(Originally posted January 24, 2004)
From the moment I first slipped on a pair of my sister’s nylons when I was eleven years old, I knew that my cross-dressing was a shameful, dangerous practice, and that people would rather that I kept it secret. When I was twenty-four, I decided that I was tired of hiding, and I just wanted to be able to be who I was. I wanted to be able to join in the conversation when I heard women talking about clothes, not turn away. Mostly, I just wanted to stop feeling ashamed.
In the winter of 1995-96, I was living in New York in an apartment I shared with an old friend. In the previous two years, I had come out to two gay male friends, two girlfriends, my father, my apartmentmate, one bisexual friend, and one straight male friend. Everyone had been relatively accepting and supportive, so I decided to come out to the rest of the world. I had decided to post to transgender newsgroups under my real name, and I knew that it was impossible to hide that. I had started carrying a picture of myself cross-dressed in my wallet. I knew that at some point I would have to come out at work.
My work then consisted of temping for Vanstar, an outsourcing company at the offices of American Express. We were working for American Express, but we were twice removed from most of the benefits of being actual American Express employees. The American Express employees resented us for taking their jobs, and the Vanstar employees looked down on us for being temps. But the money was decent, and it was good experience.
One day I saw a flyer for a volunteering fair in the cafeteria and decided to attend. The idea was to encourage American Express employees to volunteer for various community organizations. I had been volunteering for a couple of organizations already, but I liked volunteering, and wanted to see what was there. I went from table to table gathering brochures, and at one table a guy who worked on the same floor recognized me and said to the guy sitting next to him, “Angus doesn’t belong here, he’s Vanstar.” He was probably kidding, but I wasn’t sure. His friend said, “That doesn’t matter! Everyone can volunteer.” I asked what kind of volunteering they did, and he mentioned a few things including AIDS education.
I looked at the table more closely, and I realized that I had been shuffling along with my head down, and I was at the table of the organization for gay and lesbian American Express employees. I felt a slight panic: I had overcome most of my adolescent homophobia, but I was still a bit afraid of people thinking that I was gay. The guy who didn’t work on my floor introduced himself as Charlie, said that he was the chair of the group, and gave me his card. I mumbled something and moved on.
A few days later, I felt guilty for stopping at the table. Would they think I was a closet case, or not really interested in volunteering? It seemed important to me to clarify things, so I pulled out Charlie’s business card and gave him a call. I even went to a phone in a hallway away from my desk so that people wouldn’t overhear. I thanked him for his card, and explained that I wasn’t actually gay, but a transvestite. He only missed one beat and said that I was still welcome to participate in the group, and that they had lunch in the cafeteria every Tuesday.
At that point I had found myself eating alone more often than I liked, so I decided to join the group’s lunches. I ate with them fairly regularly. I don’t remember anyone but those two being at lunch, but they were fun to lunch with. And the guy who worked on my floor was always friendly to me after that.
Sometime later I was chatting with another temp who was leaving that day for a permanent job at another company. He mentioned something about cross-dressing, so I decided to come out to him. I told him, and he said he didn’t believe me, so I offered to show him a picture. When he saw it, he was impressed, and didn’t seem upset or angry in the least.
I had figured it was relatively safe to come out to him since it was his last day. Little did I know that the temp agency representative would organize a happy hour in his honor that evening. And I forgot what a big mouth he had. At the happy hour, he called me over and asked me to show my picture to a co-worker. A little while later, another co-worker. And then one of those co-workers asked me to show my picture to a third. By the end of the happy hour, most of the Vanstar people had seen that picture.
The best part about it was that almost none of them seemed to mind it! I found out later that my departing co-worker who started it all had been telling people that I was a female-to-male transsexual, but clearly everyone knew he was joking. They all said I looked good, and that they couldn’t tell from the picture that I was a man. Many of the women said that they were jealous of my legs. Only one guy said he was uncomfortable about it, but he made it clear that he respected me and my right to live as I chose.
Of course some of them found it amusing. Cross-dressing is often a very ridiculous activity, and we cross-dressers should be the first to admit it. That doesn’t mean that it’s not a serious thing for us, or that we deserve to be mocked. It just means that no one should take themselves too seriously. The important thing is that my co-workers weren’t mean about it.
I was still a little worried the next day, but everyone was just as friendly and supportive about it for the rest of my assignment there, which lasted several more months. I didn’t consider it appropriate to come to work cross-dressed, but I felt free to talk about crossdressing when the topic came up. Every once in a while, usually at a happy hour, someone would ask to see the picture. I chatted about nylons with the temp agency rep. The only environments I could imagine being more supportive would be explicitly gay-oriented workplaces such as advocacy organizations, or in gay-dominated fields like fashion.
Since then, unfortunately, I’ve remained out on the Web, but I haven’t felt so comfortable being out at work. The next two big corporations I worked for, the Capital Group and Chase Manhattan, were not as gay-friendly as American Express (although Chase is the closer of the two). But I think the main factor was that I didn’t have a big-mouthed friend to tell the entire happy hour crowd about my picture.
Later on I began to think about the difference between being out of the closet and being in-your-face. At what point do people have a legitimate right not to know about their co-workers’ quirks? If the guy three cubicles down loves to have anal sex with his wife, I am the first to say that it’s respectful, consensual sex and shouldn’t be condemned or prosecuted. But do I need to be informed and show support about his particular practices? I’d say not. So for a while I kept cool at work about my cross-dressing, although I didn’t take my web page down.
I think that the case of crossdressing is different in part because of what’s at stake. We may think that anal intercourse is icky, but at least in large urban areas it’s well-known that some people do it, and no one seems to resent heterosexual couples who do. But cross-dressers and other transgendered people, especially minorities and prostitutes, are routinely harassed and intimidated, and occasionally beaten and killed. Our entire community lives in fear and shame, which cannot be said for the community (to the extent that it is a community) of heterosexuals who practice anal sex.
What will ultimately overcome that fear and shame is acceptance, and the best way to gain that acceptance is by being out of the closet. The more people are aware that they know a transvestite who happens to be a pretty nice guy, the less likely they’ll be to harass, bash or kill transgender people, and the less likely they’ll be to stand by and watch as a transgender person is attacked or killed. The value of that acceptance is so high that it’s worth making a few people a little uncomfortable. What will change that discomfort into acceptance is if we do it with respect, and in moderation.
P.S. After writing this article, I realized how well this reflected on American Express and the gay community, and particularly Charlie and the GLOBE organization at Amex. Vanstar, which has since gone out of business, showed its gender politics when a married male manager was caught having consensual sex with a single female temp late at night in a storage closet at Amex. The manager was transferred to another Vanstar account; the temp was fired despite the efforts of the temp agency representative on her behalf.