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Living openly as a trans woman in the workplace

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Lying, they say, is harder work than telling the truth. But the sad truth is that for LGBT+ people, bad work environments end up making liars of us all.

Research conducted by Stonewall reveals over a third of LGBT+ people in the UK still feel they have to hide who they are at work. I am lucky to be employed somewhere where I can now live openly as a trans woman, but for over 20 years, I was part of that 33%. And that meant for two decades, every working day was a draining and debilitating exercise in self-policing. 


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Those skeptical of workplace inclusion ask why being out at work matters. You are there, they say, to do a job, not to flaunt your personal life. However, we humans are social animals, not pistons in a productivity machine.

Whether we work in factories or in finance, we need to build camaraderie with our colleagues – not just for our wellbeing, but also to effectively do our jobs

For most of us, such conversations flow easily. But when you’re LGBT+ in an environment where you don’t feel safe, so much emotional energy is consumed keeping track of the spider web of concealment you weave to protect yourself.

Like many trans and gender non-conforming people, I’ve experienced outright hostility at work – from customers and bosses alike – but my overriding memory of my pre-transistion career can be summarised as a death by a thousands cuts from the constant sharp, stabbing reminders that you don't quite fit.

It is worth reiterating that being trans isn’t a choice that you activate by putting on a dress one day and changing the name on your gas bill. My gender identity has since childhood formed a core, powerful part of my sense of self. I am not 'playing' at being a woman – but I do have extensive experience of playing at being a man.

For so long, I felt compelled to inhibit my mannerisms, language and expression to fit the mould of what I felt was expected of me as a male-presenting leader. Being absolved of this not only felt like suddenly being gifted an extra slice of brain capacity but has also empowered be to me a more empathetic, patient and collaborative manager. 

Many LGBT+ people will tell you that you don’t come out just once in your lifetime, but rather, continuously, over and over again, and many will be out in some areas of their lives but not others. Often, as it was with me, work is the final hurdle to freedom.

This is why cultivating a positive working environment can have a life-changing impact for LGBT+ people. Discussions about trans people are often reduced to talk of toilets and whispers of danger, but the truth is we are just people, and the working conditions we need to be safe are the same ones that make the workplace healthier and happier for everyone.

Case in point: during one regrettable incident 10 years ago, I was outed via an anonymous blog from a disgruntled ex-employee which attracted a string of vile comments from co-workers. The reaction from the HR team was swift, positive and, I do believe, genuine – but good intentions didn't prove enough alone, because the corporate culture was such that it allowed such attitudes to thrive.

The comments were transphobic, yes – but also homophobic, too, and their sexual nature was deeply misogynistic in nature. Addressing all three requires just one solution.

Ultimately, inclusion makes our workplaces better – more tolerant, more creative, more collaborative. And that’s why, after so many years of lying, I feel it important for you to hear my truth.

 

Sasha Misra is associate director of communications and campaigns at Stonewall

 

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