'Are You Really Non Binary?': The Power Of Gender Expression At Work

Man with jacket slung over his shoulder
Man with jacket slung over his shoulder

Gender expression can very much be forgotten amongst the copious discussions on gender identity. I forget about it every morning when I'm getting dressed for work. Usually, the quickest and most comfortable items that I see go on my body. I really don't care about the colour or design of my clothing, or where on the gender spectrum it falls. Moreover, how I look at work doesn't faze me that much and never really has. However, in the past year of employment many things about my gender identity and gender expression have made me stop to ponder the lack of connection between how I feel at work versus what people think I look like.

When I first began teaching High School, I bought a bunch of new clothing to wear. Albeit, none of it made me feel how I felt my gender was, but as usual I just rolled with it. I mean, I wouldn't mind a jazzy waistcoat and matching bottoms (and come on, who wouldn't want to look like Sherlock Holmes at work?), but finding those things is very hard to come by, especially in tiny peoples' sizes. So I held on to, and continue to wear, the only waistcoat I own and jeez is it getting tattered! For the first few months of teaching I picked and matched items from the bundle I had bought and went to work looking mostly cisgender. The reaction of students and colleagues alike was neutral and no one was stunned when the waistcoat popped out of the woodworks like a missing sock in a closet. Over time, though, I would hear students and teachers refer to me as 'cute looking', 'frail', and 'sweet and innocent.' Now I don't know about you, but the people that know me would scream in horror at these statements. I am most definitely not any of the aforementioned! These ideas of me as a teacher continued for the remainder of the year and sort of lingered on my mind.

So here I am thinking about where I went wrong; was it the blouse I wore, cropped bottoms, or the cool way I said 'okey dokey'? It became clearer and clearer to me that how I felt it my head about my non binary identity was not showing to people at work. Firstly my thoughts consisted of a desire to lift weights and lose any and all cheeriness to establish a firm sense of authority and that I wasn't 'sweet.' Quickly I lost who I was in the process-I'm not that kind of teacher people, I'm too jolly- and I resorted back to my true self, much to my students confusion.

However, a deeper awakening occurred for me. My eyes were opened to how my gender identity was not taken seriously by people at my work simply because my gender expression didn't 'look the part.' This became vivid when a student of mine commented on how normal I looked at an LGBT meeting. Normal? Am I expected to look queer in some way to be taken seriously? I simply and plainly wouldn't want to sport a three piece suit every day to seem authentic to people, and why should I? I enjoy the freedom to wear what I want depending on how I feel. I'm not going to put on airs for others.

This also exposed how programmed students and people are in general to thinking that LGBT+ equals 'dressing odd.' Hmmm the last time I checked that's called stereotyping. Furthermore, my lack of 'looking odd' left me feeling-as well as like a joke to some people-misgendered. Many take me for cisgender based on my appearance (like I said, I'd kill to be Sherlock Holmes). This brings with it a cisgender 'privilege' towards me whether I like it or not, when inside I feel anything but privileged (more like invisible and underrepresented). I have once been notably told 'well you can talk, at least you pass.' Well yes I have a voice box, so I can talk, but really, you're going to use the word 'pass'? For me, 'passing' is what creates my feelings of invisibility at work in the first place, fueling a constant internal battle with myself about wanting to dress as I do, but wanting to be taken seriously at the same time. Passing can be vital to some people though, especially if they want to be identified by others as a certain sex.

There are many others in a work environment that feel the urge to dress eccentric, and by all means they have the right to. The results of this, though, can be the opposite effect of being taken seriously. I watched a supply teacher show up in something I can only describe as out of Michael Jackson's closet. Don't get me wrong, this teacher rocked that outfit, but what didn't rock were the reactions by fellow colleagues. They saw this person as a 'threat' and 'bizarre looking' simply because they had a cool sense of style. The supply teacher identified as gender neutral and was very pleasant to speak to during break time. So gender expression in this case didn't help this person gain validity of their gender identity at work.

So what can you do? I personally I continued to be who I am and dress the way I like. I know I will never be seen by some people at work as being 'authentic non binary' based on my attire, but would they embrace my identity if I looked more 'queer' to them? This probably will remain a challenge of mine and one that I shall laugh over when looking back in time. It really goes to show how non binary identities still aren't 'real' for most people.

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This post is part of HuffPost's Journey Beyond the Binary blog series, an editorial effort to bring diverse trans and gender non-conforming voices to the HuffPost Blog. As the LGBTQIA community celebrates great strides forward, it's important to acknowledge the struggles still pertinent to trans and gender variant members of the community. Please email any pitches to beyondbinary@huffingtonpost.com