“What are your pronouns?” The question was simple enough but the feelings it evoked in me were complicated.
In 2017, I moved from Connecticut to Oregon, taking a job at an organization I volunteered with previously. The question about pronouns appeared on the onboarding paperwork I was to submit before starting work. I was nervous and excited to start my “adult life” on a coast that felt like culturally a better fit for me and with an organization I very much believed in. But it also offered me the opportunity to explore the possibility that I wasn’t a cisgender woman after 25 years of people telling me I was. I wrote down they/them/theirs as my pronouns for the first time. It was experimental to me. Something I wasn’t sure of but wanted to try. What did it mean to be they? Was this a stepping stone to he? Or a boundary line to herd me back into her? Whatever I learned from changing my pronouns, I hoped it would make me feel more like the person I was when I was alone, Taylor.
Because the organization had made space for this option, these pronouns, this type of person, I thought the path forward would be relatively easy. In some ways it was and in other ways, it wasn’t. My co-workers regularly misgendered me and I struggled with how accountable I should hold them for making that mistake and how to correct them. Growing up as a shy white girl, I wasn’t used to making other people uncomfortable and I wasn’t used to confrontation. I started to feel like a problem, a confusion, a burden. Turning inward, I accused myself of being fake. Of being indecisive. Of being in denial of something. Of hating women. Of hating myself. But with the co-workers who got my pronouns correct, I began to feel how right they was and still is for me. I could accept that they is me. Not a trans man, not a cis woman, but a happy nonbinary person, Taylor.
“I can’t continue to work here.”
I told my manager six months after starting the job. I was planning the organization’s largest annual fundraiser and wanted to include a line for people to write their pronouns in on their nametags. My manager said no. Her reasons primarily revolved around money. She didn’t want to alienate older donors who she assumed would be transphobic. “There’s one way we act in the office and one way we act in public,” she said to me, before asking, “Is this really that important to you?” I assured her that it was really that important to me and that a blank space was not too much to ask for.
Unwilling to compromise my morals, identity, and dedication to the idea of inclusivity, I wasn’t going to “act one way in public and another in private,” especially not for money. I also wasn’t going to abandon the team who was executing the fundraiser with me. I’d work through the event but two weeks after, I’d be moving on. When my manager said she couldn’t accept my resignation, I gave it to her in writing the next day.
The office was in an uproar. After many meetings, arguments, tears, and cuss words, we got the line on the name tags. It was a moving and challenging time for me. On one hand, I felt the support of many co-workers and on the other, I saw a fight I would have to be a part of for potentially the rest of my life. After I left, I wrote a four-page letter to the board of directors in an attempt to hold my manager and executive director accountable for their actions and to try to ensure some real change would come to the organization after I left it. I got back a feeble two-paragraph response that did not surprise me but disappointed me.
That winter, I found myself sinking into a deep depression. On one of those dark, early mornings before work, I realized that I had memorized the board response to my letter. While I made coffee, toasted a bagel, got dressed, brushed my teeth, started my car, it ran through my mind like a record played backward, warping my sense of self in the quiet moments in my days. I had to put these words away. To recognize how they affected me but also try to stop it.
When Aimee Stephens came out as a transgender woman in 2013 she was fired from her job of fifteen years shortly thereafter.
Last month, she was able to take her case to the Supreme Court where arguments centered on Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the definition of sex discrimination. Hearing her story made me reflect more on my own. It made me taste the same fear, despair, and shock I grappled with during my own experience with being out but not accepted in the workplace.
As Vox’s Katelyn Burns writes: “Whatever the nine cisgender Supreme Court justices decide will have a lasting effect on the lives of every trans person in the US. If Stephens gets a favorable decision from the conservative-leaning court, trans people will have explicit nondiscrimination protections under federal law for the first time in history. A loss would be a dramatic step back in the equal standing of trans people under the law.”
While it’s not clear when exactly, a decision will be made sometime in 2020. While other people try to decide if people like me and Aimee can get jobs we’re qualified for or to keep the jobs we hold, I’m going to be making art about it. Inspired by the conceptual art of Jenny Holzer and specifically her work, Lustmord, I worked with my friend and photographer, Anthony DeLorenzo, to make a series of photos entitled, Acknowledgement. The text is an abbreviated version of what the board of directors wrote to me.
Model: Taylor Leigh Ciambra
Photographer: Anthony DeLorenzo
For more gender-related, word-based work, check out my Instagram.