Sunday, March 16, 2014

The unappreciated power of being unremarkable

Too busy to write... and why that's a good thing
It's been a while since I've posted here. It's not been because I've run out of ideas, on the contrary, over the past few months I've had several ideas for posts I'd like to write.
But each time I get one of those ideas and make a mental note to write a post  here, I've hit the same wall. I find that I don't have the time. Between work, travel and other projects, it's been just about impossible to find the two or three hours it takes me to write a blog post. 
Why being unremarkable is an important story
I know this will sound boastful and self-centered, but I'm going to argue that my being so busy is important to the trans* community. In a huge fit of self-importance I'm going to suggest that even though the reasons I have no time are unrelated to trans* issues, the fact that I am that busy is as important to the trans community as someone like Janet Mock making a book appearance, Monica Roberts writing a blog post, or Mara Keisling making a speech. 
On the face of it, such a claim is absurd. Compared to the many stars and celebrities of the trans* world, I'm pretty much a nobody. The media doesn't want my opinion, I'm not sought after to deliver keynotes, I haven't lead advocacy initiatives, raised funding, been the notable "first transgender _____", or lead a high profile fight against injustice.
Instead, I'm pretty unremarkable - a late transitioning, middle aged white trans woman in tech. We're all over the place, almost a cliché. 
Add to that the fact that the things taking up all my time are unglamorous and not trans* related. I'm the originator and organizer of the PyCon Education Summit, where we bring together people who are teaching Python in a variety of venues. That takes some time, but I'm spending even more time, including overtime, on my day job, working to help my company spread their online business model to Europe. This involves frequent travel to Europe, meetings and phone calls at all hours, and more business dinners than I'd care to count. 
Yeah, I know, good for me and all, but where do I get off claiming that any of this is important for the trans* community? I'm not even working with the trans* community on this stuff. What's the big deal?
Well, I would argue that the big deal is precisely that I'm pretty ordinary and that I'm doing pretty conventional things in a non-trans context, among mostly non-trans people. Apart from the accident that I'm transgender, I'm not exceptional at all.
Indeed, I'm not the only, nor even the first, trans Pythonista, but the very fact that I openly transitioned while being involved in the community and helping organize its largest conference sent a message. Here was a person who turned out to be transgender, and that fact made absolutely no difference - my contribution to community continued unchanged. Several people even told me that I was the first trans* persion they were aware of in the Python community. I like to think that there are several Python programmers whose first view of a trans* person was positive, but also essentially unremarkable.
I also was open about my transition at work, as I became the first and only openly trans* person among 16,000 employees in the US. For many, probably most, of the people I've interacted with in the company, I am the first and only openly trans* person they've ever known. And what they've seen is a trans woman who from the very first day of her transition has interacted with people from across the company, as well as with vendors and suppliers from around the world.
These days, when I meet other people in the company, they often say that they've heard of me. I usually give a wry grin and say, "that always makes me nervous." Without missing a beat they look me in the eye and mention a successful project I've been a part of. While they almost certainly also know that I'm trans, it's clear that's not the only thing they see. They also see someone reasonably senior with a track record of success in the company.
We are not all "exceptional"
Okay, so I'm fairly uncomfortable with the tone of self-promotion of all of that, but it is a important story to tell. It's important because trans* people are almost always shown to the world as different and exceptional. We're portrayed as talk show freaks, psychotic killers, tragic victims, and comic parodies. At best, even the positive stories are portrayed as amazing exceptions - the brilliant actress, writer, athlete, or whatever else rising like a phoenix from the ashes of transition.
Or successful trans* people are shown as activists or advocates. Of course I believe that it's hard for a trans* person not to be an activist or advocate in this world to some degree, and that we need all the people heping with the work that we can get.  But I worry that, aside from the exceptional ones, people are getting the message that the only career for a trans* person is in effect, being a trans* person. 
While we are few in number, I don't think it does us any good to be seen as exceptions. That's just another way of othering us, of putting us outside ordinary humanity, and ultimately of erasing many of us. We can't all be those famous exceptions and full time activists. 
So that's why I think stories like mine are important, too. Stories of unremarkable people who are transgender and are doing some pretty ordinary things in the non-trans world - contributing to our communities, being successful at work, living our lives. I know that there are many others like me and we need get our message out more. We'll never be picked up by the media but with the people we interact and work with we can tell our own oddly surprising story, "Hey, I'm transgender and I'm really pretty ordinary."


  1. As a certain, formerly mutual friend was fond of saying, those of us just living our lives are an important part of activism in our own right.

  2. Naomi, you're pretty exceptional in my eyes, but like you pointed out, it doesn't have anything to do with your trans-ness per se. I really enjoyed reading this. It lets me know that things are going pretty well for you and that you're all right. Thanks for your hard work and leadership in the Python community and for your genuine character as a human being.

  3. Finally someone says what I have been thinking. We all don't have to beat people over the head. Sometimes we just need to live our lives normally and with each encounter, let people who meet us see that we are just like them.

  4. don't know me. I am, as you would say, unremarkable. The situation and context through which I have found you is, on the other-hand, quite remarkable. I came across your post here in searching for a way to do as you have done on my own blog. There is quite a bit of irony in the circumstance as I blog about issues related to culture and Christianity. I have spent the last six months writing extensively on how Christians should properly treat those within the LGBT community. However, as you say, I am unremarkable and much of what I have had to say (although completely true) goes unheeded within my own readership and sphere of influence (which of course is also quite unremarkable).

    So...with that said, I thank you for your post here as it has given me courage to confront my own readers and hopefully to express myself as you so have eloquently done here.

    By the way...God does love you, regardless of what you might hear!

    Best of luck to you!

    (p.s. I am also a web developer)

    1. Hi, and thank you for the comment! Of course, while we are "unremarkable" some ways, should not obscure how amazing we are in others. The very fact that we can function as unremarkable people in this world while being trans, being whatever, and still tell our stories is in some ways quite amazing.

      But I'm glad you're going to keep up the fight. Rock on!

      And best of luck to you - in blogging, in your professional life, and in continuing to be unremarkable in an amazing way!


  5. Thanks for providing this insight, Naomi. In the past, "stealth" transgendered people may have lived normal busy lives as you describe, but what's different these days seems to be the number of"out" transgender folks focused on the ordinary business of living without too much hassle. That's my experience here in traditionally conservative Texas.

    Somehow much of our mainstream culture seems to have had a realization that we're human and deserve to be treated like anybody else. It helps of course when we reciprocate and act like decent normal human beings (not every transgender person does! We have our jerks and attention hounds like any other population group).

    I'm not sure why or how this happened, maybe it's just that enough trans* folk have been "out" for long enough to make their presence understood, but I'm grateful and have personally benefitted from this. Also I've seen a number of sympathetic TV news and morning talk show segments which give me the sense that understanding is starting to dawn in the mainstream US culture.

    1. As usual, Sheila, you are the optimistic one! I'm more one to wonder if things are that good, or if there is still a long way to go. On the other hand, I've received great support not just in the US, but in the UK, Germany, and even Japan. I'm just not sure how much that support is being fully generalized to all trans people, instead of just this one that they know and think is "safe". But still, we need to take whatever progress we can get, I think.