Culture Shock at Work: Leaving My Queer/Trans Bubble

I started my first day at a temp job today — in a random warehouse in small town, WI. It started horribly. The place was a mess and utterly disorganized, and we waited there for an hour because they weren’t ready for us, but that wasn’t my real problem. I felt so incredibly queer and weird and other, and not in a fabulous, affirming kind of way. Silence and a room full of mostly white, sort of rural, presumably straight and cis people. And then there I was, in my skinny corduroys and hot pink nail polish, with my short hair and brown skin and button-down over binder — not yet passing for male, and reading INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence’s The Revolution Will Not Be Funded in attempts to ignore the awkward silence and not feel so alone.

I had been all ready to start using masculine pronouns from the beginning — I had talked it over with a bunch of (trans/genderqueer) friends last week, and I felt really good about my decision. Then I arrived there, and everything changed. I felt scared about my physical safety if I were to come out as trans. Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I didn’t feel safe, and I didn’t want to risk it. Maybe I’m stereotyping in a way that was unfair to them, but it just didn’t feel like a supportive space, and frankly, I’m not sure that I would’ve had anyone or anything on my side. In Illinois and Minnesota, at least, there is supposed to be protection from discrimination regarding gender identity, but there’s nothing for the state of Wisconsin (relying on anti-discrimination laws is an issue for a variety of reasons, but that’s another post). Regardless whether it was right or wrong, it just didn’t feel good, and so I stayed silent.

Despite having been described to me as an office job, it ended up being closer to manual labor — sticking labels on stacks of boxes, wrapping them in plastic, and hauling them elsewhere. That meant that there were some interesting gender dynamics going on — most, if not all, of the men had clearly done this kind of work before, and all but one of the women appeared to not know what was going on (I’m aware that I’m making assumptions about their genders, and I’m sorry about that). All of the men were taller and able to wrap the tops of the seven-foot stacks of boxes. And, of course, there was me — five feet tall and unable to reach the tops of the boxes, having no clue how to use the pallet jack.

Everyone clearly read me as female, but they actually turned out to be quite nice (possibly because the men read me as a young girl who needed help, and the women read me as a fellow woman). I felt really gay. Actually, I didn’t, not at first — being so strongly gendered female by them was really upsetting and disempowering in a way that made me feel like a girl, so I continually reminded myself of the ways in which various friends in Chicago read me as super gay (“by far, the gayest”) boy, instead of as a woman. It helped a little.

I actually got within twenty minutes of the end of the day without anyone explicitly gendering me as female/woman, and then it happened: “you three ladies.” I know I don’t really have a right to expect otherwise because I never said anything, but it was really dysphoric. I mentally pulled myself together as I walked across the warehouse, my friend’s voice playing back in my head: “That’s Miss Shiksa to you!” — Not that it’s at all the same thing, but remembering that my (super-amazing and not woman-identifying) friend feels comfortable self-referencing in a feminine manner, helps me to remember that how others gender me (particularly people who don’t know me) shouldn’t affect my gender or who I am. Perhaps I should’ve spoken up, but I’m really not very good at confrontation when I’m by myself, especially if it’s for myself (which makes it kind of ironic that I’m a Mawrtyr).

It was largely an uncomfortable experience. The work itself was tolerable (and it’s paying me, so I’m not really complaining), but I felt closeted in so many ways. I’d gotten used to being surrounded by awesome trans/genderqueer and generally queer people, largely people with radical politics, people who are aware of, and intentionally check, their privilege. This was very different.

One of the people, a self-identified white woman, talked about having briefly moved to St. Paul and experiencing a great deal of culture shock before moving back to small town, WI. She commented that most people are white in that small town, and where she lived in St. Paul, everyone was Mexican or Somali or something else. She announced that she wasn’t racist or prejudiced or anything, but she almost felt scared going to the grocery store by herself (because her neighborhood was entirely Mexican), and she refused to ride the bus because there are so many different, diverse people on it.

It was . . . quite an experience. If nothing else, I made $60, and I have something about which to blog, so that’s something. My cousin had suggested that having a job would get my mind off missing Chicago, but given that the work took very little thinking (for me), it actually gave me eight solid hours of thinking about people in Chicago. It actually just made me more heartsick about leaving Chicago, for so many, many reasons.

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7 responses to “Culture Shock at Work: Leaving My Queer/Trans Bubble

  1. Hi,

    I hope this isn’t invading your space. I just had to comment that Bryn Mawr talks a lot about confrontation, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen people epically fail by not confronting. So maybe it’s not so far off from being a Mawrter as you might think!

    • Katherine! You are absolutely not invading my space — I love that you commented! And now that I think about it, I totally agree with you about how Mawrtyrs aren’t necessarily all that great at confrontation, even though it’s supposed to be really important to us. Thanks for the reassurance!

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  3. True ‘dat!

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