Transwoman Engineer: Transitioning & Sexism

GT: I read an article in TIME about how tangible sexism becomes when seen through the unique lens of a transgender individual post-transition. I was inspired to interview a trans colleague and friend, Kit Thompson, to see if her experiences were similar. Her account of how she experienced sexism on both sides (being perceived as a man then when living as a woman) is incredibly insightful… and downright scary.

To give readers some insight on her whole experience, I asked Kit about her early life leading up to transitioning, her experience transitioning, and what life is like for her now.

Her professional experience is in the tech startup world, but the opinions expressed in this article are personal and should not be taken as reflecting those of our company, Toast.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Kit Thompson. I’m 29 years old and from Massachusetts. I was born into a male body, but I am a female.

I’m a software engineer and UX developer. I’ve been in software for about 6 years now - almost always at startups like Toast. I’ve been at Toast almost a year and it’s the largest company I’ve worked for (over 300 employees). I’ve worked for different companies, one went from 12 to 200 people, so I’ve seen the startup life cycle.

One of my favorite hobbies is that I teach board games. I go to conventions all across the country (and even outside of the country). I work for Greater than Games. I demo games and show people how to play them. I also bike to work when my bike doesn’t have a flat.. That I’m too lazy to repair.

What was it like being you when you were younger?

Some of my earliest memories are female, but growing up thinking I was a boy there were thoughts like “I shouldn’t say this or think this.” It was confusing. I wanted to do things that were feminine, but saw it as unattainable. I loved pink and it took me so long to be okay with wearing it. I was worried that people would figure out my secret, that I was trans.

So, I pushed my feminine desires down. I put a specific gender line on a lot of things because I didn’t want to be found out. I’d shop in the guys section a bit, then sneakily shop in the girls section, then make my way back to the guys. The secrecy and shame pervaded clothing, colors, and scents. I lived in a very gendered world where I felt couldn’t do anything feminine because I didn’t perceive myself as female.

I wanted to transition, though, as far back as I can remember. In high school I researched transitioning from M to F and wanted to do it. But, I was in immense denial and thought “It’s just a thing i do. I just wear skirts when I’m home alone and I love Mystique.” I never connected those actions with “oh hey, you are trans.”

In college I had my own clothes that I wore when no one was around. For example, I had this one wig that was just atrocious. It was black and fake and terrible. All of the secret clothing I had then was all awful because I was so nervous about buying clothes. I had a crappy skirt from Goodwill that I had bought bundled in with a bunch of other clothing. There was denial for twenty some-odd years while doing all this stuff (dress-up, research, etc...).

What did coming to terms with your gender identity look like?

I came to the understanding within myself through depression, drugs, and ultimately my body changing through exercise. My dad had kidney failures and needed to lose weight, so I lost weight with him. I got in shape and started doing crossfit. I began to see my body really change, becoming more masculine and strong.

I was happy that I was more fit, but I couldn’t help but hate what my body was doing. I really didn’t like the way that I looked because I didn’t like looking buff and dude-esque. But, what I did recognize was that change was possible. I realized I have the ability to change the way I look and change who I am. I started to think to myself… “Maybe this isn’t the change you’re looking for. This is a change and it’s good, but it’s not getting at the crux of your depression.” Then, panic set-in when I came to the conclusion that “OH SHIT I ACTUALLY HAVE TO TRANSITION.. I am trans.”

When did you start transitioning?

“Starting” to transition is a weird point to define. I began hormone therapy (HT) about two years ago. I fully came out to myself a few months before that and I started seeing a therapist and a doctor. I then came out to others a few months after starting HT. I began coming to work as myself in March of 2015.

What did transitioning look like in your professional life?

Part of the reason why I left my previous job was that they knew me as one gender (male) and then as myself (female), so people had to switch pronouns. Toast was an opportunity where no one knew me from before. I thought I’d want the fresh start, but it turned out to be an interesting mind-game. Up until then I was out to everyone I knew. When I came to Toast for the first time, I was put into the world of no one knowing my whole story.

There’s this mental game of “passing.” Generally speaking, I pass as cisgender (my person’s gender identity matches my biological sex). Passing brought up a whole lot of thoughts in my head like, “Does the person I’m talking to know?” It became difficult to concentrate because I was overthinking. I was meeting hundreds of new people and I was playing mental gymnastics.

I also experienced feeling awkward while navigating conversations. I wanted to contribute to a conversation by talking about how I was in boy scouts or about how I was in a fraternity, but it was weird. All of these things are part of me, but I was (and still am) learning how to navigate talking about them. I want to connect and talk about my past, but don’t want to switch the focus of the conversation to me transitioning. Because, let’s be real, what I did is pretty weird.

Now, my thoughts are that it quite frankly doesn’t matter if someone knows I’m trans or not. I find it easier to assume everyone knows. I actually came out as trans in our monthly company newsletter, The Slice.

Did you think about sexism before transitioning?

I’m fortunate with some of the friends that I keep because I wasn’t only surrounded by cis straight white dudes. My friends were people who appreciated this musician, Jonathan Coulton, who sings about nerdy things. People who resonate with his story are the ones who follow him. He wasn’t happy as a software engineer, so he started making music instead. His following isn’t a typical crowd. They’re really passionate about being themselves. They find what they’re passionate about and they do it.

This crowd is very vocal about social justice issues. They showed me a different perspective than what I was used to (especially going to a high school and college that had all the same people). Through my friends, I started thinking about feminism, social justice, and sexism. They helped me to recognize things that weren’t OK and were sexist in the fraternity. There was a lot of casual homophobia in the fraternity. For example, things aren’t bad, they’re “gay.” You’re not a jerk, you’re a “fagget.” There were general sexist jokes - that’s how the fraternity brothers communicated. They just used language and were totally oblivious to why it was harmful.

Looking back on right after college, my company was almost exclusively white males except for a few asian males. I just didn’t notice that there were no females; it didn’t occur to me. There was the marketing team that was all women, engineers that were all dudes… that’s just what it was. No one was vocal at the company. Because everyone was exactly like me, I was around it for so long, I just thought that’s what the world is and didn’t think twice. 

Can you speak more about seeing sexism as a female engineer?

After I transitioned, sexism was incredibly apparent. In tech, I felt like an alien. As a female, I was different than everyone else. I currently work on a 35+ person engineering team and we only have four full time female engineers. After coming to work as myself, I really began to notice the gender divide and the cultural homogeny.

At Toast, as far as I know, we just hired our first black male engineer this week. We are fortunate, however, that our company is making proactive strides towards hiring more diverse employees, starting with gender diversity. They released a company-wide statement about this.

Being perceived as a man, I had never really been questioned on my opinion on something relating to work, but now I face so much more opposition. I’ll say “We should do process Y,” and there’s more of a back and forth with questions than I ever had before. The assumption is they probably know more than I do, so I have to prove myself. There’s definitely been a lot of assumptions about my abilities based on who I am.

It’s scary because the sexism is subtle enough that I can’t point to it and say “it’s because I’m a woman,” but it undeniably happens more than before. Despite the fact that I’m more senior now and I have more experience, I’m getting questioned more than ever. Nothing has changed except being a woman.

All of this questioning almost gets to the point of gaslighting (manipulating someone by doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity). Others question my ability so much and I start to question it myself … “oh, am I just bad at this?” I start to believe it. When my identity is questioned, it messes with me - whether it’s my identity as a female or as a skilled engineer. I never really had to defend either of those things before.

Could you give a specific example?

Sexism is very pervasive in the tech industry in general. It’s not just the people at my current work, it’s going to a conference or anything. The assumption is I’m lower on the totem pole. Tech conversations are almost like trying to establish a pecking order about what you know because that’s where a lot of people feel their value lies as a person. I feel it a lot more as a woman.

I was at a conference recently and I was talking to a man who assumed I’m from Toast’s marketing department. It was a coding conference, there was no reason to assume I wasn’t an engineer. That’s never been an assumption people voiced to me before. It sucks.

What was the experience of losing male privilege like?

I had the intention to be conscious of losing my male privilege when I transitioned. Because of this, I thought I realized what I was giving up as a male. I had been an outspoken feminist for a while. As someone who had all male experiences at that point I listened to my female friends and I thought “oh, that’s bad.” I trusted and listened, but I couldn’t experience what they experienced at that point. Sexism used to just be that thing I knew was bad, but it quickly became a part of my everyday life.

I knew that certain things would be different. I knew that how people talked to me would change. But, I couldn’t have predicted how much gymnastics I’d have to go through day to day to avoid uncomfortable interactions.

There’s a convenience store very close to the office. I started going there to get a red bull a couple times a week. The male cashier began hitting on me more and more. It wasn’t overt, it was just too friendly. The casually coming onto me made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t anything I could describe in words; it was the way he looked at me, the way he talked to me.

Now I go a block away to a different store or I walk by and look to see if he’s working. If he’s not, I may go there. It’s crazy. I have to change how I behave based on how others are treating me. I was not expecting to have to think about everyday life to this extent. Riding the T used to just be a thing that happened. Now I’m much more conscious of it because there are people who will come talk to me or look at me with way more frequency and there’s nothing I can do.

The part of male privilege that I did not expect to give up was how little I thought about seemingly everyday tasks. “I’m going to go to the store. I’m going to walk 6 blocks at night. I’m going to go to the sketchy-ish restaurant” - i didn’t have to think about these things. Now, I have to put so much more thought into everything I do. I expected people to say “sweetie” and whatnot, but I didn’t expect the frequency of getting honked at while walking places. Like, sorry I was walking while female. 

The decisions I make today are different because I want to be safe. There are a lot more situations where I’m just uncomfortable because of people in the world - mostly dudes, all dudes.

How can anyone be a better ally to trans people?

Listen to what we have to say.

Every trans person is different. I’m not the spokesperson for all trans people, no one person is. I feel like people look to me about the absolute rules, but don’t expect everyone to feel the same way I do.

Educate yourselves.

What ends up happening with a lot of trans people is that they end up being their groups’ trans sherpa/navigator. All of your friends wind up asking you. I’m not the spokesperson for transgender rights. I’m not here to teach you everything you need to know about trans people. The internet is a pretty cool place. Educate yo’self.

Don’t always just talk about trans topics with trans people.

We are real people with real interests. Being trans is not our hobby, it’s just our life. I get that it’s interesting, but there are times I just want to hang out with friends.

We need advocates as much as we need allies.

A lot of trans people have a goal of just living their lives as the gender they are. So, it’s hard for their voices to be heard. I think it’s important for people to be trans advocates who aren’t trans themselves. So, normalize pronouns, encourage political leaders to make bills, etc.

Sexism in the World
GT: This interview gave me chills to hear and to curate. As a woman, I know how real sexism is, but it was so validating for Kit to express the surprise that came from tangibly experiencing it. I want to thank her for her willingness to share her truth with such humor and guts.

Originally published on 1/18/17