Friday 5 October 2012

Genderqueer, dress codes, and the world beyond the bubble

OrlandoPosted by Orlando

It's ten minutes before the taxi leaves. My guest room is a mess of unfamiliarity. A figure-hugging red dress with a plunging neckline. Leather high heels I've never worn before. Accessories I don't know how to use - gel inserts for my shoes, 'tit tape' to keep my dress straight. My face, tear-streaked and puffy in the mirror, bare of make-up with bushy eyebrows that haven't seen tweezers in years - and even less acceptable, the pelt of dark hair on my legs and under my arms. "I can't do this," I sob down the phone at a friend. "They'll know I'm a fake."

"So you're a fake? Be a drag queen. Femme fatale from a film noir. Femininity as artifice. Calculated masquerade. Ice queen." My friend rattles off the words she knows help make sense of this.

I am heading out to a very formal party, and I am learning - once again - that gendered dress codes are really fucking difficult.

By strange serendipity, I am somebody's +1 at a black tie affair where I am one of about five people under forty years old. It's a very grand affair, and I am paralysed with terror. When I was invited, my friend hoped that I'd bring a bit of queerness to the night - indeed, with the express hope that I'd bind my chest, wear a suit, and be a Teachable Moment for the strait-laced majority. After all, I'm a trans feminist activist, and it might just smooth the path of another person who is considering coming out as queer to this lot. I was, very briefly, enthusiastic about this plan. And then it hit me how very draining it would be - how stressful - how terrifying, to be brought in as a mouthpiece, with the expectation that I spend the evening fielding questions about my gender in a polite and respectful way. I don't "pass" as male - I barely pass as butch. And while my wardrobe contains several rough approximations of masculine formal wear, any sort of rigorous examination would show that it's grace à Oxfam rather than Savile Row. Right then, I decided: this time I'll play it safe and go formal femme. Take advantage of my 'feminine' figure and play at being Jessica Rabbit. Right? Right.

As my rather dramatic introduction shows, that wasn't such a safe option after all. When I saw my host's female relatives getting ready, I began to panic. These were 16- or 17-year-olds with expertly applied make-up, coiffured hair, fashionable silky dresses, little handbags (oh god I forgot to bring a handbag) that probably cost more than my entire ensemble... and here I was in a dress I bought on sale, heels I had no idea how to walk in, and a bone-deep aversion to makeup, perfume, and removing any of my body hair. “What on earth,” I railed at the mirror, “made me think I could pass as female!?”

I’m transgender. I was raised and socialised as female; my body and face tend to be “read” as female; I experience myself as male, female, neither, both, and in-between. I use words like “non-binary”, “genderqueer”, and “genderfluid” to describe myself. That last one has become an increasingly key term for me as I navigate the landscape of the trans community. A lot of genderqueer people have a stable gender identity - just one that isn’t adequately expressed by the terms “male” or “female”. For me... not so much. And it’s not just about sometimes wanting to wear dresses and sometimes wanting to wear suits - it’s about my entire sense of what my body is, what my body should be. Sometimes I feel perfect how I am, all waist and hips and undulating curves: and sometimes, this is exactly wrong. It’s one reason why I can’t imagine medically transitioning - I’d be moving from one body that is right some of the time, to a different body is that is right some of the time. You can move the hands on a stopped clock to a different position but it’s still only right twice a day.

If I’m going out into the world presenting as “male”, or as “female”, most of the time it feels like I’m putting on a show. Neither is ever going to be entirely right for me. And what’s worse is that I feel like I pass as neither - I don’t “do” femininity or masculinity correctly, and trying and failing is its own peculiar sort of anguish. I have long hair, an hourglass figure, and small features; I’ve been told that the only way I’ll pass as male is if I’m trying to look like a 13-year-old metalhead. One sunny afternoon in Oxford I think I managed it, with a binder, shirt, and tie - or more likely, the people I was talking to were just too polite to query the unquestionably male name I gave them as mine. But surely, then, I “pass” as female? How could I have thought there would be a problem at this black tie party with which I started this post?

Don’t get me wrong - I‘m gendered female by people 99.9999% of the time. But that’s only an accident of physiology. Most of the time, I wear clothing I consider to be gender-neutral (plus bras, because damn it, I am seriously endowed and I refuse to deal regularly with the amount of back pain that a binder causes). I have never cultivated “feminine” skills or mannerisms (doing my nails/hair/makeup, wearing heels, using handbags instead of clothes with big pockets, walking with a wiggle...). And that’s fine, because I’m living within my comfort zone. As soon as I put on the costume of femininity - and it really does feel like a costume - things that were previously “comfortably Orlando-ish” become “inadequately feminine”. My armpit hair goes from being friendly useful fluff to something that ruins a sleeveless outfit. My lack of makeup is no longer freedom from feeling like my face is covered in paint, but a shameful failure to present myself properly. And so on, and so on, and so on...

I’m not going to deny it, there was also a class element to my anxiety about this particular party. I’m the first to admit I have class privilege: I’m a grammar-school kid with an accent that (while it isn’t cut-glass vowels all the way) definitely wouldn’t damage my chances in an interview. But I was terrified of this lot, with their money, and their private schools, and their horses... I was afraid they’d see my dress was bought on sale, my shoes were borrowed, my scarf was a cheap little thing from Tesco, my fascinator came from a market stall, my necklace bought off the internet. I was afraid, in short, of being seen through - of my fakeness being exposed.

And that’s how I feel about gender. That’s how I feel when I go out there in a ballgown, or a suit - when I’m taking on a stable, binary gender and trying to make like it’s been mine all along. (And that’s why I really fucking wish that formal wear had a gender-neutral option).

Of course, if this anxiety about appearing as gendered were confined purely to black tie soirées, I’d be one lucky individual. But it’s becoming increasingly relevant to my life, as I cease to be a research-grant-funded student and embark upon the choppy waters of the job market beyond my queer academic bubble.

So. I’m read as a cis woman, and I’m read as middle class, because of things which I can’t entirely control - my body shape, my accent. If I want a ‘professional’ job, these are both things which I feel like I’ll need to play up. Fitted white shirts, pencil skirts, heels - all the uniform of the modern day businesswoman. And every day when I try to head off to work, it’ll be exactly like before that damn party - freaking out because I can’t do that drag well enough. (I actually ended up enjoying said party a lot, and even managed to wreak some minor ideological havoc just by being gently feminist in conversation. But god, it was a relief to take that dress off..)

I currently have a stopgap job without a dress code and where the people know me already. I can wear my standard casual clothes and don’t need to worry about presenting myself as another gender. But if I want to get another job, one that’s actually interesting, or relevant to a future career? I need to insert myself into a gender somehow. Working as male seems pretty out of the question: no legal change, no testosterone, and no ability to “pass” as a gender I’ve never lived as. At least I already have the outfits if I want to work as female. But I don’t know if I can face the dysphoria-inducing office dress-codes, the social gender divide, the constant barrage of female-pronouns, the blank incomprehension if I try to explain how I actually experience my gender. And I sure as hell don’t think I can face being out as a non-binary by default and being an enforced Teachable Moment at an office, any more than I could have faced it at a party full of rich conservatives.

When I send out applications, should I do it as “Mx Orlando” or “Ms Angelica?”* Do I put my trans activism on my CV? Hell, do I put Lashings on my CV? As someone who endeavours to be out as trans in their personal life (and requests correct pronouns from everyone), how can I negotiate this in the world of work? I’m afraid these questions aren’t rhetorical - I have no idea how to negotiate this, and the only answers I can come up with are short term (stay in your stopgap job!), very long term (build a better society that I can comfortably live and work in!), or woefully inadequate (stay in the gender-closet forever!). I’m currently working with the first two; I’d love to know what other genderqueer people out there are doing.

*Not my actual name.


  1. Hi Orlando,

    This is a really powerfully written post and it's definitely something that comes up with painful regularity in the "real world".

    From my own experiences, though (and that's as someone who is comfortable being seen as binary-gendered, in a workplace which might - or might not! - be unusually friendly and accepting), I think there's cause for hope.

    I came out to my work colleagues as soon as I possibly could after starting the job, and it felt *so* much better than the couple of months of being rubbed up the wrong way by gendered conversations, of missing countless opportunities to say "well actually" and kicking myself for it, of dressing the only way I was comfortable dressing and still feeling that it reflected on me as an "inability" to be a "proper" woman.

    The actual coming-out wasn't nearly as bad as the anxiety about doing so. There were a few awkward weeks where I had to go to meetings about which toilets I would use(!), and a few slip-ups from colleagues, but for the most part, hardly any of them asked, and hardly any of them seemed to care, and certainly none of them have used me as a Teachable Moment, at least not in my presence (to my slight chagrin!).

    Even with the added complication of having to say you're non-binary, I'd hope you'd get a similar reception in any reasonable workplace; patiently teach them an easily-learnt neutral pronoun and wait for it to sink in that you won't quite *ever* fit in to the dress code, and they're likely to shut up and get on with it for the sake of a quiet life (theirs and yours both).

    I applied under my female name, but I went to the interview presenting as just as much of a gender-misfit as I ever do, and was still a) read as female and b) offered the job... I've recently started applying for things under my not-yet-official male name, just because I felt it would have been easier all along if I'd been out from the word go, and I haven't yet been invited to an interview at which I could screw with people's heads, but I really would hope I'd get the same kind of "...oh! ...okay... well, if you can do the job, whatever" reaction - and if I didn't, I'd certainly have grounds to invoke the Equalities Act, however draining that might end up being.

    I've mentioned some of my at-work experiences on my blog - much much less over the past year, because since I came out, it's felt like much less of a big deal! I'd be interested to hear other people's experiences - I certainly don't want to paint an excessively rosy picture when my experience might be much more positive than the norm - but equally, I do like to make a note of those times when being trans* ISN'T all doom and gloom and oppression :)

  2. Oh guys, this is so relevant for me right now. I'm pretty much where you are, orlando - just leaving my comfy academic bubble and considering getting a real grown up job.

    I'm really glad ganymede has some positive thoughts to share, because honestly, I can't see my way out of the dark. I am *terrified*. As a fluid person who is most comfortable using a name that is not my legal name, using pronouns that are not the ones most people would unthinkingly use, and wearing clothes that fit whatever my gender is that day, I just can't see how being in a grown up environment is going to work. I literally can't imagine it. I'm shy and hate being an object of attention, and the only way I can think of to not be "that weirdo" is to completely stifle my actual being, buy an entirely new wardrobe, learn to do one set of stuff (f or m, as it were) properly and abandon the other during my working life.

    That's assuming I can even get a job in the first place.

    Hey, ganymede, how would you know if you didn't get a job because you're trans*? That's something I'm really worried about. What if I just fail to present properly at an interview, whatever "properly" means to them, and, since jobs are hard to come by and there are way more applicants than jobs, the interviewers just decided to go with an 'easier' option? You know, like "that one knows how to look professional; this job is client-facing; the other one was good too but will confuse the clients; decision made!" Or even if they're just a bit transphobic, and decide they'd rather not employ the weirdo? How would I know that was the case? What if I never get a job?

    Oh my god, even writing this is stressing me out. I'm considering staying in an industry I'm not that passionate about, purely because it is more flexible in terms of presentation, and also as I'm already there I've already done the hard work of being an obvious weirdo, and people have got used to it.

    I'm starting to panic so I'm gonna sign off now. Sorry I haven't really added anything to the discussion :-s And thanks for showing me I'm not alone ...

  3. Just wanted to say that I love this post. :)

  4. I'd just like to say this is a great post. I'm a cis gendered female and I related to a surprisingly lagre amount of this...

  5. This is totally me. And yes, it's really depressing to be femme at my job of 3 years, but it pays the bills. Good luck!

  6. Hey there Orlando,
    I can't say I'm gender queer - I know I am male, although I can't say I feel particularly intense dysphoria of being "stuck" in a female body unless you point me at a guy's lean frame... then I just sort of howl and go, "I wanna be like that toooooo".

    (ok, second part is just a joke :) )

    I am at the start of the adventure; I am living as myself full-time because I didn't want to make any huge decisions without having enough experience as male or female. Haven't spoken to doctors yet, and so on, so i guess you could say I am experimenting with myself to see what happens, and how I feel about it.

    I can totally see where you're coming from though. Back home, I was quite explicitly told that 'what' I am is sick and perverted, and that I am a girl (apparently my opinion doesn't come into it... also, all this was by my mother.. o.O). I can remember thinking, way before I even thought that I might be trans*, that wearing really feminine stuff was not for me. It just... didn't work for me on some very basic level. I felt uncomfortable, but somehow I was expected to 'grin and bear it' just because my parents thought I was beautiful in a skirt or with my hair down (it is now veeeeeery short - think military :P ) and because I was expected to behave that way. Makes for very interesting social analysis - women are expected to grin and bear a lot of stuff.

    Now, however, I'm miles away from that. :D Well... sort of.

    I'm literally miles away from home, so I'm experimenting, as I mentioned. First day of university was hilarious - I had been introducing myself to everybody as Eric, because that is my chosen name. The professor calls out the register, and of course, there was no Eric. I explained to everybody afterwards that I prefer it. It didn't occur to me to tell the teacher, so second week of uni came along, and I didn't even respond to my official name. Anyhow, I find it really cool that nobody has asked why I prefer Eric or anything. The guys just assume I'm one of the guys, and the girls don't really seem to mind. Never expected that. :)

    My best friends are still struggling with the pronouns, but we're makin progress. :)

    Soon enough, I'll be publishing as Eric too (I write for a local magazine) and I'm hoping I won't get legal shit for it, because I haven't changed my name legally yet (although I know plenty of peeps who have a nom de plume, so maybe nobody will mind).

    Anyhow, I guess my point is, there's always peeps who will give you shit because you don't fulfil their criteria of what they think is a guy or a girl. To be honest, I don't think you really have to be either (although I guess that might be a problem when it comes to bathrooms). So long as you have a friend who will back you up, then you're safe. I think the main issue is that, as trans* peeps, we always try to 'pass' as one gender or the other and that is always subject to someone else's judgement. :/

    Also, I guess it depends on how comfortable you look/behave... In my case, if I say I'm a guy, I might be considered delicate or fragile - in that, I've not go huge muscles or anything and i'm shorter than most - but I just introduce myself as, well... myself! I stick to my guns (so to speak), and nobody really challenges me about gender. They used to at first, cause i would introduce myself as Eric and it sounded/felt strange in my mouth. But it's all good now... so far.

    My final argument would be that some people probably don't really care that much, so long as you actually are a respectable human being. The problem arises when they seem offended or feel they 'have been deceived'. o.O (eejits!)

    That's my fifty cent (, that's a rapper... o.O ). Anyway, see ya round.

    Yours sincerely,

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  8. Hey Orlando,

    I completely feel you. I'm a student at Oxford, vaguely middle class, DFAB non-binary, and formal wear is just the bane of my life. I've been freaking out about work, partly because I've always felt really distant from women co-workers, which made a lot more sense when I realized I wasn't one. I know exactly what you mean when you say that you felt like you were doing both masculinity and femininity badly- it's exactly how I feel, although because I'm not super fluid it's been easier to just set up camp in the middle ground.

    One thing I've found for formal wear that works is like, either really flamboyant menswear (I dress like a very campy twink) or sometimes... jumpsuits? The worst is getting dragged to things where I have to meet people my parents are trying to do business with, and I get to stress about making or breaking a deal. But I firmly believe, someday we will carve out our place in the world. ;)

    Best wishes,

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