I looked myself up and down in the full-length mirror. Blouse tucked in? Check. Pearl earrings on? Check. Lipstick flawless? Check. After a few minutes of primping, posing and deep breathing, I was off to my first day of work.
When I start a new job, I struggle with many typical fears and hesitations. Will my coworkers like me? Will I fit in with the office culture? Am I formatting this report the right way? But one question loomed above all others as I started my job this June: What should I wear to work?
In many ways, it's a concern everyone faces. On the first day, everyone wants to get their outfit just right. But for transgender and gender non-conforming people like me, the question of what to wear to work becomes an exhausting question of identity and survival. For us, the question changes from "How do I present my best self at work?" to "Can I authentically present my best self at work?"
Image Credit: Jacob Tobia
Going into my college years at Duke, I thought that my desire to dress in an androgynous manner and adopt a feminine gender expression was shameful. For the first few months of college, I hid it from others and from myself. But I spent those four years learning to love and appreciate myself as a gender non-conforming person. After years of working to unearth internalized oppression, I finally learned to keep my head high as I stomped by the frat boys in my five-inch heels. I made a name for myself at Duke, and I even wore pencil skirts and pantsuits to meetings with the Board of Trustees.
During undergrad, I became fully empowered and comfortable in my gender. Or so I thought.
Now, as a recent graduate entering the workforce, I find myself contending with a much bigger obstacle than frat boys: I have to contend with "professionalism."
Professionalism is a funny term because it masquerades as neutral despite being loaded with immense oppression, and yet people act like it's not political. Bosses across the country constantly tell their employees to act or dress professionally without a second thought.
Wear a garment that represents your non-Western culture to work? Your boss may tell you it's unprofessional. Wear your hair in braids or dreadlocks instead of straightened? That's probably unprofessional too. Wear shoes that are slightly scuffed because you can't yet afford new ones? People may not think you're being professional either.
For years, professionalism has been my enemy because it requires that my gender identity is constantly and unrepentantly erased. In the workplace, the gender binary can be absolute, unfaltering and infallible. If you dare to step out of line, you risk being mistreated by coworkers, losing promotions or even losing your job. And if you are discriminated against for being transgender or genderqueer, you may not even have access to legal recourse.
According to the groundbreaking study Injustice at Every Turn, 90% of transgender and gender non-conforming people have experienced mistreatment or harassment at work. And alarmingly, 26% have been fired because of their gender identity or expression. In many states, it is still perfectly legal to discriminate against gender non-conforming employees.
So, the first morning before work, as I put on my pants, blouse, heels and pearls, self-doubt came roaring back.Would I be treated as a professional if I wore earrings? Would I be taken seriously wearing lipstick? Would my boss and my colleagues respect me for who I am?
As I walked to work, those doubts kept creeping up in my mind. I thought about all the times that people told me to "tone it down" for work. I thought back to conversations with my father, when he told me to put away the "flamboyant shit" if I wanted to be respected. I thought back to former internship supervisors who told me that I would not be respected around the office if I chose to express my gender identity. I thought back to the countless memories from childhood of being mocked for being a "sissy."
I thought about all of this, took a deep breath and walked through the front door of my new office, with my heels click-clacking on the concrete floor.
Image Credit: Jacob Tobia
While people may try to discriminate against me and tell me that I'm dressing "inappropriately" for work, I will hold on to my gender identity and sense of self. In the workplace, I will stick up for those who, like me, find that their gender does not match a prefabricated box. I will wear my heels, pearls, and skirts to work until, hopefully, the world can learn to respect people like me.
Yet I feel myself to be incredibly privileged because, despite my initial worries about gender presentation at work, my new job at an LGBT advocacy organization has been both affirming and respectful of my gender expression. By day three, my anxiety about how colleagues would respond to my gender expression subsided, slowing from a downpour to a trickle. When I meet with my supervisor, and even with senior leadership, there are no condescending looks, nor denigrating stares; only mutual appreciation for the work that we're getting done.
To some, that may make it seem like my fear of being seen as unprofessional is unwarranted, because an LGBT organization is certainly the most likely place to affirm alternative gender expressions. But the reality for me is that even working at an LGBT organization, I don't see many people like me on a daily basis. Even in LGBT spaces, gender expressions are often policed so that our community appear "just like everyone else."
There is clearly a dire need to begin a national conversation about transphobic discrimination in the workplace. And one thing I can do is to let those trans and gender non-conforming people who are suffering discrimination know that they are not alone. If we raise our voices together, we can end anti-trans workplace discrimination.
So to all of the discriminatory employers out there, you better watch out, because I am genderqueer, professional and unafraid to challenge your bigotry head on — pencil skirt and all.