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What It’s Like to Be Gender Nonconforming in a Male-Dominated Workplace

Words can be liberating… or a prison

By Anna Marie Houlis

Rain Dove turned a lot of heads when she emerged in 2015 walking in New York’s Fashion Week for both womenswear and menswear.

The handsome, 6-foot-2, gender nonconformist and activist says she models as male, female and everything in between — “as all genders, as a human being.” Dove is more than a clothing rack; she's at the forefront of the revolution, and because of it, has loads of work under her belt, including a recent Sisley campaign in collaboration with Vogue Italia and current work with Illamasqua and KMS among other brands. This is all on top of producing activist films for issues like health care and her first feature film, Riot Girl, that’s going into production in the spring.

But prior to her successful modeling career, which she fell into only after losing a bet on a Cleveland Browns football game, Dove was a firefighter with a genetic engineering and civil law degree from the University of California, Berkeley. She and her crew would hike or be airlifted to remote parts of the forest where they’d cut down dead trees and protect water and other resources so if a fire were to break out, it wouldn’t affect water sources or harm the animals. Dove was, in short, a gender-nonconforming person in a male-dominated industry.

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It was intense, she says, especially because her crew was convinced she was another man.

“Our crew wasn’t allowed to drink at the time, but we all snuck some whiskey and were drinking around a fire in Grand Junction, Colorado, on this red sandstone cliff side,” she recalled. “And this one person said something that was just the most manly thing I’d ever heard in my life — cliché, stereotypical and societally male. He was like, ‘If I die, you have to promise me that you’re going to go back to the place that you last saw me and scoop up some of my ashes to send them home to my mom.’ And we were all like, ‘OK…?’ And we cheers-ed. And then no one said they were going to do this, but it just happened like a nature special: Everyone just got up, walked to the edge of this cliff and pissed off the edge of this cliff.”

Laughing now at the ridiculousness of the situation, Dove says she'd been worried at the time because she’d never urinated in front of her crew before; in fact, she’d spent her whole time as a firefighter actively avoiding it because it wasn’t something she’d figured out yet. But everyone was “pissing together” this time, and there was no way around it.

“I went to the edge of the cliff and I put my hand down [my pants] and I put my other hand down to try to splash the urine away from my body, but it was running all down my pants,” she recalls. “It was warm in my hands, and it was everywhere.” 

Somehow, she convinced them.

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She was surprised to have been mistaken as male all that time because growing up in Vermont, no one was ever confused by her identity. Rather, she says she felt like “an ugly woman,” with the nickname “Tranny Danny” that followed her throughout high school. But she went with it because there were only a handful of other female firefighters, and it just didn’t seem necessary to correct them at the time.

In fact, Dove didn’t even realize that her crew thought she was male until they were all sitting around joking about which women they would and wouldn't want as part of their crew. They told her, “Hey, man, come have a seat.” And they asked her for her opinion.

“I was lesbian-identifying at the time — I didn’t identify as queer until later — but at first, for a second, I was like, this is awesome that I can be open with these people,” she remembers. “I just answered, ‘That one over there is for sure someone I’m attracted to, but I can’t say who I don’t want on my team because I think that’s kind of rude.’ And they were like, ‘Bro, don’t be a pussy.’” 

That was her aha moment, though she didn’t know what to say.

“I decided, I’m just going to go with it for as long as I can, and if it’s an hour, if it’s a day, if it’s a week, I’m going to play along with it,” she said. “The longer I went, the harder it became to tell the truth.” 

She didn't want to be either the “ugly girl” in the situation or “the queer one." Instead, she realized that the only way to be likeable to her crew, though not necessarily attractive on their terms, was to show up every day and work hard. She thought that if she could show them she was “one of the dudes,” then no one would be concerned with naming her gender identity.

And she was right — until something unexpected happened.

Toward the end of her stint as a firefighter, Dove was injured after being caught in a fire with a couple of crewmates. She was airlifted to the hospital, and that’s when a paramedic outed her. She'd spent 11 months working with her crew before this happened.

When she was outed, her crew called the paramedics disrespectful. They said, “You shouldn’t talk about Rain like that.” And they also continued to insist that she was mostly definitely not a woman.

“Everyone kept calling me by male pronouns when I came back, and I think it’s because I’d spent a lot of time with them, so they thought, 'He might be transgender and, even if he’s trans, we’re not going to disrespect him,'" she recalled. "(They thought:) 'If he wants to be called ‘she,’ then he will tell us that he wants to be called ‘she,’ but until then, we’ll continue calling him by ‘he’ because that’s what we know to call him.' I thought that was really nice, because I came back and everyone called me by male pronouns.”

To Dove, pronouns are just words; thus, she responds to whatever pronouns people around her choose to use so long as their intentions are pure.

“I think that words, while extremely liberating in allowing us to have this conversation right now and be able to talk about complex thoughts, are also a prison,” she explained. “It’s one of the first prisons that we’re born into — it’s a prison of rules, history, and sounds. We rely very heavily on those… but sometimes, when it comes to complex issues, there is just no sound with a history to explain what you’re trying to say."

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Though Dove added that she doesn't mind if people apply pronouns to her because she wants them to "feel comfortable," to her, pronouns are largely "unnecessary." If someone uses a pronoun to describe Dove in a derogatory way, however, she combats it in a way she deems fit. Her Instagram boasts 162,000 followers, and she regularly shares videos and stories regarding her campaigns to break binary “sexpectations” and stereotypes. For example, during a recent gender-free campaign for KMS, Dove chose to share one of the photos on Instagram in which she's appearing as "societally male." The caption? "F on that Birth Certificate if for ForgetAboutIt."

Originally published on Fairygodboss.

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