On Employability

By Neon Mashurov

adapted from notes and participation in panel “This Writer’s Work: The Trans* Poetics of Labor,” AWP 2023

We come to life in spaces of encounter

Our kingdom to whoever gets our name right

Retell a wisdom —
The highway system worksbecause of loveor,
I wake up every morning in this killing machine called america

It’s a very literal metaphor — money, bodies, elapsing time
Money / bodies without heads / hot bodies / america runs on —
how we walk down the streetwetlike hustle

Any other year, I would slide / into yr muscle memory /
but here / in the anticipation / I tended only to the rupture /
nourished it / committed to it fully / to its wreckage /
Prefigured our impending separation

(from “Annihilation Suite,” originally published in Peach Magazine)

To prepare for a panel at the intersection of identity and work, I’d been digging through my poems and resumé alike, trying to solve a nagging question: why is it that the more transsexual I get, the more employable I feel?


A relic of someone else’s politics

A Deer dragging a corpse uphill I
make a home in my tantrum

Circulate wage labor thirst traps

Who will pay for this new body ?

( “Annihilation Suite”)




Even on this side of the “trans tipping point,” this sense of increasing employability opposes all conventional wisdom about life as a trans person. It runs counter to trans employmentstatistics, which say that trans workers are twice as likely as cis workers to be un- or under- employed and four times more likely to live in poverty, and counter to the virulent anti-transsentiment expanding like a noxious gas from the swamps of DeSantis’s legislative vendettas to the unimpeachable pages of the New York Times.

Granted, I am both white and transmasculine, so, although I have no interest in being stealth, if I were to change my mind (and if no one noticed my small feet, or chest scar, or aggressively trans paper trail) I could potentially pass as a white male — a famously employable type of person.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my concept of “employability” was not at all based on how closely I outwardly resembled the criteria of what I or anyone else believed to be an employable person, but rather on a sense of self-possession that had evaded me most of my life.

I first encountered the significance of this absence during my post-undergrad job hunt, in 2011. I’d worked consistently throughout the last four years, but this was different: the next job was supposed to mark the end of part-time placeholder work and the beginning of a Meaningful Career. I just had to make it past the interviews.

Any competence I conveyed on paper fell apart in person. I had only just learned the term “genderqueer” but immediately knew that behind this clunker was a semantic world able to hold the relentlessness of gender incongruence I felt. But this didn’t actually help with my immediate material problems. I had no idea what femme professionalism looked like. As a baby egg I’d regularly arrive at interviews for an editorial internship at some B-list Pitchfork, dressed in some ridiculous polyester business-casual Lord & Taylor blouse — my best approximation of what women wore to work. For years I’d get the interview, but never the job. Surely there are countless reasons for this, but I assume not least among them were (1) how clearly uncomfortable I was, my attention monopolized by a not-yet-articulated but already deafening dysphoria, and (2) my body language, caught tragicomically between “how do you do, fellow cisgenders” and “I would rather fall through the floor than spend another second being perceived.”

All that plus a recession, and I was working in the service industry.

The tobacco store had been there for over a hundred years: an unspoiled monument to antique kitsch.

Each morning at 8:45am, I sweep the sidewalk, wash the windows. There is a pleasure to routine. I check the messages. I stuff massive ziploc bags full of tobacco, pressing out the air.

Everything has a texture, a smell. Thick, wet clumps of cavendish: strawberry, cherry. Handfuls of airy gold shag and mossy, pubic dutch shag. I want to stick my face in all of it & inhale deep.

I do my best to match the shop aesthetic. Vintage femme: polka dot dress & denim vest. The boss hires tattooed college kids, convinced we can appeal to the broadest range of people. Our job is to hand things to people, but also, to handle people. To provide an experience. I learn to smile agreeably, lean into every interaction. Do you live around here? Do you go to school? What a cool thing to study. Good customer service is about giving someone a positive experience on a garbage day. Every day is a garbage day for someone.

Cigars are the heart of the business. I’ve never smoked one but I learn the language. How would you describe this one? Leather & cedar notes. Perfect for after dinner.

Dinner cigars. Bachelor party cigars. Birthday cigars. There are so many rituals, so many masculinities I don’t understand.

We don’t carry dutchies, only cigarillos. A not-so-subtle hint: we’re not that kind of a place. Anyway, the men who come in aren’t cigarillo men. They want them thicker, bullet-shaped. They want the cool ten-minute smokes.

When Harvard men come in — stiff rulers of the world in pristine sweater-blazer combos — they nod at us, and we escort them to a special humidifier in the back.

The men love you so much. You are so charming, acquiescent. They ask, Where are you from? Who are you when you aren’t here? You become so interesting, so mysterious. A young thing to be picked & picked apart. They come to you, hands on the wallets bulging in their pockets. You smile demurely, make them think you want it.

(from SERVICE originally published by Bottlecap Press)




Where my awkward attempts at delivering white collar femininity had failed, performing service industry femininity was way more straightforward. After years of searching for something to like about womanhood, on the assumption that I was stuck with it forever, I settled on a reassuringly practical feature: its transactional value. Despite all my squirming discomfort with the Russian gender norms which my family and culture tried unsuccessfully to instill in me, I hadn’t missed the lesson that an ostentatious, almost pornographic femininity was one’s best, if not only, tool for economic survival. It might not have translated to the American professional class, but, in retail or hospitality, it was a slam dunk.

Then, it’s 2014. I’m bartending at a gay bar in Brooklyn, and it’s a good thing I practiced all that ~feminine charm~ back in Boston because most of my tips still come from flirting with straight men. Statistically, it figures — there are so many of them, and they have the most disposable income — but it is increasingly exhausting. The dysphoria is now unbearable.
It’s 2015. I am in my peak Bieber lookalike era, long past any lingering attempts at femme presentation, but am still only ever “she/her”’d and “miss”’d. It’s 2016, 2017, 2018; the new generation of young queers asserts their right to “they/them” pronouns and so I do as well, but I’m still terrified to take any material steps toward medical transition, convinced I would lose what I’d come to accept was my main earning quality.

Every part of my body hurts & I'm drinking too much

This dude in a Pharrell hat wants to hook me up with his roommate. “You’re a lesbian, right?” He keeps calling me “girl” & “beautiful” & putting his hand on me & asking for my number like we're friends. I want to fight him

The more I want to fight people the more I regress into being this angry fuckboy caricature

I want to leave but True Romance is on & S. moves to hold my hand

I want to leave but C.A.'s shoulder brushes my shoulder & I want to see where this goes (nowhere)

I want to leave but B. says his foot is getting amputated & this could be the last time i hang out with him while he has a foot

It's raining & stupid & I want to fight the moon

(from Good Leather for Bad Weather)




The closer I got to 30, the harder it was to work more than a subsistence level of shifts. But I couldn’t bring myself to apply to writing or editing jobs.

Careers are built on “making a name for yourself” — but how could I do that when it was a name I knew I’d someday change? (I may be writing in the time of Elliot Page, but this spiral was before the writer Daniel Lavery, the first public figure I had seen do so, transitioned while already widely published.) Even outside of the publishing and media industries, finding and keeping white-collar jobs depended at least in part on a well-maintained, always-already gendered personal brand. With service jobs, I only had to perform an ill-fitting gender while on the clock. That made sense to me, especially since so much of the job was already based on performance — artificial knowledge, artificial friendliness, etc. It was another thing entirely not only to have a treacherously gendered data double on the loose, but to have to regularly fortify her with a “sense of authenticity,” like some haunted Neopet.

There are things you can’t control
like the weatheror what you are.

I feel about this how sea creatures must
feel about rain: the everyday made sudden
(this is how you learn to thirst)

For example,
it’s December,

I’m no longer sure of my name
so I stop introducing myself.

It’s vacant / loaded / lonely / it’s electric
& it’s slimy. & there’s nothing that can hold us.

Isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t that make it cold?

The ghost story is that your girl once lived here
& the secret is,
I miss her too. That is to say, I also dreamed her up.

But I’ve been living in the balance of a question
where body / is tied to empire / tied to discourse / where
yr body is the villain
is the selling point
is this thing for you to just get over
is capitulation
is an insult
is a letting down
of everyone you’ve ever known / & still
you yourself are never let down from the ledge.

So you build a castle on the ledge —
you tell yourself how you’ve always loved ledges
how unique the climate is

& isn’t that beautiful? Isn’t that really cold?

It’s like a cat: it’s always vanished when you try to get a look at it
I mean, it’s like this cat / sat on my chest last night / a heavy one
Today I’ve got it by the scruff.

& none of this is okay (despite the forecast)
& all your freezing lonely nights in empty downtowns
are snowglobes / in somebody else’s living room.

(from "Eleven")




It’s 2023. I am once again looking for “career-oriented” jobs post-graduation, this time after grad school, and while the results are still a mixed bag, it no longer feels outside the realm of possibility. And, for me at least, this feeling is directly related to having taken tangible steps toward physical transition.

Revisiting this archive, I realize now that when I say that transitioning finally makes me feel employable, I actually just mean that I am starting to feel like a person in the world. But, since I have been working my entire adult life, my conception of personhood, like my conception of gender, is inextricably tied to wage labor.

Transition eases going outside in the daytime where I might be perceived; it makes me feel like I could show up at the same place, multiple days in a row, without needing a recovery day to offset each shift wherein I’m misgendered for eight hours straight. It lets me conceive of a livable dailiness, and thus, a livable futurity.

But what a depressing thing to celebrate — that I can finally, maybe enter the white-collar job market, even with the statistical disadvantages of being trans? In Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues, a crucial plot point comes when the factory jobs that have long sustained Buffalo’s gender-nonconforming lesbians, including the narrator Jess, start to dry up in the early ’70s. As this relatively permissive space disappears, their access to income again becomes dependent on their legibility within a gender binary. Four butches arrive at Jess’s house with wigs and makeup in tow, their economic desperation pushing them into dysphoric femme drag in the hopes of securing department store work. Jess can’t bring herself to do it. Instead, Jess takes the only other option she sees within this binary and joins other butches who have started HRT in order to find work as men. Although Jess could be described as “masc of center,” she identifies primarily as a butch, and her decision to transition — and especially to be stealth — is written overtly as a matter of survival. Both options are driven by economic necessity and both require immense sacrifice:

“I don’t feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body,” Jess tells her butch friend before her transition. “I just feel trapped.”

Fifty years later, this frustration still hits. Life for white transmasculine queers like Jess and I has gotten significantly less dangerous — I certainly don’t have to worry about wearing threearticles of clothing that match my AGAB in the event I get arrested for gay dancing — but a less- than-legible gender is still a liability. Like Jess, I still consider myself genderqueer and, though Iam happy with many aspects of medical transition, my reasons for engaging with it cannot be separated from the demands of capitalism. For non-passing trans people, work options are often limited to service, nightlife, sex work, and, for a lucky few, “the arts”— all precarious forms of employment, hard on the body, but without access to healthcare that might cover medical transition (or the deluge of health issues which disproportionately affect trans people and can impede our ability to perform this labor in the first place). And yet, there is no dream job. My trans desires are of a dailiness that does not revolve around wage labor, of everyone having what they need, of opulent dance parties and reciprocal community care and adequate rest. It’s not a job I want but healthcare, housing, and surplus to redistribute — and yet, to access those, I am expected to discipline myself into a legibly gendered subject for the opportunity to sell my labor, even below market rate. Transitioning will never make that any better. I’m just hoping that it makes the dailiness more bearable.

What I mean is the sky opened up and then flashes of lightor,
by the train tracksrusted
I was a vehicle for everything at once
for everyone’s life stories to unfold around me
heldto lather in that centrifuge

& now all I want is to sit with you
all nightat yr shitty job
because you sit with me at mine.

In the ambient atrocity we’re nostalgic
for a sharp disasterpiece

Demand annihilation
at a comrades’ trusted hands
Inside yr hair like bat wings
This apocalypse

I could wait all year.

("Annihilation Suite")

Headshot of Neon Mashurov

Neon Mashurov (NM Esc) is a writer from Brooklyn and the post-Soviet diaspora. Their most recent chapbooks are SERVICE (Bottlecap Press, 2022), and Last Week’s Weather Forecast Made Me Nervous (Ghost City Press / Secret Riso Club, 2018), and their poetry appears in publications including We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Trans Poetics, Black Warrior Review, Hot Pink Magazine, The Recluse, The Felt, and Peach Magazine. They hold an MFA from the University of California San Diego, where they edited the Alchemy translation journal and completed a hybrid manuscript about collective organizing and inherited political depression. They currently live in New York and teach writing at the School of Visual Arts.

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