When I arrived at Yale School of Public Health in the fall of 2015, my student record called me male. When I arrived at Yale School of Medicine a year later, it didn’t call me male or female.
And so began my orientation at the Physician Associate program.
Day 1: Business casual dress required
Among the copious information I received ahead of orientation was the dress code for the first day: business casual.
“Business casual” is ambiguous under the best of circumstances, and if you are gender-non-binary, it’s an anxiety-riddled mixture of no role models, no useful internet advice, and ill-fitting clothes.
On the plus side, I get to define who I am and how that is reflected in my dress.
I ultimately converged on a combination of a black-and-white maxi skirt (Chico’s seems to have sizes and shapes that fit my body proportions) and an ivory cotton/linen blend shirt with a mandarin collar.
Finding clothes that fit my body, my gender, and my idea of business casual ultimately required hours of research and several shopping trips. Based on the comments I have received on the resulting outfits, those hours were productive.
Day 2: Men must wear ties
Second day involved a photo shoot for which we were told that men must wear ties and women should wear a nice shirt. For better or for worse, I was left to my own devices.
After some hand-wringing, I decided to wear the same overall shape as on the previous day: a black maxi skirt (again from Chico’s) with a dark blue shirt with a mandarin collar. I buttoned my shirt all the way, though.
(This turns out to be harder than you might think because mass-produced shirts with mandarin collars are usually tailored to asian men’s sizes, which run small on me — even an XL mandarin collar is often too small to button up all the way.)
And then I showed up for the photo shoot. No questions were asked. A photo was taken. I breathed a sigh of relief — my gender presentation was not challenged and everyone went on about their day.
Day 3: Where’s the bathroom?
On my way to anatomy lab, I asked for directions to the bathroom.
This, I’ve learned, is an excellent way to find out how aware people are of gendered assumptions in their life. In absence of unisex bathrooms, the most astute of people simply give directions to both men’s and women’s bathrooms, and leave it up to me to decide which one to use.
The slightly less astute ask me which bathroom I am looking for, showing awareness of the general issue but forgetting that I don’t necessarily want to discuss my bathroom habits with a random stranger.
And the most common response is for people to assume a particular gender of me, and give me instructions to the matching bathroom. Which is exactly what happened.
Normally I don’t get a chance to follow up (nor do I want to delay my excretory business for a gender sidebar), but I later discovered that the person who gave me directions was assisting with one of my classes.
I took them aside and pointed out that they gave me directions to what they assumed was the correct bathroom. They acknowledged their assumptions. I let them know no offense was taken. Life went on.
Trivial though this seems, it was the first time I actually highlighted someone’s gender assumptions outside of a bigger discussion of my gender experience. The most gratifying aspect of it was that I could state what did (or didn’t) work for me, without being asked to explain or justify my existence.
Day 3: No gender, no locker.
For our anatomy class we were assigned lockers in binary-gendered locker rooms. I was not given a locker in the women’s locker room. Neither was I given a locker in the men’s locker room.
I couldn’t unilaterally solve this problem because locker assignment requires action on the instructors’ part, so I went to talk to them.
I told them that the decision not to assign me to men’s or women’s locker room was reasonable given that my gender was listed as neither in the student record. They asked me which I would prefer to be assigned to. I told them to assign me a locker in the men’s room. And so they did.
A few days later, they reached out to double-check if I’d prefer to use a unisex changing area. That was a pleasant surprise.
Day 4: No sexual assault, either.
According to our sexual assault training, “Sexual assault doesn’t just happen to women. It also happens to men.”
So I guess I can stop worrying about that.
Day 5: Just another day in gender.
On the last day of orientation, only two people asked me about my gender identity and gender presentation. Pretty soon, things will be back to normal.
By which I mean, pretty soon I’ll be back to where all I get is strangers on the street commenting on it every couple of days.
Overall, my first week taught me two things. First, my anxiety about non-binary gender inclusivity at the Yale PA program was somewhat unwarranted at the individual level; acceptance by individuals was higher than I had hoped for.
However, my anxiety originates in my expectation of a lack of cultural visibility and institutional support for non-binary-gendered people, and that expectation is wholly justified. At the institutional level, the PA program and the Yale School of Medicine are doing as poorly as I had imagined — many resources intended to help new students navigate entry into the program and the profession (such as dress codes and locker rooms) are binary-gendered. To gain access to the same resources, I have to put in more time and more energy than my peers.
Whereas others arrive to find a new home, built by a supportive group of mentors and colleagues, I arrive to find a place that I can work to make my own, with mentors and colleagues who are willing to listen and learn — yet they sometimes speak and act as if I don’t exist.
Which is actually pretty good as far as these things go in the US today.