Someone on the non-binary spectrum emailed me looking for resources on how to navigate their professional life, specifically in a conservative job environment where gender comes with certain expectations.
Constantly policing your presentation, as I’m sure you know, is not fun. I’m still young enough to hope there’s a way to live with my gender that’s more authentic and more sustainable, without getting me fired.
Do you just suck it up? What are the compromises one has to make? Where is the balance?
There are a lot of non-binary trans folk out there, each navigating it at their own pace, in various stages of transition. You didn’t say how old you are, but I’m in my late 20’s, and I’ve talked to people in their 30’s, 40’s, 50, and 60’s – spanning pretty much every decade – from all walks of life, with all sorts of identities and histories and goals.
I recommend reading through a few blogs first. Jamie is in their 50’s, identifies as butch and trans, and is still figuring out transition. KT is in their early 30’s and works as a school janitor. Meike, a younger 20-something out of college, also talks about transitioning and being stealth at work. There are many many others who have successfully transitioned on the job, even in a more conservative environment like academia, such as Ezekiel, who identifies as a trans man, from firsttimesecondtime.com.
However, “fully transitioned” tends to imply a binary transition. At least socially. This was definitely the case for me. I had my fair share of murky waters; trying to stay in the middle was just too stressful. I imagine there are those who have managed to maintain a fully non-binary identity on the outside in their professional life, but I do not know their stories. (If you are one of them, please share your experience in the comments.)
Outer Identity, Inner Identity, and Disclosure
This is not because our inner core gender identity necessarily changes, though sometimes it takes a while to figure that out. What changes is how we’re dealing with and presenting it to the outside world.
I also want to emphasize that what you do physically or medically does not necessarily dictate what you should do socially.
Another person recently asked me whether they could take T without socially transitioning. Absolutely! You can take T without anybody really noticing for quite a while, especially early on or at a sustained low dose. You can even have top surgery and people still won’t notice. If testosterone or having top surgery were magical indicators that I’m not female, then strangers would’ve stopped seeing me as a “she” a long time ago…
Now would also be a good time to interject also that disclosure is a spectrum. You don’t necessarily have to tell everyone (or anyone) what is going on. Every person or social circle you come out to is separate from the other. Granted, it can get a little tricky or tiresome, but it’s entirely possible to inhabit multiple outer identities at once.
I haven’t explicitly told my acquaintances about my transition. When I do, I rarely share details, especially not with co-workers. Most of those that knew me from “before” and meet me again surprisingly don’t notice anything different. (Then again, there was an old classmate who did not even recognize me at all…) Only a handful of folks have commented on changes. How I respond to their questions also varies depending on how much I want to open up about it. I might say “I have a cold” or just stare back and say “yeah, and?” or even “yeah, that’s the point!” and let them figure it out from there. Being trans is generally not something on people’s radar.
Transition at Work
But back to original question of your job. Everyone has a different experience with jobs, their gender, and discrimination or lack thereof. Some of us don’t have to compromise on our looks for our job, others are not willing, others do so out of necessity. It is still a reality in many places that you can be fired solely because someone has an issue with your gender identity and how you express it.
There was a recent post on Butch Wonders that reminds me of this. She exchanges her usual masculine apparel for a slightly more womanly outfit in order to avoid being rejected or discriminated at a job interview purely for her looks. As I was reading, I thought to myself: this is not a compromise I’d be willing to make.
This makes it sound like I can afford to snub a potential job or lose my current one, which in most cases, nobody can. So I hypothetically put myself in BW’s situation, where I absolutely had to sacrifice some gender non-conformity for the job.
My next thought was: I’d rather compromise my inner non-binary identity than my clothes. I prefer to be perceived as fully male than to have to wear anything remotely feminine. Whereas someone else – like BW, maybe – would be more comfortable wearing something different for the sake of getting the job than be thought of and seen as and treated as a man in everyday life.
Of course, it is not always as simple as that. Everybody has a different threshold for each of these components, which may even change over time, and some have less choice in the matter of binary-gendered looks just based on their body or what resources are available to them. That’s why identity and transition are so complicated.
An important lesson I’ve learned being non-binary, or for anyone who transgresses gender norms, is that sometimes the ideal is often not within reach (yet…) and all the options left pretty much suck. Unfortunately, society only recognizes two genders, and it comes down to choosing the least worst option that makes your day-to-day less painful.
Conversely, there are a lot of choices we can make to bring us in line with our identity. Some options suck less than others; some options are even waiting to be discovered. What you choose depends on who you are at that point in time, what will bring you closer to who you see yourself to be, and what will lead to a better life.