Reviewed by Sarah Evans
At the beginning of her memoir, Chloe Schwenke is unemployed, desperate to find work after being fired unexpectedly from a leading human rights organization.
While her bosses didn’t state it outright, Schwenke is sure they let her go because she is a transgender woman.
It’s not the first, nor the last time Schwenke will wonder whether people are discriminating against her due to her status, as she reveals throughout her memoir, Self-Ish: A Transgender Awakening (Red Hen Press, May 2018).
It seems unbelievable at first that a woman with her job experience would find herself struggling to stay employed.
Schwenke worked for decades in senior positions in human rights activism and international development. She led major development and human rights organizations worldwide and became one of the first three transgender political appointees in U.S. history when President Obama named her a senior advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
But her retelling of a professional meeting with one organization’s CEO during her job hunt starts to bring clarity to the barriers she faces. The two started their coffee meeting normally enough, conversation flowing easily as they talked about the work they had in common.
But as soon as Schwenke mentioned her “history,” the CEO — who was not aware of her transgender status until that point — immediately shifted the conversation to questions about her transition. After a long, awkward silence, he finally said his organization was “unlikely to have any work” for Schwenke.
Schwenke’s job troubles are nowhere near the only hurdle she has faced. She didn’t transition until middle age, when she already had a wife and two children. This brought many unanswerable questions. How does someone go from years of being a father to trying to be a mother? What if their child doesn’t want “another mother”? How does their spouse feel and what does the transition mean for their relationship?
These family-related questions often lead people to say that transgender men and women are “selfish” — that they are indulging in some internal wish without considering the impact of their change on their loved ones. Schwenke, instead, says she is “self-ish,” finally claiming and owning her authentic self after years of agonizing over her identity.
Schwenke’s writing, unfortunately, is not literary. She tells of her adventures working in Africa, of the fraught friendships she lost after her transition, and of her family’s struggles without ever bringing the reader fully into the moment. In other words, it’s all telling, no showing.
Still, in today’s political climate, where “bathroom bills” are commonplace and the presidential administration has been rolling back rights for transgender people, reading a story like Schwenke’s becomes essential.
Schwenke comes off as an intelligent, thoughtful, easy-going, middle-aged woman who works hard and sticks to her beliefs. A portrait of a transgender person as “normal” is more important now than ever.