What happens when gender transitioning at work goes wonderfully well?

Queer Tech Montreal blog‘s Jason Berhmann writes how gender transitioning at work is a public affair that can go horribly wrong. But what happens when it goes wonderfully well?

What’s it like to transition to your true gender identity before the eyes of colleagues that have known you for years? This is one such story of an engineer that made a very public transition in the aerospace industry.

For over a decade, Marie-Isabelle Gendron began her career tinkering with helicopter and jet engines. She later trained fellow employees in maintenance and provided customer support when engines would breakdown. Her job focused on setting right what was not working; her gender identity, however, was a challenge that required courage rather than a mechanic. One day, in the gruff environment of machinery and engineers at Pratt and Whitney, she assumed her true self at work as a woman.

Here is her story of transitioning in the workplace.

A daily commute, a daily struggle

What if I give it a try? What if I allow myself to explore?

In 2012, Gendron began to act on long-time questions as to whether being male was her true self. From behind closed doors, she tip-toed into the waters of being a woman. Once foreign clothing, makeup, and accessories provided an identity that now felt “right,” though an identity she was not ready to reveal.

Come morning, she would get behind the wheel of her car with an hour-long commute before her. Passing every sequential exit on the highway, she would try to postpone the inevitable until no longer, reluctantly taking the next exit marked with a gas station. Leaving her car with a bag of clothes clutched discretely by her side, she would slip into the service station’s public bathroom. Off came the mellifluous fabrics, the dress and jewelry, replaced by pants and a shirt that fit a familiar body that did not feel right in its own skin. Out from the bathroom door walked a different person, a person forced back into a performance on a makeshift stage; she was ready to perform a role she was not meant to play in front of an onlooking audience of colleagues.

The daily commute was now a daily struggle. Leaving the house with men’s clothing began to exude its psychological toll.

“The feeling of these clothes on me, it just doesn’t work — impossible”.

The thoughts were broken by a new internal calling:

“I can’t do this anymore.”

One day in 2013 marked a change in script for her performance. She packed her men’s clothing away in the depths of her basement — and there they stayed. Here marked a personal rebirth that would suddenly become public.

“To be transsexual is not a choice. In reality, it’s a choice to live. We decide not to be someone else but our true self,” said Gendron. “For me, it was a renaissance.”

The beginning of a renaissance

The October leaves were changing colour, ushering in the autumn season. The time was right for the last act of this performance. Passing the final exit to a gas station, this time she kept right on going, coming to a stop in the parking lot of Pratt and Whitney.

She walked in to work, making her way to her boss. The unexpected conversation followed.

“This is how I dress when not at work. I’m totally different”.

The response was utter shock, though well received. Her needs were met with understanding and with time, this at-first challenging situation morphed into a positive experience.

Looking out from the office windows, the autumn leaves fell and the transition to winter was visible. So too did the masculine accents fall, gradually replaced with a new appearance adorned with feminine features. Work pants were replaced with dresses. Short hair grew long while the beard vanished. Women’s accessories were donned without stigma. It was a whirlwind year, culminating with her return from a month-long vacation. Her transition was now complete, and in to work she walked with breasts and a new name printed on her office door.

“On the 7th of October, I walked into work as Marie Isabelle and it was the most beautiful gift of my life”

Transitioning in the workplace is a group affair

Being one’s authentic self in the workplace is an uncommon freedom for most Trans people. To this day in the United States, the Trans community experiences double the rate of unemployment; in 31 states, Trans people can be fired from their job merely for being Trans. Only last year did Canada pass bill C-16, making it illegal to deny a Trans person a job or discriminate against them in the workplace. Few legal protections exist dehors Western nations. As a Trans person, becoming one’s authentic self in the workplace is inevitably a very public, in-your-face state of affair that is fraught with vulnerability.

“Being trans is unlike other situations because we are on a path of change that others can see,” said Gendron. “I did have a big fear about losing my job – enormous. This fear was very present.”

Gendron describes her transition as filled with fond memories due in part to the supportive work environment upheld by upper management. Instead of being ostracized and left to her own defenses, this workplace made her transition a company-wide issue that implicated everyone in the team. Championing full transparency, all directors and bosses — even the president of the company — were informed of her new identity.

“They understood because I was not the first in the company; I was the third transsexual. They made many initiatives to help and support me,” said Gendron.

The company made arrangements to ensure all employees were comfortable, first by offering gender-neutral bathrooms — designated for everyone — alongside gender-specific facilities. Rather than follow stern rules and wait for official certifications from government bodies, without hesitation the company changed her gender and name in their files and on her office door. Management could have made this situation a “Trans issue”; instead, they seized the opportunity to make her transition a matter of inclusivity and diversity, broadly construed.

The in-house psychologist at Pratt and Whitney drafted a statement to all employees reassuring them that here, we defend all employees from discrimination in the workplace. Whether due to religion, race, culture, or sexual orientation, the company asserted that if anyone experienced discrimination, now would be an opportune time to speak with the company psychologist so that they could address the problem.

New identity, new employees, new allies

The rebirth of Gendron touched many of her colleagues. She became a source of education at work, where many colleagues felt they could confide in her.

“My colleagues appreciate me more today than before my transition,” said Gendron. “People were more authentic with me afterwards.”

More than a woman, her new identity became that of a confidante and ally; through her, closeted LGBTQ+ employees found strength in their own journey of coming out.

“I know of closeted people. I leave them be. But for those in the process of coming out, I always encourage them and say, “Look, it is possible. I did it.”

Moving forward

The groundbreaking film by Xavier Dolan, Laurence Anyway, is but one example of how Trans issues in the workplace have recently entered the limelight. While progress is evident, Marie-Isabelle claims that we need to keep the momentum going by educating the general public about the realities of being LGBTQ+ in society.

In terms of the work environment, she believes the diversity and inclusion policies at Pratt and Whitney are a great foundation but merit some fine-tuning for specific minorities and contexts. Overall, companies large and small should provide resources to management so that they understand the needs of Trans employees; having access to a mental health professional that can explain the reality lived by members of the Trans community is also essential.

Marie-Isabelle Gendron was one of three presenters at Queer Tech Montreal’s event, Being Your Authentic Self at Work. Subscribe to their Meetup groupFacebook and Twitter.

Written by Jason Behrmann, originally published on Queer Tech Montreal blog.

(Photo: NPR.ORG)

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