Gender Identity Presentation and Safety While Visiting Production Locations
“Sir, can I help you?” This is a question that I, a female, am asked almost on a daily basis. It’s not malicious, and it’s certainly not their fault. It’s just an attempt at reading my gender. I’m a woman, but I dress and present masculine — which also causes some confusion around my age.
I started working in the packaging industry in 2015, and was initially hired by a packaging manufacturing and design company in Modesto, California where I was the youngest structural design engineer at the company and only one of two women in my department. This was my first time in a true manufacturing environment, and it was intimidating to be around tough looking men who operated the huge commercial die-cutters, gluers, and printing presses. At a whopping 5’2” and 22 years old at the time, I had a little bit of imposter syndrome as my designs were being run on a massive scale — which meant any mistakes were also run at a massive scale.
As a whole, my experience in this manufacturing environment was isolating. I had a few great coworkers, but no local friends and it was a generally conservative workplace. I was becoming depressed and unhappy. After two years of learning and growing, it was time for a change. I landed a role at Fitbit in San Francisco, a city that accepts people from all walks of life.
My first few weeks at Fitbit were amazing; everyone was friendly and helpful with onboarding and getting me settled in. I started working and familiarizing myself with our processes and with my projects. I initially started shadowing a senior packaging engineer, but she took a new role shortly after I started, leaving me as the lead packaging engineer on a program we now have launched as Fitbit Versa.
Soon, it was time for my first trip to see our suppliers in China. The trip was originally supposed to happen with the engineer I was shadowing, but I assumed it would now be a solo trip. The plan was to visit our packaging suppliers for in-person introductions and then end at our contract manufacturing location to supervise and discuss one of our trial packout runs.
This would be my first ever trip to China. At times, I had felt uncomfortable in a conservative workplace in my home state — now, how would I feel in a foreign country whose culture I knew so much less about?
For some gay people, they “pass.” This usually means gay women who present very feminine and would have to actually tell someone they’re gay, or gay men who also present and speak very stereotypically male. In my case, I never have to verbally come out to anyone because of my presentation. In a way, I come out every day to everyone simply by being myself – which can be nice, but also means that I could never hide who I really am. How would this play out during my trip?
When I brought up these concerns to my bosses, they were very receptive. In fact, they said they’d never really thought about it that way because they always see me for me each day. This was a touching sentiment, but unfortunately not representative of everyone. It’s still something I have to think about and prepare for mentally. My boss, Ryan, ended up accompanying me on the trip.
Over the course of two weeks, I visited six or seven different supplier facilities and contract manufacturers and was surprised at the experience. For the most part, we were somewhat sheltered by the English-speaking Chinese supplier representatives at each company who are used to working with us. On walking tours of the facilities, the workers stared at me, but I never felt unsafe or disrespected. There was only one time, at one supplier, where I was blatantly ignored in favor of speaking to Ryan. During our free time, just walking the streets in China, I was definitely stared at — but so was Ryan, a 6-foot-something white man.
What I concluded from all of this was that I was stared at because of the color of my skin and my assumed young age, as opposed to my sexuality or gender presentation. I think my masculine presentation and white skin caused people to assume I was a young boy, as opposed to a masculine, gay woman. For the first time in my adult out-of-the-closet life, I actually “passed.” This was such a freeing feeling and I wasn’t used to it. I wasn’t scared, that is, until I needed to use the restroom.
Even in the U.S., I’ve gotten harassed or have had comments made towards me in regards to which bathroom I use. However, in those situations, at least I could speak the same language to diffuse the situation. In China, I was afraid another woman would come into the bathroom and be upset at the fact that a “boy” was in the bathroom and that it would cause an issue that I literally wouldn’t even be able to communicate around.
Once, in a restaurant in China where we had lunch, I came out of the stall to find a young girl washing her hands. I walked up to the sink and tried not to make eye contact and get out as soon as possible. Luckily, there weren’t any major issues while I was there, but it didn’t erase the fear and anxiety I had about using public restrooms.
The second time I went to China, I went for a short trip and traveled solo. This time I wasn’t visiting the same suppliers I visited before, I was just going to the CM (contract manufacturer) to oversee part of a build. Once again, it was the everyday activities most people take for granted, that unfortunately provoke fear in gender non-conforming people. This anxiety persists, even if nothing “major” happens.
For example, on this trip, at the airport gate in San Francisco, I was surrounded by native Chinese people traveling to Shanghai. The lack of personal space was more apparent, and stares I got were fairly uncomfortable. It felt better to give myself some space by keeping my headphones in and sunglasses on.
In Shanghai, when I landed, I breezed through security and customs. However, when I was to be picked up by a pre-arranged taxi, I noticed I had anxiously pulled out my ID in case the driver noticed my appearance did not match the stereotypical femininity of my name written on the taxi driver’s sign. Once again there were no issues.
The next morning, I boarded a bus to take me to the CM. I felt far more comfortable on the bus because there were others from Fitbit present. When it came time to walk out to the pack-out line, it was clear that the CM employees didn’t take me seriously. However, I felt like this was ageism, not necessarily my gender presentation or sexuality. Anytime I felt like they weren’t taking me seriously, all I had to do was mention Chase’s name (the Fitbit operations manager) to get a little more authority to back me up. That seemed to do the trick.
This was the typical cadence for the trip and these are the kinds of scenarios that gender non-conforming people have to go through — both abroad and still in parts of the United States — and the fear that can arise from everyday activities. Luckily, I felt well supported by my team at Fitbit, but not everyone has such a great team at their back.
Hopefully this provides a helpful perspective to those companies and people who might not realize the more subtle challenges gender non-conforming people experience, especially if they need to be sent to foreign countries where cultural norms can be more challenging. In such cases, a supportive environment and team can go a long way.