Friday 23 February 2018

What it feels like to... tell your colleagues you've become a woman

As a boy growing up in the 1970s, Sara Phillips (57) always felt different. When she finally decided to transition in her mid-forties, the hardest part was opening up to her colleagues in the building industry

Accepting of change: Sara Phillips says her clients were amazing when she told them she had transitioned
Accepting of change: Sara Phillips says her clients were amazing when she told them she had transitioned

Sara Phillips

I don't talk about what my name was 'before', and if anyone is ever talking to a trans person, that's a no-no - we don't want to talk about our previous name. It doesn't matter what name somebody else gave me before, the name I have and the name I chose when I was five years old is 'Sara'. That's my name.

I was five when I first felt like I didn't identify with the gender I was assigned at birth. It was school time and the boys and girls were being split into separate classes and I distinctly remember having an issue with that, feeling like I was being sent one direction when I should have been staying where I was. That feeling never went away. It was always sitting there and by the age of 17, it would creep up on me, resulting in bouts of depression. I'm a very practical person and I remember thinking "ok, I'm going to have to suffer with this. I'm going to have to learn to live with it because I'm not going to put myself through what I saw other people putting themselves through".

This was 1970s Ireland and not exactly the place to be different or specifically any type of LGBT. Being trans was just not the done thing. Even trying to find out information at that stage was very difficult and the sort of information you could find was in the red-tops and usually horrific. People were not given any sort of respect. Life moved on. There was school and college and exams and then work. I played football regularly, I dated, I went to football matches and gigs and tried to live that sort of life. I met someone and got married and had a family, and that complicated matters in the sense that I now had responsibilities that were very important to me. Life was no longer my own because I had people I loved and was committed to. But at the same time, as I got older, the feelings I was having were getting stronger and more difficult to cope with. I was in my early 30s and travelling a lot for business and I'd try to find outlets to express myself when I was away. But being able to get dressed up for a night out was never what it was about for me. I wanted to be able to get up in the morning, look myself in the mirror and say "this is me, this is my true self".

There wasn't one moment when everything changed. My story isn't like that, it was more like the tide coming in. Too often in the past, the stories of trans people get reduced down to voyeurism. People want to know "what was your name?" or "tell us about the surgeries?". But you don't need to know that story.

To me, and most trans people, that's the minor side of the story. That's just trying to align everything - the real story is the social aspect of that transition and society's reaction.

Obviously my marriage broke down. But it broke up amicably due to the point that there was a realisation that "I need to do this", but I always wanted to try and make sure everyone was supported within what I was about to go through. One of my children was of an age where they were able to understand what was going on and two weren't. For me, it was always more about bringing everyone along on the journey rather than saying "this is what's happening", because the one thing I didn't want to do was lose my children or be alienated from my family.

So the process was a slow one. No one saw dramatic changes but they knew what was going on and therefore were able to handle the small, subtle changes. People definitely had fears and expectations, but the reality was I was still the same person with the same likes and views, the only difference was I looked slightly different. There were some difficult times, but it was always preferable to hiding it because that's what I felt I'd always been doing, hiding and denying a huge part of myself.

The fact I worked in construction probably delayed my transition quite a bit. I've many years of experience, working at a high level in multinational companies, but when I applied for a job 12 years ago, I didn't believe I'd get a fair shake at an interview if I presented myself as female and trans at that.

So even though I had transitioned months and months before, I actually went to the interview as a guy. And when I got the job as a guy, I obviously had to go to work as a guy. For a while, it was a struggle.

I was living my life in one gender and going to work as another. Very early on, I approached my boss and told him the story. He was incredibly supportive (and remains one of my best friends) and I'm still with the company 12 years on. My clients were amazing. I remember asking one - a 6ft Belfast man who works in the flooring industry - "how did you take everything so well?" and he told me "because I know who you are, why wouldn't I support you?". I think I was braced for negativity that, happily, never really came.

I know I'm one of the lucky ones in that my family has always supported me. My children are still around me, I'm in a relationship and I've good friends around me. I'm now national sales manager for Tremco illbruck in Ireland, I'm chair of Transgender Network Equality Ireland and on a Wednesday night, I play five-a-side women's football. I've a very full life.

The world has changed. The internet has definitely opened people's eyes and there are more positive stories about trans people in the media. Awareness has grown and this is, I suppose, 'our time'. But trans people are just ordinary, everyday people with, what you might say, is an extraordinary issue. All we want to do is just move through it and then settle back down to living our lives.

For support or more information, contact TENI on 01 87335 75 or teni.ie.

Inclusion Works 2017, hosted by GLEN at the Aviva Stadium, takes place on September 28. For ticket details, see inclusionworks.ie.

In conversation with Chrissie Russell

Irish Independent

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