Gender transition: When Anna walked in
A Perth bookshop has confronted the issue of gender transition by one of its employees head on. Here’s how they handled the situation.
Imagine standing at the top of the stairs, about to walk in to your workplace for the first time as a woman. You’re 30. You’re Anna. You left a few days ago as a man, and in the interim an email – which you’ve helped write – has notified colleagues of your transition.
That’s exactly how Anna, a staff member at Boffins Books in the Perth CBD, took the leap with her colleagues from January 2, 2018.
She did it with the full support of her employers, and while it has not been easy, it has been a smooth process.
Boffins Sales and Purchasing Director Bill Liddelow consulted with Anna every step of the way.
He says Anna’s decision to transition, which he was made aware of in November, came as a complete surprise. He was unsure of what to do from an HR perspective and found that only limited information was available online.
“It was something we had never confronted but we wanted to do the right thing and we were a bit nervous about doing the right thing by the person,” Liddelow says.
“We weren’t worried about staff because being a bookshop they are pretty open minded and we didn’t expect any problems from our customers either. It’s not been an issue really.
“It was made easier by Anna’s maturity in understanding that some people with the best intent may slip up on the way in what they said, such as using her previous name.”
Anna’s decision to transition was years in the making, with presenting at work as a female the final piece in the puzzle. She describes that moment at the top of the stairs as terrifying.
“The workplace was the very last place I came out,” she explains. “Coming out to friends you kind of have that thing if you can’t accept this I’m happy to lose you. With family, that’s still a tougher thing but you don’t have to see family,” she says.
“But I work here and I can’t decide not to see the people I work with. If they were not supportive I would have to find a new job and finding a new job while transitioning is also very difficult.”
Anna says the situation was made much easier with her employer backing her 100 per cent of the way and striving to do the right thing by her.
Options for advising the workplace included an email, company memo or a speech to staff.
“How I did it is not how everyone has to do it. I decided to notify everyone in an email. We spoke about it in mid-November and I said I’d like to do the transition from January onwards,” she says.
“The notification went out on my last day before coming back, so it was a few days’ notice and enough time for staff to be aware of it.”
In separate but similar memos to staff and suppliers, the company advised that it promoted equal opportunity for all staff, including those that were gender diverse. It provided advice and called on everyone to use the name Anna and the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ from January 2.
Going back to that day on the stairs and the dread and fear that Anna felt about what would happen when she transcended, dressed differently and with a new name, just how did it go?
“When you come into work presenting as yourself for the first time it feels very vulnerable and you feel a bit naked. It was terrifying. Getting dressed and ready for work was fine but that entry of walking in and hovering at the top of the stairs, I felt anxious,” she says.
“I was prepared for a day of errors and people saying the wrong thing, of people using my old name accidently and all the things that would make the day upsetting.
“But it was almost bad that it didn’t happen,” she laughs.
“You wait all day for the other foot to drop and it never happened. It was weirdly anti climatic, whereas if something offensive or rude had happened it would have been like ‘OK, I’ve done it. It’s happened, it’s out of the way’ but because it never happened and I was expecting it, it made me on edge for about two weeks.”
“It was just so exhausting. I would kind of put it akin to running a marathon, straight away they feel tired, a couple of days later they feel proud of that accomplishment.”
While the process has been smooth, it’s not without the pain of hurtful looks, interactions and comments, as infrequent as they may be.
“It doesn’t happen often enough for me to be prepared for it but it is happening often enough to hurt me. It’s a frustrating thing that I have not figured out yet how to get used to it. It is very early on in this process, maybe in two or five years could be very different.
“How do I assert myself as a person while also being respectful to a customer? A co-worker slipped up recently and I had to correct him on his language, so it’s finding that balance between speaking politely as a co-worker but asserting myself as a person. They are challenges I haven’t quite figured out yet.
“My mantra for all of this is don’t be offended unless someone is trying to offend you because it’s new enough for most people that they are bound to make mistakes and if you get upset by everyone there’s no way to function in the world.”
Anna says there’s nothing she would do differently about how the situation has been handled at work.
“The important thing was what my boss Bill did was great. He made sure he had my input every step of the way, that he did his research to find out what was appropriate. I was especially nervous about dealing with customers, so he made sure I had a support person who I could console myself with if something was wrong and if I had a bad interaction with a customer he gave me that assurance that he would back me up.
“Knowing you were going to be supported and not thrown under a bus to appease an important client was important.”
Anna’s message to staff and clients
Hope you’re taking this announcement well! I understand if some of you find this transition confusing and difficult at first, because I have also found parts of this confusing and difficult. Don’t stress about making mistakes or asking me questions about it all – I won’t be offended by anyone unless they’re deliberately trying to be rude. I look forward to you all getting to know a more genuine me and I’m glad I get to transition in such a supportive environment. And also, thank you to the staff members who were aware of my transition prior to my announcement – your support and kindness made this far easier than it could’ve been.
CCIWA’s Workplace Relations team has worked with Members to create transition plans. It also provides advice on discrimination and equal opportunity. Contact the team on (08) 9365 7660 or email email@example.com.