Feminine self-portrait, circa 2009

Femme’d Up

We all get “dressed up” for work in ways we wouldn’t dream of on our downtime, but if you’re a gender-not-normal person, this often includes an extra layer. Personally, I tend to “femme” myself up more than usual for work, which I don’t love, but it feels necessary. How “out” I’ve been at my place of employment has fluctuated over the years, so I’ll start at the beginning…

I’ve been working since I was 14-years-old, but I worrying about how “out” to be at work obviously didn’t become an issue until I actually figured out I was queer. It wasn’t until I got my first “real” job after college that I began to ponder the problem of being visibly queer in the workplace.

It was a temporary position that they eventually hired me on permanently for at the “indirect auto finance department” at a community bank. In other words, I was processing car loans all day and when I did need to make calls, it was to dealerships, not borrowers. This was a great gig for me and my coworkers were all lovely people. However, it was a small office, and with the potential exception of one other coworker (who maybe I am just hoping was “family”), I was the only queer person who worked there.

Now, this was back in the day when I wore a rainbow PRIDE bracelet literally every day. I didn’t even take it off for interviews. So when I began to realize all my coworkers thought I was straight, I was confused. Sure, I had never explicitly come out to them, but I didn’t realize I needed to: my dykeyness was overt and I everyone knew what a Pride bracelet meant.

My first clue was when one of my coworkers asked if I was married (equal marriage was still illegal in most states back then), but then when the ladies at the front desk tried to set me up with the UPS guy (who was twice my age, at least) I realized they were oblivious to my true, queer nature. But it’s not like I corrected them. Frankly, I didn’t have anyone to give me guidance about navigating this kind of scenario and since I wasn’t certain the bank was queer-friendly, I just kept my mouth shut.

In my next job, I knew my predecessor (who was a queer friend of mine) and thus the boss knew I was queer from the get-go. I felt fairly comfortable dressing in my comfortable, masculine way, for a while at least. Then one night, a coworker and I were working late on a project as our boss was heading out for a fitness class. Our boss stops in to say good-bye and struck a pose, sticking out her butt, to show off her new yoga pants. I was uncomfortable, but I reacted without thinking–I put my hand up to cover my eyes and that’s when she doubled down. She came right up to me, then, shaking her ass in my face, repeatedly asking, “Doesn’t my butt look great??” I couldn’t help feeling a disparity in the way she was treating me and my straight colleague, sitting only a few feet away from me.

At the job after that, I was feeling OUT and PROUD. I went to my second interview in all my Butch Glory: slacks, vest, tie, the whole nine yards. I thought to myself, “I want them to know who they’re hiring right off the bat.” I got the job. And I soon discovered I wasn’t the only queer person in my department, either.

I’d been working in that job for a few weeks when my queer coworker pulled me aside. Most days I didn’t dress to the nines like I did for my interview, but this particular day I felt I needed a little confidence boost, so I wore a tie so I’d feel extra dapper. It had worked, up until my queer coworker grabbed me. “You can’t do that shit around here!” she said to me. I was completely confused. “Women wearing ties? They’re not ready for that!”

I had dressed this way for my interview and still been hired, why was it a problem now? I came to learn my coworker, much older than I, was still in the closet at work, but I didn’t understand how my gender presentation impacted her. None of what she said to me made sense, but I was shaken nonetheless. Brushing off homophobes is easy enough after you’ve had a little practice, but ignoring the internalized homophobia of fellow queer family is much harder.

My supervisor at that job also had no idea what to do with me. He was a real “man’s man,” an ex-military guy who only knew how to interact with women by flirting with them. Well, I wasn’t feminine enough to flirt with, but he also couldn’t treat me with that “boy’s club” attitude he had with other men at the company… so he was just generally rude to me since I didn’t fit neatly into either of his boxes.

My separation from that company ended up being quite painful, and in my urgency to find a job afterwards I found myself, for the first time in many years, “femme’ing myself up” for job interviews. I also started taking off my PRIDE bracelet for job interviews, too. And so I slid halfway back into the closet, part of me still sticking out and gazing around with a certain amount of remorse. “Keeping myself afloat is more important than gender presentation,” I kept telling myself, but I still felt inauthentic in a way.

At my next job, my boss was nice enough, but sometimes said foolish things. One time I came to work in a nice dress I’d found at a thrift shop. My coworkers simply complimented me on the dress, but my boss had to take it a step further, “That’s so much more feminine than I’d imagine for you!” The comment stung in a way she didn’t realize. The way I always dressed for them was quite feminine by my standards, and to her, she was indicating, that usual level of feminine was practically “butch.” What would she think of my most authentic self? Would she mistake me for a man outright? I felt like such a traitor to the queers that day.

My current job is a bit of a mash-up. I’m lucky because my supervisor is a gay man and could care less about how I present my gender. The tricky part is I now work for a national healthcare company that partners with the local university–in other words, I can’t really dress down. So I can either dress up in a masculine fashion–button-downs, slacks, vests, suit jackets, etc. (which is the fashion I love and I feel suits me most, but damn if that’s more layers than I want to be wearing as I trek across campus in 100+ degree heat), or I can dress up in a feminine fashion, which gives me a lot more leeway. I can get away with blouses and slacks, and lately I’ve found I can get away with wearing Converse as dress shoes. (This is definitely in violation of the dress policy, but my boss doesn’t care and it brings back some much needed queerness to my style. I like to joke that this is a “dyke loophole,” since chucks are practically dress shoes for lesbians… you know, for those of us who can’t afford Doc Martens!)

But… I still feel out of place most days, particularly when I look at other female coworkers around my age. All my female coworkers seem to know how to perform femininity correctly–they’re soft, polished, lithe, stylish, chic–in other words, everything I’m not. It’s the same as how I often feel OK about my body until someone stands next to me and I realize what a towering, bulky giant I really am. Likewise, my femininity only stands up to scrutiny when there is no other basis for comparison. Next to “proper” women, I just look like a tomboy playing dress-up.

I would like to see formal clothing become less gendered. Casual clothing can be fairly gender-neutral, but when we get formal, suddenly the style options are very binary: some variation of a suit or suit-components for men, but dresses, blouses and heels for the women. Where’s the in-between? What’s a professional nonbinary person to do?

I guess that’s why I like my chucks so much these days: yes, I know I have to veer to one side or the other for work, but I’m still rebelling against this binary just a little bit. Maybe my next job will allow me to return to my full butch glory, or maybe I’ll just have to keep saving that side for the weekends.

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