Openly Stealth: Being transgender at work
By Alex Papadopoulos
Alex Papadopoulos (@imalexnowuk) is a UX Designer and a PhD Adventurer at UCL, committed to the noble cause of making the world suck less. He is a founding member of Queer Wave, the first LGBTQ+ film festival in Cyprus, a peer mentor at Spectra, an organisation that helps LGBT people who need support, and part of the content design team at TransActual UK. An optimist by choice, he is always on the lookout for projects that can make the world a brighter and more equal place.
Video of this talk is available here
Starting a new job can be intimidating for a variety of reasons: starting from very practical things like learning how to actually do the work you’ve been hired to do, to getting to know your colleagues and building trusting relationships with them, to a number of other things that have nothing to do with the job and more to do with yourself.
For some of us, starting a new job also means we have to make decisions about how much of ourselves we’re letting show. In this case, when I say “for some of us” I mean for the people who are part of the LGBT community, especially the ones occupying the “T” letter.
Hello, I’m Alex, and I am a transgender man trying to do the “working with people” thing, work. Today I’m going to talk to you about the complications of carrying an identity that some people will think as “second” (it’s not) around you wherever you go, how to disclose it if you want to, and how not to do so, if that’s what is best for you. Mostly though, I will try to make it very clear that you should be proud of whatever identity/identities you are carrying, and you should never feel pressured into doing anything that can compromise your safety or your mental well-being.
I’d like to add here that I’m going to be talking from a relatively privileged perspective, sharing my personal experiences as a person who lives and works in London and have lived in other parts of Europe before. I understand that in different parts of the world or in different sectors things might be very different and sadly, personal safety can be a huge factor in deciding whether you should come out at work or not.
Additionally, I’m going to do my best to describe our experiences to the ones amongst us that don’t share them, as a way to welcome you to our lives, in hopes of creating understanding relationships and build allyships. And also to help you think about ways you can support your colleagues that want to share something like that with you. So, let’s get started.
Generally, navigating being part of the LGBT+ community, and especially being transgender anywhere is not an easy task. Let alone in the workplace. Let alone in male-dominated fields such as tech (which is where my experiences are coming from). Landing a new job after transitioning (or at any point during transitioning really) always comes accompanied with a variety of emotions and questions:
“Should I disclose my transness? If I don’t, am I lying?”
“I am afraid to tell my macho colleagues that I am trans, but I don’t feel okay with myself if I don’t”.
“People can tell. I am a fraud.”
These thoughts and a thousand others are very much expected and an additional stress when trying to adapt to a new workplace with new people and expectations.
As a transgender person myself, I have been through the process of transitioning while working with colleagues that previously knew me with different name, pronouns, even face (!), as well as the process of appearing with my new face in an entirely new environment where no one knew — with no plans of telling anyone. In both scenarios, I was freaking terrified. And for good reasons.
In 2017, when I started my PhD, I was well into having feelings of discomfort with the gender I was assigned at birth, but I wasn’t as far into it as considering transitioning or changing my name. I considered myself being in the non-binary realm, and I was mostly ok with people using female pronouns to refer to me.
Fast forward some months into my academic career, I got asked to write a short bio about myself in the third person that would be presented in the research group’s website. I spent at least a month on it, dwelling on how weird my academic experiences sounded when they were referring to a “she”. She studied at the University of Sheffield. She did a masters in Human-Computer Interaction and her dissertation was on the learning experiences of students developing science games during a four week summer school. No she didn’t. And first of all, who is she? So I changed it, to “they”, and it felt a lot better (but still not quite — who would have known?). A day or two after, I got an email from my supervisor pointing out some “typos” on my bio. When I asked about it, they were referring to the pronouns I used. I told them “it’s a gender thing”. They had no idea what I was talking about, but eventually they agreed not to discuss it further.
Way to come out to your supervisor, well done. Kids, don’t try this at home.
Because a year later, when I eventually came into terms with who I was, and changed my name, and started going by he/him pronouns I had no idea how to tell her and all these people, “you know that gender thing? Well…”
One day we were having lunch outside with some of the people from the lab (remember, back when we could have lunch all together? wild) and I just said “so umm, there is something I wanted you to know. I’m going to be changing my name to Alex and using he/him pronouns from now on. I, uh, am trans”. And it was wonderful, and some said they were proud of me, and I got hugs, and then we went back to our jobs. Some even asked me if I wanted them to tell the people who weren’t there so it wouldn’t be awkward, but I opted in writing one of those “send to all” kind of emails with a “life update” title, that pretty much said the same thing.
It didn’t go amazingly with everyone, of course, and the shittiest part is that it didn’t go well with the people that had the power to make it matter. Like, I would be ok with some random person in the lab giving me the odd look and slipping into the wrong pronouns, but it’s a bit trickier when that person is my point of contact and a higher up for the foreseeable future. I could see that they couldn’t understand what was going on or the need for me to “not focus on my studies and do all these gender things instead”. It could be a clash of culture or generations, but it created a void that was very hard to fill later on, and a very tricky one to tread on given the power dynamics.
But, you know, c’est la vie. And I don’t regret doing it at the moment that I did, because like, three months later I started getting chin hair and voice drops — I would feel a bit awkward if I hadn’t told them first.
Which brings me to the importance of timing.
The moment in time in your transition that you decide to come out to your workplace, is very important, not because there is a right and wrong time generally that you must follow in order to “succeed”, but because doing so in different times can have different outcomes.
For example: Coming out early on, just after you came out to yourself can be very validating and affirming to your newly acquired identity, when people are calling you with your shiny new name and pronouns, when you know that people are perceiving you the way you perceive yourself, when you can sign your emails with your name for the first time, when everything feels and is new and awesome. It can also save you from possibly awkward interactions if you later on decide to make physical changes or ask for time off for medical procedures. A lot of the time transitioning is very much medically oriented, and you will need that time off — for small things like psych appointments and blood tests, to “you have to stay at home for two months” medical procedures that would otherwise be complicated to explain to HR and awkwardly unexplained to your colleagues that won’t see you and then you’ll return with a new chest or something.
On the other hand, coming out after or during your physical transition makes it more “matter-of-fact-y” and it doesn’t allow room for questioning the legitimacy of the statement (not that any coming out should allow that, but unfortunately it’s not uncommon when you come out before any physical change takes place). And in a way, you probably have left hints of a possible diversion from the gender binary with your physical presentation and the way you carry yourself (assuming you are not working in a place with heavily gendered uniforms and strict rules on how you should behave), so some people might be a bit prepared (although, people only see what they know, and it is often the case that people don’t know how to detect these changes, so they are mostly unaware).
Of course, medically or physically transitioning is not a requirement for someone to be trans, but again, the timing around how far in your transition you are and how new everything is for you can have an impact on the coming out experience of someone.
Disclosing a part of your identity that people still, to this day feel entitled to have an opinion on is nerve wracking, especially because the outcome can be incredibly unpredictable and severe. In the best scenario, it will go unnoticed, no one will bat an eye, and everyone will continue with whatever they were doing before with you losing a few million pounds in stress, like what happened with most of the people in my case. In the worst scenario, you might lose your job or have one or more of your colleagues turn hostile against you. In the in-between scenario, most people will not care, and some others will be weird about it. Talking from personal experience and from my discussions with other trans people, that last in-between one is the most common.
So, what happens when you have already done a big part of your physical transition, you look and sound like the gender you identify with, there are no obvious clues that could give away the gender you were assigned at birth, and you have just landed a new job.
Do you tell them? Do you stay stealth (stealth is the word some trans people use to describe us going about our lives without letting people know we’re trans)? Do you tell some people but not others? And what about your online presence? Do you suddenly make all your social media private in order to not get discovered? Will the people who hired you think that you are a fraud if you tell them later on that you’re not cis? Will your colleagues lose trust in you? Will the sky explode? WHO KNOWS?
Well at first, breathe. Most of the things you are scared about are probably not going to happen. And if they do, well, you might consider leaving that job asap ’cause ighhh (and other inaudible sounds).
Ok. After that you might want to consider the reasons you would like to come out. Is it because you feel like you want your colleagues or your place of work to know and understand your full self, is it because you’re out everywhere else and you feel like you “should” be there as well, is it because you are afraid that they can tell and that brings you into an “I am a fraud” kind of spiral?
There are so many different reasons you might want to come out after you have been stealth for a while and most of them are great ones. Others not so much, like the one with you thinking that you are a fraud because you don’t want to disclose a part of your identity that could possibly lead you in a variety of awkward situations sometimes with very bad side effects? I mean, you do you, and if that would help ease your anxiety go for it, but we both know you’re not a fraud and we both know cis people wouldn’t tell a trans person from a cis one to save their lives so.
But let’s say you have weighed your reasons and you decided that coming out is the best thing to do for you. That’s amazing news! Now what? Well now, you have to think about who amongst these people you want to know.
Is it that you just want to tell HR to be in peace with your conscience and go about your day? Is it that you want to tell everyone under the sun because you want to be out and proud and you want everyone to know that you are living your best damn life? Or is it that you want your manager and your closest colleagues to know to allow them a bit more into what makes you the awesome person you are? Depending on the answer you might want to consider a few different options like offering to take your manager for a coffee during lunch break, or maybe telling them on Teams, because this is what life has become right now, or booking a Zoom call with the lovely person at HR and discussing your options with them. You could also send a company wide email or write it on the bulletin board; the band-aid method works just as well.
Whatever you decide to do, remember that you’re doing it for you. You don’t owe it to anyone, and no one is entitled to this information. You don’t have to be apologetic, you don’t need to explain too much, and anyone and everyone who hears it should be equally happy for you and indifferent about it. Of course it is a big deal, but at the same time it isn’t, and it shouldn’t be.
Having said that, unfortunately I can’t ignore the fact that we don’t live in an ideal world and there are some risks included when you come out as trans to people who didn’t know you were trans before. Some people might look at you differently than before. Others might start misgendering you when they wouldn’t even think about doing that before, just because they will be confused (millenials and their pronouns right?). Some people might assume that you came out to them as trans but the other way around. You might get invasive questions from people who don’t know anything about what being transgender means, and you’re probably going to have to answer the “have you had the surgery yet” a couple of times (and by “have to answer” I definitely include the “it’s none of your business” kind of replies). Depending on where you work, it might even put you under the risk of getting fired because of it (not legally, because legally they can’t do that, but I’m just saying that… correlations with coming out timings and firing events exist).
It’s a difficult decision to make, and unfortunately the stakes are too high sometimes. But at the same time, it’s a good way to understand if the place you’re working is right for you, and a healthy environment to spend so much of your time in. Coming out is something you do for yourself, not for other people. And it’s something that should make you feel better, not worse.
So I think now it’s time for me to confess to you, that I’m not out at the place I’m currently working. Oops. So I guess, if you’re my colleague and you’re watching this, I guess there’s your explanation on why I’m 5’2.
So, yeah, I’m not out where I work. And you know what? After a lot of thinking about it (and I mean, a lot, hence the inspiration for this talk) I have decided that I don’t even intend to do so. I suspect that there are some people who already know.
My social media is full of trans discourse, and in some of them I even have pictures of myself before my transition and dates of important milestones on my bio. I don’t believe that my colleagues have nothing better to do than peak at my social media accounts, but I’m guessing that before hiring me, at least a couple of them did.
Then there are the people who I don’t interact with, at all. Especially right now with the whole lockdown situation, I haven’t seen most of these people since March, there wouldn’t be any value in knowing that part of myself when they don’t even know basic stuff like how I look. Then there’s the higher ups, and the HR, do they need to know for some reason? In my case, all my documents have been changed before I joined the company, so there are no discrepancies between the name I’m using and the name on my passport for example — if someone would dig deeper, they would find that I changed my name with the HMRC after I joined the company, and there is a possibility this showed on some database handled by the HR, but since everything else was consistent there wasn’t ever a big deal enough to have to talk about it.
I don’t intend to tell my current workplace that I’m transgender because I don’t think it would add any value to my relationship with my current workplace. If the circumstances were different (for example if the lockdowns weren’t in place) maybe I would feel differently about it. And I don’t exclude the possibility of coming out to my next workplace for example, or even to this one at a different point in the future (maybe this is my coming out to them, who knows), but frankly, I don’t think that at the moment it would make any realistic difference.
You see, coming out to anyone, whether they are your friends, your family, or the place you’re working at, is not mandatory in order to have healthy relationships with them. As I said before, you don’t owe anyone the knowledge of your trans status. I choose not to be open about me being transgender at work in an explicit way, but at the same time I’m not hiding it either. Just because I don’t believe it’s relevant information to be shared at this moment in time, does not mean that I’m ashamed of it or that I would be bothered if someone found out.
Of course, this is just me, and this is how I’m dealing with what being trans means to me and what would it mean if people knew that I was trans before I explicitly told them, and of course this is something that could be felt in a completely different way from different people. Not everyone is comfortable with not being entirely stealth, and that is completely fine.
Getting “discovered” when you are living a “stealth” life, can feel like an ambush, especially when it comes in an unfriendly way or accompanied with “why didn’t you tell me” questions and accusations. So, if you are someone who works with someone that has not mentioned anything about their gender identity, and you somehow find out about their transgender identity, here are few things you shouldn’t do:
- Don’t start telling others before you tell them. It’s impolite in the same way it would be if you discussed anything personal about anyone behind their backs.
- Don’t come at them with accusations. Don’t ask them “why they didn’t tell you”.
- Don’t tell them that “they should tell” people. They would know if they should.
- And most importantly, don’t make it about you.
Instead, you could try approaching them by asking for their pronouns and sharing yours, or letting them know that you’ve been hanging out on their online spaces (if you’ve seen it online for example), or open a discussion about gender. This way you can ease into the conversation and because the saying “it’s not paranoia when they are out to get you” applies a lot to trans people, they will immediately understand the reason you’re referring to that and they will either tell you themselves or not.
If they don’t and they avoid the discussion, then stop asking, explain to them how you found out in a polite way (it could be that they did not intend to leave a trace where you found it) and that they shouldn’t worry about you telling others, and leave it at that.
If you have accidentally gone into someone’s home, they need to know because they need to see what they can do so no one else accidentally comes in, but that doesn’t mean that they will be happy about it too.
Being trans, is not an easy endeavour, yet. Not at work, not in our personal lives, not in the world in general. A task as simple as “being ourselves” gets accompanied with so many hurdles, and so much discrimination coming from all angles (from our governments to our homes) that it’s impossible to keep up with every single thing that we need to “be careful of”.
At the same time, it comes with so much joy and a perspective in life that it’s not easy to get when you are cis. We all have heard at least once the statistics about diversity in the workplace, how diverse teams outperform others by 35%, and how the workplaces that value diversity benefit from almost 25% more revenue growth than others. It is no surprise that when you put people from different walks of life together to collaborate they come up with successful things, diversity in all of its forms does bring innovation.
In tech, for example, we value user experience and we praise it as the secret ingredient for any recipe we are trying to sell. But the “users” in that experience are not a homogeneous group. And neither should the people accommodating those users should be. If you can’t understand what your users need because you haven’t walked in their shoes, how are you supposed to create something that they would want to use?
There is still so much more to be done to make trans folk feel welcome and heard in the corporation world, when for so many years we have been excluded and fired because we didn’t fit in its narrative.
But the world is moving forward, and the fact that I can sit here and talk to you about coming out where you work (which in the past would be the biggest no no of the century) is already a huge step.
I do wish that someday this won’t be a matter of discussion. I genuinely wish that one day the act of coming out would be met with the same surprise and enthusiasm as announcing that you’re getting married, or that your sister is pregnant. News remarkable for the people who share them, but unremarkable and every-day occurrences for the receivers.
Until then, I hope we continue to do everything in our power to make these journeys easier, day by day, with a bit of empathy and a lot of understanding.