Putting the T into LGBT workplace

NellNell is an employee of Derbyshire County Council Adult Care. After much soul-searching, Nell decided to be open about her transition at work in the summer of 2011. Chance Delgado asks the prominent points and finds out the hurdles faced by being trans in the workplace...


How have you dealt with being transgendered in the workplace? Have there been any hurdles? How have you overcome them?
I’ve tried to be as open and honest about my gender status as I can. When I first decided to come out I spent quite a bit of time with my line manager, who’s been absolutely great, planning what I would do and when. Then, we cleared this with the senior management team. I decided that because my work takes me into many different outlets across the authority I would compose an email which would go to all the local managers and they could make all colleagues aware of what was happening. The biggest hurdle, I suppose, was that having worked in a male gender role for over thirty years, my colleagues thought they knew me and then they found out that they didn’t! That said, they’ve taken my coming out really well and been so supportive.
The other massive issues were and still are related to my work with people with learning disabilities. There’s a perception that they don’t handle change well and that our first duty is to protect them from anything that can cause them distress. It’s also a fact that many of them have parents and carers who are older and many of them do live in traditional, rural or industrial communities. I’ve tried to deal with these issues by being professional and as open as I can be. By and large, the people with learning disabilities have been wonderful. Some seem to relate to me wholly as a woman, using female pronouns, for example. Others realise that I am transgender and need an occasional reminder to use the appropriate pronouns, but that is about it.
What do you think is the greatest difficulty with being trans in the workplace?
For me, there are two main difficulties. One is because my work role teaching people with learning disabilities takes me out into the community so often. Although I try and present in my preferred gender as well as I can, I do have to face the fact that being six feet tall and slim, many members of the public do give me a second look and then often ‘read’ me. For most, that’s as far as it goes. However, it can go way beyond that. I had a couple of middle-aged men follow me through a city centre recently openly  mocking me for about five minutes when I was trying to teach a group of people how to stay safe on the streets. Once when I was in a charity shop discussing getting work placements, a man burst in, shouting, ‘I’ve got to know – are tha’ a man or a woman? C’mon let me hear thee talk!’ Because you never know if things like that are going to happen it’s hard to really relax and just do my job.
The second problem is around communicating with people on the phone. Although I don’t have a deep voice, the pitch, timbre and intonation must clearly say male to the person on the other end. So when I say my name is ‘Nell’ they all too often come up with ‘Neil’. I’ve said things like ‘It’s Nell, not Neil,’ and telling them I’m trans, but in a large organisation with lots of colleagues it can be a long process getting the message across.
Do you think colleagues have treated you differently?
Professionally, no, but on an interpersonal social level, yes, very much so. I think it is inevitable and I take it as a good sign, because to me it shows that my preferred gender role is largely accepted. I don’t get banter from male colleagues since I came out, but women colleagues do seem to include me into their conversations and compliment me on how I look and so on. In general I’ve not had any of the issues around using gender specific facilities like toilets that I know can be an issue in many workplaces.
Do you think job application forms should include ‘trans’ on their gender selection box, or is it not important?
I don’t even know why we have any question about gender on application forms anymore unless it is a gender-specific position, of which there are fewer and fewer. It would be good if employers were not only tolerant of trans people, but saw them as real assets. But we aren’t there yet by a long way, so if there has to be a gender question, then for now let’s keep it at male/female. I’ve a different view on workplace monitoring though. Here I do think there should be a way of identifying (confidentially of course) the numbers of employees who see themselves as having a gender difference. Just having the question there raises the awareness among colleagues that trans people are welcomed into the workforce. It can also be the first step that makes someone start to ask themselves who and what they are. Many trans people deal with their gender identity through being in deep denial and it is very traumatic. Seeing that could be the first step on the journey to accepting their true self.
Would you welcome personal questions from your colleagues?
I think it’s more a point of how do you deal with personal questions. People have a natural curiosity about someone making such a fundamental change in their lives. There’s also such a lot of misinformation and stereotypical attitudes in the media that people are bound to be confused. My own personal approach is more about how the questions are asked, and if they make me feel uncomfortable I ask them how they would feel if I asked them a similar question.
How would you advise other trans people wanting to come out?
I would say that first of all you have to be sure that you need to transition. Coming out does change how people see and react to you and it will stay that way, so it isn’t something you can do without being sure. As Professor Kevan Wylie, a world authority on transgender said, ‘Trans people leave too many steps in the social snow to be able to go back inside the closet’. If you do want to come out, I think it is vital to plan the steps well in advance and involve senior managers. Decide who you want to know about you and when  you will tell them and how. Make sure everyone knows that it is your disclosure to make and that you don’t want the message to be spread by gossip. As for whether I think people should come out, I can’t say. To me, being trans is about what you need to do to resolve the conflict between your inner gender identity and outward gender expression. If someone can do that by presenting as their preferred gender in social settings or on a part-time basis, then all well and good. I only know what is right for me – and that is to transition fully in all aspects of my life to my true self as a woman.
What other stories can you tell us about your journey?
I think the most instructive one is around dress. I’ve always seen myself as very feminine woman. I don’t think the clothes I wear or my makeup is flamboyant, but I do try to look the best I can as a woman. Quite soon after I’d come out at work I was asked why I always wore skirts and dresses as I was told that women nowadays tend to wear leggings and so on; then, when I did get some leggings, someone remarked that I perhaps looked a bit ‘too sexy’ because you could see the shape of my legs! On both occasions, I remarked that I’d spent decades as an adult male wearing clothes that felt totally alien to how I identified inside and now I’d come out I wasn’t going to compromise unless there was a dress code saying that I couldn’t wear a particular item.
What do you think would help the trans community further their careers and feel more comfortable in the workplace? What do you think holds trans people back?
Although there are the legal protections now, the last thing a harmonious workplace needs is some Equality Act diva agitating for their rights, I would have thought. I can remember having awareness-training around LGB issues well before I ever met anyone who was out with their sexuality, so perhaps there is some need to do this with trans issues too. I know that the Gender Identity and Education Research Society – GIRES – do have some online e-learning packages for local authority staff – and these would at least make people more aware. I also think that the life experiences of trans people need to taken into account and viewed positively by employers. The skills and attributes needed when coming out and transitioning are valuable and transferable into the wider workplace, so why not use them?
Although there are differences between gender and sexuality, the LGBT Employee Network has been great and our Equality and Diversity Lead Officer has been invaluable. I’ve also been lucky that I was able to use the experiences of another trans woman as a guide to how to proceed, and for her support I’m really grateful.
I know I’ve not made the most of myself, career wise. Living a lie affects every aspect of your life and, for example, I’ve never been successful in interviews I think as a result. I’m fortunate that my employers have a programme, Springboard, for women, and as soon as I get the first intensive part of my transition out of the way I’m going to go on that, and if I can find the funds, go back and do more learning, so I can not only be a woman but a successful one too.
What support would be useful from senior managers?
In my instance, it’s more about what has been useful as they have been great. I was given a lot of practical and moral support from the outset and they very much set clear boundaries on what was acceptable in terms of how colleagues responded to my situation. My line manager has been fantastic. Transition can be stressful and intense and affect your performance at work so their support and the space to be myself at last has been a truly rewarding and often moving experience.