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Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Working It (For Real) - A Interview Blog by Cici Kitten for Suddenly Fem
Recently, ABC Television attempted to bring a gender-bending sitcom to the masses with their program, “Work It.” I never saw an episode (it was cancelled after only two episodes), but the program seemed to offend just about everyone. The premise – which recalled the 1970’s Tom Hanks’ series, “Bosom Buddies” -- was that two men would pose as women in order to get jobs in this difficult and competitive job market. Female audiences were upset because they thought that the idea that it’s easier for a woman to get a job today than a man was pretty ridiculous. Transgender viewers (or non-viewers – as they tuned out in droves) were worried that the program would perpetuate old stereotypes about the crossdressing experience – as well as trivialize the very real problems of unemployment and underemployment facing transgender individuals today.
As a counterpoint, I thought I would tell the very real stories of two good friends of mine – tgirls who now live and work as females 24/7. They both took different journeys to land their current jobs, but I found great inspiration in their stories of courage and persistence in the face of both social prejudice and economic recession. Even if you never intend to live 24/7 or apply for a job as a woman, I think you’ll be moved by these stories as well.
Stephanie’s life as a woman actually got off to a pretty good start. “I began dressing around the house in front of my family,” she says. “I came out to my kids (16 and 11). They were both great about it and have had no problem with my transition.”
At the time, Stephanie had been a graphic designer with the same company for five years. She was laid off two weeks after coming out to them – although she sincerely believes that the lay-off was due to budget concerns and not to the fact that she is transgender.
Still, in fairly short time, she found herself separated from her wife, unemployed, deep in debt, and quite depressed. And even though many of her friends were accepting of her new life, she began closing herself off from them. She was trying to decide if she should pursue a new job as a man or to go into it as a transwoman.
“I decided to go into it as a transwoman,” she says. “My first interview was in June 2003. It didn’t go very well. She (the interviewer) couldn’t even look me in the eye. I was dressed more androgynously, but the interview lasted only a few minutes and she didn't even look at my portfolio of work. When she walked me out, I got to the door, turned around to shake her hand and she was already walking away.”
I asked Stephanie if she ever had any second thoughts at that time. If she ever reconsidered applying for jobs as a woman. “Well, after those types of interviews it was tough, I did cry a lot. But I just felt that there had to be someone that would accept me for me. I just continued to believe. So I sent more resumes and went on more interviews. Some went well, some did not.”
After nearly a year of searching (and about 23 interviews), this well-qualified and talented graphic designer ended up taking a job at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf -- making $8.25. “My unemployment had run out and I was broke and in major debt, still separated and working through a divorce at this time. So I went from a Media Manager/Graphic Designer running an advertising department by myself to a near minimum wage job at a coffee shop. And I bet if you were to ask any of those people who interviewed me, they would say gender had nothing to do with it.”
Ironically, the Coffee Bean job turned out to be a positive step for Stephanie. “It turned out to be a great thing for me personally as it helped me grow into a woman with how I interact with others and how I present myself in a particular situation.” Her supervisors and co-workers turned out to be totally supportive. “They treated me as a woman and had my back if a customer had an issue -- which was not very often. I was pleasantly surprised -- more so by the public. A number of regulars became my friends. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said how much they admire my courage for living the life I have imagined.”
However, Stephanie longed to return to her chosen profession, graphic design. Over the next few years, she secured several temporary positions in that field. But nothing seemed to work out. Then, sadly, like many people facing the stress of difficult times and depression, Stephanie made some bad decisions. She fell in with a bad crowd and came under the influence of drugs. Drugs are all too common in the tg/tv world… as depressed girls desperately seek relief from the emotional pain they feel on a daily basis. Stephanie was no different. Those were dark days for her, and late one night, she was physically beaten… nearly to death.
Unfortunately, that’s what it took for Stephanie to change her life. In order to keep the focus of this blog on working and employment, I’m really giving you the short version here: But with the help of some close friends, continued sessions with her psychologist, and the support of her family, she was able to heal herself and refocus her life’s goals. She had begun taking classes towards her BFA degree in Visual Communication/Web Design in 2005 and received her degree in April 2010. A few weeks later, she received a call from a staffing agency and was asked to take a position at the Guitar Center -- for a week or so. But as Stephanie says, “After the week, they asked me to stay and I have been there ever since. I kind of landed in the right place I guess. It's a great job and I am so happy to be there. I became a full-time salaried employee on September 19th, 2011.”
That’s nearly ten years to the day after she first came out to her then-wife in October of 2001. I asked Stephanie what she thought of the roller coaster ride she’d been on over those ten years. “I kind of traded one set of issues (living as a man or pretending to) for living as a transgendered woman in this bi-polar, dual-sexed, gender-defined world,” she said. “In some ways it got better, in some ways it got way worse. The biggest upside for me is that I don't think about killing myself every time I wake up in the morning. Life is too good and too short to deal with that.”
“Yes, interviews were tough and the depression was bad at times but I was doing it, I was living the life I had imagined.” (All in all, Stephanie figures she went on about 75 interviews!) “Each day it got a little better, a smile from a stranger, interacting with people who had no issues or didn't even realize that I was a transwoman… or were so OK with it that they didn't care. It took years, but growing up all over again is a process and I am still growing… just like everyone else.
The other friend I talked to, Shannon, had a much different story. Shannon has worked most of her adult life in the rather macho security field. But she has girlish memories that go back to the time when she was a young child. “I have memories of running around in the backyard wearing my mother’s blue suede boots with blue leather cuffs,” she says. “I was hammering two boards together to make a sword and used the excuse of playing pirates. But I knew what I was doing. Even at age six.”
Shannon’s grandmother (who raised her) used to let her run in the back yard, but then her mother would come home from work and get mad because Shannon was wearing her favorite boots. “Then came the spankings,” says Shannon. I asked Shannon if her mother was mad because the boots might be ruined … or because she was dressing like a girl. “My grandma thought it was just a phase,” Shannon says. “But my mom thought it was absolutely wrong – therefore the spankings. She took me to a child psychologist. And he told her I’d grow out of it.” (This was in about 1977.)
Shannon tried living with her dad for a while… but her stepmom had some nice boots that fit Shannon perfectly – so that living situation didn’t last long either. The temptation to try on the boots was too strong. And Shannon was caught doing it repeatedly.
Since she had had such a difficult and painful childhood, I asked Shannon if she ever felt like there was something wrong with her, and Shannon said something that I think a lot of tgirls can identify with. She said, “I felt like something was wrong with everyone else.”
Flash forward about 20 years and Shannon was working at a stable job in the security field. Or so she thought. “Things seemed stable until I started looking differently. My skin got softer. I had laser to my face and arms. The other officers were reading “Guns & Ammo” and I was reading “People Style Watch” with the female officers. Then one day they said your services are no longer required -- due to cut backs and the economy.”
Shannon then bounced around to a few other similar jobs. And met with similar reactions. “I was working as a male. But they told me I couldn’t wear my pink cell phone case on my duty belt. And they said no to natural colored nail polish or clear polish. They noticed the mascara.” Once she was fired for improperly following procedure. But she believes it had more to do with her nail polish and feminine sunglasses.
At that point, she was very depressed. She had no job, no wife, no family to come home to, and no car. She couldn’t afford to keep either of her trucks or her 18-foot bass boat. She tried applying for jobs as Shannon at nearby malls. But nothing came of that. “I didn’t look that fem back then,” she says. “They looked at me kinda strange. They just smiled and took my app. I’m sure it was immediately filed in the round filing basket.”
“I was struggling to keep a grip on things,” she recalls. “I thought is this life ever going to pan out? I gave up everything to be Shannon. There were some very dark nights when I was about to say fuck it. Good thing I had one friend that stuck by me. And I had my gender counselor. But the only thing that kept me here is the fact that I have two beautiful children.”
The one good friend was a very special friend that we’ll call, Sean. Sean also worked security, and, as Shannon said, they walked some pretty mean streets together. Still Shannon didn’t tell him about her hidden life – her femme life -- until 2007. “All of our friends in security are such homophobes. But Sean stuck by me when a lot of my buddies did not. I lost a lot of what I thought were friends. The calls just stopped coming to go out for drinks or hunting invites ceased.”
With Sean’s help, Shannon was able to secure an interview with a new security firm. However, she had to apply for the job as a male.
“I had applied and applied with no luck as Shannon,” she remembers. “I wondered if my new life would ever materialize. It felt so alien wearing a suit again. But I needed a job. At a certain point you have to take care of the basics. Food, water, place to live, job. I was at the end of my rope.”
Shannon applied for the job as a male and she started work as a male. “It didn’t require me to wear a uniform,” she says. “But my clothing choices made them start to wonder about me. Loud colors. They looked at me strange when I wore UGGS to work. And, besides, it’s hard to hide tranny boobs under a polo shirt.”
What happened next was certainly to be expected. The owner and the manager called Shannon’s friend, Sean, into their office. And they asked Sean if their new dispatcher was transgendered. Sean defended Shannon and asked if Shannon’s transgender nature was going to be a problem.
And that’s when the really big surprise came. Rather than firing her or reprimanding her, the owner said it wouldn’t be a problem. He said that they were sensitive to Shannon’s situation, and that she was free to start coming to the office as Shannon now. She wouldn’t have to hide any more. Shannon had only worked as a male for two weeks. She has now worked at this position as Shannon for nearly a year.
“I love the job and the fact that the owner took a chance on me,” she says.
I also asked Shannon about her relationship with her mother now… after all of these years. “She is still not ok with it. Not accepting at all,” Shannon says about her mother. “She once said if she would have known I was like this at birth she would’ve done like the Romans when they discovered a defect and drown me.”
Sadly that is the kind of thing that tg children have heard for generations. And certainly not the reaction any child wants to hear from their mother. But, fortunately, the relationship does seem to have grown since the early days. “I still live with her,” Shannon says. “We have our good days and bad days and we have great shopping missions together. I think that’s her way of coping with it. But it’s hard for her to reprogram. She says she had a son not a daughter.”
“It’s hard for her,” Shannon says about her mother. “She says she cannot lie.”
I marveled at how ironic that was. Shannon’s mother claims she cannot lie. Yet she expects Shannon to live one. And I think that’s what so many tgirls are striving so hard to avoid – living a lie. To live as honestly as possible. For some that might mean dressing from time-to-time. For others, that may mean living and working as a woman 24/7.
For most girls, as it has been for Shannon and Stephanie, the road to that kind of life is long, hard, and full of ups and downs. I asked what advice Stephanie would give to a fulltime girl who is just starting a job search… or is currently frustrated in her search.
“Well, I would say continue to believe in the better good. Don't let others tear you down and make you believe you can't be who you are. Attitude is everything.”
Then she added one of her favorite quotes from Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”