The first time it happened, it was pretty benign. “You have beautiful eyes,” my boss told me one morning over coffee as we got ready to open up.
“You have beautiful eyes and eyelashes,” she said again once I’d put my green ceramic mug down, like she thought I hadn’t heard her. I swallowed the coffee hard, dragged up a smile from a cracked place somewhere in my gut. “Ha! Thanks!” I said, hoping that would end the conversation.
The sun was hitting every surface of the doggy day-care facility, which I’d scrubbed free of dog excrement just the night before. In about 15 minutes clients would arrive to drop off their dogs before heading to work and I would take them outside one by one and wait as each dog did their first poop of the day. It wasn’t glamorous, but I was making over minimum wage in my first post-college job and I got to play with dogs all day, so I called it a win. As a transgender person with no documents in my new name, I was happy to even have a job at all, dog shit notwithstanding.
“That’s what gives you away you know,” said my boss, Sally (not her real name). “Boys don’t have pretty eyes like that.”
I thought nothing of it in the moment. Sally was a middle-aged ex-punk from Alabama with a glass eye and a lot of bad tattoos. “Kooky is my middle name!” she’d said with a twang when I told her apologetically that I was transgender during a very informal job interview. I smiled when she said it but wasn’t sure exactly what she meant. Still, I couldn’t afford to be picky. When she asked me if I could start right away, I said yes without thinking.
That was my first real mistake, the way I came out to Sally. Like it changed things. Like it would impact my work performance. Like I was something she needed to make room for. And of course, I did it that way because at the time that’s what I felt like being transgender was: a mistake, a burden, something to be endured.
I had been living out of the closet for three years and just had top surgery. Life after top surgery was euphoric for a little while. I was feeling alive for the first time really—ever. But it was also terrifying, finally having something I cared about losing. I felt sure that if I lived too loudly in my new self that the universe might turn again and stop me somehow. So I tried to be quiet about my transness. I took the job and picked up dog shit and let Sally say whatever “kooky” crap came into her head.
Sally didn’t stop with my eyes though. She made comments about other parts of my body on an almost daily basis, passing them off as good humored even though I always felt the edge in her voice. In the space of a few short months all my co-workers quit that facility. Sally was disorganized and could be volatile. After a particularly bad double shift I also called it quits when she told me that “hiring queers like you is ruining my business.”
The Job Search
I decided it was time to level up the job hunt. I applied to anything and everything my humanities degree qualified me for. Sales positions, marketing assistants, office managers—anything that didn’t involve poop, I joked when friends asked me what I was looking for. I bought a suit and cleaned up my beard and went to every interview I was offered.
I researched companies I was meeting with to see if they were LGBTQ-friendly and read online testimonials of former workers trying to judge from afar if things might be a good fit. I ended up feeling more lost than found. Legally, I was still considered a woman even though outwardly I seemed like any other guy. I sat in job interviews with HR managers and tried to decide when the perfect moment might be to come out. But it never seemed to arrive. Interviews, even good ones, are awkward affairs.
“I’m transgender,” I finally blurted out in a second interview for an entry-level marketing position. The hiring manager raised an eyebrow but continued asking the same rote questions. Two days later they emailed me to say thank you for the interest, but it wasn’t quite the right fit.
After two months of searching, I hit a wall. Why did being trans have anything to do with anything? I was a good worker and my genitals didn’t matter. Why did I feel like I was such a burden? Who had told me this and why in the hell did I believe them? I decided that going forward I would be in charge of when and how I told people. I spoke to a lawyer who told me where I stood legally. I covered all my bases. I bought a new tie. I sent out email after email. And finally, something came through.
The Time I Got It Right
Alex (also not his real name) seemed like a nice enough guy the first time I met him. Only a year older than me and a comic book nerd, we got on well from the start. I dressed down a little for my interview with him but still wore a blazer just in case. When I started to sweat because the room was so hot, he tugged at a lapel of my coat and joked, “You can take that thing off now, you’ve already impressed me.”
It took three weeks to get things finalized, but I know I got that job in that first interview. Alex was setting up a new office for a content startup and I was the first official hire. I spoke with a VP and an HR rep and didn’t come out to them either. It was my business and didn’t have anything to do with my capabilities as an employee.
But then it came time to sign my onboarding paperwork, and I knew I’d have to say something. I left it a day, and then another. We were busy building desks and putting up pictures, figuring out where the good lunch spots were in our new office in East Nashville, so Alex didn’t notice until the end of our first week. On our first Friday he shot me a quick email reminding me to sign everything and get it to him ASAP!
Late that afternoon I wrote my old name down on a piece of paper and walked over to Alex, who was sitting at his desk. My stomach twisted in apprehension and I felt a lick of sweat move across my brow, but I refused to give in to the urge to run. I deserved this job. I deserved to be working and happy and live a life I liked. I deserved to feel safe and confident in my workplace.
I thought about Sally, the way I’d told her like I was sharing a bad secret: in an apologetic tone, with my shoulders hunched. I’d felt so scared that I couldn’t make eye contact and then I let her walk all over me.
Not this time. I stood up straight, let my upper body relax, and took two deep breaths. “Hey man, so I can’t sign this paperwork as is. It’s in the wrong name. My legal name is different. I’ve written it down for you to send to HR so they can reissue the contracts and then I’ll sign them,” I said as nonchalantly as possible, making as much eye contact as I could muster.
Alex glanced at the name I’d written down, my legal female name. “Oh—uh, okay!” he said, making a note on a Post-it. “I’m transgender. I hope that’s not a problem,” I added, wanting to make sure we understood each other. I didn’t say it loudly or angrily, just firmly, factually. My words hung in the air between us for a split second as Alex stood up to go home for the day.
“Nope. Not a problem over here. Though it does seem like a complicated undertaking,” he said. It was a bad attempt at a joke, but I laughed with genuine relief.
It took me a long time to understand that most people don’t really care all that much about other people’s business and that I actually had a lot more power in a coming out situation than I’d thought. If I didn’t make it a big deal, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal. I’d told Sally with my body language and my apologetic tone that she was doing me a favor hiring me, and that’s exactly how she acted. Of course some of that is on Sally—I gave her the opportunity to behave badly, but she took me up on the offer. On some level she believed that she was doing me a favor, that on some level I actually was a burden.
Because I choked that very first time I came out to a boss I learned that I still wasn’t comfortable with my identity myself, and that I needed to address that if I was ever going to be comfortable living in the world at all. I had to understand and acknowledge to myself that my gender identity wasn’t a burden and it wouldn’t impair me as a worker in any way—I was still a worthy hire, and a worthy human.
It’s been a few years since that day and I’ve since changed my name legally. Now in any professional setting I truly have the option to come out or not. Mostly I choose to come out every time. I do it because I want to be honest, not only for the people I work with but also for me. And I want my co-workers to see me for who I am: a trans person who’s damn good at his job.
It never gets less awkward. I’m always a little worried and always a little scared, but I’m also calm and confident and kind. I give a boss or co-worker the chance to ask questions in the moment. And then we move forward.
I figure I’m not coming out for me, not anymore. I’m doing it so the next trans person trying to get a job there isn’t the first anymore. I’m doing it so whoever comes after me doesn’t have to answer any questions at all. Maybe that’s a naïve thought, but it gives me hope. Hope that in a not-too-distant future no one will have to come out at all.