Demystifying Gender Expression

For 22 years living as a straight, cis-gendered, white woman in Wisconsin, I experienced varying degrees of pressure to adhere to the dress-code of my employer. At age 16, my first job was as a waitress at a drive-up burger joint. Employees had the choice between a T-shirt or a tank top with the restaurant’s logo. I was encouraged to opt for the tank top because I would “get better tips.”

When dressing for professional interviews as a young adult, I was instructed to cover my shoulders, wear skirts and dresses that went to my knees, and make sure that I wasn’t showing any cleavage. I was expected to be feminine without being “too sexual.”

Shortly after graduating from college, I moved to New York. The city provided me with the distance and anonymity to come out as a lesbian. After this realization, I started to make some changes, particularly to my wardrobe and appearance. I did not always want to present as femme. I wanted to look dapper. I wanted to wear bow ties, vests, and jackets with elbow pads. I had always been jealous of the clothing in men’s fashion, and I was finally at a point in my life where I was like, “why can’t I wear what I want to wear?”  

My girlfriend gave me a brand new bowtie (featured in this photo)  this year for my birthday. I wore it out and I was feelin-my-self. The following week, I had an interview on the same day that I was tabling for my graduate school’s Gender and Sexuality Coalition. I wanted to debut my new bowtie for school, and I figured it would be fun for tabling, while still being professional for the interview.

When I expressed my excitement to my girlfriend, however, she cautioned me against wearing the bowtie to my first interview. She explained that even if people are not outwardly homophobic, sometimes their unconscious beliefs or values can influence their decision. I had never thought about that before. I had never had to think about that before. It opened up a brand new set of concerns. Regardless of whether I openly told the interviewer that I identified as a lesbian, if I wore a bowtie and looked dapper as a woman, I could likely be perceived as such. Ultimately, I decided to wear a purple blouse, black dress pants, and heeled booties to the interview.

Weeks after the interview, I found myself still thinking about my decision to present as femme. I felt frustrated that I had been faced with choosing between feeling comfortable in my gender expression and job accessibility. Part of me wished I had said Fuck it, I have waited this long to feel comfortable; if they do not want me because I’m gay, then I don’t want them either. Besides, if a workplace was going to reject me because I am gay, did I really want to work there anyway?

The other part of me wondered if I should push back, enter into a homophobic space, and show them firsthand that LGBTQ folks aren’t bad people. The more I thought about it, the more confused I felt about how I should present for interviews in the future.

I wanted someone to give me the answer. I wanted there to be a secret book of knowledge about how to be gay in the workplace. After having the privilege of speaking with some professionals who are out in the workplace, I gained some helpful insight and learned the answer to my question: that there is no easy answer, and that it all depends.

Some things I did learn: It depends on my comfort level in my work environment. If possible, it is helpful to have strong support systems both within and outside of the workplace. And finally, it’s better to dip your toes in the pond before diving in head-first. I decided that the last bit of advice would be my own personal strategy moving forward. I will test the waters, and if the environment is supportive, then I’ll let my gay flag fly. If it is hostile or homophobic, and the job is one that I need or want to further my career, then the bowties may be better saved for the weekend.   

My approach may change as I get older, but for right now I understand that the professional world does not cater to me. It does not cater to me as a woman, and it does not cater to me as a member of the LGBTQ community. Unfortunately, navigating the systems of oppression requires sacrifices to get ahead. These sacrifices may include sacrificing one’s dignity by wearing a tank top to get better tips (again, me at sixteen), or sacrificing one’s preferred gender expression to get a job. It’s a decision with multiple factors, but it all comes down to doing what’s best for oneself at the given time.