Late in 2016, I requested a meeting with my HR rep. I was nervous. In that meeting I intended telling her that I was transgender, and that I wished to transition.
At that point I had already started to transition socially. I had already started presenting as a woman on a daily basis for simple things like going to the shops or the cinema. When I worked from home I was able to express my gender as a woman, wearing makeup, skirts, and so on. I don’t know if people realised I was transgender but almost uniformly I was treated positively.
However, whenever I had to go into the office I had to switch back into a male role. Needless to say this was a very difficult thing to do. Eventually I decided I could no longer continue to jump from one role to the other, and that’s how I came to I tentatively reach out and request the meeting I now found myself on my way to.
Coming out as trans to anyone is both stressful and surreal. There’s a moment of silence after you utter the words “I’m transgender” to someone for the very first time. You can almost see people trying to take in what you’ve just said. That pause might only be half a second but, for the person coming out, it can seem like an eternity.
“There’s a moment of silence after you utter the words 'I’m transgender' to someone for the very first time. You can almost see people trying to take in what you’ve just said”
You’re also never quite sure of what reaction you’re going to get. Being transgender, you quickly becomes attuned to negative reactions. Oftentimes it’s a look or a muttered aside but other times it can be more confrontational. I’ve been relatively lucky in that I haven’t been on the receiving end of a physical confrontation but over the years I had experienced negative comments – “Is that a man?” – and stares. However, as my confidence grew these incidents fell to the wayside. They still happen from time to time but I’m now so much more comfortable in my own skin that I don’t really care what people think. The important thing is that I know who I am and I am comfortable with being me. I guess I’m lucky in that my height – I’m 5′6″ – is an advantage and it means that I don’t stand out. I also tend to dress rather conservatively, the way most women of my age do. I dress down rather than dress up.
When it came to Ann Marie, my HR rep, I need not have worried. She was, of course, taken aback – after all, when she hired me I had a beard and was male-presenting – but she was immediately supportive. She confessed this was her first time in 20 years of working in HR that this situation had arisen but, more importantly, she got up, gave me a hug and told me she would support me in every way possible.
After that initial meeting we met on a weekly basis to plan my transition within the workplace: Who would need to be told? When would we tell them? How would we tell them? Email? Face to face? We also had to work out small but important logistical things like changing my email address, changing my access badge to the building and so on. All of this needed to be coordinated for when I was going to come back to work as Aoife. We had decided that this would happen in January after the Christmas break. It seemed apposite to do it then. New Year, new me, right?
In the end we decided that we would only tell people who needed to know. I told some close colleagues, the members of my team and my manager. There was no grand announcement, no email sent out. The office grapevine would do its work anyway when I came back.
And so, on 5 January, 2017, I came back to work as Aoife.
Naturally, I was very nervous. I have no problem meeting strangers as Aoife because I have no history with them. When meeting people as Aoife who knew me pre-transition, it’s a different story. I had trouble sleeping the night before but managed to grab a few hours before the alarm went off at 4:30. I showered, carefully applied my makeup, and got dressed. I wore (I think) a grey skirt, black opaque tights, a black top and a cardigan – standard office attire – and left my apartment at 6:00 for the commute to work.
It’s hard to describe how nerve-wracking it was that first day. It’s a large open-plan office, so when you go to get coffee or go to the bathroom you can’t help but feel all eyes are upon you. But of course, that’s not the case – most people are too absorbed in their own work to notice. It took a few weeks for this feeling to go away and for me to be more comfortable in my own skin at the office. It’s weird at first when you know that people know that you’re trans, but it’s a feeling that soon dissipates. I got to the office early that day and hid behind my computer. A few people who knew what was happening stopped by to wish me luck and I had kind of hoped that my day would be otherwise uneventful.
I went for lunch with some colleagues but when I came back there was a bouquet of flowers waiting on my desk. There was a small card with the flowers. It said: “Welcome back. Acceptance matters to us here in Mastercard.” It transpired Ann Marie had arranged the flowers to welcome me back to work. I was genuinely moved by such a thoughtful and considerate gesture, and right then I knew my being trans wasn’t going to be an issue. We have an inclusive culture at my office, and it’s thanks to everyone who works here that that is the case.
“Work should be a safe space for anyone who is LGBTQ+. It might be the only safe space that employee has.”
It’s also very important because work should be a safe space for anyone who is LGBTQ+. In fact, it might be the only safe space that particular employee has. We should never assume that just because someone is out and happy and accepted in the workplace that they are afforded the same respect outside the office.
I know I’m lucky to work for an organisation where I can be myself – my whole, true self. To my work colleagues I’m just Aoife. It’s “Hi Aoife” when I see them and that’s the way it should be, but everyone is as lucky as I am. I have no doubt that there are trans people working for companies all over where they can’t be themselves; where they face the possibility of being ostracised or discriminated against or sacked if they were to come out as transgender. There are lots of smaller companies that might not even have a HR department or have any policies in place in relation to transgender people. We spend a third of our day or more in the workplace – shouldn’t we be allowed to be who we are? Shouldn’t that place be a safe space for every employee?
Even if a company is open and accepting to transgender employees we should be cognizant of the fact that for many transgender people the world is often a hostile place that has to be navigated carefully – from the rights of trans people being rolled back under the Trump administration to the vitriol that greeted the UK government’s attempt to update the Gender Recognition Act.
We must remain vigilant. The bravest thing a transgender person can do is step across the threshold and outside into the world. Being visibly trans is to open yourself up to potential verbal and physical abuse and having safe spaces, like the workplace, where we spend a lot of our time is essential. It also benefits employers to have a diverse and inclusive workforce.
That said, transitioning at work has given me a voice where I never had a voice before. I am only too happy to speak about my own experience of transitioning in the workplace. It’s important that we have visibility around trans issues. The only way we are going to ‘normalise’ transgender people is for those like me to live visibly and vocally. No one ever got their rights by being silent.
Being more visible means that people are made more aware of trans issues and they can see that we are just people, and like everyone else we just want to live our lives and to be treated equally and without discrimination.
Being visible also means the next generation of transgender and non-binary people can see that, yes, there are are people like me out like them. They are not alone. They are not the only one. It might give them the courage they need to come out and to be themselves. I long for the day where a transgender people can just be themselves and not have to explain or justify who they are, where they can be just a normal part of society. We are part of the rich, diverse soup that it means to be human. We should celebrate difference. If we were all the same life would be an awful lot less interesting.
Aoife Martin is a trans woman and trans rights advocate
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Useful websites and helplines:
- The Gender Trust supports anyone affected by gender identity | 01527 894 838
- Mermaids offers information, support, friendship and shared experiences for young people with gender identity issues | 0208 1234819
- LGBT Youth Scotland is the largest youth and community-based organisation for LGBT people in Scotland. Text 07786 202 370
- Gires provides information for trans people, their families and professionals who care for them | 01372 801554
- Depend provides support, advice and information for anyone who knows, or is related to, a transsexual person in the UK