On the last weekend in July I successfully asserted my newfound sense of manhood by engaging in one of the most manly activities known to humankind: starting a charcoal grill and cooking hamburgers. It felt as though a lot of things were converging on my ability to properly feed 8+ people off of a crappy park grill on that windy day. For starters, I was there with six of my clients from work, all of whom are girls in their mid-teens. Secondly, I was also there with two coworkers, both of whom are female. As the sole representative from “the other half”, I was given the enjoyable task of preparing and cooking our entire picnic, helped by two of the clients who would stand behind me and scold me on using too much lighter fluid and matches. (As I tried to explain to them, there is no such thing as “too much lighter fluid,” and the matches probably hadn’t been used since the Dark Ages.)
But more importantly it seemed like a test, one that if failed would cause my carefully crafted facade of “man” to come crashing down around me. This is the identity I only bring with me to work, but it’s an important one; a residential treatment facility is no place to go prancing about proclaiming my trans status. After at least a half-hour of limited success, the grill sputtered to life and all nine of us were served. I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that the girls (nor my coworkers, for that matter) weren’t questioning my manliness that particular day.
I thought about it a lot after that weekend, wondering why it was so important to me. I mean, I still try and be as gender-indifferent at work as possible. I threaten to paint my nails with them in the evenings. I joke around with them on the subject of hair and makeup. And when any of the clients start bashing men or say “You’re being a total girl” about anything, I get on my soapbox and debate gender norms with them. I’ve even come out to some of my more accepting coworkers since working full-time on my current unit. So why do I care so much about being seen as a man?
I think part of it is the original agreement I made with HR just after I started working there. Paradoxically enough I’ve had many a discussion with my very accepting supervisor about my trans status and the pros and cons of being part of The Community, while confirming my belief (or is it the agency’s?) that the workplace is absolutely not the place to be out as transgender. And then I hear tell from my clients that a staff I don’t even know is telling one of them that I “must have had a sex change, because there’s no way that’s a man.” Or one client insists that another client told her that I “used to be a girl”, who then turns around behind my back and tells another client the same thing before she’s discharged. I hear whispers and rumors, and have to tell half-truths to cover up my past, all for the sake of being A Man At Work.
I’m fairly sure the rest of it is just societal pressure. I’ve gone over to The Dark Side, so I need to use my Jedi powers accordingly. Which, in the summer in Central Illinois, clearly means I must wear shorts and baseball caps season-round while grilling out at a local park for my clients. And congratulations to me, I passed the test. I’m still the same person as I was before the burgers started grilling, at least in my eyes. I can only wonder if society thinks the same thing — and I’m betting it’s not.