• The Centre for Inclusive Leadership

V Wilkes Interview

We are thrilled that V Wilkes, a friend of The Centre, was kind enough to take some time out of their busy schedule to answer some questions.

Can we start at the beginning? What exactly does “non-binary” mean?

Non-binary is an umbrella term for gender identities that fall outside the gender binary of male or female. This includes individuals whose gender identity is neither exclusively male or female, a combination of male and female or between or beyond genders.

When did you start to identify as a non-binary person?

I came out to my family, close friends and work colleagues around 12 months ago. However, I identified as non-binary a few years before this to my wider community.

What are pronouns and why are pronouns important to you?

Pronouns are words we often use to refer to a person when we don’t use their name. Gender specific pronouns “he” and “she” are generally used for men and women. But some people prefer to use “they/them” pronouns, for example, if they identify as non-binary. And when you think about it, it’s not that unusual, we already commonly use “they/them” pronouns when we don’t know the gender of a person we’re referring to , like “Denver went to the park, they had a great time, or “someone forgot their coat”.

For me, as a non-binary person, the reason pronouns are important is that often people make assumptions about the gender of another person based on the person’s appearance or name. These assumptions are not always correct, and by assuming (even if you are correct), it sends a message that people must look, act or present in a certain way to demonstrate the gender that they are, or are not. When someone is asking you to use their pronouns, they are asking for you to respect their identity.

“As humans, we all need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance and to have the support of peers in my industry means an awful lot to me.”

Please will you share the most important part of your journey.

I have many milestones in my journey, the most important one was coming out and identifying as non-binary to family, friends and work colleagues. Another big milestone for me was coming out to my industry. I work in security, which is typically male dominated, but I’m pleased to say that, for the most part, my peers have been very accepting and openminded which is something that gives me huge reassurance. As humans, we all need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance and to have the support of peers in my industry means an awful lot to me.

“When someone is asking you to use their pronouns, they are asking for you to respect their identity.”

Of course, there are a handful of people who still question my identity and can’t see beyond the binary construct, and they are very vocal about their opinions which can be hurtful, but I hope in time I will be able to disregard their ignorance and not let it bother me.

What advice would you offer to anyone who is supporting someone that is questioning their identity?

When someone confides in you, that they are questioning their gender identity or they think they might be trans or gender fluid, don’t ask them a hundred questions, have empathy – questioning your identity and coming out is a really difficult time for most people. I recently listened to Brené Brown speak about empathy – she said, “Empathy is a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing; it doesn't require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through”.

My advice would be to spend some time educating yourself so that you build your own understanding and can support your friends, colleagues, family members who confide in you. Personally, I’m happy to answer questions here and there, but it’s important to remember that every introduction is a “reveal” and this can be daunting. I really appreciate when people are curious and make the effort to learn more themselves, for me this shows true allyship.

You mentioned the great support you received from people within Primark, especially before you made your announcement. How did that assist your overall plan, your well-being and your confidence? Did it make a difference?

Being able to talk to someone in work before coming out to my peers and colleagues was a big part of my journey, having that guidance and support helped me to have the confidence to come out at the office and be my true, authentic self.

“I really appreciate when people are curious and make the effort to learn more themselves, for me this shows true allyship.”

We often underestimate what a few conversations can do, for me that vital support gave me the time to digest what I was going to do knowing I was getting full support to walk my path with clarity, strength and with authenticity. Working somewhere you feel included, welcomed and valued for who you are is something everyone should have and I’m proud to say that this is my experience in Primark.

Many people are afraid to talk about the various dimensions of diversity within the workplace, how do you go about asking the uncomfortable questions when you really want to know?

Learning to speak up about diversity is uncomfortable, we’re afraid to say the wrong thing, however it’s critical for leaders who want to build inclusive workplaces. Asking curious and respectful questions, reading books and using other resources that will help you better understand diverse communities in your workplace will help us to get over this fear. We need to learn to embrace the discomfort of talking about and tackling tough issues regarding diversity. The best approach is to be curious and respectful and apologise if you make a mistake so you can learn from it and move on. You’re far less likely to offend anyone if you show a little respect. Avoiding the conversation will only hold us back and we won’t ever be able to tap into the strength that diversity brings or create inclusive environments for everyone around us.

“We need to learn to embrace the discomfort of talking about and tackling tough issues regarding diversity.”

What one thing do you want people to understand about the non-binary community that is constantly misunderstood?

You don’t have to be equally masculine or feminine to be non-binary.

It’s not for someone else to say how masculine or feminine someone is. Masculinity and femininity are just random labels we give to certain behaviours. What seems masculine in one culture or to one person might seem feminine to another. And none of them are right or wrong.

Everyone’s identity is individual to them and we should embrace this individuality and accept people for exactly who they are and not who society tells them they should be.

In the L G B T Q + which letter refers to non-binary? the plus?

For me personally, I associate non-binary with the community represented by the letter T which stands for Transgender. The term transgender is an umbrella term indicating that a person's gender identity is different from the gender associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a transgender woman lives as a woman today, but was thought to be male when she was born. A transgender man lives as a man today but was thought to be female when he was born. Some transgender people identify as neither male nor female, or as a combination of both and use the term non-binary to describe their identity. However not all non-binary people would identify as Transgender and they might feel more comfortable in the group represented by +. Rather than assuming, ask respectfully.

How do we ensure that our workspaces are future places where everyone is treated equally well?

Employers need to create a culture of diversity and inclusion and educate all staff appropriately in D&I. We don’t know what we don’t know, we all have different experiences and must be open to learning about the experiences of others to understand what diversity and inclusion truly means.

The best way to understand where the opportunities for improvement are is to ask colleagues for their input so that together you can identify areas you can make a really impact in the workplace.

It’s important that we are aware of indirect discrimination and prevent unconscious biases creeping into our decision making, actions and behaviours. We’re all victim to this, no exceptions but through education and training we can learn understand our individual biases and catch ourselves in the moment. A first step for a workplace might be to review recruitment processes to ensure that diversity is enabled and there is equality for all.

We also can’t underestimate the role of allies. Allies are vital and welcomed supporters of the LGBTQI+ community, as they have powerful and influential voices. Having allies helps to create a platform to fight homophobia and transphobia, and they personally advocate for equal treatment for all people, regardless of their sexual orientation etc.

We start by living the change we want to see, being an ally is a great start and a positive step forward.

If you enjoyed this interview and want to read more like this, check out our blog page- https://www.thecentreforinclusiveleadership.com/workplace-inclusion-content