What It's Really Like to Get Dressed for Work When You're Gender Nonconforming

ByChristopher Soto

New York City is a very expensive city, to say the least. Being unemployed certainly doesn't help. As my savings account continued to dwindle week by week, I started to ask myself questions such as "Is my gender part of the reason why I'm unemployed?" For many gender nonconforming individuals like myself, presenting our authentic selves in the workplace can come at a cost.

Read more: Zara Is Obliterating Gender Norms With This New Collection

I have never interviewed for a job with someone who looks like me. My gender presentation fluctuates depending on the day and my feelings of safety. Often, I present masculine at interviews and work meetings, wearing button-up shirts and slacks, so that I can be taken seriously, so the focus is on my ideas and not my gender. I have done the same thing walking down streets, although in those instances it is to minimize street harassment.

I'm hardly the only one.

Courtesy of Christopher Soto

At their job at Sephora, Wo Chan, who uses they/them pronouns or no pronouns, was celebrated for presenting more femme. "It was almost expected of me," Chan told Mic. "It gave me more confidence to think about my gender more broadly, as opposed to what I inherited as a certain idea of masculinity. Whereas at the literary office [where I work now], I don't want to stick out as unprofessional so the most I do is paint my nails, though I would like to present femme more often."

Being affirmed by the workplace is not always the case for many gender nonconforming people. Professionalism is often defined by cis standards of acceptability and gender nonconforming people are often, inherently, failures to those standards due to their otherness. Many times trans and gender nonconforming people do not have the privilege of wearing whatever outfits we would like to wear to work. 

"There's been times when I walk in with my resume and the people look at me and immediately stop considering me for employment," Jos Charles, who uses they/them pronouns or she/her, told Mic. "They don't even give me interview questions. It's really shitty."

Courtesy of Christopher Soto

"The main thing I have to navigate now is people asking questions they probably shouldn't ask while working. Or people hyper-feminizing things that they shouldn't," Charles said. "At work, I've had people saying, 'OMG I love your dress' when I'm wearing a shirt. Or people will say, 'OMG, I love your nails you do them so well! We should a nail party!' And I'm like, 'What the fuck is a nail party?' I'm just wearing black nail polish."

Other similar frustrations have been echoed throughout our community, with many of us being misgendered at work, asked to change our clothes, told to wipe the nail polish from our fingertips or the makeup from our faces. In some instances, gender nonconforming individuals are forced to present as a different gender just to be considered for a job. 

"When I was undocumented I couldn't get any jobs," Alan Pelaez-Lopez, who uses they/them pronouns, told Mic. "A lot of the time I wear colorful clothing that could be considered feminine, but being undocumented made me present as a put-together masculine person so I could be taken seriously. Also, as immigrants, if we wear a traditional shirt people will think it's a costume instead of a way of life. These outfits are what I wear in my community and with my family."

Courtesy of Christopher Soto

Company dress codes don't offer much help, often reinforcing the gender binary and reproducing transphobia. In some instances, gender nonconforming employees who do not meet the company's dress codes can be fired or face harassment for their relationship to gender. In April 2015, a transgender man was fired for refusing to wear a dress.

"There is always that fear that one's gender will prevent one's self from obtaining or holding a job," Marc Jeremy, who uses they/them pronouns, told Mic. "It means having to wear pants as opposed to a skirt, a bulky sweater as opposed to something more form fitting; anything to detract attention from my body and how it (does or doesn't) affect people's perception of my gender. No one should have to make so many calculations to how one dresses in order to feel safe, respected or able to provide for one's self."

So what needs to change? "We need to be hired for managerial and leadership positions too, not just entry-level positions. Whether entry level or higher-up positions, providing sufficient pay benefits and opportunities for advancement are important for gender nonconforming employees," Paul Tran, who uses they/them pronouns, told Mic. "You have to first invite us to the table."

For us, it's not about wanting to be different, it's about wanting to be ourselves.