On a recent interview for a job with a talent agency, Eli, 23, wore a man’s shirt tucked into pants and boots—and a breast binder to flatten her chest.
“Whenever a woman interview candidate walked out of the office, she was wearing a tight-fitted dress with heels,” the recent Tufts University graduate tells the Voice. “As much as I try to dress myself toward the stereotypically masculine, I still have to reckon with the unarguable fact that my body still represents female. It added another layer of discomfort to an already stressful situation. If I had shown up wearing something that mismatched who I am to appease conventional gender norms, I believe I would have felt more reasonably self-conscious and my personality might have been masked under that insecurity.”
Eli is one of a growing number of college graduates who refuse to conform to what, in queer theory-speak, is called “the gender binary,” that is, strictly male or strictly female. In January, a New York Times profile of several “genderqueer” students at the University of Pennsylvania raised some eyebrows. Many readers undoubtedly shrugged it off as just another indulgence fostered by the protective confines of an elite university. But these gender nonconformists maintain that, far from being “just a phase,” this is who they are—and that they have every intention of remaining true to themselves. “There’s this idea that it’s just not a real way to exist past college, that it only works in the sort of bubble community that you can build in college, and that once you’re out of that it’s not an identity that you can sustain,” University of Maryland graduate Sam Williamson, 22, says. “That’s pretty hurtful. It makes it much scarier to go into the real world.”
So what happens to these gender pioneers when they have to face the real-world workplace?
Ever since Plato founded the Academy, campus ideals have collided with the exigencies of making a living. Add to that the pressure of a seemingly endless recession for recent college grads. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the most recent unemployment rate for grads at a nerve-wracking 12.6 percent. Up against an endless flood of other talented and overeducated applicants, gender radicals find themselves in the unenviable position of sticking out for all the wrong reasons.
“When it comes to hiring in this market, anything that stands out as different is going to be a strike against somebody,” explains human resources consultant Victorio Milan. “By ‘different,’ I mean something about that individual that is not going to be considered an asset to the company.”
With a flood of qualified résumés, how many recruiters are willing to stick their necks out and present clients with an unnecessary dilemma? “If I know I have 20 other candidates right behind them, or a hundred or a thousand other candidates right behind them,” Milan notes, “I’m going to dismiss that person a lot quicker.”
After years of blatant discrimination, transpersons are finally making headway in the workplace. According to the Human Rights Campaign, more than one-third of Fortune 500 companies already prohibit discrimination based on gender identity. Celebrities like former Wachowski brother Lana Wachowski, co-director of The Matrix; Cher’s son (born daughter) Chaz Bono; and Stephen Ira Beatty, the son (also born daughter) of Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, are forcing Americans to confront their prejudices toward transpersons.
As transactivist Pauline Park points out, however, even some transpersons believe that one should pick a gender and stick with it. “Talking about binary trans issues has become a lot more common in the media, and so it’s not as surprising,” says Williamson. “People will have never even heard of having a non-binary gender identity. That doesn’t make sense to people.”
Williamson, who like many other gender nonconformists prefers neutral pronouns like “they’ and “them” to “he” or “she,” is currently pursuing employment with a union they interned with last summer. “I don’t feel comfortable applying for a job that doesn’t say explicitly that it encourages LGBTQ applicants,” they tell the Voice. Instead, Williamson subscribes to a listserv specifically for transpersons seeking work, but so far has found to be an exercise in futility. “There’s not a lot of open jobs out there for someone who wants to be very open about a non-traditional gender identity,” they say.
Faced with such obstacles, “Generation LGBTQIA” is seeking out those employers who will accept them as they are. Jess McDonald, 22, found work soon after graduating from Elon University in North Carolina as a communications and program manager for Campus Pride, an LGBT student organization. “I think I’ve had an unusually positive experience,” McDonald tells the Voice. “I knew the executive director before I got the job, so he knew that I identify as genderqueer and use they/them pronouns.”
Rather than climbing the corporate ladder, they’re more likely to pursue jobs with the public sector, unions, or nonprofits—places where can they change the norm instead of conforming to it. Eli has worked on a documentary about trans issues and hopes to go into film production full-time. “I want to be an advocate,” she says, “a positive voice for something that’s so misunderstood and kind of under the radar.”
A growing number of social scientists agree with them. Rather than dismissing them as silly and self-indulgent, they see them as intelligent, strong-minded individuals fully aware of the consequences of living outside of conventional gender boundaries. “The most significant power these students posses is knowledge of their identities and their rights,” says California therapist Lisa Maurel. “When you have this knowledge and you have had a taste of being your true self, you don’t easily surrender it.”
University career development counselors like NYU’s Diana Gruverman are trying to work with, not against, their students’ identity choices. “We’ve brought in speakers, we’ve done career fellowship workshops, résumé-writing workshops, mock interviews for those populations just so they see us as an ally,” Gruverman says. “We tailor resources to fit their unique goals and any challenges that they perceive as it relates to career development.”
At least a few companies appear to be making strides to keep up with the changing definition parameters of “gender.” The language in their non-discrimination policies tends to suggest a tacit inclusion of gender nonconformists. Jillian Weiss, a Ramapo College law professor who specializes in transgender workplace policy, points to the phrase “gender identity or expression” to cover not only sexual orientation, but “the way that they may express their gender” and even “people who have an androgynous presentation or are gender fluid or genderqueer.”
Facing an uphill battle at many corporations, it’s probably inevitable that at least a few of these genderqueers will end up choosing sides. “I think a lot of people just go back into the closet as far as their gender identity,” McDonald sighs.
For now, however, many of them refuse to give in to what they see as the ultimate battle in the fight for freedom of gender expression. “I feel like the world has been a very oppressive place,” Williamson says. “I experience that oppression most through gender.” ❤