Refusing to be defined by gender is not easy
Meadhbh McGrath examines the challenges facing transgender and gender fluid people in the workplace
Published 19/09/2015 | 02:30
One November afternoon nine years ago, Louise Hannon showed her boss a picture of a woman on her computer screen.
"That's me," she told him. He was shocked - the person he had known as a man for four years was planning to leave the company to begin transitioning into a woman.
"I didn't think a person like me would fit in at a transport company," she said.
Louise was good at her job, and he didn't want her to leave. They agreed to work on a plan for how Louise would transition. However, a few weeks later, the plan changed, and Louise was asked to "go back into male mode" when meeting clients or using the phone.
"I think they felt that I would put clients off - they wanted someone to go out and represent the company without embarrassing them, and I think they were embarrassed of me," she told the Irish Independent.
Over the next couple of months, Louise was instructed to switch back and forth into male mode, as her employers attempted to minimise her interactions with the public. She was asked to work at home, until her boss eventually told her: "I think it's about time you got another job."
Louise became the first transgender person to have a case for discrimination recognised by the Equality Tribunal, and was awarded €35,000 from her former employer, First Direct Logistics Ltd, in 2011.
Four years later, Louise reflects: "I wish they had taken a braver approach. I took the case to highlight the fact that businesses need to deal with trans employees properly. I was really angry at the way I had been treated by people that I was very fond of and trusted."
Louise's case proved to be a landmark moment for gender diversity at work, sending a message to employers that gender identity isn't something that can be put on and taken off at will.
Now, thanks to famous figures such as Caitlyn Jenner, people are becoming more aware of what it means to be transgender. Earlier this year, 'Orange is the New Black' actress Ruby Rose and pop star Miley Cyrus came out as "gender fluid".
What's the difference? Transgender means identifying with a gender different from the one you were assigned at birth, while gender fluid people don't fit neatly into either of the two choices, falling outside or in-between the categories of man and woman.
RTÉ supported radio presenter Jonathan Rachel Clynch when he revealed last week that he is gender fluid. He will go by the name Jonathan Rachel and occasionally present as a woman, but continue to use male pronouns.
In an official statement, the national broadcaster said: "We, both as an employer and broadcaster, value the uniqueness of individuals and encourage diversity and equality.
"We are 100pc supportive of Jonathan Rachel who is a valued member of staff and a highly respected journalist."
However, this increasing visibility doesn't make Irish people experts on the day-to-day experiences of transgender and gender fluid people - or the best way to talk to them about it.
Broden Giambrone, the chief executive of the Transgender Equality Network of Ireland (TENI), said: "We often talk about transitioning from male to female or female to male, but we're increasingly working with individuals who don't identify as male or female but in-between, and that's really an area that people don't understand yet."
Having a complicated gender identity can stand against someone in what is already a very competitive job market.
"It can be difficult getting employment, full stop. Throw in a gender identity issue and that's an additional barrier. A lot of companies think, 'Look, we just don't want the hassle, we'll pick somebody else'," said Mr Giambrone.
A survey conducted by TENI in 2013 found that only 51pc of transgender and gender fluid participants were employed either part-time or full-time.
Some 43pc reported experiencing problems at work, such as feeling that they had been unfairly dismissed, denied a promotion or discriminated against because of their gender identity.
"If I'm going into a job interview and I look like a man but my PPS number reads 'female', then we might have a problem," says Rachel Moore, the founder of Express YOUR Gender, a start-up offering career development workshops to transgender and gender fluid people.
She hopes the Gender Recognition Bill, which came into effect this month, will improve working conditions for transgender people, although it offers only two options: male and female.
Fear of rejection at work, or even just an uncomfortable conversation in a job interview, leaves transgender people with the dilemma of when to "come out".
Dublin-born Denise O'Neill (46) didn't always feel comfortable being herself at work, but she is happy in her current job in Marks & Spencer. Her co-workers know she's trans, because she chose to tell them.
"People say, 'Why don't you just say nothing and keep it quiet?' But it's easier than bottling it up inside. All I'm asking for is to be treated the same as everybody else," she said.
Gender transitions can be easier for those who have already established themselves as valuable employees.
Ben Power (34) was working for an insurance company for two-and-a-half years before he transitioned.
"I had already built up relationships with people, and that definitely helped," he said.
Ben also mentioned the issue of being able to "pass" as male, and how transitioning at work can be more difficult for people who look transgender or who struggle to find clothing that fits their frame.
Some may feel they need to disguise their gender identity in order to fit in.
Sara Phillips (55) has been working for a multi-national construction coatings company for 10 years. However, she applied for the job as a man and spent the first year presenting as male.
"I knew that in that type of company I might not even get past the first hurdle unless I went in as male," she said.
"I was living this double life. In my spare time I was Sara, but in the mornings I was getting up and going to work as male. My neighbours thought there were two of us living in the house."
When Sara eventually revealed her status to her boss, he told her: "I'll support you. I'll struggle with it, because I really don't get any of it, but you'll have to tell us how to do this."
Co-workers may find it difficult to wrap their heads around the idea of genders other than 'man' and 'woman', but Sara said it's important to be patient with them.
"We have to understand that this is a big leap for us, but it's also a big leap for the people we work with," she said. "I tell them, 'Just call me Sara, the pronouns are she and her, and other than that just keep behaving the way you always did'."
She recalls meeting the parents of a 16-year-old transgender boy considering dropping out of school, who had said: "There's no point in me staying in school because trans people don't get jobs."
She pointed out that, for all of the horrifying stories about discrimination, there are some positive experiences like hers.
"My company are very proud of me. Once trans people are accepted and let get on with it, they can flourish," she said.