B.C. on Gender: Coming Out
I've always been transgendered; as long as I can remember. I remember being chastised for gender-inappropriate behaviour as early as four years old.
And I learned to hide my transgenderism. I mustn't have been very good at hiding it, because all through high school and university, people knew I was somehow different.
It wasn't really until I went off to University that I had a good idea about why I was different. I grew up in a small city with a population of 60,000-70,000; when I got to a University town, I suddenly had access to good libraries and research material, and I devoured everything about TGs that I could get my hands on.
For the first time, I could really identify my difference. But I was afraid to let anyone else know; I expected to be deeply closetted all my life.
A few things changed that.
Firstly, in January of 1997, I finally met a TG friend whom I had previously only known over the Internet. "Janice" (this may or may not be her real name) and I used to chat online about being transgendered. By the time I met her in person, Janice had already successfully transitioned at work. She worked in a similar field to me, and in general, the reaction that she got was "so what? This doesn't change the way you do your job." Her stories did a lot to dispel my belief that a successful work transition was impossible.
Secondly, I had been spending a lot of time with Siobhán. Siobhán is one of the most "out" people that I've ever known, and she won a lot of respect from people because she never pretended to be something she wasn't. She lived her life the way she wanted, and she was admired for that courage. From her, I learned to be out.
I strongly considered my TG feelings in the light of these new outlooks, and, in May of 1997, I decided to act on my life-long feelings in a new way. I decided to come out at work.
I've come out to my work twice, now.
In the first case, I had been working for a large, international computer company for almost seven years. I joined the company when I was deeply closetted about my TGism and I thought that I would always keep that part of me separate from my work life. I believed that for several years.
During a regular status update meeting in May of 1997, I asked my manager to find out for me the company's policy with respect to transgendered individuals. Not surprisingly, he didn't have the answer immediately available to him.
It was an awkward outting for me. I'd already outted myself to most of my friends, but at work the dynamic was different. My manager was several years my senior, and had no familiarity with transgendered people. It was necessary for me to do some on-the-spot education, and I hadn't really mentally prepared myself for it. I think that a lot of the things I said were muddied or confused, but the main gist came across.
He went away, and spoke with Human Resources, and eventually informed me that the company wouldn't care about my transition, so long as my ability to perform my job was not affected. I made some vague plans to transition "some time in the next twelve months".
I was concerned about outting myself at work. Outting myself to my friends had been relatively easy: my friends tended to be young, open minded and often involved in alternative communities -- that seems to be the type of person that I seek out as friends. But one of the realizations that came to me fairly early on was that although I could choose my friends, I didn't choose my co-workers. If any bad stuff was going to happen because of my TG-ness, I figured it would happen at work.
I outted myself to a handful of co-workers over the next several months, and suddenly, in September, the news hit the grapevine.
There's an interesting story here. In the summer of 1997, my family and I had a house-warming barbeque party, and we invited all our friends to come. One of the people at the party was my former co-worker, Rekha. And it occurred to me, then, that of all the people who were there, Rekha was the only one who didn't know about my TGism.
So in September, I invited Rekha out for dinner to go through the outting process with her. It was a fascinating evening; we sat in the restaurant for about five hours and got caught up on each others lives. Now, Rekha is an extrovert. She has lots of friends and likes to talk, and, I think, sometimes enjoys playing the role of someone who is shocked about something and seeks everyone's advice about it.
A few days later, she sent me e-mail telling me that she'd been thinking about what I'd told her all weekend. And, as I expected, she'd spoken to a lot of her friends to get their opinion on the matter. I was nosey; I asked her what her friends had said.
She sent me an e-mail describing the reactions of her various friends. And then she said:
I read this while working at a customer's site, and I was in shock. I had told Rekha on a Friday night. I read this on a Wednesday afternoon. In that short time, all of my old co-workers were suddenly privy to my secret.
As I pieced together the network of who told whom, I discovered that the person who took it on herself to spread the news was Donnette. She even told people that I wanted the news to be spread, which was, for the record, a fabrication on her part. I haven't spoken to her about this, but I have difficulty understanding what her motivation could have been.
I had expected the news to hit the grapevine eventually. The thing I didn't really expect was that after they found out, nobody said a word about it to me. In retrospect, I do understand this; it was a new situation to them, and they didn't know what to say or how to react. But when it happened, I must confess, it seemed like rejection.
I had made plans with my manager and with Human Resources to begin my full-time transition in March of 1998. As it turned out, fate intervened, and in February I quit my job and began working for a large insurance company.
The Second Time
I made it clear to my new employers from the outset that I was transgendered, but I didn't transition right away. Instead, I thought it was important to give my new employers time to establish a policy toward transgendered employees, and decide how to handle certain complications of having a TG employee.
My second outting was easier than the first. Although my new employers knew that I was transgendered when they hired me, they didn't know many of the details, and I had a few meetings with Human Resources to discuss the issues.
One of the key issues that Human Resources wanted to discuss was who would be responsible for explaining my transition to my peers. The Human Resources person suggested that, given the company's culture, a management announcement probably wasn't the best approach; she suggested that I should speak to my peers directly, and I agreed.
So over the next several months, I scheduled lunches with people. I'd tell them in advance that there was something that I wanted to discuss with them, and after I'd done it a few times, I developed a fairly standard "speech" that imparted all of the important information.
One of the things that I'd heard about coming out was that a lot of people don't know what's expected of them after someone comes out to them. So part of my standard speech involved looking for reassurance that my transition wouldn't affect our working relationship. And everyone I spoke to was able to reassure that it wouldn't.
The thing I discovered as I was outting myself to my peers was that I wasn't really "in". Of all the people I spoke to, exactly two people expressed some surprise. Most people had surmised from my physical appearance what was going on.
On Monday, November 9th, 1998, the people with whom I worked regularly received the following e-mail from me:
At work, I have a little Java program that gets launched every time I power up my computer. It selects a quotation and sticks it into my signature file. On this particular day, the quotation in my signature file was:
I found that somewhat amusing.
My Co-Workers Respond
My co-workers were really cool about the transition. I received no responses that I considered negative. I got a number of nice e-mails from co-workers whose responses ranged from "Oh, that explains a lot" to simple good luck wishes.
I got an amusing e-mail from one co-worker who wanted to know precisely what the pronoun protocol was (the question, in itself, wasn't amusing -- it was more the very thorough, procedural tone to his question). My co-workers are wrestling with pronouns -- there's no lack of will to use the correct pronouns, but making the mental switch is hard.
And, I don't know why this surprised me, but I got a lot of questions about the difference between sexual orientation and gender orientation. (I've been part of the TG community for so long that the differences are so obvious that I don't even think about how people might find that confusing).
I've been trying to bend over backwards to make it easy for people to ask questions, and to be accessible. In one case, a wonderfully curious co-worker and I went out to lunch because he'd never met a transgendered person before, and just wanted to ask a lot of questions. I enjoyed the lunch, and I like to think that when discussions about me take place behind my back, at least one person will be able to speak informedly.
But the most surprising thing about the transition has been what a non-issue it's been. For the most part, nothing has changed. I interact with people pretty much the same way, and go about my work the same way. I had to go to the United States shortly after the transition to speak to a vendor, and even that was notable only in its uneventfulness.
Some time later, I was talking on one of the TG mailing lists I read. Someone asked me what "rules of thumb" I had picked up regarding transition, and I came up with the following list:
I also have strong feelings about not appealing to my co-workers' sympathy. As I cruised around the web looking for samples of letters to give to my employers, I was struck by how often people would say something like: "I have been struggling with my gender identity for thirty years". I believe that these letters have an overtone of desperation to them, and I think that people will immediately distance themselves from someone who seem like they'll suddenly latch on to you for tons of emotional support.
Interestingly, around the time I started my transition, a friend showed me a copy of a TG autobiography written by the "father" of one of her friends. It wasn't especially well-written or anything, but it did have this pearl of wisdom in it:
It's one of those things that make you go "Hmmm....".
Copyright © 1998, 1999 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated February 28th, 1999.
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