Saturday, June 28, 2008

Keeping Gendered Jobs

As transpeople, I think we many of us become hyper aware of those who transition around us. I don't think its out of a morbid fascination of the carnage that often accompanies our transitions, but more for the shared and often unique learning experiences that we can relate to.

I have wondered what it is that, so often transitioning folks change not only their sex and/or gender but also their jobs. Sure, I understand that there are some jobs in which being of one sex or gender may be hold some advantages in successfully completing the work, but I'm having a hard time thinking of any. No, I do think that most work can be equally achieved regardless of sex or gender. That's not to say that there are many, many jobs that have been traditionally held to the gender binary. I also understand that sometimes a job that one has worked for many years and just wasn't fulfilling is worth changing when the right opportunity occurs. I'd be the first to jump on the bandwagon and say 'go for it'. Unfortunately, these issues just don't answer why it is that so many M2F's also seem to transition their job as well and transition to a job that often is associated with women.

I'm a landscape architect and when I started in my field, it was predominately male. Thirty years later, the field has become mostly female if only by a percentage point or two. I am meeting and working with more women at all levels of practice. The difficult part however, is that in the upper echelon's of practice and its organizational politics, the old (white) boy's club is still firmly in power (and in my field, it is sad that still, minorities are very underrepresented). For what its worth, many there at the top are openly fearful of the changes that have been occurring, that they are losing their dominance, in a 'place of privilege', to women, of all people.

I remember, early in my career, male practitioners ridiculing the entry of women into this field. Of the women in my undergraduate class and concurrently in the master's program, it seemed that a significant number of the women were older, perhaps married, and many had established families. I also remember how often the men mused that the only acceptable avenue for their future practice was to 'put on a face' on a clients home or residence. This demeaning attitude for their perceived contributions to our field earned the women the anachronism, PPP's or posy pushing practitioners (or for those special occasions, posy pushing pussies).

Looking back I can clearly see that their reference was the humanistic design point of view women often brought to the field and the fact that many were splitting their time between family and work, in between dropping off and picking up kids from school and not 'focused' on a male driven career track. As a result, many of these early practitioners did focus on residential design, an area of practice often looked down upon as less challenging than commercial or public works, with little regard to understanding a short project makes it much easier to manage time and to sharpen skills thru repetition. I would also go as far as saying that the perception of the home as a women's place, as a symbol of femininity, certainly affected the male viewpoint and the early ability of women to move beyond the boundaries that male practitioners then assigned to practicing women.

Which brings me back to my pondering, why so many transitioning women transition out of their pre-transition professions. (std. PC disclaimer: Of course, all of what I will be saying comes from MY experience, in MY profession and others may have different experiences from their industries.) I am someone who transitioned in place and as a result of that very visible transition, I have become quite visible as openly Trans. A consequence is that I have become a sounding board for folk, in my profession, on Trans issues and concerns. For these reasons I suspect there are a couple of other issues that may influence whether a transitioner stays in her original field. (I need to say that I have never met a practicing transman in my field, though I'm sure they do exist)

Perhaps one aspect that is not widely explored is the fact that there are transitioners that do stay in their fields, however they chose to start or start over while remaining stealth. Lynn Conway's story is a well known example of someone who followed this path. In my field, there are presently only two of us that are openly out. She and I have shared some of our experiences and we each have a handful of contacts with women who have come out to us, but are still stealth to the rest of their world.

The stealth women that I know all are close to my age, have achieved professional recognition since transition AND transitioned while young, early in their careers. In essence, by giving up their male privilege so long ago, they pioneered the gender inroads in my field with the rest of the our practicing natal women. Their career paths were full of the same obstacles that all women had to endure and those obstacles were imposed on them by the dominant culture of professional white men. I also suspect that being stealth, being well established in their practice and perhaps more importantly, in their private lives, they have little to gain from coming out and lots to loose. Unfortunately, by not become visible as trans, they perpetuate the stigma exceptional gender and they offer little as a role model to those who would like to keep their workplace history intact and professionally moving forward.

The other point I've noticed is this, not only are the two of us the only out transwomen in our profession, we are also people of colour (interestingly, we are both Native American). People of colour are not unfamiliar to being 'othered' and having to fight for any kind of positive recognition. In my graduating class of over 50 classmates and of that, no more than a dozen being women, there were only two people of colour. We also were the only people of colour in the entire department, two of six in the entire college. Mike, who was black, shared with me another commonality, we were both the first in our families to go to college. Our families encouraged and supported us, to be proud of who we are, not just as people, but culturally proud as well, to fight for our rights and to excel in whatever we pursued. The support we received was not limited to that that came from our families and extended families. We also received support from our communities as well. As but one example, Mike mentioned that every summer his church sponsored a BBQ and that the proceeds of that BBQ went to help young people like him meet the costs of going to school. We were held up and perhaps more importantly, pointed out (or outted), by our communities in a way that made not succeeding in our goals not only not an option, but also a very public process.

None of the stealth practitioners that have come out to us are people of colour, all are white, economically middle to upper class women. These are women that not only experienced male privilege but also some degree of dominate culture and financial privilege. Now they still experience the same dominate culture and financial privilege as white men, that has never been taken away from them (and I'm purposefully omitting second class status applied to all women, that is for another post). Which brings me to wonder if a fear of, or the unpreparedness in, being part of a less privileged social class (women) supports a culture of stealth or professional transition after transition? Is there something about always being the other that makes it easier for minorities to go ahead and stay in their field and even do so in place? Since people of colour already know that we will have to prove that we are just as qualified as a member of the dominate culture, regardless of our gender, are we less willing to give up what we already have fought for so hard to win? I am very aware that history is often written by the victors and looking back I can now say that all those little battles I fought and won are adding up to my own personal victory. I'm no longer afraid of who I was and I certainly am not afraid of or hiding from that history.

I also wonder why, in choosing a field outside of their former male field of work and moving to a more traditionally female profession, that there is an expectation that some or all of their former male privilege will transfer into their new profession? Is 'Hey, now that I'm a woman, I'll still rise to the top of this field too', part of a transferring of the male privilege workplace mantra? I don't know if I will ever know.

I will concede that where late transitioners are concerned, there may be other influences in play. I understand how the concept of the mid-life crisis can be linked to transitioning and what it could be like to try something that you have always wanted to do but never had the opportunity. Transitioning is something like that and when combined with so many of the other changes that occur during transition, starting a new career doesn't seem too far out of line. I have been accused of taking my 'midlife crisis' to far by way of my transition and have also pondered a similar scenario, going back to school and starting over in an other profession. I no longer respond to my transition as the midlife thing because its not relavent. I always wanted to change, but didn't know how to change THAT much back then. But changing profession, I don't think so, because I still really enjoy that part of me, and since I've already tackled some pretty big challenges, any other change that I try would have to be a piece of cake!

Finally, I would like to digress for a moment. On my ma's side of the family, it is also interesting it was the women of my grandparents, a traditionally maternalistic patronage, that wanted to improve their lives. My ma, was the first one to come north and then she hosted 4 more sisters and two female cousins in their efforts to do the same. I was the first of the grand children to go to college and I have been told that I was a role model for many of my cousins. Again every one of my female cousins went on to college, two receiving their masters. Not one of the male cousins went beyond high school. I'm not sure what that says except that we come from a long line of very strong women and my miss O certainly seems to be following in their foot steps. I am also especially proud of one of my cousins recently telling me recently that as she was growing up and was looking up to me as a role model, she saw the problems that I overcame and that was when she knew that she would be able to survive as well. Now she realizes that it all makes sense, that I too am yet another one of the strong women of our family.


Nerissa said...

At age 47 I was a podiatrist in Bible belt Texas. Starting to transition MTF along with insurance payment cutbacks put my practice out of business within a year. By age 50 I was nearly living on the street and broke.

I eventually got in nursing school in the Atlanta area following being fired from the Fulton County Health Department for being transsexual. I graduated with my BS in nursing last month. I'll be working as an RN by August.

While I would have preferred not being poor for so long I'm glad things worked out as they did. You know the old "what ever does not kill you makes you stronger" idea. I'm looking forward to my new job and new life!

Crissa said...

Who wants to be out? What advantage does that give you? How does this reinforce your identity as a person?

I think those questions are far more important than suggesting that people have lots to lose.

Most who transitioned years ago were also out year ago - and went through the pain and suffering and just want to live their life.

It's not anyone's business what's in your underwear, what was, or might have been. It's not a part of the workplace, and shouldn't be.

With a population that's estimated to be one in a thousand to one in ten thousand, I don't think you should be particularly surprised you're the only 'out' person you'd know in your field.

Because there is no reason to be out as a transperson. It's not a part of most people's identity, it's a part of history, a part of their medical history.

Unknown said...

Crissa, I understand the desire to be stealth; I consider it to be just as valid as being out. However, I couldn't be stealth, especially not with the state of our healthcare as pitiful as it is.

SOMEONE has to do the dirty work of advocating for us, and the people who are stealth can't, non-trans doctors who treat us can't, non-trans therapists who help us cant... people who are not trans cannot speak for trans people, any more than a white guy could speak for a woman of color.

In the cisgendered sphere, there are people who become activists for causes, and there are people who settle into the happy home life and give what support they can. Either is perfectly fine.

Unfortunately for my mother's wish for me to go stealth... I AM my mother's daughter, and I have to fight for what I deserve-- self-ownership, including the freedom to identify myself without interference from stereotyping cissexually-privileged medical and mental health providers.

(For note, the "1 in 1000 to 1 in 10000" figure was established back in the day when therapists and physicians would only count those they chose to treat; and often they only chose to treat those who looked 'attractive' to begin with. No one has anywhere close to an accurate statistic on the incidence of being transgender.

burnsbabe said...

A friend recommended this article to me and I have to say that it makes me feel good. I'm a rising fourth year Landscape Architecture student at a school with a very large program. I came out as MtF trans my second semester in college and have been fighting with administrators and people within my college ever since.

I'm making some headway but wondered about my job prospects. I intend to be out because I can't be anything else. I definitely hear you about all the issues with the White Boys' Club in Landscape Architecture and have been continually annoyed with my department's seeming lack of worry about people of color and people whose families don't own the McMansions that provide at least some of our business.

Quetzalli said...

Crissa, I agree that your questions are important, should be asked and answered, even by me, but I first want to say that if one is honest in answering your questions, then one will have a gage to measure what one may lose. It also will suggest what one may gain as well.

I echo your question, who wants to be 'out'.

Not I.

I certainly didn't openly transition to make a political or fashion statement about my undies. In fact, I didn't want to be out. I wanted to be stealth. Many have told me that physically, I could have done so very easily. Emotionally, I could have as well. In the past I've been able to get up and leave. Move to a new place and start over. I've done it many times before. And if I had done it when I transitioned, I know I would have moved underground sucessfully. And now I have the hind sight of what it is like to transitioning openly as well. You're right, the is not reason to be out as a trans person unless........

There is an advantage to her by being out. Actually, a couple of advantages. The first was based on my chosen profession. At the time I transitioned, he had over twenty years practicing his craft. He had many connections in the field and is well respected for the work that he did. He also has been recognized for a few pioneering projects and there would be no way for her to claim them as hers without coming out. If she were to have gone stealth, she would have had to abandon this history and start a new. At this point in her life, it would have been financial suicide, so the first significant advantage is financial and professional.

The second is more personal. It has to do with my family. I love them very much and I know that I would have lost both my wife and daughter if I had gone stealth. Not much more I can say about that.

And finally, has my identity, as a person, been reinforced by coming out? I'm not really sure what you mean with this, but if I guess if you asking if being out makes me a better person that say someone who is stealth, it would be a resounding NO.

So i agree with you, there is no reason to be out as a trans person, unless there is.