Doing gender and heteronormativity in public relationships

Open workplace transitions—situations in which a transgender employee informs her employers that she intends to begin living and working as a man—present an interesting empirical setting for examining how gender and heteronormativity “work” in public relationships. Reactions to this announcement could play out in multiple ways. Transmen could be fired for making a stigmatized identity public, thus neutralizing this potential challenge to the binary gender order. They could experience no change to their workplace experiences. Or they could be repatriated as men by being expected to follow the mens dress and behavioral codes and being moved into new jobs or positions that employers see as better suited to masculine abilities and interests.

The experiences of transmen in both Texas and California are largely consistent: They are incorporated into men’s jobs and men’s workplace cultures. These incorporations are not seamless, however. When transmen’s (hetero)sexuality is raised at work, heterosexual men often encourage an open display of shared sexual desire for women—emphasizing their new sameness with transmen. Heterosexual women, in contrast, police the boundaries of who can be counted as a man—negating their new “oppositeness” with transmen. In sexualized situations, transmen’s masculinity is simultaneously reinforced—as men frame them as heterosexual men—and challenged—as women position them as homosexual women.

Reaffirming "natural" gender difference

Employers and coworkers find new ways to do gender “naturally” by incorporating transmen into the workplace as one of the guys. On an organizational level, some employers rehire transmen as men, institutionally sanctioning their transition into a man’s career track. Preston received a directive from his boss that he should adopt the men’s dress code at his blue-collar job, which meant the removal of a single earring he had worn unproblematically for years as a woman in the same workplace. John’s employer in his service industry job required that he retain the women’s uniform until he started testosterone—at which point he could legitimately don a men’s uniform. Employers also issue top-down dictates that give transmen access to men’s restrooms and lockers and ask coworkers to change names and pronouns with their transgender colleague. These employer responses show how gender boundaries can shift—former women can be accepted as men—without a change in structural gender relations or organizational policies.

When transmen receive top-down support for their workplace transitions, men and women coworkers often show their adherence to these dictates by enlisting transmen into masculine

“gender rituals” (Goffman 1977). For the first few weeks of Jakes transition, heterosexual men colleagues began signaling in an obvious way that they were treating him like a guy:

A lot of my male colleagues started kind of like slapping me on the back [laughs]. But I think it was with more force than they probably slapped each other on the back. . . . And it was not that I had gained access to “male privilege” but they were trying to affirm to me that they saw me as a male. . . . That was the way they were going to be supportive of me as a guy, or something of the sort [laughs].

The awkwardness of these backslaps illustrates his colleagues’ own hyperawareness of trying to do gender with someone who is becoming a man. Jake felt normalized by this incorporation and made frequent references to himself as a fransman to disrupt his colleagues’ attempts to naturalize his transition.

Women also engage transmen in heterosocial gender rituals, such as doing heavy lifting around the office. The change is so rapid that many transmen are, at first, not sure how to make sense of these new expectations. Kelly, who transitioned in a semiprofessional job, notes,

Before [transition] no one asked me to do anything really and then [after], this one teacher, she’s like, “Can you hang this up? Can you move this for me?” . . . Like if anything needed to be done in this room, it was me. Like she was just, “Male? Okay you do it.” That took some adjusting. I thought she was picking on me.

Ken describes a similar experience in his semiprofessional workplace. While his coworkers were slow to adopt masculine pronouns with him, his women coworkers did enlist him in carrying heavy items to the basement and unloading boxes. This enlistment into heterosocial gender rituals suggests that while open transitions might make gender trouble for coworkers who struggle with how they should treat their transgender colleague, this disruption does not make them reconsider the naturalness of the gender binary. Treating transmen as men gives them their “rightful” place in the dichotomy—and allows schemas about men and women’s natural differences to go unchanged.

Interviews with coworkers illuminate how they grapple with this potential breach to their ideas about gender. Heterosexual men emphasized that if they were not discussing the transition in an interview, it would not cross their minds. They position this transition from female to male as “natural” for a masculine woman. One man in a blue-collar job says,

I chuckle to myself every now and then, how just natural it seems. [It] took a while for the pronouns to catch on but now it just comes out naturally. It just seems like a natural fit. It just seems like my inclination or my intuition at the beginning was correct; it just seemed, like, natural that she should go through with something like this because she was gonna be more comfortable as a man than as a woman.

Another man says he was unsurprised about the transition because his colleague “was an unattractive woman.” As many transmen move from being masculine (e.g., gender-nonconforming) women to gender-conforming men, their decisions to transition can be seen as a natural fit for someone who was viewed as doing femininity unsuccessfully. Many transmen also move from being gender nonconforming women who are assumed to be lesbians to gender-conforming men who are assumed to be heterosexual—a move that coworkers can justify as confirmation of the naturalness and desirability of a heteronormative gender system.

Women coworkers express more hesitation about seeing transmen as men. Several women discuss their concern about what they perceive as mismatch between their colleagues gender presentation—male—and his biological sex—female. One woman who works with a transman in a female-dominated job says,

It’s a hard thing for me [to say I see him as a man], . . . On some levels yes, but in other ways, no. If I think about it, I start thinking about his body. I feel that his body would be different than any man that I would know. . . . When 1 think a lot about it, I definitely think about his body and what’s happened to it. I wouldn’t think of him as I would another male friend.

Another woman in a blue collar job makes a similar comment, saying,

I can’t say yes [I see him as a man] but I can’t really say no. The appearance has changed. You know ... he always looked like a guy . . . dressed like a guy . . . and what’s changed is that his hair is cut short. But I can’t really say I accept him as a guy.

These comments demonstrate the power of gender attributions as, on one hand, these women see their colleagues as men because they look like men. However, when they think too much about their bodies—what they see as an authentic and unchangeable sexed reality—they are hesitant to include them in the category of man.

Yet, showing the power of institutionally supported public relationships, many coworkers will validate transmen’s new social identities as men regardless of their personal acceptance of this identity—in effect “passing” as supportive colleagues. While sociologists have positioned transgender people as gender overachievers who attempt to be 120 percent male or female (see Garfinkel 1967), coworkers’ adherence to these gender rituals suggests that in these public interactions, gender normals may have more anxiety about how gender should be done than the person who is transitioning. Whether or not this adherence reflects authentic support for transmen as men, it maintains the idea of natural gender differences that create “opposite” personality types with different abilities and interests.

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