This piece was inspired by Suited, the HBO documentary produced by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, premiering Monday, June 20. The film follows a range of clients of the custom suit shop Bindle & Keep, which looks beyond the gender binary.
Names and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.
"The apparel oft proclaims the man," advised Shakespeare's Polonius in Hamlet , and as a lawyer for transgender employees experiencing job discrimination, I have found that sometimes employers need a bit of advice as to both Shakespeare and the law. Polonius concluded with Shakespeare's most celebrated wisdom: "This above all: to thine own self be true." A trans person's clothing isn't just what they use to cover their body. It is a proclamation of who they most essentially are at the permanent core of their being. It is their truth. Employers, listen to Shakespeare; free your trans employees to be themselves.
I've handled over 30 cases of trans discrimination in the last few years, and it usually seems that initial enthusiastic support from employers turns to hostility once trans or gender non-conforming employees begin presenting in clothing of a different gender. When biased employers discriminate against trans employees when they wear their new clothing, they are denying them that law of self-truth. They are also violating the law of the land, the Federal Civil Rights Act. It is discrimination based on a stereotype of who is entitled to wear gendered clothing. That is discrimination based on sex. It is my job to use that law to ensure that trans and gender non-conforming employees may enjoy both their apparel and their true selves at work.
I feel great kinship with my clients. Their journey was my journey. When I transitioned 18 years ago, I didn't see a woman living her truth whenever I looked in the mirror. I saw how awkwardly my new clothing hung on my frame. I saw my wrongly shaped body. I saw hair in the wrong places. Looking at myself in the mirror, I knew my transition to living as female would never work, and this choked me with sadness. But I also knew I had to; there was no other choice, because no imaginable future was worth living otherwise.
I soon lost my family, my home and my career. But I was ecstatic with the freedom to be me. Every step was like a person newly freed from a life sentence in jail. But it was hard . That awkward, ugly duckling stage was extraordinarily hard. Like when my old boss called me "it" when asked for a recommendation. Like when the tall, rangy man with the weather-beaten face approached me on a Manhattan street and pointed and laughed and wanted to fight, and people turned their faces away. Like when I noticed my new, slightly sketchy boyfriend (but who else would love me?) had a rifle leaning against the wall, and his roommates suddenly seemed very threatening, and I was already a little too stoned to make it home.
That was a long time ago. In fact, life is awesome now, though of course it has its ups and downs. Now I'm a college professor and a lawyer representing trans people in courts around the country in job discrimination lawsuits. I've co-litigated cases with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. I sat, until recently, on the board of directors of Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest national legal organization whose mission is to safeguard and advance the civil rights of LGBT people and those with HIV. I am chair of the annual Transgender Law Symposium and executive director of the National Transgender Bar Association. So when I see trans people and gender non-conforming people – at that newly-transitioned stage or wearing the gendered clothing that makes them feel right with their world at this most incredibly fragile and brave time – being treated so poorly on the job, my heart goes out to them and the civil rights lawyer emerges.