Everyone has her place.

That’s true right? It all fits together. The blonde lady who smiles at everybody and tries to save the world, the public sociologists who get all the Facebook likes, the theorists who seem born knowing who invented which term, the demographers with all their fancy models. Everyone fits in perfectly. But none of them is me. Oh, and of course, there are the critical folks. They are the coolest and I so want to be one of them. Sometimes I almost feel as if I am one of them. But then that doesn’t seem quite right. How could my 23-years of brainwashing education make me capable of critical thinking? My country didn’t have an anti-colonialist history (according to everyone from the former colonial powers) and as a matter of fact, it’s becoming a neo-colonial power—there goes my ability to critique global inequality. Plus, I am too good at statistics—everyone knows you cannot be a real critical thinker if you understand numbers. So maybe I could fit in as a statistician (however much I would have hated that label is not important, having a label is)? I am an East Asian and everything. But then I am also a woman and apparently would never be good enough to assist in advanced stats class. So, I am a highly educated soon-to-be-professor who cannot find her place. Is that how you spell irony or hypocrisy?

Bitterness and snarky jokes aside, this does feel strange. I had to stop here last week when I was writing this post as I realized that I am not quite sure whether my confusion comes from my awkward position as an intellectual or my ambiguity about who I am as a person. Maybe it’s about how weirdly those two morph together. As a person, I am probably boringly normal, with my tiny cute smile decorating my feminine Asian face. It throws people off when I walk around with a “BITCH” tank top. My struggle to be taken seriously intellectually seems to be deeply connected to the assumption that I am not supposed to have a bitchy personality. So I suppose my confusion comes from how much who I am dictates what I can/should/do know and think—to me and to others. This is probably not necessarily a negative thing if I truly reject the idea of any knowledge being “objective”. Then why am I also angry and frustrated all the time for not being able to find myself a clear label if all these labels are just made up? Or am I more frustrated with the fact that nobody else seems to be struggling when they should? (Maybe they are just not telling me?) Why can we not just all be weird and without a place?

Then I became confused by all this confusion and ambiguity I have: Without my credentials as a future university professor or the reassurance that my closest friends (who also are very high in social and cultural capital) share at least some of these sentiments, would I still have all this nonsense in my head? Would I feel safe to put it in words? Maybe the space for a non-place and being/becoming what Unamerican calls “someone who is hyper-aware of her own thoughts” is what I should be thankful for and aware of as my privileges? Then who am I to judge who should or should not be comfortable with their labels?

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Normal

I spend a lot of my life in drag. I am starting to wonder if we all do, or if at least many of us do. I don’t necessarily mean that I spend a lot of my life passing as a man or performing on stage lampooning gender stereotypes, of course. I just think I spend a lot of time looking at my closet and wondering who it is I want to be today. I think through what meetings, tasks, or activities are planned for the day and then I think through which version of me, which persona, will be most comfortable and most powerful (sometimes those are the same and sometimes they are opposed) moving through today.

Kate Bornstein says that drag is: conscious, self-referential, performance, sexy and/or political and/or self-protective, not all about gender, for an audience, and for a reason (from My New Gender Workbook). She adds that

“We do drag to climb up from under the crushing oppression of race, age, class, religion, sexuality, looks, disability, mental health, family and reproductive status, language, habitat, citizenship, political ideology, and humanity. We do drag to be the best within any of these spaces of regulation—or as close as we can get to being the best. Or we do drag so that those who arethe best in those spaces will like us. Or we do drag so we don’t stand out as the freak we think we are” (2013, p 200).

This is similar to a more generic phenomenon that sociologists might call performativity (and in fact Bornstein is drawing on Judith Butler here too), but it differs in that it is more conscious and thus, I think, more controllable than our typical ideas about performativity.

Reading this section of the book, I felt like this was a revelation that described an experience I’ve been having most of my life when it comes to getting dressed for almost anything. (Unfortunately the students in my class did not have the same reaction to the reading and I stopped just short of blurting out this embarrassing confession to a room full of young people just beginning to understand that “some people” may not have a clearly binary gender identity.)

The best example of what this process is like for me is “cool guy professor,” my most conscious drag persona. A “cool guy professor” wears jeans, usually expensive, well-fitting ones. He often wears t-shirts, but usually under a blazer. The ensemble is topped off by some expensive, stylish loafers. The best part is that cool guy professor wears brown corduroy jackets. This is an androgynous or even butch style, but I wouldn’t say it is too butch since when I do it the jeans, blazers, and oxford shirts were all actually made for women (a change from my earlier tastes). I was careful to select only traditional oxford shirts with a traditional collar, but the shirts were fitted. In other words, the clothing doesn’t necessarily accentuate my feminine figure but it certainly doesn’t hide it.

“Cool guy professor” is a direct attempt to increase my feeling of authority in the classroom, developed when I was a graduate student teaching for the first time. But since reading Bornstein I’ve realized “cool guy professor” is only the most conscious drag persona in my closet. He’s not alone by a long shot. I’ve been working with “indie rock girl,” “record store slouch,” “girly girl,” and a bunch of nameless others for years now. Only I never thought about it as “drag” before.

The big question mark here for me is whether this process is evidence of something conservative psychologist types would call a “confused gender identity.” Liberals might more affirmingly call this a transgender identity, but either term seems to hearken to a relatively essentialist idea that some people (cis people) are comfortable with the sex they were labeled at birth, and others (trans people) are not. But couldn’t this process also just be the logical result of a non-essentialist take on gender and a sharpened observation of performativity in the mind of someone who is hyper-aware of her own thoughts anyway? Speaking in terms of theory, there is no such thing as a sex/gender binary outside of social construction (the best thing to read if you don’t believe me is Anne Fausto-Sterling’s work). If we buy that, I think we must also buy Bornstein’s idea that we are all transgendered fitting ourselves into a binary universe (or rejecting it). Is this harder for some of us and easier for others?

Is my experience marginal, the minority experience, or is it eminently, deeply normal?

yes/no/maybe so

Last year when Potato had the idea for this blog it immediately took off and my friends and I began expressing some feelings we hadn’t quite been able to discuss directly with each other before. As she says, this is equal parts scary and exciting. My friends are taking risks here; emotionally and professionally and maybe even intellectually. I owe it to my friends of color (maybe) to bare myself and my own painful experiences and take the same risks that racist (or gendered racist) reality requires of them on a daily basis, albeit in different arenas. I never know when I’ve said too much or too little but here goes my best attempt to be brave:

This year I started wondering if I wanted to live my life as a truly genderqueer/trans* person.

This is not a Caitlyn Jenner kind of revelation although maybe in some ways it is.

Because first of all, what does it mean to be “truly” trans*?

Let me back up a mile or two. Transgender is part of a constellation of terms having to do with gender and sexuality that are, at this point, growing exponentially every year. It represents an evolution in terminology from the earlier cross-dresser, transsexual, and (often but not always pejorative) tranny. The simplest definition of transgender is someone who identifies with a gender or sex other than the sex identified for them at birth. Most commonly transgender is used as a modifier, as in “trans man” (a person now living as a man who was labeled a girl when he was born) or “trans woman.”

In contrast, cisgender is meant to identify the privilege associated with identifying with the biological sex on your original birth certificate. In other words, “cis” is the privilege of not worrying about what pronouns someone will choose for you when they meet you, whether you will be kicked out of the public bathroom you want to use, receiving appropriate medical care without argument about your sex, or otherwise suffering from the general problem of not fitting in with a binary system of gender. Astute readers will at this point recall my post from two weeks ago about being identified as a boy.

Last summer I attended a conference where Wendy Chapkis asked “cisgender/transgender: am I that name?” Chapkis is a self-identified woman, but she is hirsute. She spoke from her experience as a woman who is, in her words, “consistently misgendered in public” because of her mustache. As a person who did not make an effort to change her body to better conform with a binary notion of gender, she said that she had for a time identified herself as transgendered. Before transgender had come to so consistently refer to, as one audience member put it, ‘a path to a gender’ rather than a gender in and of itself. In other words, today transgender tends to mean that one is either a transman or a transwoman but it is not an identity in itself. But Chapkis, born a woman and woman-identified, is clearly not a transwoman (read more on her life here). The problem, Chapkis identified, is that as a woman with a visible mustache, Chapkis is a gender non-conformist and “cisgender” does not seem appropriate either.

Chapkis’ talk hit a nerve and seems to point to some thorny tensions in contemporary feminist ideas about gender. At one point, trans* meant transgressing gender, transcending gender, or perhaps even transversing gender. The gender outlaws, as Kate Bornstein says (more on her in a later post). Now trans is one half of a suspiciously straight binary: a person is either trans or cis, with little room for those in between.

Let me be clear: no one here is arguing that the powerful out and proud folks in the burgeoning transgender movement are traitors to the feminist cause or do not know what they are talking about in terms of their own identity. I am in no way qualified to speculate or opine on why many, many people find it meaningful to transition fully from one sex to another and I do not wish to invalidate that very real experience, nor is the (possible) lack of room for those in-between the fault of those on the marked half of the binary. The binary is important because it allows us to describe an unmarked privilege. Like Chapkis, I am simply thinking through where I belong and failing to find a side that really fits. Unlike Chapkis, I am almost never misgendered and therefore I experience a heap of cis privilege (never kicked out of the bathroom, never the cause of medical confusion, only rarely some stares). Unlike other ciswomen, however, it seems I experience an explicit consciousness about trying to make ciswoman fit as an identity. (At least I think that sets me apart from ciswomen- TBEL- to be explored later.)

Blog. By Anonymous.

Should I blog anonymously? Seems dangerous to say these things as me, wanna-be Professor of strategy. I could get fired (unlikely) or denied tenure (possible) for saying these horrid rude bitter things….like going to a wedding ceremony with smiling hosts and bringing in a pile of shit and placing it on the clean white cloth. The guests at this event, is it their fault, that they fit in and I don’t? It’s not their fault they found me outside looking into the party inside and were kind enough to invite me. And did I care much about class as an upper-class woman in India? No. Indeed, I remember spouting some nonsense about the government handouts given to lazy moochers. Hierarchy is a problem for me, it appears, only when I am towards the bottom of it. And these people, my colleagues, did I say bad things about them? And if I did, ‘tis not even fair what I said, and ‘tis not even true. My ire, my anger, is not about them, these are kind people, who took me in, and helped me, and guided me, and like me as one-of-their-own. No it is not them. They are me and I am them, at least most of the time.

My anger, my hatred is born of a thousand small bitter things, adding one upon another over 15 years, mementos of my career. Sharp, spiky things. Like walking into a conference event, for perhaps the hundredth time, and finding crowds of suited people, and only one approachable, a small Chinese woman as alone as me, a PhD student new to the field. Or looking straight at any security guard I walk past since I think they think that I might have stolen something but thieves don’t typically look people in the eye, I’ve read somewhere. Or when I am mistaken, for the hundredth time, to be a PhD student or an MBA student, by colleagues, students, administration, hitchhikers, neighbors, visa officials, everyone. It was flattering the first 50 times – the look of surprise when I said I-am-Prof, but after that, it is shaming – like a servant girl caught wearing her employer’s clothes. Like when I email some executive using my office email and they respond with deference-obsequiousness to this prof-in-HEC, and then I meet them in person, and inevitably, the deference vanishes replaced with “are you a Phd student?”, and a sense that I somehow cheated them. Or when my students just cannot believe that a core strategy course is being taught by someone-so-implausible, but they can’t put their finger on what exactly is wrong with me – maybe it is the content? Not really, the content is great. Maybe if I was more forceful. No, not really, no one wants a forceful Asian woman. Maybe, if I was just someone else, someone-more-plausible. But the worst is when fellow-researchers, like that guy from LBS, the Indian quant guy, or that one from INSEAD, the network guy, react with cold-hard-hate, looking away at anything other than me, moving one chair away in the round-table discussion (maybe-I-smell?). I don’t even know these people. What could I have done to earn this hate? I rack my brains, anger and despair warring within. Are they psychopaths? But they seem to get along fine with Adam-with-the-three-A-pubs.

Is it fair to use sometimes as examples my poor colleagues to make my case, just because this is where I am now, and I am writing this now because my friend suggested a blog, and I see everything now from this prism of hard-sharp memories? If my colleagues saw this, what would they think? They’d be hurt-surprised I think. And more instrumentally, if someone finds this, will I be able to find another job in a business school? Probably not since business schools are race-class-gender neutral zones where these petty-whiny-loser grievances don’t exist. So why do I want my name, my real name, to be on this? A death-wish perhaps, because I don’t want to be scared-little-girl, or maybe because I want an excuse for not succeeding in this my chosen battleground. Then I can say, with some earnestness, that I failed because of an honest blog, not because I am really not old-white-man-classical-scholar-Granovetter material, and then hand over the household reins back to my IIM-husband who always was much better at this breadwinner business.