Fact is that Mike started working in the center where I work as Melissa. As Melissa she presented as a woman, occasionally wore dresses or skirts (professional attire) and talked as if she was comfortable in her body (biologically woman).
I enjoyed talking with her. She was smart, cynical, a Star Wars fan, and well versed in nerd culture. That made her easy to work with even though I was not her direct supervisor. At the time, she reported to someone who was at the same level as I was but since we were a large center it meant that at times I was a shift supervisor and had to interact with all employees, direct reports or otherwise, as a boss. And in that role she didn’t present any problems. Sure every request was greeted with a snide response or sarcastic questioning, but it really didn’t bother me.
We got to know each other when we both ended up in a graduate class at the nearby university together. We both mocked the professor a bit privately, mocked the bureaucracy publicly, and worked together on projects diligently and managed to keep our work roles separate from our student roles with relative ease.
As I continued to follow my graduate program, she switched to an EMT program. I didn’t think much of it, but even as students EMTs wear a uniform: a blue polo shirt and khaki cargo pants.
A few months into her program, I got promoted and instead of being her supervisors’ colleague, I was now his boss. And thus, I was a rung up and in Melissa’s reporting chain. New reporting structure aside, I didn’t think much of it. I was not in the habit of micromanaging people who used to work with me and now worked for me. It wasn’t my style.
But in this new role, I noticed a sort of mental change on my part. Yes, the relationship with all the employees changed and what was once mostly cordial ribbing or in-on it joking transformed into my now being part of the problem. I was “the man” for all intents and purposes. Frankly, I was still not very far up the ladder and subject to the whims of a big bureaucracy, but my ability to turn the wheel or alter the trajectory of the path the wheel was taking was a bit more on me. Policies that I could pass off as the whims of the Director or the management team were now my policies. So there was a little bit of me getting used to my new role.
Yet, almost concurrently, Melissa’s supervisor came to me and announced. “Melissa wants to be called Mike now. We’re beginning the process of changing how he is identified in the system. He’s starting hormone therapy too.”
I don’t know if it was my new role or the change in gender identity or something else, but suddenly Mike’s cynicism and sarcasm really started to bug me. At first I chalked it up to my own sort of internal dismissiveness of women. As a man, I don’t feel threatened when women are angry, which really frustrates my wife a lot. When she gets angry, I can’t help but think it’s “cute.” (Yes, that’s shitty, I know). So my first read was that when Mike was Melissa I found his sarcasm and cynicism “cute” but now that he was “Mike” I found myself responding as I do when I encounter angry, sarcastic, and cynical men; I get annoyed. (There’s a lot here and a lot I don’t feel comfortable admitting, but I might as well “go there.”).
I’ve worked for a lot of women, and, generally, prefer to work with women. For some reason, I don’t react in fear when I work with or under a woman and she gets angry. The relatively few men I’ve worked for, however, don’t elicit that same response. In the past, when the men bosses have gotten angry at me, I generally want to run. Angry male bosses are not something I work well with. And as a boss in several different capacities I know how to work with angry male subordinates. Annoyed for sure when I my orders are ignored or dismissed when it’s done by a male and dismissive and patient when it’s done by a female. Basically, I’m sure I’m a bit more patronizing as a boss for women subordinates than I am for men. And suddenly, I was seeing how this dynamic played out because Mike really annoyed me.
Yet, I was trying to be a good boss and as a good boss, I invited our local transgender support organization to do a work shop for our group. Our customers came from a variety of backgrounds and increasingly more of them were transgender, so I wanted to make sure we were being welcoming and supportive when they came in and largely tried to break down what I perceived as fear of difference when meeting a transgender person. The presenter, who transitioned years before, was great. He was funny, engaging, approachable, and definitely passed as male. We had a professional relationship, and I knew how to interact with him and that way. Part of his job was to break down the stigma, the prejudice and get us to not just react out of fear. So I asked him about my reaction to Mike.
Interestingly, he was a bit easier on me. He responded that maybe my reaction wasn’t just some sort of internal socialization creating an internal conflict. Maybe Mike, who was going through hormone therapy, really was just more annoying? As he explained it, he said that when people go through hormone therapy they are in essence no different than teenagers going through puberty. Maybe Mike was just being a teenage boy hormonally and really was just, simply, more annoying?
This made sense as my father had been battling prostate cancer and one of the treatments was to give him Lupron, which suppressed his production of testosterone. As a result, my father was more emotional, more touchy-feely than the gruff man I grew up with. His lack of testosterone in essence meant that his more emotional (feminine) characteristics were highlighted.
I don’t know. The frustration was real regardless of the cause, our relationship became less cordial. I didn’t joke around as much with Mike. Of course, my role had changed so I didn’t joke around as much with anyone, but it felt pretty obvious to me that Mike and I didn’t have the same relationship.
Things went on and Mike continued his transition. I settled into my new role and was more comfortable interacting with the whole group as a boss. I was more serious now and didn’t have a casual relationship with anyone anymore.
But one day, after introducing a new employee to the staff, Mike caught me off to the side.
“You keep doing it?”
“Keep doing what?”
“You’ll introduce me as Mike but when you refer to me later, you’ll refer to me as “she.” You keep outing me.”
I was horrified. “Oh my. I’m so sorry. I didn’t even realize I was doing that.”
“It’s okay, but stop it.”
“I will,” I said, silently cursing myself because I couldn’t control my own vocabulary. How was I supposed to be a model leader if I couldn’t manage to use the right pronouns of people who reported to me? Here I prided myself on being progressive and I kept slipping up. I mean, we were the first organization that brought in the transgender resource center for a presentation at the college. Instead of patting myself on the back for being welcoming, I was now part of the problem because I was oblivious to my own choice of words.
And I’m not sure why. Mike eventually graduated and moved away. I don’t know if I made that mistake again as he never addressed it again, but I can’t help but wonder why I made it in the first place? Intellectually, I supported his right to be who he felt he was and for society to recognize that. Intellectually, I want to use my words as a way to welcome people not force them into boxes that they didn’t create. Yet, when faced with that opportunity, I failed.
I’m still not sure why. Now I’m not Jordan Peterson and really don’t understand his insistence that society shouldn’t dictate (with laws) how we choose to interact with each other. But under the current climate, could I have gotten into trouble? What if Mike alleged that I was being discriminatory or creating a hostile work environment? I didn’t deny his claim, yet I didn’t remember actually saying what he said I did. How often do we go through the day not really aware of every word we say? And even if my intent was not malicious, are there other marginalized identities that I just bulldoze over just because I don’t want to watch my words? And how often do we offend and it is, perhaps, motivated by some sort of unconscious (passive aggressive) bias that we refuse to acknowledge?
And I was glad that he moved on. I would imagine that sometimes the best thing for people who are transitioning is to just relocate, change everything around them, so they don’t have to walk people through the switch that society already makes really difficult?
It’s been a couple of years now and I don’t know if Mike is happier or how he is living his life. I’m assuming he is happier, but I also wonder if we make too much of gender identity? Would society be better off if we just didn’t have clearly defined gender roles? What if we could dress the way we wanted and it didn’t matter how people addressed us? Does having a clear marker (gender expression) of what (male or female) really make a difference? Should it make a difference? And how would we go about creating a society that didn’t assign certain roles based on gender? Is that even possible?