Body Politic is a new co-authored column at Girl w/ Pen on queer bodies, law, and policy. Avory will be writing this column along with Kyla Bender-Baird, our newest editor. Kyla is a writer, researcher, and activist currently pursuing her Ph.D. at the CUNY Graduate Center.
When interviewing self-identified transgender people for my book, Transgender Employment Experiences, I had several conversations about the intersections of visibility, passing, and discrimination. These conversations were particularly striking in regards to transmen who transitioned from a highly visible, queer identity to a passing male identity (whether or not that’s how they experience their gender). These experiences illuminate how privilege works and underscore the importance of providing protection for gender expression in addition to gender identity and sexual orientation.
Visibility was a key element in the interviewee’s stories of harassment. For instance, Carey—a queer white transman in his mid-20s living in New York—had this to say during our conversation: “A lot of what being trans is, especially if you go on hormones and have surgery, is becoming an identity that, although it’s a stigmatized and oppressed identity, it’s not a visible identity anymore.” Carey was far from alone in this analysis. Several of the folks I interviewed brought up how their experiences of harassment related to how visible their trans and/or queer identity was. Dante, a queer South Asian transman in his early 30s also living in New York, reported that he experienced more harassment as a butch than as a transman. Dante now passes as a gender normative, non-trans man whereas before his gender expression as a butch signaled “difference” and triggered harassment.
From these experiences, a strong connection between visibility, homophobia, and harassment can be drawn. As trans men’s identities became less visible, they faced less harassment. Being able to blend into society, therefore, sometimes protects one from discrimination. Professor Kristen Schilt’s research on trans men in the workplace confirms this trend: “as they become men, some FTMs in blue collar jobs report that their work relations became more collegial than they were when they worked as ‘butch’ women.” Schilt attributes this change to the movement of trans men from a stigmatized identity (butch) to a valued and privileged identity (man) with many workplace benefits. While I agree with Professor Schilt, I would like to push this analysis further, suggesting that it is the move from gender nonconformity to gender normativity and thus the erasure of a visible queer identity that also leads to the lessening of harassment.
The trans women I interviewed also reported on the relationship of harassment and visibility, only they used the language of “passing.” For instance, Zoe—a straight white trans woman in her 50s living in Texas—reported instances of harassment, which she attributed to her “unconventional gender presentation.”
While harassment caused by a visible, non-normative gender or sexual identity can happen to folks anywhere in the gender galaxy, the experiences of the transmen I spoke with are particularly telling due to the interplay of gender identity and sexual orientation and how changes in these identities were followed by changes in visibility and subsequently occurrences of harassment.
All but two of the people I spoke with on the trans feminine spectrum transitioned from a straight male identity to a female identity; one experimented with a gay male identity prior to transitioning and the one bigender-identified person still maintains a masculine presentation on some days. For those on the trans masculine spectrum, the transition was from a lesbian or bisexual female identity to a more masculine identity. The affirmed gender identity and sexual orientation of the participants on the trans masculine spectrum post-transition was split between three straight men and three queer transmen. Thus, participants on the trans masculine spectrum articulated not only their experiences with transphobia but also homophobia—particularly pre-transition. Chris and Courtney, both young white straight trans men living on the east coast, related their experiences of homophobic harassment prior to transitioning or coming out as trans. Going from a visible lesbian identity to an invisible straight identity has decreased the homophobic harassment both men have faced. Their experiences demonstrate that it is often the visibility of queerness that triggers harassment.
The centrality of visibility in the experiences of trans, queer, and gender non-conforming folk confirms the importance of including gender expression in legal protections as it is often gender expression that triggers harassment and discrimination. The interplay of gender identity and sexual orientation also confirms the importance of working in coalition for broad social recognition. Our social movements must reflect the complex identities of the people they claim to represent if we are to make any progress.
What you’re saying about queer visibility here really strikes home for me, and I do think that a lot of it stems from the professional context, what’s seen as “professional.” Of course, that varies from workplace to workplace, but most of what I’ve read in international law publications about workplace discrimination, and what I’ve seen among peers, really boils down to perception rather than a professed identity. If someone is perceived to be queer (gender-wise or sexuality-wise), there seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to push that person out of the professional circle, to stigmatize queer presentation as unprofessional.
Saying that someone is “unprofessional” can be a convenient mask for discrimination. It disproportionately happens to people who present a certain way—visibly queer, not conforming to gender norms in terms of hair and clothing, but also “punk” or “urban.” There’s a clear intersection with class and race. While it’s reasonable to set a dress code for a professional environment, I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that’s gender-neutral.
Legal protections against discrimination get at the heart of the problem with “unprofessional” serving as a proxy for “queer in a way that makes me uncomfortable.” If an employer wants to claim that disciplinary action is being taken due to a violation of professional standards under the kind of protections you’re talking about, that person can do so, but has to prove that the standards are actually reasonably related to a business interest—not just arbitrary discrimination based on “non-conforming” gender expression. These laws are a definite step in the right direction against workplace discrimination based on queer visibility.
I’m so glad you brought up dress codes! In the fall of 2007 (yes, the very weekend that the first trans-inclusive ENDA was split into two bills), I attended HRC’s Out for Work conference. During the conversation, several young, visibly queer students repeatdely brought up concerns about how to navigate conservative workplace dress codes while still maintaining their queer identity. For them, their identity was written on their body. But how would that work in the job search process? Unfortunately, panelists skirted the issue by pointing to all the companies listed in HRC’s annual Corporate Equality Index. This oversight continues to haunt me. In fact, I write about it in my introduction to the section on dress codes in Transgender Employment Experiences. In addition to passing laws and policies, we also need to do a better job as a community of helping each other navigate these often hostile spaces that don’t deal well with visible “otherness.”