Editor’s note: CorporateQ is a series that focuses on how masculine presenting gender queers are bringing their dapper selves to the workplace. In this interview with dapperQ contributor Sarah Herklots, graduate student Laura Kanaplue discusses dressing dapper queer in a variety of settings, from corporate to non-profit. Photos by DAG Images.
Sarah: So, can you start by telling me a little about where you work (or have worked)?
Laura Kanaplue: Currently I’m a graduate student at Hunter College getting my masters in social work. I worked at all different types of places after undergrad – from a media company that was local to my parent’s house, Citigroup in the financial district, a small ad agency, a non-profit organization in Philadelphia, and the Juilliard School in NYC.
Sarah: How long have you identified your style as dapper?
Laura Kanaplue: I don’t think I started to identify as dapper till I heard the word being spread around about 3-4 years ago. I always wanted to dress the way I do now, I just didn’t really find out what stores to shop at and to be honest I wasn’t 100% comfortable with myself to be my, full authentic dapper self.
Sarah: What inspired you to want to do a CorporateQ interview?
Laura: I was inspired to do a CorporateQ interview because of my friend Bo. We are in the Dapper Chicks of New York together and I read her story. It inspired me to tell mine… a particular one.
Sarah Herklots: Well if you have a particular story, have at it! We’ll start there.
Laura: The particular story starts in Philadelphia. I worked for a lovely non-profit organization as an administrative assistant. Not SUPER corporate of course, but still a business setting – especially since I worked with the operations manager rather than on the more programming side of things. I had moved to Philadelphia for the job opportunity and because my then-girlfriend was living there for school. I took an enormous pay cut, but I felt it was worth it to work for such a fantastic organization.
At this moment in time I was comfortable in my dapper skin; My hair was definitely not as dapper as it is now, but the outfits were almost all the same ones I wear today. On my first day of wore, I wore a full suit that my then-girlfriend let me borrow. It was nothing too feminine or out of my comfort zone. I soon took note that everyone in the office dressed way more casual than that, so I started to wear khaki pants, Sperry Topsider shoes, button downs, and a sweater if I was cold. All the men in the office dressed pretty similarly, so I didn’t think it was a problem.
In about July (two months after I was hired as a temp and right after I was hired full-time with the organization) my manager called me into her office and asked me to close the door. I sat down and she said something along the lines of “I don’t know how to say this but your work attire is not appropriate for this office.” I gulped a bit, but I had had a similar experience at Citigroup and tried to be calm. I asked her politely, “Can you tell me what’s not appropriate or how I can make it more appropriate?” Before she could answer I said, “Would you need me to wear a blazer since I sit at the front of the office and greet people? I have no problem with that.”
She looked at me and said, “No. It’s not that.” I said, “Okay, well can you give me some idea of what’s not working?” and without a beat she said, “Oh, I don’t know just look at how the other women dress in the office.” This made my heart stop. I knew exactly what she was saying. It was summer and most of the women were wearing dresses or skirts. So I said to her, “Well I don’t dress like the other women in the office”.
The conversation got really weird and awkward. Then she mentioned something about how the color of my pants was not professional and that maybe black pants would be better. I left her office and felt completely ashamed and awful and upset. There weren’t many men employed at this office, but the few that were 100% wore button downs or Polos with KHAKI colored pants and semi-casual shoes. If anything, I looked BETTER than them (in my own opinion). More buttoned up and, of course, more dapper.
I went to Gap after work, bought a pair of black pants, and wore them the next day. She came in and announced, in front of everyone, “OH I FEEL SO BAD YOU HAD TO SPEND MONEY!” She needed to make it a big deal and pretend like she wasn’t the bad guy or that she did nothing wrong. I felt sick all day. My mother who has been in Human Resources for just about 15 years told me that what my manager had said to me was sexist, and possibly homophobic. She said that I needed to confront her about her choice of words and her actions. It was quite possibly one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.
Sarah: So what did you say?
Laura Kanaplue: Towards the end of the day, I mustered the courage to speak with her. I walked into her office and closed the door. She looked at me and said, “Uh oh!” like it was a joke to her. I said, “No ‘uh oh,’ I just want to clear the air.” I continued, “You know I don’t really understand the conversation from yesterday. You cannot tell me, a WOMAN, that I cannot wear khaki colored pants, but it’s okay for a male-identified person. And, to be honest, I saw a woman in our office today wearing khaki colored pants. I feel singled out, I feel like the way you spoke with me was extremely sexist, and I’m wondering if it has to do with my sexuality as well.”
It was a tiny bit nerve wracking as I said all of this too, because at the time (and I believe currently) you can get fired in the state of Pennsylvania for being LGBTQ-identified. She tried to tell me that the other woman in the office wasn’t wearing khaki colored pants and that she wasn’t singling me out.
Sarah Herklots: Doesn’t it infuriate you when higher ups treat your confrontations like a joke? I used to get that all the time. I’d close the door and my boss would be like “Uh-oh.. what is it now?” and he’d laugh like, “Here comes the feminist again. What are you upset about this time?”
Laura Kanaplue: It is extremely infuriating. I wanted to actually clear the air so we could work together as professionals even if we did not like or understand each other. I was 27 at this point; I wasn’t a teenager or a child. I had worked at a huge corporation like Citigroup. I wasn’t trying to call her out on something that didn’t exist just to make her feel stupid.
She kept being defensive but never once apologized or said, “Hey you know maybe you’re right.” The conversation finally fizzled out with her saying “Well! If it’s going to bother you SO much then let’s just drop it. Wear what you want!” She paused for a moment and added, “And, please don’t hire a lawyer.”
Sarah: NO WAY!!!
Laura Kanaplue: I’m not sure what I ended with saying, probably just that I was glad I could clear the air and left.
She tortured me my entire year and a half there. Funny thing is, she was also THE HR DEPARTMENT! I couldn’t go to anyone.
Sarah: How did things end?
Laura Kanaplue: She didn’t mention my attire much during the remainder of my time there. Every once in a while she’d make a comment about a new shirt when I had one, and not in a nice way. I started wearing bow ties to work and dressing even more dapper. At the organization’s big gala event, I wore my new black JCrew suit with a black/white button down, a black bow tie, and oxford shoes.
Sarah: What was the response?
Laura Kanaplue: She gave me a look, but said nothing.
Sarah: What about your coworkers? What was their response to all of this?
Laura Kanaplue: My coworkers were on my side. They praised me for looking so good in a suit. At the event, the mayor even told me I was a great dancer once I was finally able to enjoy a dance or two!
Sarah: Tell me a bit about your interview process. Did you originally interview with this woman?
Laura Kanaplue: I first interviewed with an executive assistant and the fiscal administrator who I ADORE and LOVE and worked very closely with. I called her my office mom. She was so lovely and always defended me.
I did interview with this woman. I guess you could say I was slightly more feminine in my attire on my interviews, but nothing out of the ordinary that would make you think I was going to come in in heels everyday. I wore some eye make up and maybe some flats, rather than a more masculine shoe. I wasn’t comfortable yet wearing an oxford shoe, as I still had voices in my head that told me I would never get hired if I was my authentic self.
Sarah: What about job interviews after that? Do you find yourself still adjusting your look or have those voices left you?
Laura Kanaplue: After that, I found a black pair of oxfords that I felt comfortable wearing with my suit. I still wore my suit and eye make up on my next interview. It wasn’t until my interview for graduate school that I said enough is enough; I have to be completely myself or else I will not make it past this interview.
Sarah: What advice would you have for others who are going through similar situations?
Laura Kanaplue: I would like to tell everyone that you should ALWAYS be your true authentic self. I know in other parts of the country and beyond that can be extremely hard given that homophobia still exists, and that in some states you can still get fired for being LGBTQ identified. As far as interviews go, be yourself. Pretending and reading a script could get you the job, but you might be sacrificing who you are. In addition, that position you thought you wanted may turn out to be just as scripted and pretend as you were on your interview.
Sarah: You said that your mom has experience in HR. Did she give you any particularly helpful advice about dealing with someone in HR about this kind of thing?
Laura Kanaplue: She just told me that I have rights. That what my manager did was absolutely out of line and harassment. She reminded me that I must always be my authentic self and ALWAYS stick up for myself even when it’s difficult.
In the past, my mom has told me that I should dress more feminine on interviews. Over time she has discovered that, when I am my true authentic self, I am my best and I can decide what is right for me. It has been a long journey, but at the end of it my mom always supports my decisions even if she doesn’t 100% get it right away.
Sarah: Well I am glad that you had both a supportive mother and co-staff during that time. So, tell me about your go-to interview outfit now!
Laura Kanaplue: Well it depends. My suit is actually a little stuffy for most non-profit organizations. Now that I’m in school, the only interviews I have are for internships. I wear a nice pair of pants. I have a few JCrew khaki pants or Gap ones: khaki colored, or navy. I’ll wear a pair of oxford shoes, brown or black, but if it’s cold out I have a beautiful pair of suede desert boots that I love to wear. I’ll finish that with short sleeve button down, a colored coordinated bow tie, and a blazer with a pocket square. Can’t forget the pocket square!
Sarah: Of course! Does living in New York feel different than Philly as far as what you feel comfortable wearing?
Laura Kanaplue: Right now I’m temping at work places. One is on Wall Street and the other is at a super corporate building across from Madison Square Garden.
I own my bow ties and my pocket squares and my nice pants. I wear my hair very dapper, but I would be lying if sometimes I feel very out of place.
Sarah: And the response from your higher ups?
Laura Kanaplue: No one says a word. As a temp, I’m kind of just there to get a job done. I’ve had people in the office compliment me, but no complaints.
Sarah Herklots: What do you do when you feel out of place? Do you have any particular little coping skills?
Laura Kanaplue: I just remember that we all have individual styles and ways of expressing ourselves. Not everyone expresses themselves via clothing. I absolutely do. I sometimes just think of the other girls in the Dapper Chicks of New York – how well they dress and how a lot of them are in corporate or office settings too, and how they go to work everyday dressed like that. That there are other cisgendered women out there doing the same thing.
I guess also part of my coping mechanisms is blogging. Having my girlinabowtie.com blog allows me to showcase other women dressing the way I do and inspires me to be myself. It’s so great to hear other people’s stories and I’m so glad that dapperQ has CorporateQ to give people a voice.
Sarah: Thank you for being one of those voices!
Laura Kanaplue: Thank you for allowing me to be!
Sarah: Anything else you want to add before we wrap up?
Laura Kanaplue: Just that I hope that everyone can find the strength to empower themselves and stick up for themselves even if it is difficult.
If you are interested in being profiled, please write to [email protected] re: CorporateQ. Give us a few paragraphs describing your experience and include a photo or two if you can. We are also interested in hearing stories of those of you whose location, industry or circumstances would never allow you to dress in a gender nonconforming manner and we can keep your experience anonymous.