A Conversation on the Trans Experience and Embracing Who You Really Are With Accessibility Engineer Zoë Bijl
June is Pride Month in the U.S., a time to give the metaphorical mic to people within the LGBTQIA+ community who want to share their perspectives and experiences. Joining us today for a conversation about being transgender is CrowdStrike Accessibility Engineer Zoë Bijl (they/them).
To start, tell me about your role at CrowdStrike.
I’m an accessibility engineer. I make sure that our product is usable by everyone — no matter if they only have one hand, can’t see or can’t see very well, have to use a screen reader or a sip-and-puff (SNP assistive technology), or any other assistive technology. I’m here to make sure that they can all use the CrowdStrike Falcon® platform.
What does it mean to be transgender?
To be transgender is to not identify with the gender that you were assigned at birth. It’s to align your body and gender expression with how you feel inside.
If you can compare gender to a color wheel, where you have all the colors of the rainbow, gender is a bit like that. When you think about it, the idea of having only two genders when you consider all of the people in the world — past and present — is a bit strange. I think of gender more like a color wheel or a spectrum, with not only many different colors represented, but many varieties, and shades of those colors as well.
What has your experience been coming out as a transgender person?
I was brought up as a boy and lived in a society where there were only two genders. Looking back throughout my life, I knew something was up, something didn’t quite fit. And that something was me.
My teens were difficult because I lived in the Dutch Bible Belt. We had Sex Ed, but we didn’t learn about homosexuality, let alone trans stuff. So I really didn’t know what it was. All I knew was that I was a bit different.
Then, when I was 26 or so, some trans friends pointed me to some articles and podcasts. I realized what was being described sounded a lot like the feelings I have. Which made me realize that I’m trans. I figured out that I’m not a boy. And I also realized that I don’t necessarily identify as a woman either. I’m somewhere else on the gender wheel.
From that point on, for the most part, that realization has influenced my life in a positive way. Because I finally know who I am, or at least I have a better understanding of who I am. I know the next steps to take, to get to the point where I can truly be myself.
Can you tell me more about the experience of coming out to your friends and family?
My decision impacted my relationships with family members, many of whom found it difficult at first, but are coming around. They’re using my name; pronouns are still difficult, but, then again, Dutch is a heavily gendered language, so it’s an added challenge.
My youngest sister is lesbian and she was one of the first people that I came out to because I felt safe with her. She has been accepting from Day One and hasn’t stopped doing that, fortunately. My other younger sister had a lot more issues with it, but now she’s an advocate for me and my trans-ness. She’s also educating others, like her boyfriend, who didn’t know what it means to be trans. So that’s another experience that turned out well, even though it didn’t start from a happy place.
The same thing goes for my dad who, in the beginning, felt like it was his “fault” somehow. Like he made a mistake, which isn’t the case. But we’ve had many conversations, some with a lot of anger, some with a lot of sadness. More recently we’ve started to have conversations about being trans and my future, which are more based on understanding one another.
And what about at work? What does it mean to be trans in the workplace?
For me, being transgender at work is a bit different than for some other people, mainly because I work from home. So I can usually dress however I want, or do makeup whenever I want. I don’t have to go to an office so I don’t have to present a certain way, which makes things easier.
I came out at CrowdStrike after two or three months working here. We switched my name, my email address and other things like that and nobody made a big deal of it. It was a really good experience. After that, I wasn’t afraid anymore because I came out and there was no negative reaction. I’ve been really happy with how CrowdStrike handled things. And I feel supported here, which is good. For example, a while ago we added a pronoun field to our Slack profiles, which has helped normalize the use of pronouns for more people.
Because as a queer person you never stop coming out. You have to do that for the rest of your life. Small changes such as a pronoun field can help here. It means that even if someone else doesn’t know the full story, they at least know which pronouns to use. This is huge! It means one less difficult conversation for someone gender neutral, like me.
You mentioned your family using pronouns. What’s the significance of that in the trans community?
One important statistic that just came out from The Trevor Project is that when all or most people respect the pronouns for transgender and nonbinary youth, they attempt suicide at half the rate of those who did not have their pronouns respected.
Pronouns are important. I would rather you remember those two words or which pronouns to use for me (they/them) than my job title, for example. I would rather you remember my pronouns and forget my birthday.
I feel it’s such an integral part of who you are as a person. If you use the wrong pronouns with a cisgender person, they wouldn’t like it. It feels similar as a trans person. If you’re using the wrong pronouns, especially if we asked you personally to use our preferred ones, that matters.
By the way, there’s a difference between not trying and making a mistake, which is totally fine. We can usually spot the difference. And if you are trying with a trans colleague and happen to make a mistake? Just acknowledge it, apologize and use the right ones next time.
Other than respecting pronouns, what are other ways that people can be allies?
One of the most important things is acceptance. As trans people, our lives are generally a bit tougher because of prejudice and stereotypes. Being a good ally isn’t just about using the right pronouns, though that’s a very good start. It’s about treating us as humans, as your peers, as your colleagues, as you would any other person.
A friend of mine recently wrote a post for her work, and she had some good advice about things you should never ask or say to a transgender person. For example, don’t ask about the past, like my birth name. Don’t ask about surgeries. If we want you to know about that, then we’ll tell you.
Basically don’t ask anything you wouldn’t ask a cisgender person. Like: How do you have sex? Which bathroom do you use? When did you become transgender? Aren’t you really just gay? Are you a drag queen? How do you know you won’t change your mind? Never say, “You were the last person I would think to be transgender” or “You don’t look transgender.”
It’s OK to ask questions that come from a place of learning and understanding, but make sure you get their consent to have that conversation. It makes a big difference to put in a little effort. In theory, all information can be found on the internet. Transgender people, and people in the queer community, don’t owe it to teach it to you. So be mindful of that when you want to learn.
That’s a great point. What steps can people take to educate themselves and learn more about the trans community and the issues important to you?
Some books are:
- A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns
- A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities
- Uncomfortable Labels
- In Their Shoes: Navigating Non-Binary Life
Some good resources are:
- Mermaids: Information for Parents (also helpful for friends and colleagues)
- The Trevor Project: Trans + Gender Identity
There’s also a website called nonbinary.wiki. It has a lot of information about what it means to be trans and what other genders exist, such as genderfluid.
I think those would be good first steps because then you have a better understanding of how to talk with a colleague or friend about these issues. These conversations can be very taxing on trans people if we have to do all the legwork. So at least knowing the basics would be a good first step. I think after that, listening to your trans colleagues and friends or family members and talking to them is a good next or third step.
I think that’s another important part about being trans and being an ally to trans people. It’s not all done in one day, but you can make progress. And I know I’m not at the end of my journey, but I’m very happy that I’m now at a place where I can understand where the rest of my journey goes.