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Workplace sexism, a trans view

  • Posted on July 31, 2014 at 12:50 pm

I really do hesitate to write this at all. Not because workplace sexism isn’t important, but because so much has already been said. Today I was prompted by a Guardian article: ‘10 sexist scenarios women face at work – and men don’t’ to pass comment that in just two years at work as a woman I too have felt workplace sexism. But more: that having been taken for a man at work for so many years, I also know how men are ‘when no woman is present’. When I’ve shared this observation with other transitioned working women, they’ve smiled, understanding what I mean. We see things that men don’t notice in each other’s behaviours, and we see differently from women who have never had this perspective.

This came up following a recent failed job interview (I don’t say unfair of itself), so let’s start back there. But first …

Privilege and workplace sexism

I want first to clear this little hurdle of privilege. I get challenged, as do most women with a trans history, by the statement, even the accusation, that because we were brought up as boys, with the assumptions of a dominant, manly future, we have the privileged status of never having been the underdogs, and have been handed on a plate certain advantages, de facto, by virtue of maleness. Never were we offered a reduced career choice, assumed to be just future mums and home-makers. Never did we get offered the same job on a lower scale for being female, or be passed over for promotion because we were of child-bearing age. Never were we the pretty things there primarily for the benefit of men. We were assumed to be the future captains of industry, the careerists, breadwinners, leaders, never discriminated against as women always have been.

Of course this is how men have been privileged. But to take any advantage, you do have to play the game. I’m sure I did gain some advantage, though many of my female fellow university graduates have done far better in their careers than I have. Maybe it’s because they never felt they didn’t belong. Maybe they were stronger than I at challenging the sexist game. I never found a comfortable way of living up to male employment expectations. Much of my privilege was empty, a tool I didn’t even now how to use. Lesbian friends speak of the additional stigma of growing up and coming out, as if I had no problems growing up ‘to be a boy’ who wasn’t also stigmatised or bullied for being different, for wanting to be different, or for not conforming to stereotype.

Sometimes women with trans histories get slaughtered twice: for not being a proper man, and for not being a proper woman. There’s little worse than being designated not real on all bases.

So don’t lay on the cis white male privilege too thick, because it’s a meme that’s easily trotted out to keep ‘us’ out of ‘your’ spaces (whoever you are), as if we are imposters or invaders.

The failed job interview feedback

So I applied for a job; a promotion to a post I really felt I could do. Let me be clear, I am not contesting anything that took place here. What I did after being told I had been unsuccessful, however, was to ask to check back: my reason was that I was aware that my career drives and ambitions may have changed. My style may have too. I had presented a 30-year career that suited me very closely with the job. But it was the CV of a male who had always been in management work, presented by a woman who had not been observed in management at all. Further, I had presented after two years of transition in this workplace, the first of which had been quietly difficult (for personal reasons, and as I shall describe below), and this may have given a less flattering impression of my real capabilities.

The main reason I failed the interview, I was told, was my lack of ‘soft skills’. As a male manager these had never been challenged in my 30 years of work. If anything I was too soft, not assertive enough. Interesting. I felt this job needed a bit of a kick, because time is of the essence and things, I felt, were a touch too laid back. Colleagues have subsequently agreed. I did wonder whether, not consciously, the same interview by me as a man would have elicited the same response as by a woman about to undergo surgery. I don’t know, my interviewers would never consciously have felt this, and I am not contesting their opinion, though I did say I felt it unfair.

Here is a very interesting piece of research on how men and women fare: The one word men never see in their performance review. Are you ‘abrasive’ because you are a woman?

But I did discuss how I had felt as a woman at work. Their response (both women) was to ensure I had not felt discrimination or prejudice (mainly as trans, I would imagine). That has not been a problem, but I did point out that as a woman, I had felt sexist diminishment in this workplace. For them, that’s just regrettable but normal. You acknowledge it, put up with it, and leave it, unless it is beyond a certain undefined boundary. No, it isn’t stark, it’s just things like:

  • giving the best answer to a problem straight away, and it’s ignored – until a man gives a similar answer and gets instant recognition
  • providing a solution and just being looked through like you’re not there
  • always being last to be greeted
  • bemusement that you should actually know about something technical, as a woman
  • simply not being asked because you couldn’t possibly have a valid opinion, or be able to carry something forward, even your own ideas
  • being accepted as being able to do a task, but not a project, because that requires a man.

That may sound as if I’ve had a bad experience of sexual discrimination, but I haven’t really. Just a few memorable instances where the assumption has been absolutely clear: women don’t know these things, I’ll ask someone else. To cap this one, the appointment was made. I presented my big project (which I proposed, initiated, designed, developed, built, populated, rolled out, and trained) to our top people, and to the new person. It’s ground breaking, transforming the way some people work, and with potential to make a big difference, and I presented its progress, impact and potential. Fantastic! And the chairman turned round to my new colleague and said: ‘Well, that’s why we brought you in. To really take this forward!’

I quietly seethed.

So what has changed? My not being a man? Or being transsexual, or simply being a woman? [I want to write about this difference issue very soon, so watch out for more in-depth stuff.] I do know that I would not have been treated as above had I not transitioned, because I never was in the previous 30 years of employment! I do not think that I am discriminated against for being transsexual as such, but there are a few observations.

And how about this for further observations about the trans perspective (MtoF and FtoM): Why Aren’t Women Advancing At Work? Ask a Transgender Person? Please ignore the blatantly transphobic comments at the end.

Dis-honouring

There were times, working as the only woman in an otherwise male office, when I distinctly felt regarded as not quite a woman, or rather, when the humour was testosterone-edged and sexist, as an honorary man. I am quite certain that, although unspoken, ‘she’ll understand, she used to be a man’ made some things acceptable, whereas had I ‘just been a woman’ they would not. I loudly and clearly objected to a conversation about a female colleague one day, because it had gone way beyond the acceptable. It was rude, abusive, sexist and personal, and I challenged it head on. The conversation would never have happened in earshot of any other woman than me.

What this leads me on to is the observation that transsexual people see both sides in a way single-binary/cis people do not. Every woman knows male belittling, and that ‘it goes with the territory. Every man knows this goes on to some degree, and that very few men ever challenge it, partly because if you stay away from the edge you won’t fall off. So we all see it; we read about it being sexist, and that we need to improve. But how many people really do see both (a) women interacting when no man is present, and (b) men interacting when no woman is present? Only a trans person.

It is illuminating. There is always a sense in which a trans person is not regarded as ‘really’ anything, where (post-transition) female cliques remain excluding and (pre-transition) male cabals have not included the atypical male, but you do get to know a lot more about what women think about men but would never tell them, and vice versa. There is, between them, a layer of accommodation: ‘let’s face it, men/women are just like that’. And whether it’s about Mars or Venus, rigid or flexible, it isn’t simply an acknowledgement that men and woman are different, but an acceptance that the way they treat each other isn’t going to change.

This is where we could launch firmly into feminist territory, but the truth is that few women at work directly challenge male attitudes. I might say (have said): ‘I feel I do know enough about this to fulfil that task’ to counter the suggestion that it needs a man. But would I directly say: ‘I feel you are assuming I can’t do this because I’m a woman’? Not likely, because the man would most probably get defensive, deny it and still refuse me the opportunity, whereas to just assert that ‘I can’ offers a let-out. I think an awful lot remains unspoken in the workplace about ongoing assumed male supremacy.

I do accept (hence my request for interview feedback) that male and female approaches to getting things done are different. We do work in different ways, have different styles, work with teams differently, have different degrees of self-assuredness. I also accept that my personal style is a blended one. I am very intuitive, highly illustrative in my leadership, quite assertive when I know the right answer to a problem, I can be quite direct, but I prefer to share the load and work with a team. That’s probably a male/female blend that’s both innate and socialised, and from both sides of transition.

But the bottom line for me, is that this is an accepted state of dis-honouring women. We call it mild, We live with it. It isn’t like it used to be. Thank god the groping years are over.

Gender roots

Skating over the feminist/equality issues, there is the fundamental reality that society has been built, constructed, developed and maintained to a male paradigm. The commercial world often seems to work best when run on male attributes. Build a diesel engine, and you have to run it on diesel. If I’m offering a can of petrol, I’m implying that you need to change the engine. You own the engine? You say it works well, why change it? I turn and walk away with my fuel. The one who turns up next with the appropriate fuel gets the ride. And with everyone standing round looking after a diesel engine that ensures a regular supply of diesel-oriented goods, things aren’t about to change.

I’m just not sure I can go on bringing diesel to the workplace. Maybe I do have a blend, which works, but not optimally. But my fuel has as much energy as yours, it’s just that I don’t feel really enabled to use it to its best advantage right now.

I work in a place where the ‘brains’ are all men, and the paperwork is largely dealt with my women. Men mostly do the making, women mostly do the admin. Not all workplaces are like this, though my last, for all its raison d’être and senior female figures, still felt very sexist. I’m not sure what the answer is, but having seen both sides from the inside, there must be something more useful to say.

Is my ‘can’ good enough?

So, what’s it like, then …?!

  • Posted on July 28, 2014 at 4:37 pm

This has been the most significant, final and irreversible week of direct action in my life so far. I gave some explanation of the process before, to enlighten the curious and worried, and I am not into giving ‘too much information’. Anyone who wants to research the surgical techniques can do as I did, and see how it’s really done, in graphic detail. There will be no new-born LOL cats on this blog! Nevertheless, I will have left people around me in various states of discomfort, curiosity, squeamishness and wild imagining.

I am proud of my surgeon’s reconstruction. It is authentic, functional, meticulous, and best of all, it is mine! Even during this early stage, it feels completely natural, looks amazing, and in every sense fulfils my long-held self-image. It is as if my brain were already pre-mapped onto this reconfiguration. Not one nerve surprises.

But what does it really feel like to, well, you know …?

What, wake up without your bits? OK. I’ll tell you, because if it matters to you, it really matters. If you’re just nosey, at least you’ll know it will never be you.

The last wee

It may be your horror, or your greatest dream, dear reader. But yes, there is always that last wee. If you’re trans, you’ll be sitting down anyway, and thinking perhaps of all those worrying times when it touched (yuk) the inside of the porcelain in some foreign loo! You will wash it for the last time, because trans people at this stage are meticulous in maintaining the best condition for their tissues. And like me, you will feel some relief, but most of all a complete disinterest in the idea of any loss whatsoever. In fact you probably won’t even be thinking ‘last time’.

But what about the last … you know?!

Believe me, you won’t remember it. It won’t have functioned for a long time, not like that. That’s why the anti-trans ‘bathroom scare’ of predatory ‘men in dresses’ is such a ludicrous proposition! You may well have had pleasure; I did. but in a new way, and all you are hoping is that ‘that’ bunch of nerves will still be functioning afterwards, repositioned correctly.

Could you have changed your mind at the last minute?

As I left the hospital, I was chatting with the discharge nurse, joking as to whether anyone had ever arrived at the hospital and run away again? ‘Oh yes! We once had someone jump off the anaesthetist’s trolley!’ Thank goodness …

For all my harping on about the gender clinic and appalling waiting times, and about the unsupported two year ‘real life experience’, it is absolutely vital that you come to this point with utter certainty that there is no alternative. This is no ‘nice to have’, no optional extra. This is no wasted NHS money on a lifestyle preference. No, this is a cure for which there is no alternative. If it isn’t that to you, stay away as long a you can. The problem as I see it, is that the so-called real life experience is nothing of the sort. If it was a prosthetic limb, you’d get physiotherapy. If it was mental health you’d receive therapy on adjusting to normal life. If it was loss of sight, you would have support and aids, groups and workers around you. This is because for all other conditions, they are considered as past events to adjust to. Gender transition is seen as a future event you are working towards, a diagnosis yet to be made. This is inadequate for helping people adjust to a gender presentation they have never been socialised into while growing up. To overcome this, as much needs to be undone as to be done.

So yes, you can stop at any point, though after signing the consent, they don’t lift the mask to ask ‘are you really sure?’

What does it feel like when you wake up?

Like any other procedure. You haven’t a clue where you are, what time of day it is, or what your last memory was. I have a very vague sense of a face and a reassuring female voice saying that it was over, or something. All I can remember was that I was breathing, and having to think about breathing! Then, much later, I realised I was back in my room, and it was late afternoon. Why had it taken so long (I went in at 11 am)? I asked the next day, and found that it had been very straightforward and over in two hours! I just took ages to come out of the anaethesia.

But yes, I did have time to come round and reflect what it was I was waking from. This was the brief period when I just knew that the decision had been final. Had I any shadow of doubt, this is when I would have screamed …

But I didn’t.

For a couple of days you don’t see much, and actually feel very little. The procedure is not actually a painful one, despite being quite invasive. The most uncomfortable part is usually the drains – tubes to relieve any fluid build-up – because they’re sutured into place and pull the tender skin of your lower tummy. So the greatest psychological rearrangement is simply knowing that you have been reconstructed as expected. There’s plenty of time to let it sink in.

And when you look down …?

I’d like to write separately about this, because there is some profound realisation about sex and self here, so watch out for the next thrilling episode …

If you are reading this from any perspective where male bits matter to you, you will not understand. You will see it as an awful dismembering loss. This is OK. If, on the other hand, you are reading from a perspective of horror at your own body being not right, it may seem a dream come true to find the bits magically disappeared. This also is OK. But as I have written before, this is reconstructive surgery, not amputation, and this is vital to understanding why people like me go this far. For me, there was something always missing, not just something present.

The first time I looked down, of course, I couldn’t see anything. The bandaging is actually pretty minimal, and you have three tubes, and someone shaved you while you were asleep! Apart from that, you are left with knowing that the job has been done. And you just get used to the fact that rather a lot of people are going to be looking freely at your vulva in the next week. And they will be seeing a lot more than you for a few more days! Dignity? Hey, a small price to pay, because this feels good. Very good indeed.

I did say to the nurses one day, as they examined me, ‘this must seem very strange to you?’ They just said, ‘no; you’re just like us.’

Doesn’t it feel odd though?

Of course it might seem that way, but it doesn’t. People having this surgery will react very individually. For some it is right, but nonetheless difficult. For others it will have them whooping as soon as they can draw breath. I think my first words in deep mists of anaesthesia were ‘thank you’.

To be honest it has been a very normal thing for me. No surprises, no disappointments, a better than expected outcome, a textbook result, minimal bruising and swelling etc. I have been one of the lucky ones, so far with no difficulties. These may yet come. But I will always remember three events:

  • the first mirror experience down there: how neat, how tidy, how right, how me
  • the first full length mirror experience back at home: how perfect, how right, how complete
  • the first think-in-the-bath: my goodness, how lovely.

Perhaps oddly, I have not one backward glance in my mind or memory, because this, now, is how I feel I should always have been. And that really is the odd bit, that I cannot any longer even imagine having a penis. Its significance has completely disappeared, in a way that I had not expected to such a degree. And to have a vagina? It just feels normal, not particularly new.

This, fundamentally, is the final proof of the diagnosis and treatment, that it is so overwhelmingly ordinary once you have been put right. No-one else could possibly feel like this over something that strikes so intimately and deeply into one’s sense of self and identity, with such finality.

Summary: what it is really like

This, for me, has been at once more profound and more ordinary than I had imagined. Yes, it is an amazing privilege to have received such professional and expert treatment. Yes, it marks both the end of a long physical, mental and social journey, and the beginning of a new fully-released sense of self. Yes, there is a substantial period of aftercare, during which in a sense I shape my own vagina. Yes, there is a certain getting used to the differences. But more than anything, I just feel terribly ordinary now, ready for whatever comes next. Complete.

I have written openly and extensively for two and half years, and will add some bits and pieces. If anything seems worth adding for those of you going through this, or watching others, I shall add more. I think it’s important to be direct and honest, because no-one should get through to this point without being very fully aware of what it is about. I do know that for many non-trans people this is unfathomable. And that for some trans people, knowing all this above, there will be an awareness and a comfort that they don’t need to change this much. Please, be yourself and be proud of it. But for many, this will be a scary part that lies ahead, both a dream and a nightmare. Don’t be afraid. Keep asking all the questions of yourself and you will know. If it’s right for you, you can come through, and then leave it all behind.

Remember, this is the most personal and honest place anyone has to face in life, and it is only about you. Never join the club, never be a follower, never wish you were ‘more trans’ so you could make your mind up to do this. Never be afraid to change your mind at any stage, but please, for your own sake, never let anything else ‘buy you off’ making the right decision for yourself. In the end we do not owe our lives to anyone else, and no-one owes theirs to us. And this is not a rehearsal.

Finally, for most trans people, there are family and partners for whom all this is just too much. You can’t help them understand anything that they can’t face. You can only be you, and maybe one day they will be able to peep through the cracks of their own fears just enough to realise you’re still there. Yes, you.

Hold this day

  • Posted on July 27, 2014 at 4:09 pm

This poem, also from my collection Realisations, predicts the feeling of completing surgery, even before I began living full-time in my authentic gender. Would it be like this? I didn’t read it for a very long time, I actually thought it a bit presumptuous. I read it two days after coming home from hospital. I cried. I would not rewrite a single word.

Hold this day, this birth day
write it in your diary, send me cards.

Never has a vaginal passage
delivered such a child as this –

she is an inversion of another
a restoration, a renaissance.

And this is her day, emerging
without cries, or protest, or recoil

but claiming birth-right almost
in defiance of everything umbilical –

with pain, blood, trauma and delivery
come to claim her world, her way.

Waking, ethereal, calm, complete
from mists of anaesthesia, almost in

disbelief at her prior parent, pregnant
with this progeny lain so long –

a gestation – no, an indigestion,
an indignity of containment.

I grasp this day, this birth day
red date in every diary, calendar

every future memory, mark and
milestone – and slip into life.

 

2012 © Andie Davidson

Psychiatrist

  • Posted on July 27, 2014 at 3:56 pm

I wrote this long before I met my first psychiatrist for assessment at a gender clinic. In the event it was a female consultant, but apart from that, I still don’t think I’d change a word. It reflects the impossibility of one human being really knowing another, and of trans people having somehow to convey an authenticity beyond their outward appearance, and being afraid of getting it wrong. You feel perfectly sane, but an expert may well declare you delusional.

I know who I am.
He doesn’t.
He looks at me through spectacles
of iridescent doctorates
and asks me all the formal questions.

Insulated from each other –
the right answers
to his necessary enquiry
prepared for diagnosis
are in his head long before mine.

I am afraid.
Of prior knowledge.
Of dire knowledge. Gnosis.
Dire gnosis. DSM.
I am becoming disordered.

I know who I am.
He doesn’t.
He sorts me into boxes,
typecast for his report
or an exam for him to pass.

I tell it as I am.
He gazes –
the interested professional
sizing my life, or do I mean seizing,
for where he thinks I fit.

I know who I am
in my head.
In his hands I’m not certain.
He gives a lot less away than I must.
My conviction is not my sentence.

 

2012 © Andie Davidson

A glamorous meeting

  • Posted on July 25, 2014 at 7:34 pm

This one may surprise you. It did me. It was a chance encounter in the least likely place under the least likely circumstances. But first, let’s go back to the late 70′s. Let’s go back to a frightened adolescent boy …

Way back in time

The boy is sitting in his bedroom. He has a girlfriend. They share real and deep feelings; they are in love. Both are evangelically religious, so in almost every way they are ‘keeping themselves’ for marriage. He does not know what she looks like naked. In fact he has no real idea of the detail at all. In those days detail in magazines was illegal. His school mates (not close) used to have mags like that, they said. Some of them were well acquainted with sex, or so they said. Or their brothers.

He is looking at a mag. He has a few, not illegal, not remotely so, and he found once, given the courage to enter the right shop in great trepidation, that he doesn’t want pictures of sex, pictures with men in them, pictures of women being subject. The store holder was bemused, and he left ashamed and empty-handed. And so here he is now, bedroom door closed, simply looking. What he sees is beauty. It used to be called glamour, until glamour became sex like the rest. There was enticement, let’s not claim feminism is in this picture! But he is seeing a kind of honesty, not naughtiness.

What are women really like? How are they different? Why is it a secret? Why is it bad to know? Does this make him bad?

He always looks at the photographers’ names. They have signature styles with clothing (yes!), sets and lighting, and the way the models look and are made up. Again and again, one name is against some he particularly likes. It is a woman’s name. A woman, doing this (naughty, bad, shameful) thing that he has to hide? More confusion: what are women really like? He imagines the women together, making beautiful images in a studio. He remembers her name.

History peeks its nose

A woman in her 50s is clearing the loft. The house must be sold because she’s getting divorced. There are a number of boxes that have travelled house to house, loft to loft for half a lifetime. Dry brown tape peels dustily away from cardboard flaps covered in roof-dust that escaped her damp cloth. School physics lab books, her own, full of mysteries in fountain pen ink. A box of letters. Love letters. And underneath, some quaintly old glamour magazines, unseen for many years. She leafs them open. There is such strange familiarity in the innocent pages. She glances at the photographer names. One catches her eye; the name of a woman, who must be older than she is, somewhere now perhaps as unbelonging as this.

It’s a grand clearing out. ‘Everything must go!’ Closing down. Half her life seems boxed ready for disposal. The few mags go into the recycling, covered over by much more recent daily detritus, despite surviving over 30 years. Boys these days; they see it all and to extremes on the Internet. She wonders if they ever think of a woman beautifully capturing another on real film.

No. She doesn’t wonder. She knows, because she also has a son, and intercepted some of his teenage downloads. She knows that unleashed testosterone doesn’t care about the people, only the stimulus, the craving for more. She knows that this chemical drive in any male life, overcomes all restraint, even as it uncovers every imaginable, or unimagined, detail. She really knows. The lid clatters down on the recycling bin, on a history, on a memory of more innocent enquiry, and what it turned into.

Strange encounter

The terrace is beautiful, overlooking the Downs, rolling down to the sea, bathed in July sunshine. I am sitting alone at one of a number of empty tables, toying with a newspaper, enjoying the whole environment. Classic FM is playing softly in the café area behind me; the hospital foyer. I am serene, my stay almost over, and feeling amazingly good. I’ve already thought of witty captions for the sculptures in the grounds and posted them on Facebook. The day is Good. A woman looking not much older than I approaches, asks if I mind?

Not at all. We talk easily, about life, about loss and grief, about being on our own. About coping. We share, as women do. We are both creative types, wondering how we might expand our new single lives, becoming more our unrestrained selves. Her line? Oh, photography. She is interested in using imagery afresh to show beauty in the inner selves of those who perhaps feel they have lost theirs. Her sister is visiting outpatients to see a radiographer. She comes by, smiles, and we exchange first names and pleasantries before she goes to wait inside.

I ask about her photography. She used to do different stuff, with her husband, some time ago, and by standing in for him almost by accident, discovered a signature of her own with sets, models, make-up, that magazines liked. He didn’t understand her poses. In the end he destroyed all her original film, replacing it with scanned facsimiles ‘like a print of a Picasso and throwing the canvas away’.

A friend of mine arrives, a lovely surprise. She goes to get a coffee so we can finish talking.

‘You must give me your details’, she says, and I pull out my poet’s notepad to scribble ‘www.andiesplace.co.uk’. ‘You’ll find it a bit unusual, I say, passing her the pad to swap, and smiling. ‘So’s mine’, she says, writing it down, passing it back.

‘I know this name!’ I exclaim.
‘Oh? Where?’
‘It used to be down the side of photos I used to really like, a long time ago …’