community, I get that people are trans and I respect their pronouns and treat them as I do anyone else, but I'm not trans myself.

109

What you describe comes across to me as blatant sexual harassment. I recommend having a private 'chat' with this colleague, where you make it clear that you consider their behavior to be harassment and if they persist, then you will not hesitate to take the matter up with your Manager and HR. This is their opportunity to avoid it turning into a formal harassment case.

You need to be firm. Your relationship with this colleague probably won't be great in future, but I would say that is more their fault than yours.

Edit:

To address some of the comments that say you should go straight to HR, because it may be a dangerous strategy to confront the person directly, given the behavior you describe:

The reason I didn't suggest going to HR straight away was because you said you 'didn't want to make a big issue out of it'. An alternative strategy could be to speak with your Manager first and see what they recommend. Perhaps your Manager could speak with them, or you could have a private chat together with the colleague and your Manager? That would avoid escalating to HR whilst also pre-empting them going to HR first.

  • 43
    Yes, sexually harassed (Imagine if you were a girly girl and she was a dude who kept propositioning you. Or if you were a lesbian and she was a dude who kept saying "you really just need the right man- me" [ick]). You are also being gas lighted by her making it seem like you are the bigot. – Damila Oct 30 at 18:51
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    Skip the private chat. That has already taken place and has failed. Go directly to HR first before the other party does and claims that you are a bigot. – Joe Oct 30 at 19:13
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    I can't help thinking that a private chat is a dangerous strategy with someone who is gaslighting you and has no problems making false allegations of bigotry. OP is already uncomfortable being alone with this colleague, and that instinct is probably well-founded. – Julia Hayward Oct 30 at 19:57
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    I disagree with the term "chat" as it implies: 1. a bilateral conversation, when instead the communication should be completely one-sided. This should not come across as invitation for this person to present further thoughts. This should be a very clear statement that the conversation is over, and any further discussions will be involving HR. 2. In-person, when this should instead be over email (no disagreements about what was said, is documented). – Acccumulation Oct 31 at 4:20
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    I agree. Unfortunately as a somewhat feminine man, I get trans people trying to tell me the same thing. OP is essentially being misgendered. This is really no different from someone denying a transgender woman her identity. It is sexual harassment and discriminatory. – Hugo Zink Oct 31 at 9:37
90

The transgender part of this doesn't actually matter, so don't let the other party make it matter

  • I'm really hesitant to go to HR (we have one) because I know that the world is really pro-trans these days (which is fine) and I don't know how the company will handle it ("HR is not your friend" and all).

The way to deal with that, is to simply not let anything about transgender issues be a part of your complaint, no matter how much the other party wants it to be.

Indeed, a common "pro-trans" thing to do these days is to treat transgender women exactly like any other women and treat transgender men like any other men. So, this part of your question:

One day we went out to lunch together and she confided in me that she is a transgender woman, thinks I am a transgender man who just doesn't know it yet, and she's in love with me (at least, me as a man, as far as I understand).

Could just as easily be re-written as:

...she is a woman, thinks I am a man... and she's in love with me

In which case it's apparent that it doesn't matter at all who is transgender or isn't, because the behavior is still improper. It's not OK to hit on your co-workers and harass them after they turn you down. Sexual harassment law has been clear about that since the 90's or earlier.

Be the first one to HR

Bullies who cravenly play the bigot card when you don't do what they want (which I presume is, cheat on your spouse to have sex with them) are counting on you to be intimidated by the accusation. No matter how ridiculous it may seem to you, many bullies have no reservations about complaining to HR about you being a bigot just to punish you for not complying with their wishes. Bullies of this type are manipulative people and they know that HR has to treat complaints seriously even if it makes very little sense at face value because treating complaints seriously is part of how HR protects the company.

So, go to HR right now and make the complaint immediately. Do not let the issue fester or let the bully get to HR first. At this point you need to be defending yourself from future abuse. You will be subject to abuse until you give the person what they want, which I assume you will never do because you don't want to cheat on your spouse. So, it's time to play an active role in your own defense, and that includes telling HR right now.

  • 39
    I upvoted this answer because it correctly identifies "transgender" as a red herring. This is sexual harassment.It doesn't matter what any of the involved individual's statuses or preferences are. The OP is being solicited to enter into a relationship that they are not interested in. They have made that clear, but the harassment persists. This is, literally, textbook harassment. Everything else in the question is white noise. – dwizum Oct 30 at 19:46
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    Excellent point about the "bigot card". I've heard these people referred to as "Crybullies", they make false complaints in order to get you in trouble – Richard Says Reinstate Monica Oct 30 at 20:04
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    @Time4Tea That is an appropriate step also, assuming the manager understands that the problem is that an employee is trying to coerce another employee into unwanted sex. – Joe Oct 30 at 23:00
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    @Wossname I didn’t mean it as an editorial. Is it not accurate? – Joe Oct 31 at 2:58
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    @Joe Perhaps I misread intent, but the wording seems to imply that "trans women" are not a subset of "women", and "trans men" are not a subset of "men", but people are "acting like" they are. I think the answer could be improved by removing that sentence. – Wossname Oct 31 at 3:10
33

Warn her that you consider what she is doing is harassment. Document it. If she stops fine, but if not go to HR. If you get no satisfaction there, then seek advice of an employment attorney.

This person is being a bully and trying to make you conform to their view of the world. There is no difference between this behavior or the more traditional forms of harassment such as that based on race or the antiquated thought that "women can't do men's work" kind of thing.

This is probably a bit distressing as you come across as a caring individual. However this person is trying to force you into behavior that you have no desire to engage in. That is just not right.

  • 3
    I think this answer is good, but I will say: Skip the warning step and go to HR now. The purpose of warning someone is to prevent an unwanted confrontation from happening. The fact that the person is trying to make the questioner conform to their world view for the purpose of having an extramarital affair with them is proof enough that a confrontation is already taking place and it is the bully's intent to have it. – Joe Oct 30 at 20:41
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    The catch is, if you warn or threaten this bully, that may plant an idea and trigger them to go complain to HR, thinking that they will win if they beat you there. – dwizum Oct 31 at 15:17
20

While sudden onset gender dysphoria is a thing, it sounds as if your coworker may be projecting a bit.

I've known very masculine women, and I've known very effeminate men. It doesn't mean that they are trans, or gay, or anything else.

This is clearly harassment on your coworker's part, and while typically HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND, it may already be past the point where they need to become involved. This is sexual harassment and you don't need to take it from ANYONE, regardless of gender.

From what you described, this is very aggressive behavior that needs to be addressed, and HR is the place to do it.

EDITED TO ADD: The next time the font is edited, I'm just going to delete this. Of all the things to get into an edit war over, this is damn ludicrous!

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    "projecting a bit" ... or a lot. Also, HR IS NOT YOUR FRIEND should be in larger font. – AndreiROM Oct 30 at 18:37
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    This is the rare case, in my experience, where HR can be useful. Documentation would be useful here too. – Mister Positive Oct 30 at 18:44
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    While the "HR is not your friend" meme is true HR does have it's place. This seems like one of those places. – Lee Abraham Oct 30 at 18:50
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    "HR is not your friend" because their job is to look out for the company. Employees harassing other employees is bad for the company. This is exactly the kind of situation for which they exist. – Seth R Oct 30 at 18:57
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    I don't think the emphasis on "HR is not your friend" is helpful in this answer - it might be true some or even the majority of cases, but it could dissuade someone from approaching them in this situation where they really should – HorusKol Oct 30 at 20:23
2

Provided that you do not want to escalate the issue to a third party:

You say she is a feminist, so approach the issue with queerfeminist sentiments she can relate to.

A major tenet of (significant parts of) the trans community is that you should not ascribe a gender to another person based on looks or behavior. Which, as you realize, is exactly what she is doing. Another thing is threatening to out someone against their will, which is also what she is doing.

I would recommend wording your approach something along the following lines (and preferably in writing):

Janet, I realize that some of my behaviors may come off as masculine, which may have lead you to the impression that I am male. This is not the case - I identify as a woman, and the same way it would be inappropriate for me to insist that you are a man based on what I perceive of you, it is completely inappropriate for you to insist that I am a different gender than what I tell you. I am well aware of different prejudices against trans people, and I assure you that me not being trans is not a result of prejudice, it is simply who I am, the same way you are who you are. I am also aware that threatening to out someone against their will is a major taboo in the trans community due to the aforementioned prejudice and violence. Even though I am not a member of the trans community, I am surprised you would consider such a step, given that I know you as a [positive trait here as appropriate (thoughtful, empathic, diligent, ...)] person.

I also wish to stress that I am not romantically or sexually interested in you, and your advances towards me need to stop; otherwise I will treat them as I would treat any unwelcome advances from any co-worker in the workplace.

If that doesn't help, then yeah, escalate the hell out of this.

  • 1
    I think you mean "completely inappropriate for you to insist.." not "completely appropriate". – Patricia Shanahan Oct 31 at 17:24
  • While I think the OP should go to a manager or HR now, this is a good script for what to say if she instead tries to talk to her co-worker again. – BSMP Oct 31 at 17:40
  • @PatriciaShanahan Yes, thanks. And thanks to BSMP for the edit. – LokiRagnarok Nov 1 at 11:20
  • The danger of putting this in writing is that to someone who doesn't know the extraordinary context that justifies it, it looks like a bizarre rant that is all about the fact that Janet is trans. Janet can respond by saying she has no idea what this is or why the OP is so obsessed with gender issues. – David Schwartz Nov 1 at 15:37
1

How can I make her stop?

You probably cannot. I can see how this situation has been bad for you but I would give her one last chance. The next time she brings up the subject of gender you tell her something like:

I have already told you that this is a subject that I am not going to discuss with you. Please do not bring this up again ever. If you do, I will report you to HR for sexual harassment.

All you can do after that is wait. If she brings it up again, don't address her at all. Simply head straight to HR and file a formal complaint. If any of her communication is in writing then save it. If there are any other witnesses makes sure you take note of who it is and hopefully they can vouch for you.

-8

Fight fire with fire. If they accuse you of being anti-trans, accuse them of being anti-feminist and/or homophobic.

Leaving aside the sexual harassment issue that some other answers have addressed adequately (going to HR is a good idea), there's something else you've missed about this situation.

One of the central theses of modern feminism is, essentially, that women have the right to do what they want to, present themselves the way they want to without body-shaming, and perform the type of work they want to. By claiming that because you present in a traditionally masculine fashion, you must be a transgender man, this person is acting against all the gains for women that feminist movement has procured.

Also, I'm not sure what your sexuality is (you haven't specified in this post), but if you're a lesbian, you could also accuse them of homophobia, for assuming that you're actually a man rather than just a butch lesbian. Even if you're not a lesbian, however, you could still point out that if you were, their actions would be homophobic.

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    This does not strike me as a good way to de-escalate the situation. It will only raise tensions which will eventually explode to the detriment of the OP, their coworker, or – most likely – both. – Martin Tournoij Oct 31 at 4:58
  • @MartinTournoij I said "fight fire with fire" for a reason. It's not intended to de-escalate the situation. It's intended to escalate it even further, in the hopes that the OP will win the ensuing fight, since women are also a protected minority. – nick012000 Oct 31 at 5:01
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    There is no fight. There is a person that is severely messed up. And a person being significantly harassed. Neither have the intention to fight. – Volker Siegel Oct 31 at 5:48
  • @VolkerSiegel If the alternative is allowing accusations of being anti-trans to pass without being contested, you've got the choice to fight back or let the other person win. You're already in a win-lose or lose-lose scenario, you just need to make sure that it's the other person who loses. – nick012000 Oct 31 at 5:50
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    One more thing OP could mention to her, is that she is essentially misgendering OP. I feel like her being trans is absolutely related to the matter, as it offers another avenue that might make her see things differently. – Hugo Zink Oct 31 at 9:39

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