Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The Big Talk - And An Attitude Change

Yes, this post is about my finally opening a dialog with my employers.  Unfortunately though, I just can not bring myself to write it efficiently because the back story absolutely must be told, because there is a change in attitude that is really even more important than that dialog.  But it all kind of goes together, so it gets one composite blog.

So, to the attitude part.  I've always been highly aware of two elements in my situation that have potential to be a dangerous mix.  First I live in a very conservative area.  Second, I work in a school.  If you put that in a beaker and stir in a gender transition, its hard to guess what you'll get.  But to me, it's always looked liked an explosive combination.

When you see articles about conservatives fighting agaisnt transgender rights, the message is usually the same.  We are different and perceived as deviants.  Then there is the ultra-conservative assumption that as deviants we are dangerous perverts.  A favorite scare tactic for transphobic ultra-conservatives is to point out how tragic it would be to have legally protected transgender employees roaming free in our schools.  Apparently these people see it as a nightmare scenario.  Partly because they tend to see us as contagious.  Partly because assume that as demented perverts, we are all high risk.

Of course that is all ignorant and completely illogical.  But when you here such people making it sound like a transgender worker in a school is the ultimate travesty, and you are a transgender worker in the school system, it really starts to effect your psyche.

For the last few years I have felt more than ever like I'm on the defense-like the extremely conservative elements in my community are probably sneering at me behind my back and making up wild accusations and rumors in private.  Every anti-trans article I happen across or anti-LGBT rant that I encounter on local gossip sights scares me and entrenches me further.

It varies from day to day, but sometimes I'm so worried about what people think and how anything I do could be misconstrued that it can be socially crippling.  I tend to be flighty on such days and you never know what my trigger absolute terror in me.

Nothing scares me like kids though.  They are what make the transgender education worker such a scary notion for ultra-conservatives. I've always been afraid to interact with kids much.  But last summer someone compared my appearance to Michael Jackson and something in me snapped.  Obviously working in a school, you do not need a lot of Michael Jackson comparisons floating around.  I was terrified and became even more convinced that people would decide I was dangerous.

Shortly after that, I got to a point to where being called "fag" or giggled at by kids caused much less stress than having one of them start a conversation with me.  I've always tried to keep student interaction to a "Hi/Bye" sort of efficiency as a result.

Then half way through the year last year one child became very social.  At first she seemed awkward around me, but she kept getting braver and pulling me into longer conversations, much to my dismay.  By the end of the year, she had become so gabby, and I had become so paranoid that someone would get the wrong impression that I lived in fear or running into her in the hall somewhere.  Still I couldn't really say anything to her about it.  She had not said anything inappropriate at any point, and I didn't want to hurt her feelings.  Its not like there's an easy way to tell someone "Hey,  I think everyone believes I'm a weirdo, so I don't like to talk to kids because I'm afraid people will get the wrong impression.  So please stay away from me."  So I kept being polite.

Well this year, things got much worse.  Almost from the start of the year she began to drop by my office with increasing frequency.  Usually with friends.  At first there was always a technical problem to go along with the visits.  Then she got braver yet and just started dropping by whenever.

After I had allowed this to go on a while, trying to be polite, but not to seem overly inviting, she suddenly popped into my office with a note last week.  She was asking if I would be willing to listen if she needed someone to talk to this year.  I decided writing back would be best.  I didn't really feel like hurting her feelings face to face, and I wanted documentation at this point because I had become completely terrified, so I wrote her back, explaining that she would be better served by our school's counselor.

Next is the stupid part.  I'm such a pushover.  If someone happens by my office and asks for a complicated favor totally outside my job description, I always say yes.  If the UPS guy drops by my office and asks whether I'll take a package to a co-worker who moved to another building that he doesn't have the address for yet, instead of telling him he's the one payed for delivering to the write place, I say "Yes."  So of course, against all prudence, when a child dropped by my office and asked to borrow a wadded up old shirt that I used to use as a cover up because she claims to feel cold,  I said "Yes."

The question caught me very off guard.  The same old shirt has been hanging on the back of my chair all summer.  It was a very dubious request, and her motivations were suspect now at the very least.  She kept getting braver all last year and now here she was at a point where she was comfortable asking to borrow clothes.  I should have shot the request down undoubtedly.  But still, it wasn't overtly flirty, so I couldn't really just tell her off.   She's a kid exactly the right age to be the daughter I'll never have.  I definitely don't look like a man anymore by most accounts and I'm definitely not the sort of person you expect a teenager to become enamored with.  I mean quite a lot of her peers laugh at me on a daily basis.

So I decided maybe it was an innocent request and let her borrow the shirt.  It was the last class period of the day and she said she would return it immediately after.  I knew it was a mistake but on the surface it was an innocent request and I just couldn't find the words to say no because I was terrified and my brain was just spinning.  The best I could do was something like "You don't want to wear that wrinkly old thing."

The next day I got a call from my supervisor and we met about the whole thing.  A teacher was becoming alarmed and had called the superintendent. It seems the girl had asked for a moment in class to read the letter from me.  So of course the teacher found it odd that I would be writing a student, especially since she was unaware of the contents.  And of course later in the same week, when the student asked to be let out of class to return a shirt to me,  it looked extremely alarming.  It's not some sort of anti-trans prejudice.  It's just sensible.  Really, how many legitimate reasons can you think of that a child in a school is getting letters and borrowing clothes from a staff member?

I explained everything to my supervisor and gave him her original letter and a copy of the one I typed in response.  Before this situation came up I was already terrified that my co-workers think I'm weird and scary.  With this,  I figured he would just assume the worst, and the notion of having someone thinking that I would pursue a student romantically is so disgusting to me.  No matter how much he tried to convince me that no one thought that, I couldn't stop crying.  According to him, the teacher just thought the student was getting over attached and getting the wrong idea about the nature of our friendship.  But if that were the case would calling the superintendent really be the first course of action that would come to mind?  He said he would talk the the superintendent,  talk to the counselor about calling the student in, and explain everything to the teacher for me.

He was very reassuring and I left feeling a bit better.  The next day though, I was a wreck.  Walking in the hall I couldn't stop wondering if any of the people talking to me thought I....

After a few fairly normal seeming interactions the paranoia started to lift.   Then I ran into a teacher in the hall who I had needed to contact about a service request.  She was very blunt and cold, and I coudln't get it out of my head that she probably thought I was some kind of pervert.  I couldn't handle more social interaction.  I was emotionally crippled, totally unable to get out and do my job.  I just sat at my desk and cried until noon.  Then I drove to my supervisor and asked off the rest of the day.

I looked a wreck and he asked what was wrong.  I told him about my morning and he continued to reassure me.  I explained why someone "like me" is very sensitive to this type of situation.  He told me that people have wondered what is going on with me and wonder about my appearance and my mode of dress, but that most of what he has heard said about me was based in curiosity or humor, and that no one, to his knowledge thinks I'm dangerous or a liability to have around children.

During the exchange I kept away from assuming he knew I was trans and danced all around it awkwardly.  As the conversation wound down, the topic left the situation that brought me there and back to the overall public opinion of me and the rumors.  He said he had heard many, but mostly people thought the same thing.  I told him if he wanted to know, I didn't mind talking about it.  He told me that he sees me as a friend and that anytime I want to talk about anything the door is open.

I told him I am not a man, but rather a pre-operative transsexual woman.  I told him I am mid-transition and that I have been on hormones for a bit over a year, that I intend to stay on the job for now as I continue my transition, and that I eventually want to transition in place.  I explained about the "real life experiment".  He told me his wife, who is from California, once had a co-worker transition at a previous job and had already explained lots of this to him when the rumors about me started.

He asked when I would go full time and I told him that it would be before the end of the calendar year.  From there he explained that he thinks I'm a good person with a big heart, and that I do excellent work.  From a professional stand point he sees me as an asset.  From a personal standpoint, he is not sure I will be strong enough to handle the public backlash that will almost inevitably come with my officially going full time.  

It's a valid concern.  After all, I was crying over the mere possibility that someone could think ill of me just moments before this conversation and was so upset I wanted to go home.  Really I'm not sure that I'm strong enough to do this without moving either, but I do want to try.

Really the most important recurring statement in the conversation was that he feels I should have much higher self esteem than I do,  and a lot of people do like me and care about me.

After that I did go home early to settle my nerves.  Then I had a three day weekend on the lake with some of my best friends.  I returned to work today feeling completely revived,  with restored pride and confidence.  I didn't worry about what people thought mostly.  I just stayed calm, kept my poise and went on with my day, which was fairly productive.

That student dropped by my office with a couple of friends again.  They were all smiles and polite as usual.  And so, as usual I couldn't settle on exactly how to throw them out of my office.  I left for lunch and doubled back to ask another co-worker for advice on how to handle it nicely, but her advice went a totally different direction.

She told me, very correctly that you can't be too nice to people or they'll just use you, and offered to take care of it if I wanted to step out for lunch.  She laid out her plan and I agreed happily.  While I was gone she ran them all out of the office and told them that if they want to visit me they must first stop by her office for permission.

"I don't think they like me very much.  But I don't care."  she said.  There would be a lot less stress in my life if I could adopt that policy in general.  It's a bit embarrassing being such a pushover that you can't even send children out of your office.  I've got so much growing up to do.

I guess the irony in all this is that I've worried that all the conservative people around me were looking for some excuse to write me off as a dangerous weirdo.  Then a situation like this comes up and instead no one has jumped to conclusions, as far as I know.  In the end, who has been stereotyping who?  I feel awful about it except that by stereotyping them, I've mainly hurt myself with all this irrational fear that they were out to get me.

Now if I could just grow a spine.  I'm going to need one in a few months after the name change.


Tina said...

Wow honey, I didn't know all this was going on. I have and am learning a lot of the same lessons. It's really easy to think this conservative type, this religious type, this redneck type or straight male type...blah blah blah. Putting people in boxes thinking they are ALL a certain way. That's what we don't like to be done to us! What I am discovering is it's just futile to pre-judge someone based on anything. Maybe there are generalities, but don't count on everyone being the same. It just isn't that way. Take people one at a time. I think it's more important WHO someone is, than WHAT someone is. Maybe your coworkers are looking at you this way. :)

Actually, it sounds great that most people aren't judging you that way. Your boss really sounds like a swell person and that has to be wonderful to have him on your side. Perhaps you'll have many more allies with you as you go thru this coming out. Who knows if you'll be able to handle it. You never know how strong you are till put to the test. You may surprise yourself sister. :) You've been thru so much already, I think you'll do just fine. Godspeed to ya sista!

Peace, <3 Tina

Tina said...

Oh yeah, one more thing. Something I learned the hard way.
"Never, ever for any reason, WRITE anything down, that you wouldn't mind the whole world reading. Because they may indeed"


Leslie Ann said...

Wow, Shannon! Like Tina, I hadn't a clue about what was going on. Sylvia told me that full time was imminent, but there's a lot more to the story! We really must talk more...

It sounds like there are a lot of good people working with you in the school. Your boss having a wife with trans experience is a big bonus.

Here's the thing about small towns where everyone knows one other. They tend to protect their own, like an extended family. What you have perceived as a liability may actually be a saving grace. These folks have known you and your family for many years, and regard you highly. They just might accept a new you.

Good luck with that spine thing. If you figure it out, please share the secret with me.

Love ya, babe!

Amy K. said...

Jeez. Who knows what those kids are up to, but who cares? You seem to have very understanding coworkers. Kids can be tricky. Maybe that kid is up to something. Maybe she identifies with you in some way, or knows someone who is trans. Either way, just keep your wits about you and you should be fine. :)

Sophie Jean said...

A funny thing about the spine...when you realize that you are not ashamed of who you are, when you know you are doing the right thing and being the best person you can be, then people will look up to you for being courageous, whether you feel it or night.

Doing what you have been doing is extremely courageous, even though you felt you had no choice.

When I went full time, a curious thing happened. I have a little bit of logical assertiveness that I associated with my male side, that suddenly had no outlet. My dominant female aspects had relegated it to my work environment where it was useful when I was full-time outside of work. Within a couple of weeks, I wound up fusing those qualities back in, and I am assuming that those qualities mixed back in made me more social and productive at the same time, a fact not lost on my recent interview for a new job.

As a matter of fact, I am starting to be given the cold shoulder now, not because I am transgender, but because I am leaving.

I have never seen a supervisor, who was considered "cold-blooded" well up in tears before when I made my announcement to work elsewhere.

You are getting the same reputation. It's a strength and it will do you well as you progress through your transition.

Also, I will miss you. I am heading out of state for a new job and I had hoped to see you at the group meeting on Friday.


Melissa said...

I couldn't put it better than all of the above, especially Tina. What great friends you have! And that boss of yours, sounds like real sweet guy!

Hang in there girl, you are doing great!

Melissa XX

Suzi said...

I have to give Tina kudos too. Your blog blew me away! I barely know what to say except onward and upward girl. I'm really not surprised at your supervisor's reaction and advice. You just had to find out on your own I

I couldn't agree with him more when he questioned your self-esteem. Hopefully this whole event will help you see that you really ARE as important as anyone else. I noticed you used the term "conservative" many times. This is where Tina's great advice will really serve you well. You even hinted at a growing understanding about your own preconceptions.

When you can look at those sneering students/staff and smile at them...sincerely, then you will be on your way to creating a totally new image for them to learn to love. I know you have a sweet smile...I've seen it in pictures. Begin NOW to create the woman you seek to become...a confident, happy person. The only way you can change the way other people treat you, is to be yourself. I feel very confident that in time life will begin to reach a much more even keel. Students will graduate, staff will move on, the newness of working with a TS will wear off, etc. Keep your heart strong...join the human race as Shandy. The world needs you. :)Suzi

Jerica Truax said...

Well girl I'm so glad your boss seems amenable. That is great news!

At the same time, you do need to be able to stand up for yourself when you come out, usually.

I was a total pushover, esp to those I loved, like my ex-wife. Before I could even be allowed to transition, I had to push past that...even just to see a gender therapist. It was hard but it was just the beginning of standing up for myself.

Robin said...

*pinches nose and says in nasally tone*

"May I have your attention please, may I have your attention? Will Ms. Shannon Garrison please come to the high school office?" (Repeat ad nauseum)

It's only a matter of time. And you TOTALLY know you can hear them saying that right now.

Oh, and this is me reminding you to upload some of those pictures from this weekend! Especially the ones of us and the mummified hot dog. :D

Stace said...

What the others said :)


ms.shandy said...

@Tina That is exactly what I have been thinking about the stereotyping. It has occurred to me before now, but in the area of assuming people will have a prejudice against me, I guess I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder still.

@Leslie You are so right about the positive aspects of a small community. I've had such a great week with my new perspective. :)

@Amy I don't think she was trying to do anything malicious. Whatever her motivation, it was a pretty scary situation.

@Sophie I'm so glad you found your new position. Sounds like quite an adventure! Thanks for the comment, and I'm so glad we got to meet before your move.

@Melissa Thanks!

@Suzi You are right about smiling. Actually, I always have done exactly that and people probably don't realize how much of the time I'm terrified and over-analyzng everything going on around me. :P

@Jerica When it comes to transition specifically, I'm very willing to stand up for myself. But in other areas I'm kind of passive. I really think its mostly due to a lack of confidence.

@Robin I got such a smile out of that. I can hardly wait! I'll get those photos up! :)

@Stace Thanks!

Mandy said...

*Pops in to leave quick comment to tell you that I'm proud of you....runs off to finish boring assignment*

ms.shandy said...

Thanks! Good luck with Russian history! =)