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.

Take: One!

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:

The one thing I didn't expect was how fast the news would travel. The only friend I told that actually knows you was Gerry (a former co-worker), when I spoke to him on the weekend. But by Monday afternoon, Mike left a phone-mail message for me, asking about it. Then Delia called because Donnette had told her; she said her whole floor was talking about it. And Rudolfo called because Carol told him after hearing from Rick, but they wanted to know more details.

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.


The Letter

On Monday, November 9th, 1998, the people with whom I worked regularly received the following e-mail from me:


For most of you this note is a reminder; for the rest, this note is an announcement.

Over the last several months, as schedules permitted, I've taken a number of you aside to have a somewhat personal discussion because this discussion also has a business element. In short, this discussion has to do with the fact that I am transgendered -- a word that indicates that I have discomfort about my gender -- and that I plan to change my gender in the near future.

There are 4 standard stages for transgenderism which include (a) support or counseling, (b) cross-gender hormonal therapy, (c) a trial period of cross-gender living and, if the latter is successful (d) gender reassignment surgery.

The purpose of this note is to inform you that on Wednesday, November 11th, I plan to begin this third stage -- a period referred to as "full-time transition". Starting Wednesday, I will dress and present myself as female, both at work and outside of it.

I imagine that my transition will be uncomfortable for some of you and I genuinely regret any discomfort I might cause you. But I trust that you realize that this is an important process for me, and I hope that it will not adversely affect our working relationship.

There are a few points that I've gotten into the habit of making. First, although I describe transgenderism as "discomfort about my gender", I'm not actually uncomfortable or ashamed about being transgendered. So please don't feel that you need to "walk on eggshells" about this topic. Second, if you have questions about what all of this means, and you feel comfortable asking me, I would welcome the opportunity to try to answer them for you. Finally, if you have questions and you don't feel comfortable asking me, Nurse Jane in the health centre has some information available.

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:

That which does not kill us makes us stranger.

- Aeon Flux

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:

  1. The best advice I ever heard was "be a really nice person".
  2. I worked on a lot of the passing details early on. I had several years of electrolysis and hormones before transitioning. I think that people, in general, have a harder time dealing with non-passing T-folk. If you can work on your passability, I think a transition will be easier. (I know that's really unfortunate -- the political side of me says that passing shouldn't be an issue, but in our society it is).
  3. I spent a year and a half in weekend transition. I learned how to become comfortable presenting myself as female in public. Not just in terms of dress, but also in terms of voice and mannerisms.
  4. I outted myself to all my friends. I got quite comfortable outting myself. It's taken me several years to learn to be out about being TG. I'm proud of it. I think that if I were uncomfortable or ashamed of being transgendered, other people would be made uncomfortable by my discomfort.
  5. I learned how to describe transgenderism in a few easy sentences. This turned out to be really important, because, I've discovered, mundanely gendered people know nothing about it. Describing the important information clearly and concisely was, for me, key to getting their understanding.
  6. When I spoke to HR, I wrote a letter describing my TGism, what I expected from the company, and what the likely problems surrounding my transition in the office were going to be. I also took some reading materials (The Employer's Guide to Gender Transition, a pamphlet from the IFGE, and True Selves, a book about TGism) for their perusal. The big things on their minds were:
    • who's going to tell my co-workers?
    • what do we do about the bathroom? (Incidentally, none of my co-workers have asked about the bathroom arrangements; HR were the only ones who brought it up).
  7. I outted myself to my co-workers one at a time. I arranged lunch with them, specifically mentioning that I had something to discuss with them (that was kinda for my own sake -- it kept me from backing out).
  8. One of the things I heard from the Gay/Lesbian community about outting yourself to people is that people often aren't sure what's expected of them when someone outs themselves. So I made sure that I made clear what was expected of them -- all I asked of them was reassurance that the nature of our business relationship wouldn't change.
  9. I repeatedly offered to answer questions. And I answered questions; a lot of them were "novice" questions, but I answered them all candidly and respectfully.

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:

She no longer expected other people to be tolerant and accepting of her dilemma. She realized she was the one who had to be tolerant and patient with their uneasiness.

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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