Working at a non-profit in the early 2000’s, Kristen Schilt was struck by the mystified gossip surrounding a staff member who had transitioned. Sensing a larger story, she spent the next few years interviewing over fifty transmen in California and Texas from a variety of jobs about their experiences in the workplace.
The interviews are the heart of Just One of the Guys?:Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality (The University of Chicago Press), and as they reveal what it means to live and work as a transman, the accounts also tell the greater story Schilt sensed—the men’s unique biographies testify to the difference between navigating the workplace as a woman and a man.
Schilt is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago, and the caveat for this book is that itis an academic text—a sociological ethnography that sifts Schilt’s field research (the interviews) through a conceptual analysis. Yet it is to Schilt’s credit that Guys is rewardingly readable. She navigates a rich theoretical discussion without letting her sentences lapse into inscrutable density, and her pacing through the material is brisk, her tone bright yet serious.
What should compel any reader to pick up the book is the testimony of the interviewed about their treatment as women, men, and transmen in the workplace. Schilt lets the men speak for themselves, her own voice and theoretical agenda gracefully receding to serve as a platform for their voices, emerging only to give us reminders of the patterns we should track in their accounts. It is a refreshing change in a culture that seems bent on telling transpeople’s stories for them and to them (further evidence of this fact is provided in Schilt’s opening chapter, an engaging, succinct history of “trans” in the context of its medicalization and the queer and feminist movements).
What the men reveal is as inevitable as it is stunning: gender inequity and discrimination in the workplace is alive and well. In case after case, the interviewed discover that they are taken more seriously and given more opportunities (and sometimes, bigger paychecks) when they are understood to be men. As one transman reports, ‘“A woman would make a comment…and be overlooked and be dissed essentially. I would raise my hand and make the same point in a way that I am trying to reinforce her, and it would be like [directed at me], ‘That’s an excellent point!’… it is not like it was a surprise. But it was disconcerting to have happen to me.’” Another man told Schilt a story about an associate who congratulated his boss for “firing ‘Susan’ because she was incompetent” and hiring the more skilled “new guy”: “The punchline of this anecdote is that Susan and the new guy were the same person.”
However, the book is not a simplified Mad Men-esque portrait of oppressed women and oppressive men. Rather, what is most fascinating and important is what the transmen’s experiences reveal about the complication of identities, boundaries, and inequality. They point out the ways that women themselves police gender boundaries and perpetuate ideas of female incompetence by suddenly asking their newly transitioned co-workers to lift boxes. We read striking testimonies by men of color who bear witness to the criminalization of black males—“I went from being an obnoxious black woman to a scary black man”—revealing the inseparability of gender from race.
The LGBT community may also feel called upon to do some soul-searching after reading the stories Schilt has presented, as many of the men are shocked by prejudice from queer co-workers. “You would think that people in the gay community… would not necessarily treat other people in the queer and trans community poorly,” one interviewee notes. “But that was just one of those things where I was, like, ‘Well, I guess shit flows downhill!’” Schilt allows such moments to speak for themselves, and rather than refereeing, she treats every account with an even hand, pointing out that as flawed as individual action can be, it arises in the context of structural schemes that are larger than any one person.
Though the book started from gossip, Just One of the Guys? is a rare account of transgendered lives that is honest and detailed without slipping into voyeurism or sensationalism. Schilt is careful and respectful in her analysis—she never lets her own claims get ahead of her data, and though outrage and a call to arms simmers beneath the surface of her text, the reader comes away having experienced not Schilt’s opinion, but the reality of gender inequality. The result is that the evidence speaks for itself, and is that much more effective.