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Business Genderqueer

Navigating nonbinary professional attire options.

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October 16, 2019
 
 

Alyssa is a doctoral student in neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Let's be real. Wardrobe choices in graduate school can be tricky. Some of us dress more formally to teach. Others have felt the need to make more conservative fashion choices when teaching. When I taught math face-to-face, I wore a button-down shirt for at least the first day as an indicator that I was, in fact, the teacher. Later in the semester, I'd shift down to my everyday soft cotton T-shirt, black athletic pants and hiking sandals. In the chemistry lab, whatever shirt I wear is covered by my TA lab coat anyway, but long pants are strongly recommended and closed-toed shoes are required. My everyday wardrobe, including in the classroom, is perhaps more casual than that of most professors (though my university does have the occasional tenured professor in a T-shirt or hoodie -- I'm on the casual side of average, not an outlier), but it's simple and practical.

At conferences, there's a stronger expectation of formal dress. I see a lot more suits, ties, skirts, dresses and button-down shirts at conferences than I do in everyday gatherings of professors and graduate students. This is where I start running into real problems. Once we get more formal than T-shirts, which exist in "unisex" cuts, and athletic attire, where even cisgender women regularly buy from the men's section, clothing gets much more strongly gendered. I'm nonbinary. Now what?

I see a few main options.

One option is to ignore the expectation of formal dress entirely. And yes, I've done this. There is an existing picture of me in a T-shirt, shorts and no shoes at a conference, from the day I presented on one panel and moderated another one. You may get to see it on Conference Inference someday. Or, even though I'm going to be at the American Educational Studies Association conference on Halloween this year (sadly my presentation is Nov. 1), I'll likely spend the day in costume. I'm considering going as the horrible goose from the viral untitled goose game. (I've presented in costume before.)

Another option is to do drag. In situations where openly playing with gender is accepted, I can enjoy dressing up as another gender, but that's not ideal for conferences where I'd be doing drag while pretending that I'm doing no such thing. So, while I recognize the option, I don't like to use it for conferences. (You could argue that I used the drag option for the beginnings of my math classes, though -- everything visible came from the men’s section on those days, including the dress shoes.)

A third option is to figure out what business genderqueer means, in terms of dress. Business casual is a thing. Business formal is a thing. But what's business genderqueer?

I don't think there's just one answer to that question. There may be as many answers as there are people who need to answer it, plus some extra for people who find multiple solutions. But for me, mixing and matching is one answer. Get a suit out of the men's section, but replace the dress shirt with one of the rare dresses I can wear. Dress shirt and suit jacket from the men's section, basic black skirt. Because people tend to assume strangers are one binary gender or the other and femininity is more marked than masculinity, I still get misread as a woman when I use these combinations … but that's likely no matter what I wear. Even when all my visible clothing came from the men's section, I was misread as a woman, and it still felt like doing drag because I'm not a man, either!

And no, I don't wear makeup. I know it's very nearly a professional requirement for women, but 1) no number of other people mistaking me for a woman is going to turn me into one, and 2) I'm generally more interested in challenging sexist standards than bending to them. When I don’t follow the implicit expectations of what women should do, I sometimes find myself on the receiving end of advice on how to do so, like people offering to help me with makeup or asking when, not if, I plan to start shaving my legs. I’m autistic, so saying the implicit part out loud to make sure I know it exists is reasonable, but these particular expectations bounced off me as irrelevant because I’m not a woman. I just think challenging these expectations is a more morally correct defense than saying I’m not a woman, because sexist standards are bad whether or not they apply to me. (It’s also more effective, because outsiders are going to try to apply these standards regardless.)

How do you navigate expectations of formal dress?

[The picture is of Alyssa wearing a suit jacket, dress pants and dress shoes from the men’s section with a knee-length purple dress, as one attempt at business genderqueer. The picture was taken at the International Communication Association conference in Washington, D.C.]

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