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My heart was racing when I got out of my car and started walking toward my office building. I was wearing makeup, a rosy blouse, and high rise boots over jeans. Just one day prior, I was presenting as a man. It was too late to turn back now. My shift was starting in five minutes.
I thought I knew what to expect when I entered the building that day. I thought I had braced myself properly. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
I marched through the halls of this highly corporate conservative environment. Several days prior, my supervisor had informed me that I was the first openly transgender employee in the company’s history, and she, along with Human Resources, spent a week figuring out the protocols for my transition.
I was hoping that they’d send a companywide email to prepare everyone, but they felt like it would create unwanted attention and decided against it. Out of several hundred employees, only five people knew that I was transitioning.
As I walked to my cubicle, I could see with my peripherals that people were standing up to look at me. They were astonished. There was a lot of gasping, staring, and giggling. Many people looked extremely upset and confused.
This treatment continued throughout the day. Around a hundred people walked past my cubicle to sneak a peek at me like I was a zoo animal. I was even more insulted that they didn’t think I noticed. It felt dehumanizing, as if they were thinking, “This thing has no awareness or feelings, so it won’t know that I’m staring at it.”
That same day, one of the higher-ranking managers glared at me angrily every time he walked past my cubicle. It felt like a mix of, “How dare you wear that?” and, “I really want to hurt you physically.” It was very unsettling.
I thought that maybe I was being paranoid, but my co-worker also noticed and asked, “What is wrong with that guy? He’s been glaring at you all day.”
This manager wielded much more power than I did. I wanted to go to HR, but I was in a tough situation. HR complaints were supposed to be anonymous, but since I was the only transgender employee, it would be obvious that I lodged the complaint.
I was supposedly protected against retaliation if I reported an incident, but I found this hard to believe. Even though they couldn’t openly mistreat me, I felt I couldn’t say anything since this man was a higher-up who knew all the other higher-ups.
Also, it was my first day as openly trans. I figured that I owed it to everybody to give them some time to get used to it.
I naively thought that things would get better on my second day, but it was every bit as uncomfortable and unwelcoming. The executive did stop glaring at me, but everybody else continued to sneak peeks at me. Nobody ever said anything directly. They were too savvy and knew they would be disciplined for doing so. By simply staring, they had plausible deniability because I couldn’t prove that they were staring at me.
Several co-workers did the complete opposite. Instead of staring, they avoided eye-contact and stopped talking to me altogether, treating me like a ghost. I knew some of these people for over a year and we always joked and laughed with each other, and it came to an abrupt stop.
I understood that it would take people some time to get used to the way I looked. I didn’t expect this treatment to go on for an entire month.
Somebody asked, “Would you rather people stare at you or ignore you?”
I responded, “I’d rather be treated like a human being.”
Even people who were trying to be helpful would say, “It’s weird for people, so just give them time.”
I resented this sentiment because it implied that I didn’t already know that my transition was weird for people. Part of the reason it took me so long to come out at work was because I didn’t want to want to make people feel awkward. But living a lie eventually became unbearable, more torturous than any mistreatment at work, so I felt like I had no choice but to be myself.
And even with all the stares and snickering, I still kept smiling and stayed out of people’s way. I kept my complaints to myself for a month, so I felt like I had given them plenty of time.
In actuality, people became increasingly rude. Some co-workers would literally stop walking so that they could look me up-and-down and, with their eyes, let me know how sick I made them, not even hiding it anymore.
I went out of my way to make people feel comfortable to no avail. When I had to use the restroom, I walked all the way down the hall to use the one that was infrequently occupied. My HR manager told me that I’d be using the women’s restroom since it aligned with my gender identity, but I still felt guilty for potentially putting other women in an uncomfortable situation.
My fears were soon realized when a woman entered the restroom while I was washing my hands. She looked at me angrily and stormed out of the restroom. I found out later that she had complained to HR about me. She was livid that I was in there. HR couldn’t punish me since I was legally in the right, but it was just another place I felt unwelcome.
One day, I saw two employees from a different department pointing at me and snickering. The mistreatment had gone on for over a month, and I finally broke down and started crying at my cubicle. I couldn’t stop.
I went to HR with the complaints I’d had for the past month. The HR manager was on my side, but she told me she needed me to name specific incidents and people, otherwise, there was nothing she could do. I wish there was an undeniable moment where I was mistreated, but the entire culture was toxic, not an individual person.
HR was working behind-the-scenes to be as accommodating as they can for me, but they were also at the mercy of this conservative corporation. Even though I was protected under the law, that didn’t stop my co-workers from creating an intolerably hostile work environment.
I told my HR manager that they needed some sensitivity training and needed to create some guidelines for the future. It’s going to take years of jumping through hoops with lawyers and bureaucracy, but she told me she’d try her best to make the future better, and I believe her. I’m just glad that I could help start the process.
One particular incident finally broke me, which, at that point, didn’t take much. I was walking several feet behind a co-worker, and when he opened the door, he didn’t hold it open for me, and in fact, let the door slam in my face. Deliberately. It was another instance of plausible deniability. I couldn’t prove that he let the door slam on my face, but it was clear to me that he did.
Shortly after that incident, I went up to my supervisor and handed in my work badge. “I’m sorry, I can’t do this anymore. I quit,” I told her.
After I resigned, I emailed my supervisor the name of the man who glared at me and filed a list of complaints about harassment even though I’m unsure that anything could even be done about it.
I have to say that there were actually some rare but nice moments during my transition. Several women went out of their ways to thank me for being myself in such a chauvinistic environment. They felt like exposure to me would make the culture less sexist in the long-run. Several women also went out of their ways to make small-talk with me when I was in the restroom to make me feel safe, welcome, and comfortable. The janitor and I formed a really nice friendship by bonding over how mistreated we were by similar people. But even though I cherish those positive moments, the sad reality is that the bad far outweighs the good.
I wish I could tell you that this is a story of triumph and overcoming the odds, but it’s not. I gave up because it was too hard.
Right before I walked out of the company, my supervisor asked, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
But there was nothing she could do. It was too late for me. I just hope I can make it easier for the next person that comes out.