My Job: 'Coming Out'

Next Thursday, I will be part of a panel discussion about "coming out" in the workplace at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, which is part of the City University of New York.

When I agreed to participate -- about a month ago -- I realized a decade had passed since I first sent a memo announcing that a colleague known as Nicholas, or Nick, would henceforth live and work as Justine.

It was my second year at the college (not BMCC) in which I was teaching at the time. Although I had spent nearly two years (and would spend several more) in therapy, working with a social worker and participating in support groups, I wasn't prepared for much of what awaited me. Truth is, I couldn't have been.

Among my fellow support group and workshop members, and the other transgender people (not to mention those who were exploring their identity) I knew at the time, I was the first to step over the threshold from a seemingly cisgender and heterosexual male colleague to a female transgender employee.

Nothing could have prepared me for the reactions of some. More than one co-worker said something like, "I'm really surprised you're doing this. You were a straight guy." The irony was that only a couple of years earlier, I would have said the same thing if I'd met a novitiate trans woman like me. In my support groups, however, most of the trans women I met had also lived as straight men until their transitions. Some might argue that they still were living that way: They had girlfriends or wives and, from some of them told me, they were still functioning, sexually, in more or less the same way as they'd always been.

After a couple of years of immersion in such environments, I no longer thought it odd that someone who was transitioning from male to female never had any male love interests. I had a couple along the way, but I still feel attracted mainly to women, if not to the same ones as most straight men I've known. But I'd forgotten that most people still believed, as I had not so long before, that trans women are gay men before they transition.

Since I was in a workplace and not a Gender Studies seminar, the relationship (or seeming lack thereof) between gender identity and sexuality had more than academic consequences. To be fair, the majority of those with and for whom I worked accepted the fact that I'm a bisexual-leaning-toward-women trans woman. But a few were nervous or even hostile and started rumors about rape in the women's bathrooms. And I would experience hostility from some gay male colleague who thought that I was somehow betraying the clan, if you will. One who harassed me seemed to believe he could disabuse me of the silly notion that I am a woman who loves, mainly, women and that he could get me to realize the gay man I "truly" was.

Perhaps the most surprising and disturbing part of my "coming out" at work was the sometimes-unconsciously held prejudices about socio-economic class -- and pure and simple looks -- my transition brought to the fore.

Not long before I announced my intention to live and work as my true self, Jennifer Boylan's She's Not There was published. A few of my colleagues had read it; a few more -- and the president of the college -- would read it after learning about my transition. Of course, some of them compared Ms. Boylan's story to what they saw in me. (To be fair, I also compared my story to hers.)

Many well-meaning academics believe themselves to be allies, if not champions, of "tolerance," if not acceptance. Like most other people, they are comfortable with "diversity" as long as those who come from different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations or gender identities from their own also come from the same or similar schools and socio-economic backgrounds. An African American on an Ivy League faculty is not likely to have come from Compton, the South Side or East New York. Thus, many professors -- including some at the college in which I began my transition -- found Ms. Boylan palatable because she was a mainstream novelist who came from the Main Line and attended private schools. Plus, she is a willowy blonde WASP.

Other than having been born a few days apart and having lived with gender identity conflicts, Ms. Boylan and I have almost nothing in common. I look nothing like her and come from an entirely different background: I am the first member of my working-class Italian-American family to finish high school, let alone earn an advanced degree. Moreover, I grew up in working-class enclaves of Brooklyn and New Jersey: I never saw an ivy-covered building until I went to Rutgers -- on scholarships. And while my peers were "summering" (no one from my milieu uses the name of a season as a gerund or any other kind of verb!) in Europe, I was working to cover whatever my scholarships didn't.

No matter how well I speak and how erudite I become, I simply cannot hide my roots. After a time, I stopped trying. That has always made me an uneasy fit, to put it mildly, in the academic world. What's more, I don't fit into the notions some academics learned in gender studies courses -- or, worse, from "diversity" workshops. They thought I simply had no business undertaking a gender transition. Or, some believed what one faculty member voiced in private: "Only someone with tenure should do what you're doing."

What that professor -- and most other people -- don't realize is that while tenure might protect "academic freedom," whatever that is, it can't protect a vulnerable employee from a superior or even a colleague from carrying out a vendetta. Some tenured profs -- including transgender ones -- have been dismissed on trumped-up charges. But, even more to the point, that professor's remark expressed the notion that only someone of a certain social, economic and professional stature has the right to live authentically -- as if only white male landowners were guaranteed the right to the pursuit of happiness or the right to privacy.

One professor filed a complaint against me because I refused to answer a salacious inquiry about my private life. The compliance officer gave me a lecture about being respectful and patient. "Remember, you are an educator. Educators honor the desire to learn." I wholeheartedly agree but would remind her, or anyone else, that a "desire to learn" is not the same thing as a prurience or a sense of entitlement to the details of the life of someone who's part of a stereotyped, and often maligned, group.

When I sit on the panel next week, I will answer questions from members of the audience. I am guessing that some will be employees of BMCC or CUNY; others might be students or family members. I don't know what kinds of questions they will ask. But somehow I anticipate telling them is that if they "come out" on their jobs, they should be prepared for surprises, pleasant and otherwise. Someone they never would have expected to be an ally will be exactly that, while someone who has a reputation for tolerance or whom "everybody loves" could engage in all manner of subterfuge. Above all, I would tell them that "coming out" is nothing more or less than exercising their right to be themselves, and they should not let anyone or anything undermine it.