Friday, 23 September 2011

And not a Ferrero Rocher in sight

[Disclaimer: This came out a lot longer and less pithy than I was hoping. But as ever, if I don't post it now, I'll never get round to editing it.]



I've been given a date. T(ransition) minus three days. Um, just my screen name at work, that is.

After a week of silence from HR and IT (and a gentle nudge from me) came a pleasantly matter-of-fact email from the Chief Administrative Honcho to say that by the time I arrived in work on Monday, my display name for email, IM and all manner of other onliney worky systems would have been subtly but unmistakably masculinized. This very visible change will then give me an excuse to send The Email, start The Explanations - in short, start being a trans-bassador.

I've hesitated about this for a long time, just as I have over all other aspects of social transition, largely because I am very aware of the fact that I'm a political genderqueer, and it's all very well waving your politically genderqueer flag around when your politically genderqueer actions might impact negatively on "proper" genderqueers for whom coming out can literally, in all sorts of ways, be a matter of life and death.

Oh, I'm a proper genderqueer too, put down those pitchforks, but for me, being misgendered isn't a searing dysphoric agony, it's just a simmering annoyance, and I think I could live with being she'd the whole way through my career (I think...) - I just choose not to. And that's because I believe passionately that public perceptions about trans* people (and about gender in general) need to change, and the most effective way I've found so far to be an activist for such issues is just by politely EXISTING in people's faces.

I want my colleagues to knowingly know someone who is trans*, and not just trans* either, but FtM. I want HR to have to think about what to do when they have a trans* employee. I want to increase visibility, a ripple effect, so that all these new people who now know someone who is trans* have a whole bunch of friends who will now know someone who knows someone who is trans*. (It's along the same lines as "Repost this if you know someone who has a mental illness", but slightly more memorable.) And I want to be - for the sake of all the "proper" genderqueers for whom this Really Fucking Matters, am terrified of not being - a damn good trans-bassador, a competent employee and entertaining conversationalist and General All-Round Nice Colleague, so that everyone who now knows someone will be able to say, "Oh, I know a transsexual from work, she's very nice. I mean he. Um."

(I also want to blow the mind of our daft oestrogen-sloshing choir-mistress, who every week manages to inadvertently hurt me with some epic sexist generalisation on the assumption that the room is a female-only space, or some comment along the lines of me being a "tenor lady" or "pretend man".)

It's often said (for which read: I read it in a blog once, forgot to note my source, then came up with too many variations of it in a Google search to be able to find it again) that true equality means not having to be an ambassador. Whereas first- and second-generation Asian immigrants to Britain around the 70s felt a pressure to be Super Extra Nice, hard-working, polite, inoffensive, for fear that one bad school report or angry outburst would get their whole ethnic group labelled as "lazy" or "violent", it's to be hoped that British Asians today don't have to tread so carefully, can display all the good and less-good sides of their personality without fear that their behaviour will be reduced to a function of their ethnicity.

Therefore, it's revealing in my case to consider how far from equality trans* people still are - but it's a lot more revealing to look at gender as a whole and realise just how often we are all treated as ambassadors.

Purely by virtue of the fact that I'm generally assumed to have a vulva, I've been forced to be an ambassador for femaleness my entire life. And you have also had to be an ambassador for whichever gender people assume you are all through your life. If, as a baby, I cried easily, people would react with "Ah, she's a girl, she's sensitive". When, as a child, I watched Thomas the Tank Engine, people would look sidelong and say "That's a very boyish programme for her to be watching". When, in school, we had to get changed after swimming, the teachers in the single-sex changing rooms would try to get us out of there faster by exhorting us to "Beat the boys! You're better than the boys - prove it by getting changed quicker than them!" (And thus the entire reputation of my forcibly-assigned gender would rest on my desire not to wander home in damp underclothes and a misbuttoned, half-tucked-in shirt - I, as an individual, was Slow, thus The Girls were, collectively, Slower than The Boys, thus Girls are Slow, thus Boys are Better. There probably isn't a word for this particular kind of logical fallacy, because it's so incredibly stupid that if we created one the Ancient Greeks would explode.)

And the thing about this unprovoked ambassadorship is that not only is it inescapable, it's also inflexible. Genderqueer Lite as I am, my other option would have been to take the ambassadorship and run with it - to be a shining Unusual Female Role Model, to prove to the world that even people who look like they probably have vulvas can wear ties, geek out about steam trains, dislike shopping, put up flat-pack furniture, ride a bicycle like a reckless testosterone-fuelled idiot, and a whole host of other trivial and not-so-trivial assumption-breakers. The thing is... people just don't pay attention. They write you off as an exception, no matter how many of you there are, no matter even if you're the majority within your assigned gender, or worse, they chastise you as a Bad Ambassador. "That's not very ladylike", "Boys don't cry", "Don't be such a girl", "Take a blind bit of notice of my double standards"... on and on they go. Watch as your unique un-{gender}-like personality quirks are glossed over by your lazy, [un]consciously sexist peer group! Marvel as any even vaguely gender-conformist tendencies you have are blown up out of all proportion!

Be a good ambassador, Mr or Miss (or Mrs, but definitely not Ms or Mx) Reader, and if you're not, everyone will act as though you are anyway.

Shortly after I began work here, I was told of a notoriously undiligent predecessor, the most notable of whose actions were a) to fall off a table and break his wrist during drunken celebration of handing in his notice, and b) to be male. The department head who later interviewed me had apparently reacted to his complete inability to be arsed by exclaiming "I'm never going to recruit another boy again!" It takes the edge off the irony to know that it was most probably she who had recruited our department's "token bloke" (>_>) a few weeks before I arrived... but even so... Heaven help all the potential employees who looked like they probably had testicles, for whom this workshy, drunkenly-wrist-breaking character had acted as an ambassador in the department head's eyes.

Oh wait, it's not called being an ambassador, is it? It's called insidious, unconscious, incessant, all-pervasive, pure and simple prejudice.

We haven't arrived at gender equality yet, because true equality would mean it not being such a fucking big deal to everyone what we looked like we probably had in our pants. And maybe if one of these unconsciously-prejudiced subscribers to a rigid gender binary knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who is fucking about with that binary, it might just briefly make them stop and think.


  1. Cogent comments later. <3 you. xx

  2. Ooh, my checking of Diaspora was rewarded by a link to this! I'm glad! It says a lot of things well, specially since at the moment I do feel like a Shining Unusual Female Role Model.

    I'm the only person currently at my place of work who's working in the warehouse and read as female. For this reason any order I impose on its default state of chaos is Because I've Got A Woman's Touch, not because I can y'know apply logic and persistence to a giant fucking mess. Curiously, when a competent male colleague does similar useful things, it's for a a different reason - because he's a good worker. Interesting, that.

    (Carrying a multitool and knowing how to use it should not feel like a gender-transgressive act. It's a practical and useful piece of equipment for the job I'm doing, but for now I feel like I'm inadvertently carrying out a quiet kind of education every day I go to work and do my job the first way that occurred to me. Silly world)