I’ve never learned to dance properly despite a number of valiant attempts (usually at the behest of partners) so I can promise you the title I’ve used for this particular piece has absolutely nothing to do with the ballroom. Apologies to any who were expecting me to regale you with exploits of Ruth donning sequinned frocks and learning to tango or foxtrot.
The words are intended to reflect the pace of change in recent weeks and months , which is perhaps something of a paradox as ballroom dancing – when done properly – is as smooth and a co-ordinated activity as you’re likely to encounter, what with all the variations in tempi, steps and twiddly-bits connected seamlessly in one flowing movement. Provided that the participants know what they’re doing, of course.
Regular readers may recall the last two posts hinted at having made significant progress, but then I went and left you all dangling in mid-air, so sorry about that. I’ve realised it’s been a while since my last post, too. Goodness, there’s even been time for a General Election.
Back at the start of May you’ll recall my first GIS appointment had left me full of hope, confidence and energy to actually start taking some serious steps towards full-time transition – not that steps thus far have been anything less than serious, but I’m sure you know what I mean. Despite being told to expect a further three months to see a consultant, then three more for an appointment with the endocrinologist – hence the slow, slow bit – within a week of being officially in the GIS system I took the plunge and start the ball rolling – however gently – at work. Far quicker than I’d expected, but I was surfing a wave of positivity and it just seemed the right thing to do.
If I’ve learned anything since this journey began, it’s that everyone’s experience is different. One size definitely doesn’t fit all when it comes to transition or identity expression, and I’d say that’s especially true when it comes to transition in the workplace. Despite the best efforts and excellent resources that organisations such as GIRES place at our disposal, each situation will be different. At one extreme I know there are a few who approach their employers with a list of demands, waving the Equality Act 2010 in their manager’s face and expecting instant compliance, erasure of any record of Bob on all systems and records and woe betide anyone who accidentally misgenders them. Most I suspect are a bit more circumspect and collaborative.
It just so happened that my annual workplace appraisal was scheduled for the week following the GIS appointment. Over the years and in the various organisations I’ve worked with, I’ve had good, bad and indifferent experiences of the appraisal process. In my time I’ve put in hours of preparation, kicked off when I’ve disagreed with what’s been said but as the years have passed I’ve become more philosophical, and simply learned to regard appraisals as a necessary evil of being employed and receiving a salary. If nothing else, on the positive side appraisals are a focal point where manager and team member can be honest with one another, confidentially – and hopefully safely – at least once a year.
My appraisal with Penny – my line manager – was unremarkable, though not in any negative way. We followed the process, and after discussions about achievements, positive characteristics and the euphemistically-named ‘development areas’, we came to a section towards the end entitled ‘health & well-being’ – presumably there to make sure that the process hasn’t reduced the appraisee to a gibbering wreck by then. Seriously, it’s good it’s there if only as a prompt to a discussion – I’ve encountered far too many managers in my time who are utterly insensitive to how their or others’ demands can sometimes affect their team members’ health – equally how events in home or personal lives might be impacting on their workplace performance . Anyway, Penny broached the subject and gently asked if there was anything I wanted to share with her. “Well,” I replied earnestly, “there is something you need to know about me. You know that clinic appointment that was in my diary last week? Well it’s like this…”
Penny later admitted that she thought I was going to tell her that I’d been diagnosed with a serious illness, and was relieved when my news was merely that I was transgender. She wasn’t fazed in the slightest, and listened to what I had to say carefully and caringly. As it transpired, a teenage member of her extended family had, not so long ago, transitioned from female to male and the whole family are totally fine about it so gender dysphoria wasn’t unknown to her, although she admitted there was a lot she didn’t know and promised to go away and read up about it so that she could make sure I got all the support I needed.
I explained that transitioning full-time was something that wasn’t likely to happen in the next few weeks, worried that Penny might be thinking that Ruth would be walking through the door on Monday morning, although it will happen within the next six months if all goes to plan. We both agreed there was quite a bit of planning needed to make the experience as positive and supportive as possible for me and all concerned, but that I was in the driving seat and workplace transition would happen at my pace. I agreed I’d no problem with Penny sharing my news with our Head of Department and the other senior manager on our team, plus of course Human Resources would need to know, but that for now my intended transition would remain confidential until I chose to break the news. Finally, I offered to send Penny a link to the GIRES website, and that I’d have a go at drafting a Memorandum of Understanding as per their suggested approach. So far, so good.
The following morning it got even better. Penny having had the conversation with her, Head of Department Kay popped her head round my office door and asked if she could have a quick word. Closing the door, her face lit up and she seemed quite giddy telling me she’d heard my news, and that she was thrilled to bits for me. “I just wanted you to know you’re in safe hands and that we’ll do everything we can to help. I’m determined that we’ll make a success of this,” she added, sounding a bit like a certain politician. We then had a good long chat as I brought Kay up to speed on my journey so far. She said that it was fantastic news for the department, would be great for our profile in the organisation and force certain people in the team who ‘talked the talk’ about diversity to ‘walk the walk’, or words to that effect. I knew exactly what she meant by that. Most of the people I work with are very laid-back and open-minded but there’s one individual in particular who’s a huge advocate of equality and diversity in the workplace… provided it’s to do with their particular protected characteristic. It’ll be quite interesting to see how they react to me once I’m fully ‘out’ and realise that E&D isn’t a game of top trumps. Other than that person, I can’t honestly see anyone else being anything less than supportive.
Kay asked me about my next steps and reiterated what Penny had said that everything would move at my pace, and that I only had to ask for support if I needed it. Kay even asked if I wanted to begin coming into work presenting as Ruth immediately if it’d help. I thanked her for the offer, but gently explained that it wasn’t quite as straightforward as that, and one or two things needed to happen first, both outside the organisation and internally – pointing to Bob’s ID badge – but I have to give her full marks for enthusiasm. As she left, she beamed again and said, “I’d give you a great big hug now, if I wasn’t your boss!” Aw, bless!
Then nothing much happened for a while. Not through anyone’s lack of interest or enthusiasm, though – after all, we’d agreed the ball was very much in my court – but simply because there was no real hurry. My ‘coming out’ had been a signal of intent as much as anything. I’d explained about the expected timeframe for the GIS and that I’d prefer to have sound, well-thought-through plans in place rather than rushing at things and getting them wrong. But nor had anyone forgotten about me – Penny had diligently read the material I’d sent her from the GIRES website and tried to get hold of the right person in HR (who was proving a bit elusive), and I’d had a go at drafting a Memorandum of Understanding in line with recommended best practice. As I worked through the items one by one, it occurred to me I was probably having a relatively easy time of it compared to many others in the same situation. The biggest issue seems to be one of communication – who to tell, how and when. Or put another way, who needs to be told upfront and who can be allowed to discover Bob’s demise and Ruth’s ascendancy organically. I work for a large organisation, and as a relatively small cog in a very big machine I’m not expecting (nor would I want) to merit a headline in the weekly staff bulletin. Also I realise it’s not practical for me to tell everyone myself. That’s fine for my immediate team and those with whom I have regular working relationships, but impractical for many with whom I deal only occasionally. I’m still working it all through even now and it will require a joint effort from me and my managers, but the overarching principle already agreed is that nothing goes out without my input or agreement.
I’m also very fortunate in that the organisation I work for is very hot on equality, diversity and inclusion generally. Transgender awareness sessions are already a regular feature of the training calendar and the people I work with are a healthy balance of male and female, gay and straight – so I couldn’t really be in a better place. I suspect that workplace transition would be a very different experience were I to work in a traditionally male-dominated environment. There are no issues with uniforms (for me, anyway) and most ‘facilities’ are unisex in the building where I work.
Penny did finally manage to make contact with our HR representative, who suggested that Penny and I sit down and try and work through some kind of outline plan (which we’ve now done) before the three of us sat down together to make sure that all legal and procedural boxes were ticked, and that nothing had been overlooked so that everything’s ready and in place for when I finally give the go-ahead and actual dates.
Since the famous (notorious?) Eastbourne weekend in 2014 I’ve always been aware that – whether they admit it or not – most people outside our community have their own preconception of what a trans* woman looks like, depending on their particular life experience. Whilst there’s room for everyone, the transgender spectrum is broad and encompasses many different manifestations. Now perhaps it’s my own prejudices showing, but I wanted to reassure Penny that I wasn’t going to turn up for work on Day One in fishnets, 6” heels and a PVC mini-skirt. For my own personal reasons I’ve remained rather camera-shy throughout this process so don’t actually possess a decent photo of myself that I’m happy to show others. So, in a moment of rashness – or perhaps sensibly – I tentatively suggested that the aforementioned meeting might take place off-site, perhaps in a cafe in town so that the two of them could meet Ruth properly and see face-to-face exactly what they were getting. I could tell straight away my suggestion was well-received. The beaming smile that immediately spread across Penny’s face said everything, and I rather suspect I’d answered a question she’d been dying to ask for ages. I have to say I’m rather looking forward to that meeting.
But it won’t happen just yet awhile. As we’re entering the holiday season, co-ordinating diaries starts to become that bit more difficult so that particular encounter could still be some weeks away. Like the title of this post says…
So that pretty much brings me up to date. My journey of late seems to have been characterised by short but intense bursts of progress, followed by long periods of inactivity – admittedly some of it self-inflicted, but delays nonetheless. What’s beyond question however is that I have neither doubts nor regrets and that I’m definitely heading in only one direction. Perhaps that’s always been the story of my life…
Thanks for reading – more soon.