The other day, I was in lab chatting with a couple of my coworkers, when I thought I heard them mispronoun me. That is, I thought I heard one of them – and then the other – accidentally refer to me as ‘she’ or ‘her’ and then quickly correct themselves. While this is something I still expect from folks who knew me before from time to time, these coworkers did not know me before. As far as I know, they do not know that I am trans.
Now, I’m not entirely sure that this is what happened. They were speaking quickly and were turned away from me, and I was in the midst of half-focusing on something else as we chatted, but it was enough to spike my anxiety. What if that is what happened? Why would that have happened? I immediately imagined the following scenario:
They had somehow figured out that I am or might be trans – either someone who knew me before told them, or they put it together after realizing that I went to a women’s college, or maybe it’s somehow obvious and I’m fooling myself – and had been talking about it shortly before I came into that lab space, and now had completely altered perceptions of me (no longer saw me as male, or completely male) that led them to struggle with my pronouns all of a sudden.
In all likelihood, they didn’t actually mispronoun me. It is also not unlikely that they did, but that it had nothing to do with my gender or their perception of me, and instead had to do with something unrelated that they might have been talking about before that had them in a brief mindset of using ‘she/her’ pronouns – this happens sometimes.
But I don’t want to talk here about what did or did not actually happen. I want to take a moment to talk about the anxiety that I felt in that moment. When I imagined the scenario I described above, it was upsetting not just because it removed my dignity, but because I believed I would have deserved that treatment.
I still have the oppressive narrative I’ve been taught my whole life running in my head: What would you have expected? You’re weird, and they don’t understand – and why would they? You can’t expect people to care about this weirdness about you, they have their own things to worry about. It’s clearly your fault you’re this way anyway, you can’t put it on other people, you liberal freak.
I have been taught to believe that I deserve ridicule and mistreatment, and that I should just swallow it. It takes active work, active retraining, for me to begin to believe otherwise, and when I haven’t been spending time working on my own retraining, I’m vulnerable. And in the last two months, I’ve been swamped with other things.
Keep in mind here: I wasn’t actually ridiculed or mistreated! The anxiety alone is part of the oppression. Just existing in the micro-culture of this particular daily lab environment, in which I have never experienced the acknowledgement that trans people, or even gay people, exist is an oppressive experience in an of itself, even without any microaggressions.
Right now, I appear to fit in, because (as far as I’m aware) everyone perceives me to be male and presumes I’m cisgender. People probably also presume I’m straight. Because this is what we all presume about other people: Unless there are huge, obvious signs to the contrary, most people presume everyone is straight and cisgender.
I am invisible, and feel a huge pressure to maintain that invisibility, to continue to conform. There are no non-awkward ways to point out that I am trans. There is no context for my existence. If I were dating a man, I could mention that and pretty easily out myself as queer, but I’m not right now. And even that would feel like a risk in an environment where no one is out as queer, nor has anyone mentioned other queer people, or anything queer-related in the news.
When your identity is understood by society to be ‘other’, then any environment that does not regularly, actively engage in acknowledging the existence of your identity defaults to the oppressive norm in which your identity is negligible and unimportant at best. In a sense, a fundamental part of who you are is not just erased, but feels shameful. It is a huge and exhausting burden to carry.
I’m not going to claim that no one else in my lab environment is queer or trans, or has queer friends, or has never brought any of that up in conversation in lab. It’s that I haven’t seen or heard anything about this myself. As far as I know, I am completely alone, not just as a queer and trans person, but as someone who even thinks about these things.
This is the other piece of all this: I feel alone. I have no advocates to take any of this on with me. (Sure, there are some folks who knew me before who use the right name and pronouns, and who (I presume, hopefully) haven’t outed me to anyone, but that’s not advocacy.)
No environment is perfect. In my Quaker communities, for example, not everyone gets it. There are still a huge number of Friends who are resistant to anti-oppression work of various flavors, for whom thinking about gender is largely uncomfortable and to be avoided. But the difference is that I know that I am not alone. There is a critical mass of Friends around me who do think about these things, who are regularly, actively acknowledging the existence of trans and queer folks. In fact, many Friends in my immediate Quaker community are doing more than just acknowledging the existence of various identities – they are taking steps to challenge the assumptions we make about each other. The Quaker meeting I go to, for example, has recently begun inviting folks to share their pronouns along with their names during introductions, and has also implemented a new hearing assistance system for folks of various hearing abilities. These are active steps that challenge the default assumptions we make about each other that can be extremely harmful.
We still live in and are influenced by the oppressive teachings of mainstream society, but I know I am not alone among Friends, and I see us making progress together. This makes an enormous difference for me personally, and I know it has been making a difference for others, too.
Being the only queer/trans person I know and see in my daily work life is exhausting, whether or not I am out. Being invisible is exhausting – and I’m not sure that coming out would necessarily change my sense of invisibility, because it would likely be filed away as a random fact about me and not considered much further by most, unless I continue to bring it up myself.
Here is another important piece of all of this to consider: When I spend 8-12 hours for five or more days a week in an environment like the one I work in, that doesn’t (regularly if ever) acknowledge the existence of queer and trans folks, it tacitly reinforces all of the messages I am working to dismantle in myself. I feel more acutely the enormous pressure to conform, to go along with the perception that I am cisgender and avoid challenging it, lest I cause others discomfort or bring deserved ridicule upon myself. It leads to these moments of anxiety, this fear of being found out, which reinforces the idea that my body and who I am are shameful. Fitting in has never felt so uncomfortable. Probably because I actually still don’t fit in at all, even if not everyone can see that.
I hope someday, for my own sake if for nothing else, that I will find a way to be more open and out not just in this particular environment, but all future environments like this one – that I will find a way to make a context for myself. Right now, I don’t know how to even work toward that, and I’m low on spare energy.
Of course, my own lack of acknowledgement of these things in conversation contributes to the omission, but the stakes are higher for me. It’s more personal, and I need to build more strength to prepare myself first.
I invite any cis folks out there reading this to consider your daily environments. What do you usually talk about with coworkers and acquaintances whom you see regularly? Are you tacitly, unintentionally presuming everyone is straight and cis, or even non-disabled, or a US citizen, or of a certain financial background? How might this impact folks in your environment – or you, yourself? Are there ways you can bring up the existence of trans folks or queer folks that you otherwise wouldn’t think of – things in the news, for example? Just think about it, if nothing else.
I also invite you to think about how this isn’t just oppressive for those with marginalized identities – it’s oppressive for everyone. More on that in a future post.
Finally, I can’t write a post like this without also acknowledging that it is a privilege to be able to blend in the way that I do, and that many trans people dream of being able to do this and/or would be so much safer where they are if they could. I also want to say that we shouldn’t have to blend in in order to be respected and safe, or to feel worthy and whole.