Let's Talk About Sex

The tricky process of changing genders at work

Dear Social Grace,

I have always been very leery of making a big "coming out" speech, preferring to let the subject come up naturally in conversation. However, I've just started taking testosterone, which will soon become apparent to my co-workers. I live in a fairly liberal area so I am hoping to keep my job, but I understand that most people are made very uncomfortable by transgendered stuff and I'm wondering about the best way to keep things smooth at work. Other transgendered folks I've talked to have suggested sitting down with individual people and explaining [my] situation, but this strikes me as a little awkward.

Would it be possible to bring this subject up in casual conversation? Should I send an e-mail to people?

Also, I've found that people will ask me questions about my anatomy that are wildly inappropriate when they learn that I'm a tranny. How do you respond when someone is behaving extremely rudely and doesn't seem to realize it?

Young and Confused

Dear Confused Madam or Sir,

If you don't want to discuss your medical treatments with your co-workers, you don't have to. Unless the treatments interfere with your ability to do your job (in which case you'd discuss those effects with your supervisor or someone in your personnel department), they're your own private beeswax. Many people relay information about their health only to loved ones, and rightly so -- not everyone is interested in hearing about (for example) root canals, toenail fungus, or allergies. Graphic details, especially, are not for general discussion.

But if you want to let people know what's going on, I would suggest not e-mails but brief one-on-one explanations -- that you are undergoing medical treatment but are in good health, and so on. This would be a thoughtful thing to do if you think your colleagues may worry about you when they notice changes in your appearance. You might also make a brief announcement at a staff meeting, if that sort of thing happens where you work. If you will be transitioning to a new gender, you'll obviously have to explain at least that aspect of your situation to the people you interact with (just so they can get the pronouns right).

As for wildly inappropriate questions, deal with them like this: Pause for a moment, look the questioner straight in the eye with a solemn expression, and say something along the lines of, "I'm sorry, but that's just my own personal information, and I'm certain it wouldn't interest you at all." Then smile and change the topic.

You could also try to save people from themselves. When the subject comes up, say, "And you just wouldn't believe the horribly inappropriate questions some nosy people have been asking me." Such methods can prevent improper queries -- and they have the added benefit of complimenting the person you're speaking to.

Dear Social Grace,

On an episode ofSex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw went to a party where the host insisted everyone remove their shoes. At the end of the party, someone had stolen Carrie's shoes. After an awkward conversation, the host reluctantly wrote a check for half the cost of the shoes. Does this seem fair? And what is the proper etiquette if you throw a party and someone steals your guest's shoes? Is the host responsible?

Thanks,
No Shoes, No Service

Dear Shoeless Madam or Sir,

We shouldn't count on situation comedies to provide us with etiquette instruction. I'm glad you came to me. What follows is a similar scene from my in-development TV show, Etiquette and the City:

Host (visibly aghast): "I'm so terribly sorry. This is awful. Of course you'll let me replace your shoes."

Social Grace (forgivingly): "That's a very generous, but entirely unnecessary, offer. I'm sure it was a misunderstanding of some sort. Perhaps, though, you could loan me something to get home in?"

Host: "And I'll get you a taxi, of course."

Social: "That's very kind of you. Thank you."

Cut to the next day. Social, busily polishing silver in an immaculate, spacious kitchen, is interrupted by a knock on the door. A messenger has arrived with an envelope containing a gift certificate from a popular shoe store. Smiling, Social thanks the messenger, closes the door, and sits down to compose a brief thank-you note.

There. I'll just sit back and wait for HBO to telephone.

This made-for-TV fantasy will strike many readers as unrealistic (and people who know me will recognize the "immaculate, spacious kitchen" as a popular fantasy of mine). But the scene is, I hope, instructional. From an etiquette point of view, hosts and guests are responsible for one another's comfort -- and their belongings. Each should remember that a person (even someone she doesn't know or like all that much) is more important than any material thing, no matter how precious (even as he fights back tears when a friend of a friend spills red wine on Grandmother's antique lace tablecloth).

If a guest in your home lost her shoes, you'd be responsible, from an etiquette point of view, at least for an apology. If attempts to locate the shoes (by phoning the other party guests, for example) proved fruitless, you'd also try to make amends, if only in a symbolic way -- if you suspect that one guest is stealing from another, you should at least offer to get the police involved. As a guest who's lost her shoes, you would try to be gracious and forgiving, accepting the offered reparations if they seem appropriate and fair, without making demands or accusations. The technique is commonly called "putting yourself in the other person's shoes," and even when it's a figurative rather than a literal expression, it's a fundamental means of getting along with other people.

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