Intersectional Non-Binary Perspectives on ‘Professionalism’

By Courtney Carter (she/her), Rafael Langer-Osuna (they/them), and Nicole Netkin-Collins (she/her)




In “Perspectives: Attire for Non-Binary Legal Professionals,” José Bahamonde-González (he/him) and Melanie Rowen (she/her) (see NALP Bulletin, December 2020) interviewed four non-binary individuals at various stages of their careers regarding their experiences and personal vision(s) for professional dress within the legal profession. José and Melanie beautifully wrote:

“To be inclusive, to support everyone in showing up authentically in our workplaces and schools, we want to make sure that in evaluating and talking about professional appearance, we don’t hold onto cultural norms rooted in racism, classism, ableism, sex stereotyping, or other barriers to belonging. Instead, we need to make sure that our norms about what it means to look professional are rooted in the legal profession’s values: competence, ethics, and being focused on the needs of the people we serve.”

This past year, as most of us lived and worked in a remote fashion — with nothing but our heads and shoulders visible to colleagues, classmates, professors, etc. — professional presentation norms with regard to dress, grooming, and accessories have become more relaxed. Many of us have joked about wearing sweatpants to work because of their invisibility.

Even in this more casual environment, the oft-unwritten “rules” of professional presentation in the legal profession remain rooted in white heteronormative patriarchal cisgender norms. This reflects broader societal struggles with these norms. For example, discrimination against Black hairstyles is so commonplace that, since 2019, advocates have fought for the legislation of the CROWN Act (www.thecrownact.com). The law, “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” prohibits race-based hair discrimination, which is the denial of employment and educational opportunities because of hair texture or protective hairstyles including braids, locs, twists, or bantu knots. Assistant Law Professor, Tiffany Atkins, at the Elon University School of Law — who wears her natural hair with pride — notes that she was told by a family member that “she would never become a lawyer if her hair had locs in it.” (See Resources: Crown Act.) The CROWN Act has only been passed in 10 states.

As COVID-19 vaccine rollouts continue, we look forward to returning to an in-person world — or, at least a hybrid of in-person and remote work. As the transition takes place, we need to be mindful of the unique impacts and considerations that this change will have on individuals that hold various marginalized identities, including non-binary and/or transgender. To do so, we spoke with two future leaders in the profession:

Nicholas Agyevi-Armah (she/her) is a 3L at the William & Mary Law School and President Emerita of the Student Bar Association. She interned for Goldman Sachs in summer 2020 and has accepted an offer for permanent employment after graduation as Global Compliance Senior Analyst.

AK Shee (they/them) is a 3L at UCLA School of Law and has served in leadership roles in groups such as UCLA’s OUTlaw, the Asian/Pacific Islander Law Students Association, and the Queer & Transgender People of Color Collective (as Co-Founder and Co-Chair). AK is also the Editor-in-Chief of the UCLA Law Review and a Senior Editor for the Dukeminier Awards Journal of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law. They interned for Sheppard Mullin in summer 2020 and will be joining the firm full-time after graduation.

Question 1: What are some of the ways in which you identify?


Nicholas Agyevi-Armah: I’ve been exploring my gender identity and exploring the non-binary space over the past three years; I now identify as a transwoman. And, I’m Black.

AK Shee: I’m transgender; trans masculine and Taiwanese. I’ve been in the middle of a big transition process from 1L to now, largely in part because I did not have access to gender-affirming healthcare before law school.

Question 2: What have been some of the benefits of learning/working in a remote setting in relation to your gender identity?

Nicholas Agyevi-Armah: I’ve never had a problem wearing what society has defined as “women’s type” clothing, but I have been more daring on Zoom this past year. I seem to experience fewer jarring reactions [on Zoom], so I’ve been more daring. The constant presence of my name and pronouns (she/her) made the change of my pronouns easier for other people to adopt. For example, professors haven’t needed a reminder because my pronouns are clearly visible on the Zoom screen.

AK Shee: I can pass better on Zoom. There’s less to see, so less to scrutinize. No one is looking at my body, because they can’t. I’ve had in-person experiences in which attorneys, in a professional setting, would openly stare at different parts of my body, presumably to “figure me out.”

There’s less tailoring that’s necessary. Tailoring is often expensive, but it can be especially important for non-binary people who don’t fit the binary and who have fewer clothing options. There’s more flexibility to schedule transition-related medical and mental health appointments, or even different recovery times for surgery or other procedures that trans/non-binary individuals may need.

I can use my own bathroom and not have to worry about which binary option to use in a building, and whether or not I will make other people uncomfortable. This is notable because the expectation of other people’s discomfort and scrutiny can add a level of anxiety to every bathroom experience for trans/non-binary folks.

Question 3: What have been some of the benefits (or disadvantages) of learning/working in a remote setting in relation to your intersectional identities?

Nicholas Agyevi-Armah: I do think that there are some benefits. People have had time to get used to seeing my pronouns daily in meetings, for example. I think that will help when we are eventually in person.

AK Shee: On Zoom, I have felt more comfortable asserting myself than in in-person settings. When you’re in a group setting in-person, there are voices that tend to be highlighted and are louder (from people who are accustomed to taking up more space or who get more implicit approval and respect in traditional legal spaces).

Question 4: What do you anticipate will remain the same when returning to an in-person environment?

Nicholas Agyevi-Armah: I’m hoping to remain daring in my clothing choices. I’ll be returning to the same employer (post-grad) that I worked for this past summer and I was received very well. I’m expecting some colleagues to be a little taken aback when they see me in-person, but I’m hoping to have the same confidence moving forward. My role will be internal, so I don’t need to deal with the pressure to look a certain way in front of clients.

AK Shee: I think many work meetings will continue to happen over Zoom, so the physical comforts of remaining at home some of the time will remain. Regarding in-person work, I sincerely hope employers have approached the past year as an opportunity for self-reckoning and have taken steps to ensure the transition back to the office will be more inclusive and accepting of all traditionally marginalized groups.

Question 5: Do you have any concerns about returning to an in-person environment?

Nicholas Agyevi-Armah: Having been solely virtual with my employer this past summer, it’s been harder to get a good picture of the resources actually available to me as an intersectional individual. I want to get the initial awkward meeting out of the way (people’s reactions upon seeing my gender non-conforming appearance). The virtual environment has dragged this out a bit.

AK Shee: While I’m more physically comfortable at home, I’d rather be in-person. I enjoy being social, and I think in-person interactions build community, which helps you more easily figure out which colleagues will have your back.

But I think in-person environments will still include many of the same obstacles for trans/non-binary employees. Confusion with pronouns, binary bathroom options, added hurdles in forming crucial relationships in the employment setting (particularly with superiors), pressure to be a good “cultural fit,” are all concerns for many trans/non-binary individuals. I had a great remote summer employment experience, but I am still apprehensive about how some of my relationships might change when in person, and — rather than being a face in a small square on a screen — my non-normative body is present and more of me is on display.

Question 6: What awkward conversations have you been involved with and what advice have you received during your time as a law student?

Nicholas Agyevi-Armah: Some of my more awkward conversations have been about my Black identity, which [conversations] were non-existent before summer 2020. Afterward, conversations began surrounding the fact that there were no Black men in the 2L class. I never really felt as though such conversations with professors were useful; their responses to my concerns or experiences were to tell me about “all the things” the law school was doing and not to validate my experience.

My conversations about gender, however, were sometimes more meaningful and substantial. There was something more personal and less politicized about those discussions that allowed us to connect on a deeper level. It’s unfortunate, however, that conversations about race have become so charged and difficult to engage in.

AK Shee: When I was a 1L, the career services office told me not to put pronouns on my resume and to use my dead name [birth name] on my resume instead of my preferred name. Along with other students, I pushed back and encouraged the CSO to be more inclusive in their advice to students and in their conceptions of professionalism. I spoke with recruiters and attorneys from big law firms to get their take on pronouns and preferred names, since much of the advice that the CSO provides is based on employer preferences.

There were professors who refused to use non-binary pronouns. I also had to look out for professors who used honorifics to address students, so I could try to catch them before I was cold called, and ask them to please use “Mx.”

Question 7: What can legal employers and schools do to support non-binary and/or trans law students and lawyers?

Nicholas Agyevi-Armah: Goldman Sachs offered to conduct internal training on trans and non-binary matters before I start working there full-time. This takes the pressure off of me to do it!  

AK Shee: Employers can make sure all employees have easy access to restrooms they are comfortable using. Legal employers can help students fund tailoring clothes, especially queer and trans students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Legal employers should offer health insurance that covers gender-affirming healthcare (e.g., hormone treatment and surgery), and ensure that current and potential employees are aware of such policies. It’s also important for employers to take a clear stance that respecting people’s gender identities, presentations, and pronouns is mandatory, not a political issue or workplace policy to debate.


True Inclusion

Despite the enumerated benefits of the remote world, both students are eager to return to an in-person, or at least hybrid environment. This is a sentiment shared by many who are ready to enjoy more unplanned conversations with colleagues and acquaintances, say goodbye to “Zoom fatigue,” and reinstitute the boundaries between work and home.   

As we move back into offices, legal professionals should be purposeful in ensuring that standards of professional presentation are focused on what actually matters — competence, client service, ethical conduct — rather than vague notions of what should be expected that are unnecessarily rooted in the gender binary and other forms of discrimination (racism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc.).

For example, and unsurprisingly, after conducting an analysis of narrative interviews from transgender and gender nonconforming individuals working in the San Francisco Bay Area, diversity and inclusion consultant Lily Zheng and sociologist Alison Ash Fogarty found that both formal dress codes and informal, yet gendered, clothing expectations are an extreme source of stress for gender-nonconforming individuals (see Resources: Policies). Established legal professionals and educators should harness this moment to think critically about the assumptions underlying workplace presentation norms and what purpose, if any, such presentation norms continue to serve in our new post-remote world.

True inclusion for law students and lawyers with various marginalized identities, especially for those that include non-binary and/or transgender as one of those identities, means re-evaluating outdated standards of professionalism and actively fostering environments in which all individuals can show up as their authentic selves. Meaningfully including non-binary individuals in the workplace might help to foster and reinvigorate dialogue about workplace presentation norms because binary gender presentation norms are so commonplace, deeply rooted, often unexamined, and impactful on the ways in which we connect with each other.  

Resources

CROWN Act: The CROWN Act & transforming the rules of professionalism around Black hair, by Natalie Runyon (Thompson Reuters, February 17, 2021)

Policies: Transgender, Gender-Fluid, Nonbinary, and Gender-Nonconforming Employees Deserve Better Policies, by Lily Zheng (Harvard Business Review, November 20, 2020)

NALP’s Non-Binary Resources page: www.nalp.org/nonbinaryresources


Suggestions for Further Reading

Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity, edited by Micah Rajunov & Scott Duane (2019)

Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination
, by Alison Ash Fogarty, PhD, and Lily Zheng (2018)



Courtney Carter (CCarter@jenner.com) is the Director of Diversity & Inclusion at Jenner & Block (Washington, DC). Rafael Langer-Osuna (rafael.langerosuna@squirepb.com) is a Partner at Squire Patton Boggs (San Francisco, CA). Nicole Netkin-Collins (nicole.netkincollins@colorado.edu) is the Director for Law Firms at the University of Colorado Law School (Boulder, CO). This article is submitted on behalf of the NALP Task Force on Supporting Gender Non-Binary Individuals in the Legal Profession.

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