Continuing my autobiography project. These posts will be chapters when collected into my book. If you’d be interested in helping me crowdfund this project, please let me know!
It was late morning on Tuesday, October 16, 2007. We weren’t busy; no bills or resolutions were in our inbox. I was at my desk. My office phone rang. I picked up the receiver.
It was Sewell Brumby. “Would you come down to my office for a minute, please?”
As casually as I could manage, I told him I’d be right there and hung up. I turned to Eugie.
“Sewell wants to see me in his office. Looks like this is it,” I told her as I stood. She smiled reassuringly.
“It’ll be all right,” she said. Despite her generally cynical assumptions about human nature, Eugie had always been relentlessly bullish on the bet that Sewell wouldn’t fire me. Of course I hoped she was right, but I never shared her optimism, especially after the previous year’s Hallowe’en incident.
“Good luck,” she added. I smiled back and left our shared office. I walked slowly down the narrow, low-ceilinged hallway with its institutional blue carpet and awful 1970s-era faux wood paneling. Half the distance to the stairs, I stepped into the restroom and closed the door behind me.
Moments later I stepped back out, straightening the oversized cotton sweater I wore to work most days; taking care to shake the wrinkles out of the sleeves. I continued down the hall, went around the corner, and marched down the stairs to the main floor.
Another few steps and I was in Sewell’s corner office. He was behind his desk, on which a single sheet of white paper lay. Two chairs were in front of the desk. Beth, the senior editor and my supervisor, sat in one of them. Sewell gestured at the other.
“Have a seat, please,” he said. I sat, crossed my legs, and carefully placed my left arm on the chair’s armrest.
Mr. Brumby got right to it. “Glenn, do I understand correctly from Beth that you have formed a fixed intention of becoming a woman?”
“Wisdom, Justice, Moderation.”
I could write here that, from Sewell’s tone of voice, I could already tell where things were heading, but that wouldn’t be true. He spoke completely without affect. He could have said anything at all next, and it wouldn’t have surprised me.
My belly was churning. I felt like a lemming in a Disney nature film, driven to the edge of a cliff by a production assistant. Whatever happened next was completely out of my hands. My life would divide here; everything after this meeting would belong to the “post-October 16, 2007” chapter. Now that it was here, I wished we were discussing anything, anything else. In a panicked flash of daydream, I imagined pivoting the talk onto some less fraught subject.
“Yes, sir, I intend to become a woman. Can you believe the prices in the cafeteria these days?”
“Yes, sir, I’ve been transitioning since early 2005. Hey, that’s a funny word, isn’t it: ‘transition’? I believe it’s from the Latin for “to cross over …”
“Yes, sir. Say, you sure have a lot of law books here.”
“Yes, sir,” was all I really said.
“Well, Glenn,” he said, in that same matter-of-fact way, “I wish you well, but that just can’t happen simultaneously with your employment here, and I have to dismiss you.”
There it was, in the precise, calculated words of an attorney. My heart fell to my feet. Yes, I’d figured this was the way things were likely to go down. That didn’t make it any easier to hear. I sat in silence for a moment, then replied.
“Could I understand why, please?” I knew I wasn’t likely to change his mind, but I did want him to elaborate on his reasons. I wanted to hear him justify his discrimination. Also, I thought, in desperation, that maybe if I could prolong this meeting, keep him talking, I might get an inspiration—come up with an argument that would save my job.
He cleared his throat. “Yes, uh, my motivation for dismissing you at this time is your stated intention of becoming a woman … I just don’t think that can appropriately happen in this workplace.”
At this moment I began to despise the word “appropriate.” He’d used it when he sent me home the previous Hallowe’en. “The way you’re dressed is not appropriate,” he’d said then.
“But,” I said now, “I don’t work with the public. I don’t even work with the legislators.”
“[Y]our stated intention of becoming a woman … I just don’t think that can appropriately happen in this workplace.”
“That’s certainly true,” he said simply. Like he understood that was a relevant point, but didn’t care.
My brow furrowed. I’d expected him to at least try to make a reasonable case. “I don’t see how it is ‘inconsistent with my employment here.’ I understand it would probably cause a sensation for a few days, but I don’t see how it would … how it could be a problem with the rest of the employees here.”
Sewell was unmoved. “Well, I hear what you say. I understand your point of view. But, at the same time the appropriateness of it is ultimately not just your judgment; it’s my judgment. I think it will be something that will be judged, not just by people in this office, and not just by me, but by many other people in this building. And it’s not something I’m doing hastily, Glenn. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it … and I found it to be a very difficult decision.”
“I understand it’s unusual.” I kept plugging away. I was desperate, terrified. I wasn’t ready to lose my job. I loved this job. “It’s certainly not something I picked for myself.”
He cleared his throat. “Well, I understand that; I understand that your motivations have to be very sincere to go down the road that you’re talking about going down, and I, you know, I wish you well. But at the same time, after a lot of thought … agonizing over it, again, I don’t know a better way to say it: within this particular workplace, I don’t think that can happen appropriately in this workplace.”
The scene of the crime.
That word again. I swallowed. “Is there no compromise that can be reached, no accommodations that can be made?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. If you have something you would like to explore, we could talk about it.”
There was a long silence. I couldn’t think of anything, of course. It’s not like I could work from home, or continue to present as male, or … well, I don’t know. I still can’t think of anything else, and at the time I didn’t think of anything at all. Over a year and a half later, Sewell’s lawyers would point to his suggestion here as if it indicated he was willing to be persuaded, and I was the one being stubborn and inflexible. But he had been planning this meeting for over a month, and knew exactly what he was going to say to me. I’d only had a few minutes’ warning. Of course I couldn’t think of anything.
“I don’t know what to suggest,” I admitted.
He drew a weary sigh. “Well, I don’t either, Glenn. As I understand it properly your course of action is to become a woman surgically, and in dress, and in virtually every respect. What kind of accommodations we could make to make that transaction something that I would think appropriate for the workplace, I don’t know of any.”
“Are you concerned with how I will look?” Many people have an image in their heads of trans women who are tall, broad shouldered, and look like an embarrassing caricature of a drag queen. I thought Sewell might be worried I’d resemble this caricature. The photo album I’d provided Beth to show him a month ago had been calculated to allay this fear.
“No sir … I am not.”
“Are you concerned with how I would behave?”
I’d become another statistic.
Source: “Injustice At Every Turn,” report of a 2011 survey by NCTE and NGLTF.
He shook his head. “No, I mean it’s … it’s … I think the answer to your question is ‘no’ … I think that it’s just the nature of that transition, from male to female, that I don’t think is appropriate within our workplace.”
That word again. “You say ‘appropriate,’ but I’m trying to think of a practical effect that this would have that would be deleterious to this office, and I can’t think of any.”
His look turned patronizing. “Well, I can think of a number of deleterious effects, Glenn. For one thing, it would make some of our employees very uncomfortable just to share a workplace with someone going through that transition. I think it would make a number of my bosses, and I call the members of the General Assembly ‘my bosses’ … some people would see it as something immoral.”
I didn’t know it at the time, and Sewell definitely didn’t, but with that statement he had made two very big mistakes.
“So your mind can’t be changed?” I asked. My dismay was at its peak. In most situations like this one, I’d be on the verge of tears. This time I wasn’t. I don’t know if it was adrenaline, or a certain emotional numbness. But somehow I kept my composure.
I kept trying anyway. We went back and forth like this for several more minutes. Finally I realized there was no point in continuing.
“Okay,” I said softly. “I guess that’s all there is to it.”
“Is there anything upstairs that you need to get immediately?” Sewell asked then. “Keys or something of that nature?” Clearly he wanted to hustle me out of the capital ASAP.
“Yes. My bag, and several personal effects.”
He nodded. “Beth can help you go do that.”
Only now did I realize that Beth hadn’t said a word since I’d entered. I never learned how hard she had tried to save my job. If at all.
End Part One.
Posts in my ongoing Autobiography Project:
Rock In the Stream.
Paradise Glossed, Part 2.
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