In this edition of the Incognito series, a transgender senior manager shares her experience of transitioning in the workplace, and the incredible support she received from her employers and colleagues.
The way I managed gender dysphoria when I was younger was to bury myself in other aspects of my life – family, relationships, education and work. So in that sense, my career never really suffered, getting off to a great start with a series of really interesting roles following graduation. I always had an awareness of what was going on inside me, but transitioning never felt like an achievable objective, so I just kept my head down and lived the life I thought I was supposed to lead.
What happened over time was that the conflict around my identity grew bigger and bigger, until it reached a critical point where I had to face up to it and make difficult decisions. I had no transgender role models I could learn from, so I drew strength from virtual friends made on online forums, and with their support I was able to become the real me in all aspects of my personal life. But I was still the old me at work. The prospect of coming out was hugely daunting, until, eventually, the dual presentation just became too exhausting and I knew I had to do something, regardless of the consequences.
“Whatever we need to do to support you, we’ll do it.”
I’ll never forget those words from my HR manager. They were just amazing to hear. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but to know that it could be okay was incredible. I’d crossed the metaphorical bridge; this was going to happen.
Over the next five weeks, we worked together on a plan of action. I think it’s fair to say that anyone going through a transition can become quite selfish; because we’re so focussed on what’s happening to us, it’s easy to forget the impact that the news could have on others. So having HR and my line manager work so closely with me brought some much-needed balance. We spent a lot of time considering how the people I worked with would be supported through my transition.
My last day in the office presenting as a man arrived. In my regular team meeting, my line manager announced that I had some news and I was given the opportunity to tell my story. A couple of people on my team already knew and it was great to be able to look up and see nods and smiles of support. I delivered the news in quite a dramatic way, and on reflection I wish I’d used a lighter tone.
But hey, you only get one transition - it’s definitely not something I’ll be doing again!
After the session I took myself off on a planned holiday. While I was away, the company invited a transgender charity to come into the business and hold a Q&A to give everyone the chance to ask all the difficult questions that inevitably come up around sexual orientation, dress and pronouns. The plan was that by the time I came back, all the awkwardness and uncertainty would have been dealt with.
On the eve of my first workday as a woman, I received a call from the Managing Director, wishing me all the best – to have that support was hugely reassuring. I knew that if I encountered any problems, action would be taken. Heads turned when I walked into the office and there was a sense of people walking on eggshells, but that was only to be expected. Overall, people were hugely encouraging and very nice to me.
Of course it took people a little while to get used to referring to me as “she”. When you’re transitioning you’re incredibly protective of your identity so it’s mortifying to be mis-gendered. But eventually you have to accept that the brain makes such quick decisions about gender that for most people, it’s entirely accidental.
There are people whose intention is to wound and hurt, but for most, it’s just an innocent mistake.
It helped enormously that the first person who ever got it wrong at work was me: I referred to myself by my old name. It was a great icebreaker and let people know that it was okay if they slipped up. It still happens occasionally, particularly on the phone - though I’ve had voice therapy, I am still sometimes referred to as “Sir”. You have to develop a thick skin and gently remind whoever you’re speaking to that it’s “Miss”.
Work became a safe place for me
The consequence of having so much support from my employer was that work, once the news value of my transition had passed, became a very safe space for me.
Before my hormone therapy began I did get a fair bit of aggravation outside work, so knowing that I had that positive, empowering place of employment was a great crutch. These days I’m a mentor to other transgender individuals and I’m aware that not everyone has such a positive experience. I was fortunate to be in a senior role when I began my transition – undoubtedly that helped. But I also think that if the culture is right to begin with, anyone can do these things. I suspect that in organisations where people encounter issues with coming out, there are numerous other problems too.
I’m often asked what reflections I have and if I’d do anything differently. It’s difficult to see how my immediate transition could have been handled any better by my employers. But as my surgery approached some years later, the enormity of it all completely consumed me, and my performance undoubtedly suffered. On hindsight I would have raised that, and sought a level of support over the longer term. I’d also perhaps have been in less of a rush to break the news widely at work. The plan we put together was formulated over a matter of weeks. I see people going through the same now and they’re a little more considered in their approach.
It’s hugely rewarding when I’m able to help other members of the community. Traditionally the trans world has been characterised by stealth. I’m passionate about helping people be open about their gender history without shame or ridicule. With so many ridiculously ill-informed comments in the media, there’s still a lot of work to do.
More from the Incognito series on the everywomanNetwork