Tuesday, February 16, 2010

"Are you a guy or a girl?"

Lately, I've been meeting more transgendered (TG) or transsexual people in the workplace– three in the past year, in big-name corporations.

I attended a three-day business meeting recently and met a woman I'll call "Karine". Though she did not acknowledge her transition, a 6 foot 2 inch (190cm) woman with hands the size of table tennis paddles, shoulders like an open car door and a voice unusually baritone suggested I'd just met another.

Over the three days, I made my own transition:

1. Day one: I couldn't stop looking at her, which I noticed and tried to control. Karine was a beauty on a grand scale. How had she achieved that flawless skin, and had she always had full, feminine lips? I thought, If I made the transition to a man, could I do it successfully (in terms of physical presentation)?

2. Day two: I got over my fascination. Karine just became a person. A relaxed, warm, articulate person. As part of a group, we dug into the assigned work; any difference simply evaporated. Well, until she stood up, when I was still awed by her stature.

3.
Day three: By the end of the meeting, everything began to blur, gender-wise. I began to see feminine aspects in some of the men. If we tweaked this and that, many women could look quite masculine.

I wondered, are the two labels–male and female– adequate? The more I looked, the more people seem to be on a continuum, the gender-assignment version of the Kinsey Scale. I thought of George Carlin once saying, "It took two people to make me, a male and a female. The male is just the part that shows."


The last frontier: No gender

Some people challenge what they consider the limiting concept of a binary classification, identifying as bi-gender or genderqueer. OK, I get it, but corporate life does not. They are just coming to terms with TG, let alone No-G.

At one office, we worked with an employee who was displeased by the requirement to identify as male or female, and would answer the direct inquiry, "Are you a guy or a girl?" with a surly "Yes" or "Why does it matter?"

Colleagues tried to accommodate, leading to odd exchanges like:
"You can give that FedEx delivery to the person in the blue shirt."
"You mean the guy over there?"
"Yes. I mean no. Uh, yes."

The person allowed colleagues to call him (I use 'him' because of the attire and
bathroom choice) "Dude", which I guess is gender-neutral, because my sons call me that.

Ultimately the HR department assigned Dude to the pile of employees they privately called "problem children", along with the conspiracy theorist who refused to provide his bank account information and a man who was in some sort of witness protection program. Career advancement is not in the cards if you make life miserable for the system.

For TGs, the way is being paved by employees like Karine. For now, bi-gendered people will have an easier time by presenting as one gender or another in the corporate world. Pick one, I don't care. The culture might shift faster than I think, though.

After the meeting wrapped, I hit the health club– you sit so long at these events– and lo, on the treadmill watching Oprah, saw Kimberly Reed, who had been male from birth through college, is now female, and has written and directed an acclaimed documentary about her experience, Prodigal Sons. I can't wait to see it.

I'm grateful that people can live as the person they deeply believe themselves to be.

I'd like to say to Karine, my interest carries no judgment. Sorry if I stare. And could you tell me where you got those fabulous burgundy boots?

19 comments:

metscan said...

I´m a girl, definitely. And I´m lifting my hands up. I´m also old-fashioned. And I would definitely stare too. This is a subject I have refused to think about, I feel that I´m not ready to think about it. I´m not judging, but at this point I do feel uncomfortable about this subject. Maybe I should think about it.

LP Vintage said...

Your question about the burgundy boots reminded me of a line from the movie "Kinky Boots" . I highly recommend this movie, if you haven't seen it! It's a fun and thoughtful movie about some of the questions you've written about here.

What a Splurge said...

Are you a fan of NPR's This American Life?

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1335

Episode #374 (cut and paste link above for free podcast) has a wonderful story in "Act 2" about 2 little transgender girls. It melted my heart. Thank you for addressing this.

lagatta à montréal said...

It isn't an easy topic for a lot of people, but I'm glad transgender, intersex etc people have more chance to exist publicly than before. While they could exist in some societies, in many they were confined to the margins and wound up in degrading circumstances; many committed suicide or at least resorted to various forms of self-harm.

Duchesse said...

metscan: Yes, a big stretch for anyone "old fashioned". Yet these people have always been part of every culture, usually at the margins. The very first time (some years ago) I met someone in big business, I was quite disconcerted. How to treat her? Then I decided, she is simply a person.

LP: Wonderful film, thanks for reminding me! As is, of course, "Transamerica".

What a Splurge: Whole family are fans! I'll listen to this- thanks so much!

lagatta: Yes, suicides and substance abuse have been common in that population. I worked, years ago, in a hospital that housed a clinic for sex change and had some enlightening talks with the staff.

Frugal Scholar said...

If you have a chance, check out the book "Vested Interests" by Marjorie Garber.

Word verification is "hotterr"! Why?

materfamilias said...

We have numerous brave young trans-gendered people on campus, and pre-surgery their border-crossing is more obvious. English (and most European languages, at least) are so limited in this regard, demanding that pronouns be gendered. I see some interesting signs that this, too, will eventually change, but at some point in term, I end up talking about the "politics of the pronoun" -- whether it's the assumption that "we" are all white or hetero or whatever and "they" are somewhere else, not in the classroom, or the demand that we declare ourselves individually as "she" or "he." Another thoughtful post.

Duchesse said...

frugal: That's about transvestism, isn't it? Another matter that also re requires adaptation.

materfamilias: I'm only dimly aware of the huge body of academic work in gender studies. I'm glad you're addressing- with young people- our cultural assumptions and habits.

LPC said...

Hmm. My comment disappeared, I think. I wrote that I believe one of the biggest shifts facing us today is looking at gender as a continuum rather than an either/or. It's a very hard shift to make too, at least for me, and I believe that its necessary.

Duchesse said...

LPC: We may be around long enough to see that idea become accepted. It will be "interesting times".

Northmoon said...

Your post made me aware for the first time - why do we have to identify as male or female at school or work? I've done it unthinkingly so often, but if students or people in the work place are to be treated the same, why do they even need to ask? I can see why my doctor needs to know, but in theory it should make no difference in many cases. Perhaps we make too much of an issue about it.

Read somewhere about symphany auditions. When they began holding them with the player behind a screen, suddenly more women were successful!

s. said...

I'm delighted that people of all stripes are included and valued based on their abilities. What worries me is that in Canada, many of our new residents do not feel the same. So, do we welcome with open arms newcomers who believe that transgendered individuals are sick or that women who don't wear veils are "asking for it?"

And, then, what about the fact that usually my only option is to tick "Ms" while I consider myself - absolutely - a "Miss?" In the attempt to not offend any women by asking her to reveal if she is married or not, society is muting women like me who are fiercely proud of remaining unmarried, and wish to challenge society's image of what it means to be a bachelorette by delightedly flying our spinster flags?
Sometimes, our desires to be all-inclusive can unwittingly lead to other forms of oppression. We must proceed, but with care.

lagatta à montréal said...

s. I can't agree about "Miss" - I find it infantile for an adult woman. In French, in business situations we call all women "Madame", whatever their age or marital status. After all, we haven't described young or unmarried men as "Mondamoiseau" for hundreds of years.

Here in Québec with our world-record-low marriage rates, that no longer has much meaning anyway.

As for people from more traditional societies (and not just people of Muslim or Hindu backgrounds), you'd also be surprised at how many of their compatriots emigrated in order to be able to live their lives more freely.

ChristineB said...

I remember when the UU church I used to work for several years ago hired its current music director, a wonderful woman who started out in life as a male. She always wore the most awesome shoes. :-)

I currently belong to a church that has three TG members and several others who identify as "queer" (which I have come to understand covers a whole lot of variations in gender identification/sexual orientation beyond male/female and g/l/b/t). I'm one of two straight people currently serving on the board of directors there - we're clearly a very inclusive bunch. Sometimes I forget that not everyone has the same opportunities that I do to work with and get to know these people as just *people*. I really appreciate your taking the time to post about your experience.

g said...

It's true, sometimes we stare at people because they are simply gorgeously fascinating!

I don't think I know any transgender people closely - if I actually do and don't know it, well, isn't that telling.

I appreciate this post, though. It reminds us about tolerance, understanding, and acceptance.

s. said...

Yes, I am quite aware that Mlle is used only for young women and when I lived in France I therefore allowed myself to be called Madame: their country, their rules. However, as I again now live in my homeland, I return to anglo saxon rules in which even the most elderly can correctly and non-ridiculously be referred to as "Miss" as long as they are unmarried.

I find it quite hilarious when people don't "agree" that I should be allowed to use the traditionally-accepted form of address if I so choose. 30 years ago a woman might be disparaged by some for going by "Ms."; today, a woman might be disparaged by some for going by "Miss." Lesson? That there will always be some who disparage those who do not conform to their idea of The Norm.

lagatta à montréal said...

s. I thought you said you lived in Canada. French is an official language there.

I find Miss is getting a bit ridiculous for adult women in English too. Decades ago, an "unmarried woman" might be called Mlle in French, even if she was 50 or even 85. Things change, and this is a step towards eliminating distinctions in working life on the basis of whether women are married or not. A step towards valuing people on the basis of their work and accomplishments and not on pre-defined gender roles that do not necessarily pertain to these.

"Miss" for a woman middle-age or older reminds me of stories like "Driving Miss Daisy", a tale of the gallant south afflicted by a feudal racist system as well as deep sexual repression... though in the throes of change.

But we'll just have to agree to disagree about that one. Perhaps we'll eventually eliminate all such titles, or invent new non-gendered ones .

Duchesse said...

Northmoon: It is standard practice for many HR departments to provide resumés to hiring managers with names removed (only initials) so the candidate's sex is withheld till the interview. I agree, specifying sex on many forms is pointless. Why does my bank need to know whether I am male or female?

s. New residents may not feel the same nor may they ever change. Their children adopt different attitudes as a result of joining a more inclusive society.

re titles, I wish we had one for all, such as Per (for person).

lagatta is correct- in French, Madame is used when one does not know whether a woman is married or not, the opposite of English's "Miss".

I prefer Madame; Miss, for me, has the connotation of a girl or young woman (say under 22). At the same time I applaud your embrace of your singleness!

I go WILD when addressed as "Dear" and snap back.

lagatta: I am addressed as Miss usually by an 19 year old sales clerk who has been trained to do so. I occasionally say, politely, "Madame, please".

In the Southern US, Miss is a term of affectionate respect, a rather courtly propriety; I recently heard a Southern man refer to his 50+ GF as "Miss Ellen". (Similarly you will hear children address their parents as sir and ma'am.)

In stores etc. in the South I'm more likely to hear "Honey" or "Darlin'" than Miss- or once, the absolutely Deep South "Babygirl".

And in New York, "Lady", as in "Lady, watch yuh back."

g. If you live in a city, you have very likely passed by a TG person.

ChristineB: Thanks for commenting on your experience, which is much more extensive than mine. I hope a faith community would be inclusive- the workplace has a ways to go.

Anjela's Day said...

Great topic. I have had a customer whom I wasn't sure if she were a he or a she.I found no distinguishing landmarks.No visible Adam's apple. Hands seemed smooth but many men I know have feminine features. No clothes that were more feminine than masculine. Name on credit card was neutral. I was so pleased I didn't have to make some awful faux pas and embarass the person or myself.
It might have hurt their feelings but on the other hand-how was I to know?