Five mornings a week, Jesse Lueck gets out of bed, does her hair and puts on a suit and tie. It’s her typical routine before heading to work. Wearing masculine clothes makes her feel powerful.
“When I put these clothes on, I feel like I am super confident and just look great. I look in the mirror. I turn left, I turn right,” Lueck told NBC OUT.
The 33-year-old is a senior project management specialist for a large financial company in New Jersey. She identifies as gender nonconforming and has worn a suit and tie nearly every day since she started her job more than 10 years ago. She’s challenging gender norms in an industry where few people dare to.
Lueck called her company’s culture “very inclusive.” But things aren’t always easy for her. She has anxiety about using women’s restrooms, which sometimes creates problems.
“I’ve had women stare at me. I’ve had them get startled and think that they walked into the wrong bathroom,” Lueck said.
While more people like Lueck are finding acceptance in the workplace, that isn’t the case for everyone. According to the most recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 90 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming people reported negative workplace experiences or said they took actions to hide who they are in order to avoid discrimination or mistreatment.
There is no federal law that explicitly protects LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming people from workplace discrimination, but more and more companies are beginning to take measures to ensure policies are in place to protect them. About 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies now include gender identity in their non-discrimination policies, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“It helps [companies] recruit good people. It helps them make decisions based on the quality of the employee instead of on some social prejudice,” said Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality.
But policies aren’t always enough.
“Just because the policies are in place doesn’t mean the people around you are going to share that kind of open-mindedness,” said Erika Miguel, a 23 year-old systems administrator.
Miguel, who is gender nonconforming, wore a men’s suit to her first interview at a large financial firm where she formerly worked.
“It was like nine rounds of interviews, and I had one round where the interviewer thought I was a man. Then we were going over my resume, and he was shocked that I was a woman. It just got awkward,” she said.
Miguel felt pressured to wear more feminine clothing to try to fit in with the company’s conservative culture.
“I kind of realized [I had to] in order to feel a little bit more safe. I didn’t have to totally give up my masculinity, but I had to tame it,” she explained.
Miguel was unhappy at the company and left after less than a year. She now works at a small startup, and she said the more open culture makes her feel free to wear whatever she wants.
Gender nonconforming people feel most comfortable in companies that strive to include a culture of inclusiveness, according to Michael Cohen, a Philadelphia-based employment attorney. Cohen provides sensitivity training for organizations and their employees around LGBTQ issues.
“It’s got to get set from up top,” Cohen said. “The message is going to get communicated to the workforce [that] these core values are important [and] absolutely critical to the success of the organization.”
Cohen said the issues that typically arise are from coworkers who lack awareness around how gender nonconforming people should be treated.
“More often than not, employers are trying to do the right thing. Where a lot of the issues come from is fear and where the fear comes from is a lack of knowledge,” he added.
Laura Jacobs, a New York City-based psychotherapist who prefers the non-binary pronouns "they" and "them," is transgender. Jacobs transitioned from male to female in their 20s. Now in their 40s, Jacobs identifies as gender nonconforming or genderqueer and feels comfortable in masculine clothes. Jacobs used to work for a large social services organization and recalled the strange looks they would get from coworkers as they began to wear suits and ties to work.
“I remember early on feeling like I needed to express more femininity. I felt a pressure to conform. I needed the job and I wanted to be accepted,” Jacobs said.
Feeling unwelcome in the organization, Jacobs eventually left. Jacobs now has their own private psychotherapy practice and is Chair of the Board of Directors for the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center.
“I feel free to be myself. I feel more comfortable. I feel more relaxed in my everyday experience, whether I [am] at work or not,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs also noted that younger generations are embracing different ways of expressing gender identity and said that will likely encourage organizations to look at how gender-nonconforming employees are treated.
“In upcoming decades, we’re only going to be seeing more and more people identifying outside of gender binaries. And organizations really need to be prepared to be inclusive of them.”