17 September 2012

Advice To Someone Undergoing A Gender Transition

The other day, I was talking with a friend who is transitioning and works in an academic institution.  (It's not one in which I've ever worked.).  The environment in that school is noticeably more hostile, in all sorts of ways, than the one in which I started my journey.  This professor, though, is of a higher rank and in a specialty in which there are fewer qualified people than in my field.  Plus, that professor is, in a lot of ways, a cannier fighter and more savvy in dealing with administrative people than I was when I started. In part, those advantages come with being a few years older than I am and having other circumstances that differed from mine.  That prof also works in a field that is noticeably more male-dominated, and where there may be more people who are phobic to gender-variant people, than mine.

Still, I found myself helping this prof devise strategies for navigating various aspects of the school and its administration.  For one thing, we were trying to define acts of true discrimination.  As an example, when you're not notified of meetings, but other people in your department are, did the person who sent out the e-mails or notices simply "forget" about you?  Or, when someone attributes some manner of wrongdoing to you, is that a mistake?  Or is that person acting on some unconscious (or conscious) hatred and harassing you? Or what about a supervisor who has time to answer your colleague's questions but suddenly starts to dismiss you rudely when you are looking for his or her advice?  

What are you supposed to think when someone "loses" your file or application for some program?

Although I got guidance, from various sources, about how family members and friends might react, and some of the legal aspects of my transition (By the time I had my surgery, I thought I could become a lawyer!), I really didn't have any guidance for the issues the other prof and I discussed.  

There are times I wish I'd been more militant--or, at least, as ready to do battle as my friend.  I tried hard to appease people and to be a palatable trans woman.  I suppose I succeeded at those things, to some extent.  Some might say that "taking the Martin Luther King rather than the Malcolm X approach," as someone else described it, gained me some respect with some people, and perhaps made me "likeable" to others.  But, I realized, that supposedly educated and civilized people don't always play by the rules they make or live by the ideals their educations are supposed to represent.  And, of course, there are those who say the politically correct thing to your face, but say other things entirely to other people when you're out of earshot.  

(By the way, the person who made the "King rather than Malcolm X" comment has only comic-book knowledge about both men.  And he spouts all of the liberal shibboleths, naturally.)

In brief, one of the things I told my friend was that you need to make allies but to trust very, very few people in an academic (or, for that matter, most other work) environments.  Your friends, you make elsewhere.