Sitting in a meeting at work. There’s a chairperson, an agenda, and the promise that we should all be out of here within an hour. Most of the others there have a lot more experience dealing with the stuff that is being discussed than I do, so I basically keep quiet and listen.
Among the issues that comes up is gender balance in our clientele and how this is going to be recorded in a report. I quickly realize that by “gender balance” what they mean is the number of females as compared to the number of males. There is no room in either the discussion or the relevant section of the report for people who don’t identify as either “male” or “female.”
I sit there, feeling more and more uneasy. It’s not just this meeting and this report—most of the forms I have seen in use here ask for gender (even when there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason why the gender of the person filling the form would be relevant), and only allow for “male” and “female” options. As though there are no other gender identities out there.
As though people who aren’t either “male” or “female” don’t exist.
Should I ask if there is a way that other gender possibilities could be included? I was torn between desperately wanting to, and realizing that this would probably not go over well. At least some people in the room would not be receptive to that at all. They will look at me even more strangely than they already do. And anyway, I reminded myself, most people just want to be out of this meeting within the hour. They will not want anyone to raise any points of discussion that might prolong it.
I feel like a giraffe standing very still beside a tree, with most of my lower body sort of blending in with its dappled shade. If I don’t move, I probably can’t be seen. Keep still and quiet, until the lions move on.
But what if they can see me?
I mentally review the likely responses to anything I might say. The old conservative guy sitting to my left will probably laugh in disbelief that I would even bring up something like that. Others will probably ask whether there are even any of our clientele who identify with a gender other than male or female, and would point out that even if there were, it wouldn’t be a very large number, so why worry about counting them?
Does it matter if they—or is that we—are not counted, not seen?
What does it mean to identify as belonging to a particular gender? When does walking on the edge of a gender identity mean that you fall out of it? What if some people accuse you of having fallen out of it, and others think that you haven’t? What if you suspect that the first group is right? Where does this stuff even come from??
“…Any questions?” The chair’s voice is superficially inviting, but firm. He wants to wrap up this meeting fast. So does everyone else.
I keep my mouth shut, head back to my desk, mechanically check my email… and see a subject heading on one message: “Transgender Day of Remembrance.”
The hair stands up on the back of my neck, and my stomach wrenches. How could I forget? That’s not today, is it?
I can’t open that email. Not until I get home, I tell myself.
But it ends up being several days later. When I can steel myself to read the list of names that I knew would probably be linked to in that email. The names of those people who were killed this year because of their gender identity.
Because for some people, gender identity is a deadly serious issue. So deadly they’ll do violence to someone who doesn’t seem to fit their preconceived notions of what gender is. Such violence disproportionately affects those who have less power—poor people of color. At the same time, it reinforces common messages we are exposed to about people who don’t fit neatly into gendered categories: That these are weird, freakish, ugly, perverted creatures, whose lives aren’t really worth much, except maybe as a spectacle for “normal” people to gawk at and be entertained by.
But despite all that, there are trans* people who come out. Who are open about their gender identity. Who refuse to remain silent or try to hide. Who even celebrate who they are.
I don’t know what to say. Maybe I can find words some day.