ISAIAH: What does it mean to look professional? Act professional?
Where do these standards come from, and how do they guide our behavior and affect how we move through the world?
I’m your host, Isaiah Levinson, and together with Catherine Coats and Liza Wilson, and our faculty mentor Dr. Christina Bush, we created a project pursuing answers to these questions.
Our project, part of the Honors program at American University, involved background research, an online survey, and 5 video interviews, through which we’ve attempted to better understand the experiences of queer workers in Washington, D.C. This is Queering Professionalism.
Over the course of this podcast, you’ll hear five queer professionals’ thoughts on navigating the workplace. All of them are between the ages of 18-30 and work in different fields in the Washington, DC metro area.
PATRICK: My name is Patrick [Brennan]. I usually go by Pat, but either is fine.
BECK: My name is Beck, my pronouns are they/them/theirs
LEE: My name is Lee, my pronouns are they or he
DIANA: So, my name's Diana
NOVA: My name is Nova
ISAIAH: The word “queer” has a complex history, and people today use it in a few related ways, so it’s important to clarify what we mean when we use it.
The word “queer” arose in the Middle Ages to describe something strange, peculiar or eccentric. Originally, the word didn’t carry any connotation to sexual orientation or gender identity. The word was first used to refer to homosexuality in the 1890s, and brought with it the quality of something abnormal, even deviant. Over the 20th and 21st centuries, the word was adopted by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities and is now frequently used as an umbrella term, although there’s a fair bit of intracommunity debate about the term’s usage.
In addition to being a word many people use as an identity, the word “queer” can also be used as an operative. Queer theory, a form of critical theory that developed in the early 1990s, emphasized breaking down and examining how we construct our centers and margins. Queer theory acts as a challenge to essentialism, or the belief that gender is an intrinsic part of ourselves. Instead, queer theorists resist the idea that identity is innate at all, suggesting instead that identity categories are constructed through repeated performative action.
In her book Gender Trouble, queer theorist and scholar Judith Butler says the following:
CATHERINE: “The effect of gender is produced through the stylization of the body and,
hence, must be understood as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements, and styles of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self. This formulation moves the conception of gender off the ground of a substantial model of identity to one that requires a conception of gender as a constituted social temporality.”
ISAIAH: So, in a somewhat contradictory sense, the word “queer” can represent both an identity and a critique of identity, or at least a critique of the idea that identities are intrinsic or stable. Basically, to “queer” something is to reveal how it is a constructed function of society, to figure out why we normalize some ways of being and marginalize others, and to understand how people make choices to move through our social world.
BECK: The available categories for professionalism are not categories that are easy for
me to fit into or to find anything for myself in.
ISAIAH: So we thought, okay, we’re all college students about to graduate and hopefully find
jobs. We’ve all had interviews where we’v e had to decide what to wear, how to style our hair, how much makeup to wear -- we know that how other people perceive us does matter and can impact how we’re treated. And we’d all felt that tension to a higher degree in workplace settings, where people are frequently told, directly or through observation, that they should be wearing a specific type of dress that is workplace appropriate, whatever that means. So we decided to use queer theory framework to think about workplace dress and norms.
ISAIAH: Interestingly enough, people haven’t always relied on appearance as much as they do now to make assumptions about each other. In her book The Fashioned Body, Joanne Entwistle demonstrates that how we perceive each other is a product of many concurrent forces.
Before the Industrial Revolution, it wasn’t as common for people to have many fleeting encounters every day, and those that they did have were generally informed by background knowledge of the person’s family. When people started moving to cities en masse, they started to see many more people they didn’t know every day, and they weren’t able to base their impressions of these people on what they knew about the person’s family, or occupation, or religion, which people generally knew about each other in smaller communities. The growth in cities happened around the same time as the advent of Romantic thought, which emphasized the desire to find, and reveal, one’s inner truth. These two forces worked together and kind of created the assumption that the body is an extension of one’s identity, and that it’s possible to make accurate assumptions about someone else based on the way their body looks or is adorned.
This “reading” of other people based on a single glance has led people to adopt something called “impression management,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds: regulating your appearance based on the knowledge that others will make conclusions about you based on it. Impression management is kind of a negotiation between three things -- we’re trying to balance “this is me, this is who I am,” with “these are the groups and affiliations to which i belong” with “these are the norms society expects me to uphold.”
For practical purposes, queer fashion can be thought of as a kind of subculture. Generally, subcultures attempt to distinguish themselves from mainstream culture by wearing clothes that assert a type of opposition to the dominant values of society. In the workplace, this decision becomes even more charged because, as an employee, you’re part of another group and you’re expected to embody the culture of the company, or at least not directly contradict it.
We asked our respondents if they feel as though they express their queer identities at the workplace, and what they think about others at the workplace reading them as queer.
PATRICK: I just have a subtle wrist watch that I always wore that had a rainbow band on it. It was just -- I'd been wearing it for probably two, three years at that point. I just liked it. I thought it was cute. But I also kind of liked the idea of having something that outwardly marked me. Some people have different opinions about that, like whether you want to show your sexuality on your sleeve, but for me, it was like, “Look!” I wanted to signal to boys, “Hey, come talk to me!” Just something subtle.
ISAIAH: One thing that’s very common in the queer community is “signaling,” which is where queer people project a style or mannerism that’s intended to be noticed by other queer people, but not necessarily by people not part of the community. A few of our respondents talked about how they do this in the workplace to try to connect with other queer people.
DIANA: At the beginning, I remember being like, “I need something to code me as queer, ‘cause I want to find the other queer people where they at.” Sometimes it's hard to find queer people where I work.
LEE: I definitely make an effort to try to exude queer vibes. There's no one way to look queer or trans, but I love community solidarity feels, so I definitely try to look identifiable to other queers if possible, or try to make connections with other people.
ISAIAH: Aspects of appearance that can get someone “clocked” as queer are culturally relative and always changing. Queer people actually have to reach a certain level of visibility in broader society before many of these indicators start being read as such by people outside of the community. Entwistle says that subcultures “depend upon particular forms of knowledge and behavior and require particular ways of being.” It makes sense, then, that many cultural indicators of queerness are related to gender nonconformity. For example, someone who’s seen as a woman getting a short haircut, or wearing clothes that don’t follow traditionally feminine cuts or styles.
DIANA: So, I remember just being like, “Okay. I got the side shave going for me,” I had -- This isn't necessarily something I wear, but in the background I had a place to put my pencils and my pens and stuff, and I also stuck my little flag there. I'm like, “Here's the flag, just in case! Someone holler at me, let's do queer things.”
LEE: Visually, through gender expression means, I think definitely hairstyles, having colored hair, wearing buttons on my work lanyard -- I have pronoun buttons, I have proud Latinx buttons, I have just all sorts of different aspects of my identity that I'm displaying, which is great, ‘cause sometimes I have patients who come in who share similar identities, and we can sort of bond about that.
ISAIAH: There’s a certain sense of solidarity involved in signaling.
DIANA: I also recognize that sometimes, being queer-coded -- Someone who's not fully
comfortable with themselves would see me be like, “Oh, okay, I think she's queer and she's out here and proud of it,” and that'll help make them feel better. They may never talk to me about it, but that is something that goes through my mind.
ISAIAH: This idea that Diana brings up -- that queer people depend on others visually
presenting as queer to feel comfortable in the workplace -- suggests that for people who are part of marginalized communities, impression management can be a survival skill.
DIANA: For me, it was very dependent on the views of the company, the supervisor. I think it was always a question of, does it feel safe? Does it feel safe to do something that might mark me as queer?
ISAIAH: One of our interviewees, Nova, brought up the gender-based tension between
expressing themselves and being taken seriously by people in their industry.
NOVA: There are days where I think I over-masculinized myself and try to make myself look more like a guy than I need to, just because people tend to perceive me better that way and treat me better that way.
ISAIAH: A few of our respondents emphasized a similar idea -- an attempt to gain control over how people perceive them, and treat them, by shifting how they dress and otherwise present themselves.
BECK: But in some of these places, we’re still at the level where women feel uncomfortable wearing a skirt to work because they have been told for a very long time that the only way to get taken seriously is to get as close as possible to doing the thing that the men are doing.
ISAIAH: What Beck said reminded me of something called “power dressing,” which is a
phenomenon that emerged in the late 70s as a way for women to “manage” the way their bodies are automatically considered sexual to be taken more seriously -- dress styles like the pantsuit were the result of this.
NOVA: Sometimes I do definitely water down what I want to wear depending on who I'm with. In the film industry, it is very cishet white men -- That's 59% of who works in film, especially in production and the editing side of things and the filming side of things. So I often do feel the need to dress to kind of “blend in” so that people take me seriously.
I had a phase where I did wear a bit -- I guess, more flashy button-ups, like a bright red button up with cockatiels on it, or just these fun shirts, and the people who knew me well at my office would treat me the same, but new people that I met, especially white men, would kind of treat me like a child a little bit. So there's this interesting dynamic of wanting to be taken seriously. it's a combination of what makes me feel good within the range of what people take me seriously in.
BECK: I work in science research field and I work with a lot of scientists and engineers, most of whom are straight white men, most of whom are a bit older, and many of whom still have some pretty regressive ideas about what counts as “professional” in a work environment, regardless of lab safety concerns. I put a fair amount of thought into the clothing that I was choosing to go to work when I was physically going in because I would have to think about, “Am I going to get taken more seriously in this meeting or presentation if I dress differently because I know who's going to be in the room?”
NOVA: It definitely still goes back to that wanting to be taken seriously and wanting to be seen as an equal player, an equal voice in the conversations I’m trying to have with people.
ISAIAH: This dynamic was common across the board in our data -- we found that,
unfortunately, almost half of our survey respondents found themselves uncomfortable or extremely uncomfortable physically expressing their identities in the workplace; older age cohorts felt this discomfort at even higher levels. Respondents who found their workplaces expected only very casual dress styles felt much more comfortable presenting their identities than did respondents whose workplaces expected or required professional or very professional dress styles.
Different career fields involve different norms and levels of pressure to conform to binary and cisnormative presentations of gender and heteronormative presentations of sexuality.
LEE: It can be really intimidating to me, myself, as a queer person and trans person, to figure out how to present myself when there's a formal dress code.
It can often be very binary, the formal dress expectations. I worked for two summers with the same congressional office. So the first summer was before I came out and I was presenting more femininely; I had really long hair. And then the next summer, I made -- With some intentionality, I was dressing more masculinely and had cut my hair, and there were definitely a lot of comments about it. I was very anxious about it, in particular because this was a summer when we were getting a lot of calls about trans people being banned from the military, and as somebody working in a congressional office, you have to take every call from constituents. You have to be polite to every constituent, even when they are dehumanizing you, when they're taking the time to express angrily how upset they are that trans people were allowed in the military in the first place, or just letting out their feelings about trans people as they had come into the eye of a lot of media, come to a lot more people's attention when Trump was elected. Yeah, so, it's definitely something that I was more conscious of, being visible as a trans person by presenting in a more masculine way to an office lot of people who had seen me presenting in a more feminine way before, but something I was very conscious about.
ISAIAH: Our statistical analysis of our survey data supported Lee’s point as well -- we found that people who worked in industries that required more formal levels of dress also expressed more difficulty figuring out how to express themselves in those contexts. We were curious about why an increase in formality correlates with an increase in pressure to adhere to traditional gender norms. Entwistle suggests that this may be related to the development of the “suit” as the primary form of men’s professional attire. The suit renders the bodies of people perceived as men invisible, or at the very least somewhat desexualized. In this way, the suit has positioned men as the default or neutral actors in the professional world.
The idea of “professional” women’s dress styles actually developed a lot more recently, and women have always had to contend with this patriarchy-steeped idea that the “female” body is considered innately sexual. Formal workplace styles associated with women have transformed some of the symbols of masculine professionalism -- ties and suits, for example -- into more “feminine” versions. However, the “suit” in its neutrality has largely been reserved for men, which can make formal dressing especially tough for people who don’t want to dress within the binary.
BECK: For the most part I am attempting to inhabit a space where the shape of the garments that I'm wearing and the source of those garments primarily serves to obfuscate any kind of sorting system that could otherwise be applied to presentation.
ISAIAH: In our discussion of the definitions of queerness earlier, we learned that queer people have been thought of as sexually deviant because of their refusal to perform their gender within society’s margins of “normal.” Queerness is, in essence, a challenge to this kind of categorization, an invitation to consider the idea that the way we organize ourselves today is not the only possibility.
How we define our centers and margins is always changing. We look to the future with hope - and our data supports that hope. Younger members of the queer community felt, on average, much more comfortable physically expressing their identities in their workplaces than did the older respondents of the community. We think that this changing relationship by age group could speak to these changing centers and margins, signaling the possible increase in space held for identity expression. Many of our respondents had ideas about how to create an environment like that, in which queer people can feel like they are accepted as part of the workplace culture.
LEE: I think there's just more awareness and more dialogue about what legal protection should be in place for people's expression, whether that be natural hair or whether that be queer hair. We need to redefine what professionality looks like. We need to redefine what it means to be a professional, because it may be that someone is even better at their job working with at-risk unhoused trans youth in San Francisco when they look more approachable and they look like a part of that community. A lot of times people who are part of that community are best able to serve that community, and embodying your identities through appearance and expression is a way to signal membership in a community, and that can even be a way to build rapport with patients or clients or the people that you want to help.
ISAIAH: Lee provides a great example for why it’s so important to be able to signal group identity through appearance and dress. Dress codes and norms could actually be counterproductive when they’re inhibiting interactions between people.
LEE: I want there to be more LGBTQ people in places of power within all organizations to have eyes on things and be able to make suggestions and be the ones leading trainings about cultural competency in workplaces.
NOVA: I'm in a very big yet small world of film, where everyone's kind of weird and everyone kind of does their own thing and people can be expressive. working for like a big brand, big name company like that, I thought I'd be more corporate, like, “Okay, you gotta dress this way and do these certain things in order to get to where you want to be.” But people generally seem to kind of just take you where you're at and try to get you to where you want to be, regardless of your presentation
ISAIAH: Some of our respondents indicated that the freedom to express oneself increased as they advanced in the field, while for others, self expression becomes more restricted with career advancement.
NOVA: The more well-known I got in the company, the higher-ranked I got -- I kept the same job, but socially, I think the higher rank or the more people I knew that were CEOs and things like that, the more I was actually able to express myself, which is kind of an interesting trend of watering myself down until people got to know me, and then actually expressing myself, if that makes sense.
ISAIAH: Most of the interviewees found that acceptance and welcoming from their coworkers and superiors was the main contributor to comfort expressing their queer identity in the workplace, and as noted before, that reality is becoming more and more prevalent.
DIANA: You can feel the difference of an environment that truly accepts you.
BECK: I do think that the concept of “professionalism” is starting to change, because people are starting to understand that the way that we've defined “professionalism” in those contexts in the first place is coming from an incredibly narrow definition that's built on a lot of bigoted stuff. I think I think the change is just starting. We're still at the beginning of it. We're still in the zone where the people in power are resistant to anyone who looks different from them in any way getting any kind of power, but it's beginning to tip.
ISAIAH: And we can’t wait to see where that tipping point brings us.
ISAIAH: Thank you so much for tuning in to learn a bit about the past, present, and potential futures of where queer identities fit into the complex of “professional” appearances. We also want to extend a special thank you to the interviewees for their time and thoughtfulness in helping us consider these questions. They’ve helped us understand the connections between queer identity and struggles to navigate hegemonic standards of professionalism.
We hope that in the future there will be more freedom within professional spaces for people to dress and present themselves in the ways that are true to themselves.