Transcending the Corporate Culture

I was sitting at my desk when a smiling blonde knocked on my office door. With just a few hours under my belt at a new job, there were unfamiliar faces popping in and out to introduce themselves throughout the morning.

She was tall and sure of herself. “Hi, I’m Jan. I’m one of the managers over in Engineering.” Relief washed over me to meet another woman in management, and an engineer to boot. Having studied the org chart that first morning, I was the solo female director in the corporate headquarters. Jan was a level below me in the hierarchy. I was heartened at the possibility of having a new friend.

“We should have lunch sometime” she said. We made small talk for a few minutes, and I asked her if she planned on bringing her husband to the office holiday party. “Yes, I’m bringing my spouse.” I was startled for a moment. Should I have known this? Did I miss a clue? I hope she doesn’t think I’m a clod. I beat myself up in my head for a few more seconds. The subject changed, and we navigated our conversation into safety. After she left, I beat myself up some more.

We saw each other briefly a few more times before the Christmas party. Having only started a few weeks prior, I, together with my husband, arrived at the party with the usual angst of a first corporate social function. I had to put to the test my tremulous ability to remember new faces with the names, and attach a significant other as well to the memory strand. Plus remember my husband’s name. Too much, right? I spotted Jan across the room with her wife. We did the quick hello wave to each other.

I led my husband through the rites of meeting my staff, the managers, directors, vice presidents, and finally the president of our company. My husband is a schmoozer and an extrovert who proved his superb social skills that evening. Hubby and the president (we’ll call him Prez for purposes of this story), warmed to each other instantly. They conversed easily and I was starting to feel like I had hit a home run. I could finally relax. I had made it through the first Christmas party.

What happened next hit me right between the eyes. Prez did not imbibe, so what happened cannot be blamed on alcohol.

Prez looked across the room and pointed at Jan and her wife. “See that woman there? Her name isn’t really Jan. Her name is Jim. He brought his fancy lawyers in here a few months ago and they told us “he” would now be “she” and we have to call her Jan.” He shook his head disgustedly. He added, “We had to have diversity training! We had to put locks on the bathroom doors so the ladies could use the bathroom safely!”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. I think I stopped breathing. Prez kept talking but I couldn’t hear him anymore. I don’t know how the conversation ended, but we politely made our exit.

I ran through the times Jan and I had spoken, and how I had been oblivious to the fact that she had been a man a few short months ago. There was no detectable trace of her manhood in our conversations. I was always proud of my sixth sense, but this, this had gone completely under my radar.

I was disgusted with myself for generating further evidence that I was an idiot. I was disgusted with Prez for his lack of humanity. How could he just blurt out such a sensitive matter at a party?

Monday morning would come soon, and how was I supposed to act? Should I say something so she knows I know? Or should I pretend that I knew all along? My inclination was to behave exactly like I had before I knew, and that’s what I did. Jan gracefully dropped some large-sized hints as our friendship grew. I took the bait one day, which was a great relief to both of us. We could now discuss her journey freely, like any two girlfriends would.

Once my co-workers figured out that I knew, they, too, began sharing with me. Jan’s transition unfolded openly with everyone in the office watching only six months before I arrived. Lucky for me, my memory bank was untarnished, because I never knew her as a man. My pronouns were always correct when I spoke about her and I never called her by old name, like some of the older men did.

I observed the office dynamics and other’s behavior when she was around. I never noticed anything amiss with how people treated her or spoke to her. In fact, it seemed like they were accepting. Realistically though, in our primarily male company, Jan probably had been hurt by things that people said, but she never shared them with me. That’s just how she is…very classy, never speaking negatively about awkward, or worse, bigoted, moments shared with a co-worker.

As time passed, I admired Jan more and more. Having been both a man, and a woman, she is a well rounded conversationalist. She is as comfortable speaking about fashion as she is the NFL. She also has a quality where she makes you feel at ease, like you could tell her anything, and she could handle it. She wouldn’t judge you, because she knows what that feels like.

What really strikes me is her strength. Once at a manager’s meeting, Prez and Jan were in a heated exchange. He abruptly shoved an offending document across the table at her. She would have none of it, said “No way!” and pushed it back just as forcibly. We all watched holding our breath. Prez was not usually handled like that by any man, let alone a woman. Instantaneously, Prez backed down and the situation diffused.

Jan relied on this strength when she made the gut-wrenching decision to change from a man to a woman. She said it got to the point where she no longer had a choice. Jan had to become who she truly was, regardless of the consequences.

Another quality I admire is her authenticity. In heels and a dress, Jan has no qualms lobbing her crumpled lunch bag clear across the room into the trashcan, pumping her fists in the air and shouting “YYYYYYYYYYYessss!” in a husky baritone. (I have to put a little footnote here that I get confused when she does things like this. She doesn’t fit neatly into the little pink box I want to keep her in.)

By taking the great risk to transition, Jan has earned the privilege of expressing her feminine and masculine sides simultaneously. Despite the fact that my personhood contains both masculine and feminine qualities, I do not partake in that freedom. As a woman manager, I am careful how I present myself, teetering the fine line between being perceived as weak or bitchy. The male managers likewise stay decidedly on their side of the line.

Jan’s choice reinforces that if one is willing to take a risk to discover who one really is, the potential for a sublime reward is great. To merely take the chance, is itself healthy and positive, for that person. Whether you agree with Jan’s choice (or Caitlyn Jenner’s), it behooves all of us to allow others to make the choices that make them happy, productive, and authentic, despite the discomfort it may make us feel. One day, you may just make such a choice for yourself.