This isn’t how you are supposed to come out at work. In fact, it’s exactly how they tell you not to do it. I’m just too outraged to play by the rules. They wouldn’t work for me anyway. You’re supposed to let everyone know what’s happening, face to face, but in your male persona. I actually have a canned speech that I’ve been working on ever since I started hormones and started thinking about coming out at work.
“Most people are born with a male or female body and that’s the gender they identify with. But a few of us aren’t so lucky. I was born a boy but in my heart, I’ve always been a girl …”
I rehearsed this in a mirror once, and when I got to that part I could see people reacting as vividly as if it were real. One person gets that ashen green complexion that comes with nausea, another groans and says, “Oh shit!” Several just get sour looks on their faces. One pukes spontaneously.
I’m walking in the salon door wearing white jeans, a white cotton top, and white sandals with a low heel. My hair is brushed back at the temples and full. My dangling white and black earrings match my necklace, a white choker with a black amulet. I’m wearing light makeup in subtle tones, carefully blended so the final effect minimizes my flaws and plays up my strengths and looks completely natural. I drew a lot of looks on the El coming to work, and a few double takes on the street, so I’m not fooling anyone. But I look pretty good. Or at least I thought so when I did my last mirror check before coming to work.
As the door closes behind me, the reality of my situation comes crashing into focus. I am a man dressed as a woman and it’s not Halloween. My boss, Roger, is an okay guy, but he’s all business. I have a good chance of getting fired today. But it’s too late to turn back. And besides, this is who I am.
The clients in the waiting area don’t really notice me. They wouldn’t—none of them are my clients. But as soon as I step into the field of vision of the receptionist, I start drawing stares. She notices right away. She fixates on my sandals and especially on my breasts.
The receptionist’s mouth gapes. She is staring at me in shock.
One by one, other stylists notice me as I set up my station. A couple of them just arch their eyebrows a little and go back to work. You see a little of everything in this business, so having the gay hairdresser show up in girlie mode doesn’t exactly stop the earth from rotating.
On the other hand, some other stylists are more demonstrative. One silently mouths “Oh my God” as she stares at me; another recoils in disgust. Reality slaps me in the face. If this were some hip, youth-oriented salon, the debut of a trans hairdresser might not be such a big deal. But we’re a little older and we cater to a cross section of high-powered business people and young professionals. They don’t come here to see wild hair and piercings, and they have never seen a drag queen or a transwoman in here doing hair.
I feel like an utter freak. Part of me is standing outside myself, looking at me, seeing a man with tits, a twisted, ugly subhuman.
I retreat to the bathroom and check myself in the mirror.
It helps. I may be a bit of an ungainly female, but I’m not so bad. My makeup is perfect. It makes my face more oval, my eyes bluer, and my high cheekbones subtler. My hair is nice. Not ultra-femme, but cute and professional. I like it. My breasts are slightly showy, because my nipples are making a very visible impression in my blouse. I should have worn a sports bra, or at least something with a little padding, but I was so focused on being me, on expressing myself, I wore a sexy lacy thing that would be perfect for a wedding night, but not so great for a first day at work as a girl.
When I go back into the salon, my colleagues who never noticed my breasts before can’t keep from staring at them now. Every time I talk to someone, sooner or later their eyes stray from my face to my chest.
The girl at the station next to mine, a playful, cheerleader type, catches me in the break room. “Are those yours?” she asks, gesturing at my chest. I nod in the affirmative. “What’s going on?” she asks. “Are you, you know…?”
“Yes,” I say, confirming the obvious. “I’m transitioning. I’m a transsexual.”
“Well,” she says. Her voice trails off as she tries to think of something to say. “Well, good luck with that.”
No one else says anything about my appearance, but Roger, the salon owner, has taken several very long looks at me. He is a short, immaculately groomed gay man, always nattily dressed and precise in his movements. I think of him as the master of a just-so ship. He likes order. He likes predictability. I can’t think of any reason he’d like having a transsexual hairdresser on his staff. Just before my first service, Roger calls me into his office. My pulse goes into hyperdrive, my breath gets short. He is going to fire me and I have no idea what I will do next.
“What’s going on here, Bobbi?” His voice has an edge to it. His face is taut. He’s upset.
I look at him questioningly.
“You know what I mean.” I do, but I don’t want to be the one to say it. “What’s with the outfit and the…the…are those real?” He points to my chest.
I shake my head, yes.
Roger is very direct. He’s an okay boss—fair, respectful, honest—but not especially warm. He’s trying not to lose his composure now. He’s trying to understand me. Conflicting thoughts race through my mind: he’s going to fire me; he’s not going to fire me and all I have to do is say yes and the next part of my transition can begin. This is the moment I’ve been dreading but wanting for months. All I have to do is say yes, and I’m Bobbi the girl, all day every day.
Or I say yes and Roger fires me in disgust, and I become an unemployed transwoman with bleak prospects of picking up another job any time soon.
I try to respond to him but I can’t talk. Tears well up in my eyes.
Roger has seen lots of hairdressers cry. We’re a high-strung lot, even the straight ones. But despite all his experience, he’s not sure what to do. He is sitting in stunned silence, watching me, at a loss for words. I can’t say anything either.
He finally breaks the silence. “It’s okay, Bobbi. It’s okay. I just want to know. I would have appreciated a heads up, that’s all. I mean, I knew you were kind of effeminate, but I didn’t know you were transsexual. You could have said something, you know.”
“I’m sorry, Roger.” I say. My voice is high and tinny. I’m still crying, trying not to sob. This is not the Bob Logan I knew for so many years. He was stoic, controlled. He could take abuse from football coaches and murderous hits from violent linebackers without flinching. Without showing his anger, even. Part of me is standing to the side, taking all this in, while the other part is crying and sniffling.
“Yes,” I sob. “I’m trans. I’ve been on hormones for months. I need to start living as a woman full-time.” I cry some more. “I’ll do it gradually. I’ll come in like this for awhile.”
“What do you mean ‘like this’?” Roger asks. His tone is businesslike.
“Slacks and jeans and shirt-type tops. Not too much makeup. Nothing super-girlie…?” I end in a question, wondering what he’ll say.
He looks at me in silence for a beat or two, his eyes wandering down to my chest, then back up to my eyes. I feel like my boobs are the size of watermelons.
“Okay,” he says. “You know more about this than I do. I just don’t want to lose a lot of customers over this. I know you’re going to lose some. A lot. That’s fine, however it works out. But I don’t want the other chairs losing customers, okay?”
“If it gets bad, I may have to let you go.”
I nod again.
“For what it’s worth,” he says, standing up to signal our talk is over, “You look fine. It’s just a shock to the rest of us. Be tasteful, do your job, be friendly to everyone, and this might all work out. Okay?”
“Okay,” I say.
I feel like a teenager whose father has just forgiven her for wrecking the family car.
Renee James is a transgender author who began writing long fiction in 2010 after a long career as a magazine writer and editor. Her first book, Coming Out Can Be Murder, was a murder/suspense story about a Chicago woman’s first year of gender transition. It won book of the year honors from the Chicago Writers Association and a medal from ForeWord Reviews. It was republished as Transition to Murder in 2014 by Riverdale Avenue Books. The sequel, A Kind of Justice, will be released this October by Oceanview Publishing.