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So, my boss is teaching a class "about transgenders"...

My boss mentioned at a staff meeting today that she would be teaching a class "about transgenders" at an upcoming industry conference. To be clear, it wasn't like a passing statement between two people that I overheard. It was a part of her statement to the entire staff about the upcoming conference that she would be attending.

The word "transgenders" struck me as a little tone deaf, almost as if she said that she would be teaching a class "about blacks"

I know she means well, but I strongly suspect that she's out of her element.

I guess I'm wondering if I should offer to help. I'm by no means an expert, I'm not trans myself, but it seems like I may have some personal experience that she could benefit from. I identify as queer, I've dated trans people, and I try to be active in the movement for equality. This doesn't mean I know everything there is to know, but I know what I've experienced and heard from my friends and partners.

At least I feel that I should ask her if she knows any trans people personally that she could run her teaching materials by, before she presents them to a room full of people... Many minority groups are pushing for a sort of "nothing about us without us" stance and I think that could apply here.

Am I overreacting?

Should I offer to help?

To clarify...

  • I've worked with my boss for a little over 6 years.

  • We don't really spend time together outside of working hours, but I did attend one of these industry conferences with her a few years ago.

  • We've had a pretty good working relationship for as long as I've known her, she tends to listen to and respect my point of view on most things that I've had to approach her about.

  • To the best of my knowledge the class will be a sort of sensitivity training, helping people in our industry work with and serve trans people.

  • The only real reason that I suspect that she's out of her element is the use of the word "transgenders"

  • I have no reason to believe that she is "virtue signaling" she doesn't tend to be outspoken about politics, race, gender, sexuality, or other such issues.

    • (Though personally I find the implication that the only reason someone would speak to these issues is to serve their own ego a little offensive and I think it demonstrates a worldview that is generally wrong. If this is your opinion you're welcome to it, but I'm not interested in answers that focus on this misguided assumption.)
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    I have the same reaction to "blacks" and would have the same reaction to this... I'm not sure how problematic it is, so I'm interested in the response to this question. – Catija Aug 31 '17 at 0:04
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    @EnglishStudent Most would say "transgender people" or "trans people" – apaul Aug 31 '17 at 20:40
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    If your boss is going to learn about it by reading a lot about it then she is out of her depth, @gnasher729. The thing is this is a sensitive subject that nobody is recommended to take a class on if they are not really familiar with it and very well able to represent its intricacies both factually and ethically, so I fully agree with you, @ apaul34208. – English Student Sep 3 '17 at 0:15
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    @Fildor Believe it or not, some people do things for reasons other than self-interest. If she had asked for help, would I have asked the question this way? – apaul Oct 12 '17 at 14:26
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    @Fildor I feel urged to help because when people talk about these issues they're talking about my family and friends. When they do it badly, or in this case run the risk of teaching others to do it badly, it admittedly touches a nerve. – apaul Oct 12 '17 at 15:30
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I don't have experience in this exact scenario, but as someone who has worked/works in offices in the US, and who has experience giving suggestions to authority figures, I think I might have some useful advice here.

An office environment is a professional environment. What that means is that people are (or think they are, or want other people to believe they are) professionals, i.e. that they are qualified to do the things they are paid to do. You explain in your question that:

My boss mentioned at a staff meeting today that she would be teaching a class "about transgenders" at an upcoming industry conference.

The fact that your boss is presenting at an industry conference means that either they got roped into doing something they don't want to do, or that they think they are qualified to present on this issue, and that they were able to convince others that they are qualified. Most likely it is the latter. Professional qualification, or rather the appearance of professional qualification, is important in the workplace: it's how people justify their salaries. Your boss thinks they are professionally qualified to give this presentation, and has convinced others of their professional qualifications. That is a big deal. Suggest that someone is not professionally qualified, and you are suggesting that they do not deserve their job or their salary. People don't like that.

Now you say that you don't think your boss is qualified, and that you would like to help your boss. What is your claim to professional qualification here?

I guess I'm wondering if I should offer to help. I'm by no means an expert, I'm not trans myself, but it seems like I may have some personal experience that she could benefit from.

Let me be clear. From what you have told me, it is very likely that you are right and that your boss has no idea what they are doing. But your boss has the appearance of professional qualification. You do not. Knowing a few people is not a persuasive claim.

The situation so far is that you are not qualified, but you know enough to know that your boss is not qualified. But your boss thinks they are qualified.

Should I offer to help? (Or am I overreacting?)

You are not obligated to help or give your boss any sort of advice. Your boss has not asked you for your help. But if you do decide to help, I would not mention that you "strongly suspect that she's out of her depth." I would also not mention that you think the presentation will go poorly. Your boss thinks that they can do a good job, and since they are your superior they most likely won't want you to tell them otherwise.

I would also not try to persuade your boss to accept your help on the basis of your qualifications or lack of qualifications. As I've mentioned earlier, saying "I'm by no means an expert, I'm not trans myself" is not persuasive. In fact, I wouldn't try to persuade your boss to accept your advice at all. If they find your advice useful they will use it. If they don't want your advice, then because they are your superior they will not be happy if you try to force them to accept your advice. They are your boss, they tell you what to do, not the opposite.

What I would do is say something like the following:

Hey, I heard you were giving a presentation about the transgender community. I have a few friends who are transgender; if you would find it helpful, I can set up a meeting so they can share their experiences about [x] with you.

And that should be it. If your boss finds your offer helpful, they will accept it. If they don't, they won't appreciate you trying to force your advice on them.

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    "I don't think there will be any consequences if you do not help" apart from her passing along potentially terrible advice? – apaul Aug 31 '17 at 1:26
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    @apaul34208 sorry, I don't think there will be any consequences to you if you do not help. I can't really judge what the consequences of your bosses presentation will be with the information you've given me. But at the end of the day, you need to decide whether you want to help your boss, all I can do is give you advice on how to best do that. – user288 Aug 31 '17 at 1:31
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    +1 for "I have a few friends who are transgender; if you would find it helpful, I can set up a meeting so they can share their experiences about [x] with you." Polite and unassuming. Plus, learning from someone with firsthand experience is always preferable to hearing from someone with secondhand experience, especially on a sensitive topic. – user61524 Oct 8 '17 at 6:30
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    I keep rereading this hoping to see it in another light, but I just can't. – apaul Oct 16 '17 at 6:34
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    Hm. I'm having a lot of trouble connecting this to my own personal experience. Where I work, "Hey, I want to help you make your presentation a blowout success" is more likely to result in "Thank heck, I'm up to my neck in things to do, I'll take any help I can get" than "Buzz off, I know what I'm doing". The latter sounds like a pretty unhealthy work environment. I simply cannot recognize the "challenge to authority" mindset you're so pessimistically describing in my past experiences. Not to say you're wrong or that you haven't experienced that kind of thing, but... it surely isn't universal. – Daniel Wagner Feb 10 '18 at 22:29
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Hamlet's answer is good, but it would be simpler (and easier for her to take you up on; less of a commitment) if you simply mentioned to your boss that you wanted to share some of your personal experiences with her, in case they helped with her class.

Something such as:

Hey, I heard you say you're going to be giving a presentation on the transgender community during an upcoming conference. I'd really like to sit with you for a few minutes at some point to share a few personal experiences I've had. I'm not transgender, but I know some people who are, and I feel that telling you my experiences may help you with your presentation.

You could also mention that if she likes, you could put her in touch with your transgender friends for further questions...but I think it would be better to wait until you've sat with her and shared your experiences before you offer that.

If you're right, she's not taking this presentation very seriously (or doesn't realize what it would entail to take it seriously and only thinks she is taking it seriously), so an outright offer to put her in touch with your friends for her research may go down wrong. Perhaps she's not planning on any research; you don't know.

But she'd probably be willing anyway to hear your experiences as they might influence and help her presentation. And who knows; perhaps your stories may open her eyes to the reality of the subject so she therefore invests more time in really learning about it to give an accurate, excellent presentation.

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    Good answers are more than suggestions; they should explain why and how. Please explain the source of your knowledge (experience, perhaps) and why the advice in this answer is helpful. See interpersonal.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/182/… for more information. – user288 Aug 31 '17 at 12:46
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    " I'd really like to sit with you for a few minutes at some point to share a few personal experiences I've had." If I was the boss, I would be confused about why this is worth my time. – user288 Aug 31 '17 at 12:54
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    @Hamlet and your confusion would be answered in the very next sentence. – Wildcard Aug 31 '17 at 18:12
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    @Hamlet why are you so sure that a person in an authority position would react so poorly to an honest offer of help? Just seems like your answer and comment both suggest that authority figures are ego driven and petty. In my experience good bosses ask for help and eagerly accept help. – apaul Sep 2 '17 at 23:55
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+50

Short answer: you're not overreacting, and you should definitely offer your help.

First of all, I find your reaction perfectly understandable. You know the subject because of personal experience and you have had the chance to form a clear opinion about it, which, given that this matter affects directly only a minority of people, is not to take for granted. I am part of the LGBT+ community myself, and I can totally identify with your reaction and your desire to help.

Let's assume the best from your boss. That is, she really means well, the ego boosting is not the primary reason (if not a reason at all) for her to teach this class about "transgenders", and she knows (at least) something correct about it.

As an ally, you can start the conversation with her by congratulating her for her speaking up about this subject:

I really wanted to express my felicitations about the class you're going to teach. I feel that this topic is too often ignored at the workplace. We are going to take great benefit from it.

Since you mentioned that you know each other for six years and that she respects you, you can very well move to mention your experience with transgender people. I would suggest not to address the topic of her competence at all: you want to attend a good class, not to make her feel inadequate. Surely it's a superfluous remind, but... be humble. :)

You know, I am impressed also because I have some direct experience with transgender people [insert the level of detail here, be it mentioning your former partner(s) or your activism in the LGBT movement etc. In any case, hint the level of your experience].

Then, after you made clear that 1. you're happy about this topic being spoken about (I guess you really could be, if done in a proper way), and 2. you can offer valuable competences, offer your help. Acknowledge that this is an objectively difficult topic, show her empathy.

Such topics are always very delicate to deal with, I would be glad to help you in the preparation of the classes, maybe also involving [trans people or organization you know].


As a sidenote, I'd suggest you something not mentioned in your question. It sounds like that you could be one of the most eager and entitled people of your workplace to talk about this topic - after all, you mentioned that you " try to be active in the movement for equality". Why not take your offer a step further and become involved in the organization of the event itself (of course, to the extent your position allows you)? You could become the reference person for the organization of such courses in the future and put yourself in the position of suggesting .

  • Have you ever done something like this? – apaul Oct 12 '17 at 14:47
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    @apaul I wish! But no, I didn't have the chance to do something like this - and in general, I feel that here in Italy it's pretty difficult to find a workplace that mentions inequality issues, let alone organize classes about minorities... It may be for this lack of attention to minority issues, but personally, if there were such golden possibility, I'd want to be part of it and try to make things even just a little bit better. – LinuxBlanket Oct 12 '17 at 15:15
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At this point in time, most people are quite clueless about the subject. And we can only hope that out of these people, most are decent people who are quite clueless about the subject. Who would try to behave in a decent way if they encounter transgender people in their professional (or private) life, but may get things wrong because they are clueless. And who would be annoyed if accusations are made against them when they behave in a well-meaning but clueless way. (I once dared asking what a fifth letter following LBGT meant, and got the most vitriolic replies. Pissed me right off. Fortunately I'm adult enough to be pissed off with the people giving nasty answers, and not with the members of that fifth letter group).

So let's say your boss starts a talk like this: "Hi everyone, I was roped in to do a talk about transgenders. At that time when I was asked to do the talk, I had no clue. Probably like most of you. So I asked around and found out lots of things. One of the first things that I found was that transgender people find the word "transgenders" insulting. Just like you wouldn't talk about black people as "blacks" today. The correct way is "transgender people", or "trans people" if you want to appear as if you know everything." And so on.

That kind of talk could go down very well with well-meaning but clueless people, and actually help them understanding things and acting in a positive way, because it doesn't look like it comes from some obsessively "politically correct" person, but from a decent human being who took the time and effort to learn about an important subject and is now willing to share what he learned.

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    I think most people fall into the "well meaning, but clueless" category. I was asking if/how I could help someone be a little less clueless before teaching a class. – apaul Sep 2 '17 at 23:31

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