A week or two of being trans at work
Every time I post anything to social media about the little stabs and jabs and irritations of being a very out trans person at work, it seems to garner a lot of sympathy and empathy and also a good bit of surprise. The truth is, I’m surprised by how offended others are by micro-examples of daily transphobia…not because I find transphobia inoffensive, but because I’m so used to it. And other people’s surprise ends up sort of making me ache somehow, because it tells me that they have no idea what my life is like, how much it is dictated by my trans-ness.
Salient details: I have lived as trans for 15 years, and I identify as transgender and transsexual and androgynous and pass sometimes as a (young) boy but usually I am read as female, especially when I open my mouth. I have never taken hormones and have a high voice and a wide smile and pretty eyes. (Yeah, I’m pretty hot for a radio personality.) (Also, people are trifling and don’t think men can have wide smiles and pretty eyes.) Another important detail is that I don’t really give a shit if people see me as “male” because I don’t identify as male, but I also don’t identify as female.
I work as a journalist, in a very audible position broadcasting to a large audience, and I make a ridiculously large volume of phone calls, and meet a lot of strangers. My job when I meet these strangers is often to gain their trust, in order to get them to share personal details about their lives or answer hard questions or grant me access to someplace semi-private with a large tape recorder in tow.
When I was younger and coming out as trans, I didn’t ever expect to have a “professional” job, because the illegibility and lack of respect and public knowledge of people like me was too overwhelming. Since then, a rising tide of visibility for trans people has lifted some people like me (white, skinny, class-privileged, boyish) into a place where we can do these professional jobs and sometimes, some of us, expect to be respected. I don’t have any illusions that my gaiing accessto thisis protecting other trans bodies that are under attack, especially women of color and poor trans folks, and I feel a lot of responsibility towards the whole of my community because I am not sure that a rising tide lifts all ships. Sometimes, it actually just leaves some behind.
My reality is that I choose my battles, and try to save some of my energy to support trans people who are in prison, who are under active attack and in active danger. Another part of my reality is that I have sublimated a lot of anger over how trans people are seen and treated.
With all of that out on the table, let me tell you about a few things that have happened over the last couple weeks.
I make a phone call. The person on the other end, who is nice, says “Lewis! I was expecting a man.” I get this all the time. “I’m actually transgender,” I say, flat, but polite. “Oh, wow! Good for you!”
I make a phone call. The person on the other end, who is fine, says “Lewis! That is a very unusual name for a woman.”
“I’m actually transgender,” I say, flat, but polite. “Okay,” they say, obviously confused.
I have to go to the bathroom. I hate men’s rooms but I don’t use women’s rooms because people always scream and yell at me in them, plus I don’t identify as a woman. So I use men’s rooms — nervously every time. I don’t want to be evaluated, assessed, compared to a man, because I’m not one. I just hope I’ll be alone in the bathroom, and I time my days around the likelihood that I will be alone. This happens every day, by the way.
A source, who is perfectly nice, finally responds to my phone calls. “Lewis,” she says, “I’ve never heard that name for a woman.” She laughs uncomfortably. I don’t say anything.
A coworker absently calls me by the wrong pronoun. I don’t say anything.
I’m getting ready to travel for work. I’m excited, and trying to get access to a courtroom where I need to make a recording. A very helpful source cc’s me on an email with the judge, saying, this is Lewis, she is going to be in town next week, she is working on a story, she wants to make a recording, can you help her, she is interested in such and such, she…
I decide to reply-all and correct it. “A quick correction, I’m actually transgender and my pronouns are he and him. Thank you for all your help and I’ll see you next week.” I never hear back from anyone.
I go to meet my first source while traveling. The receptionist downstairs calls up and says, “yes, we have a lady here for you, Lewis Wallace? Okay, I’ll send her up.” I don’t say anything. These particular people are very, very nice.
I meet a series of amazing women. I wonder if we are connecting more because they sort of see me as a woman.
It’s time to go to court, with all the people who never acknowledged my email about being trans. It’s landlord-tenant court, a.k.a. poverty court, where people are brought up one by one over a couple hundred dollars they don’t have. The judge gets in front of the courtroom at the beginning of the day and introduces me, “this is Lewis…Wallace? She’s with…who are you with again?”
I blush and say who I’m with. “So she just wants to make some recordings in here, okay.” Flustered, I explain to the group what I’m working on. The hope is that they’ll be okay with me recording them…in court, at one of their most difficult moments. I don’t mention that I am a transsexual, even if perhaps it’s obvious. At some point the judge switches pronouns, nervously, from she to they. All eyes on me, I sit down and try to focus on doing my job.
On this same day I meet several men who can’t seem to process that I work for a national news outlet, despite my many repetitions of the fact and the details. “Good for you for getting something on air!” they say. This is typical.
One guy, a cop I am interviewing, asks me for my ID. I give him my business card instead.
Everything goes great. It’s an unusual day for me in the lack of low-grade gender harassment. I ride around in a guy’s car and even though he might be sleazy, I kinda like him.
A source calls me by the right pronoun and I’m super surprised.
Mostly as I move through the world, I don’t offer myself up as a resource on trans-ness, but people seek me out as that anyway. My expectations for how those people behave are very low. One time a co-worker talked to me a lot about her daughter, who was toying with the idea of living as a boy. Later when her daughter changed her mind, the co-worker told me she was “relieved.” Relieved not to have ended up with a kid like me, which I guess would have been hard, humiliating, scary. This is why I don’t talk to non-trans people about being trans.
I guess the moral of the story, or the one I hope some readers take away, is that when YOU are the person doing it — calling the wrong pronoun, saying the ignorant thing, etc. — your behavior is both unacceptable and deeply familiar. And when a trans person takes time to call you out, to explain it to you, to show vulnerability or anger, it comes at a personal risk and a personal cost. It is your job to make that worthwhile.