I've been hesitating to write this entry because I don't know whether to make it instructional or confessional. Perhaps it is neither.
A few months ago, I was gearing up for a series of interviews in a very conservative (socially, not politically) industry. I was planning to wear my dark grey men's suit with the lovely, unstructured shoulders, complete with a purple checked tie. But one of my mentors got to me first (not you, CB). I should add that this woman is queer, in case that matters to you. I'll call her "MP" for "Mentor Person." This conversation occurred:
MP: So... You're not going to wear men's clothes to the interviews, are you?
MP: Look, you want a job, right?
BW: Right, but at what cost?
MP: Look, when you're at my level, you can wear what you want. But at this point, you want a job. You want to convey that you're like everyone else. And you don't want the interviewers thinking about your clothes.
BW: I don't care if they think about my clothes.
MP: Yes, you do. You don't want them staring at you thinking, "Is she wearing men's underwear?"
BW: I'll just walk in, wink, and tell them, "Nope."
MP: No to the men's underwear?
BW: No to the men's underwear! Well... today, anyway.
Okay, so then MP--who, let me stress, is someone I trust and who is invested in my professional success--tells me her hypothesis about gender conformity and clothing. Basically, she says that there are four components to a professional outfit:
2. Something over the shirt, like a blazer or jacket or sweater
MP's theory is that of these items, at least two need to be from the women's department so as not to attract undue attention/speculation/consternation. She tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to order a "shell" shirt from L.L. Bean or one of those other places. I told her I thought it was absurd. I resisted. I argued.
And then I gave in--partly.
On my way home that day, I stopped at Macy's and tried on approximately 15 women's suits. I do not like women's suits because they tend to lack pockets, to have too-short jackets, and to be cut in weird ways that make my hips look extra hipp-y and my boobs look extra boob-y. Finally, I found one that was relatively inoffensive, except that the jacket was a little too short. Whatever. I bought two, in black, plus a women's Ralph Lauren shirt that was lovely and purple and striped and devoid of girlish frills. (Not a "shell" or--God forbid--a "camisole"--I'm talking about a regular collared shirt.) I took a picture of myself in the new getup and sent it to MP. Her response: "Don't you think it's a little narcissistic to send me pictures of yourself?"
Ha. From MP, that's approval.
The next day, unprompted, MP loaned me actual, real pearls, because she said rich people can tell the difference between real pearls and fake pearls and I was likely to encounter people who had grown up wealthy. I am extremely skeptical of pearls, but since these were small and looked shockingly non-dowdy with my new, very sharp shirt, I went for it.
So according to MP's formula I was more than sufficiently girly: pants, suit jacket, shirt. Three out of four! (There was no way in hell I was going to wear women's shoes.) Plus pearls!
Looking in the mirror the day of my interviews, I realized that there was still no way anyone would mistake me for straight: my ever-present tiny silver hoops, very short haircut, and men's shoes gave me away. Even with pearls, I didn't look feminine, but at least I was closer to Ellen's look than to Lea DeLaria's. (Point of clarification: I like Lea DeLaria and her look; I'm not knocking it, just saying that I didn't want to embody it that day.)
Among the sea of other interviewees, I was still by far the least gender-conforming person. I might as well have been wearing a rainbow sticker on my forehead. Still, the cut of my suit allowed me to look conforming enough for interviewers not to dismiss me, and masculine enough that I felt comfortable. In fact, I felt like quite the powerful dyke.
Did I "betray" my butchness by wearing a lady-suit? Maybe. Would I have been more "true" to myself in a men's suit and tie? Maybe. But at the same time, I thought carefully about the degree of "compromise" I was willing to make, and what I was and wasn't willing to sacrifice to fit in. More gender conformity would have gone over better with interviewers, I suspect. Still, I have to admit that I felt proud of finding a balance that worked for me in this particular situation, and grateful to MP for giving me the heads-up that I needed to make a few changes if I wanted to be in the ballpark.
As you can tell, I'm still wrestling with it. I loathe the idea of compromising to "fit in." But I also loathe the idea of not getting the job I want because I was too stubborn to take off my damn tie. At least for me, being butch is partly about being true to myself, and partly about finding a balance that will let me be myself while accomplishing what I want to accomplish. (And finally getting some power, so that I can not only put my own tie back on, but hire plenty of other tie-wearing women when I'm the one making the decisions.)
I bet some of you can relate to this. For those of you in industries where you're likely to be punished for gender non-conformity, what do you do? What kinds of balance have you found, and how has it worked?
Thanks for your great responses to the survey I put up a few days ago. Much appreciated! I love reading readers' suggestions. Remember that question I asked about what kinds of things you'd like to see more of on the blog? Here are the top five:
Interesting results, and I'll definitely use that feedback going forward.(Numbers 2, 3, and 4 were *very* close.)
One of my favorite things to read on your hundreds of responses to my butch job survey was your future ambitions--what you hope to be doing in five years. Most of you want to do something in (or related to) your current field. But a very substantial portion of you want to do something totally different. One elder care provider wants to be a tattoo artist, a mechanic wants to become a professional dog trainer, a college English prof wants to become a self-employed urban farmer, and there are lots and lots more.
These kinds of aspirations aren't just for the young 'uns, either. There's a paramedic who wants to become a spiritual lecturer and a flight attendant who wants to work at an independent coffee house. Both are in their fifties. I heard from plenty of other 40-, 50-, and 60-somethings, too. I love this, and it reminds me that we possess endless capacity for re-invention. (BTW, the courage and tenacity she showed in her own big career change is one of the things I admire most about my DGF!)
A couple days ago, I went to a workshop about my current profession, and one topic we discussed was the "impostor syndrome." Those of us who have impostor syndrome often feel a little bit like a fraud, a little like we're "faking it." We hope that no one will find out that we don't really know what we're doing, because then they'll realize that we're not cut out for this after all!
After that workshop, I thought a lot about you guys, particularly those who want to do something different with their careers or add a new pursuit to their lives (hey carpenter who wants to get involved in revolutionary politics--I'm talking to you!). I was thinking about how "impostor" syndrome tends to have an especially big affect on women, and I'm guessing this is particularly true for LGBT women, because we don't often look like all the other people in the profession we want to enter. This may go double for gender-nonconformists, people of color, and people from poor or working class backgrounds. The person you see in the mirror may not look exactly like the artist or fire fighter or food critic that you know most people have in their minds. (Our ability to overcome impostor syndrome as LGBT people, as queer people, as lesbians, and as non-gender-conforming people is especially important. The more we can overcome it and do all the things we want to do, the less it will leave the gay kids of the future feeling like impostors.) _
Imposter syndrome means that you don't give yourself enough credit for things. You look at what you've already accomplished and think it was due to chance or luck. You're plagued with self-doubt, and this self-doubt makes it more difficult for you to assert yourself and speak your mind. Not only does this make it harder to advance your career, but it also makes it more difficult for you to take risks, make advancements in your current career, or break into a new field.
The best remedy for impostor syndrome is action. So here's my challenge for you: think of one small step you could take today to get closer to what you want to be doing in five years. Sit down and write a paragraph about your book idea. Register a domain name for a website you want to start. See if your local community college has classes that could count towards your counseling certification. After you've got that small step in mind, do it. Like, now. Not after you make dinner or read the news or play one more game of spider solitaire. Now.
The more I read about impostor syndrome, the more I learn that the biggest thing separating those who make big life changes from those who don't is grit. Not talent, not intelligence, but the willingness to do something, and do it regularly, even on days when you feel like you're not making any real progress, and even if it seems like too small a step to be worthwhile.
Yeah, I know it's not easy. And I know I'm being a little "rah-rah" here. But it's something I really believe in. It would mean the world to me if those of you thinking about starting something new could sit down now and devote 20 minutes to your next step. Then please come back and write a comment on this blog telling me what you've done; I'd love to hear it!
Here's the first installment of my "butches and jobs" series. As regular readers know, last week I posted a survey asking butch readers about their job search histories. I got a big response--well over 200 readers filled out the whole thing (thanks!).
Unsurprisingly, my youngest readers didn't fill it out (since most of them don't have work histories yet). But aside from this, there was a fairly widespread representation of ages. See?
Okay, admittedly that pie chart is a little gratuitous. But it was my practice for using Word to make charts, and I was too delighted with myself for having done this not to share it. Pretty colors! Wheeee!
So as you might remember, I asked about what factors "affect" you when you're looking for a job. You could choose as many as you want, or none at all. The job characteristics I listed were: helps society, lets me wear what I want, gives benefits to my partner, lets me live somewhere cool, and lets me be as "out" as I want. They're shown by percentage (in ascending order):
I thought these results were pretty interesting. Maybe the most interesting to me was "I can wear what I want." Seven out of ten of us are affected by this. Maybe if we polled straight people, some of them would be affected by the ability to wear what they wanted on the job, too, but I highly doubt it would be 70%! It's depressing that this is a factor so many of us have to consider. But to me, this really underscores the idea that self-presentation, particularly when it comes to clothing choices, is at the core of who we are and what allows us to be ourselves. Can I be "me" in a skirt suit? Not easily.
I was a little surprised that partner benefits were so low on the list--only 36%. Maybe this is because a lot of you don't have partners, or have partners whose workplaces already provide insurance, or work in a field where benefits aren't typically available, or work in a country with universal health care. A few people wrote in the comments that regardless of whether their partners need health benefits, as a matter of principle they try not to work for companies who don't offer same-sex partner benefits.
"I can be as 'out' as I want" topped the list--more than 3/4 of you are affected by the extent to which you can comfortably be out as LGBTQ at work. Not too surprising, since fewer than half of all states in the U.S. have protection for people who are fired because of sexual orientation. Some of you have experienced this. Here are a few quotes from the survey:
More to follow about butches and jobs in future posts. Happy Leap Year!
(Oh--and a note to you statisticians out there: I'm fully aware that this isn't a random sample, that I haven't controlled for various factors, etc., etc. I'm not claiming scientific validity!)
I've been thinking lately about the myriad ways in which sexual orientation, gender identification, and gender presentation affect our occupational choices. We might imagine multiple ways this could happen:
Of course, lesbians can do anything. We can be (and are) everything from ballerinas to surgeons, from firefighters to custodians. But I know that in my own life, I've gravitated toward work that lets me be myself, and away from work that tends to favor or privilege those who conform to gender norms.
I'm really curious about what your experiences have been. I would LOVE it if you would fill out the following brief survey and send it to me! I'll tally the results and report them (anonymously, of course) in a future post:
Thanks for participating. The more people who fill it out, the better and more interesting the results are likely to be, and the more interesting it will be to read about in a few days. :-)