Openly Stealth: Being Transgender at Work

Presented by Alex Papadopoulos at You Got This From Your Couch

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These transcripts were captured live by a captioner. As such, there may be small errors. If you spot any, please feel free to submit a pull request with amendments.

ALEX: Thank you, I was actively looking for something like this talk when I was considering my options about how to come out at work, so, yes, now I'm doing one. It was just really cool. Starting a new job can be intimidating for a variety of reasons, like starting from very practical things like learning how to actually do the work you've been hiring to do, 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 ourselves.

For some of us, starting a new job means we have to make decisions about how much of ourselves we can show. In this case, when I say for some of us, I mean for the people are part of the LGBT community, especially the ones occupying the "T" letter. I'm Alex, and I'm 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, carrying it around wherever you go, how to disclose it if you want to, and how not to do so if that works best for you. Most, I will try to make it clear that you should be proud of whatever identity or identities you're carrying, and you should never feel pressured into doing anything that can compromise your safety, or your mental well-being.

I would like to add here that I'm going to be talking from a relatively privileged perspective, sharing my experiences as a person who now lives and works in London, and I have lived in other parts of Europe before. I understand that in different parts of the world, or in different sectors - I work in tech - things can be different, and personal safety can be a huge factor in deciding whether you should come out at work or not. Initially, I do my best to describe the experiences, if someone says don't share them, which are more, possibly, as a way to welcome you into our lives in the ways of hoping to create understanding relationships and building allyships and to help you think about ways you can support your colleagues and that want to share something like that with you.

Yes, let's get started. Generally, navigating being part of the LGBT community, especially being transgender anywhere, is not an easy task. Let alone in the workplace. And 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 the transition really, always comes accompanied with a variety of emotions and questions. Should I disclose my transness? If I don't, am I lying? I'm afraid to tell my colleagues that call me to go play football with them that I'm trans, but I don't feel okay with myself if I don't. People can tell. Am I a fraud? These thoughts and a thousand others are very much expected, and an additional express when trying to adapt to a new workplace with new people and expectations. As a transgender person myself, I've been through the process of transitioning while working with colleagues who previously knew me with a different name, pronouns, and even face, as well as appearing with my new face in an entirely new environment where no-one knew. In both scenarios, I was freaking terrified, and for good reasons.

In 2017, when I started my PhD, I was having feelings of discomfort with the gender assigned at birth, but I wasn't as far as into transitioning or changing my name. I consider myself being in the nonbinary realm, and mostly okay 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 website. I spent a month on it dwelling on how weird my academic experiences sounded when referring to a "she". "She studied at the University of Sheffield. She did a Masters in human computer interaction. Her dissertation was on the learning experiences of students developing science games." Ergh, no, she didn't, and, first of all, who was she? I changed it to "they ", and it felt a lot better.

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, she was referring to the pronouns I used. I told her it's a gender thing. She had no idea what I was talking about it, but eventually agreed to discuss it further. Way to come out to your supervisor. Well done. Kids, don't try this at home! A year later, when I came to terms with who I was and changed my name and starting by going he/him pronouns, I had no idea how to tell other people at the lab, you know that gender thing? Well ... one day, we were having lunch outside with some of the people from the lab, I remember when we could have lunch with people outside? Wild! Sorry! And I just said, so, "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'm trans." 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 people who were not there so it wouldn't be awkward. I sent an email to everyone with a life update title that pretty much said the same thing. It didn't go amazingly with everyone, of course.

The worst part is that it didn't go well with the people that had the power to make it matter. I would be okay for some random person in the lab giving me the odd look and slipping into the wrong pronouns, but it's 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 not to focus on my studies, and do all those gender things instead. It could be a clash of culture, or generations, but it was a tricky one to tread on, given the power dynamics. But, you know, c'est la vie, and so, three months later, I started getting chin hair and voice drops. I would feel a big awkward if I hadn't told them first. Which brings me to the importance of timing. The moment in time you transition and come out to workplace is important. Not because there is a right and wrong time generally that you must follow in order to succeed, because doing so in different times can have different outcomes for you.

For example, coming out early on, just after you came out to yourself, can be a really is dating and affirming to your newly acquired identity, where people are calling you with your shiny new name and pronouns where you know people perceive the way with yourself, where you can sign with your name the first time, when everything feels new and awesome. It can save you from awkward situations if you later on decide to make physical changes or ask for some time off for medical procedures. A lot of the time, transitioning is very much medically orientated, and you will need that time off, for small things like psychologist appointments, and blood tests, so you have to stay at home for two months, medical procedures, that would otherwise be complicated to explain to HR, and maybe stay awkwardly and explain to your colleagues who see you for a month, and, when you return, you will have a different looking chest, for example, or something. On the other hand, coming out after, or during your physical transition, makes it much more a matter of fact, and it doesn't allow room for questions 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.

Anyway, you probably have left a possible diversion from the gender binary with the physical presentation with the way you carry yourself, assuming that you're not working in a place with heavily gendered uniform and strict rules on how you should behave. So some people might be a bit prepared, although, people own see what they know, and it is often the case that people don't know how to detect these changes unless they're trans themselves. So they are mostly unaware. Of course, medically or physically transitioning is not a requirement for someone to be trans.

The timing around how far in your transition you are and how new everything is for you can have a big impact on the coming-out experience of someone. Disclosing a part of your identity that people to this day people feel entitled to have an opinion on is nerve racking because the outcome can be unpredictable, and severe. In the best scenario, it will go unnoticed. No-one will bat an eye. 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, some people will not care, and others will be weird about it. Talking from personal experience and my discussion with other trans people, that in-between scenario is the most common one.

So, you've done a big part of your physical transitions. You look and sound like the gender you identify with, there are no obvious clues that you could give away the gender that you were assigned at birth, and you have just landed a new job. Do you tell them? Do you stay Stealth? Stealth is what trans people use about how we go about our lives going secretly in our lives without anyone knowing our biggest secret. Do you tell some people and not others? What about your online presence? Do you make your social media private in order not to get discovered? Do the people you hire think you're a fraud if you tell them later that you're not cis? Will your colleagues lose trust in you? Will the sky explode? Who knows!

Most things you're scared about probably won't happen. If they do, you might consider leaving that job as soon as possible, because - after that be with you might want to consider the reasons you might want to come out. Is it because you feel you want your colleagues or place of work to know your full self. Is it because you're out everywhere else and you feel you should be there as well? Is it because you're afraid that they can tell, and that brings you to a broad 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 with you thinking you're 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 bad side effects. You do you, and if that would help ease your anxiety, go for it. We both know you're not a fraud, and we both know that cis-gendered person can't very much distinguish a trans person from a cis one.

Let's say you weighted your reasons and you decided that coming out is the best thing 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 the HR to be at 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, proud, and you want everyone to know you're living your best damned life, or just want your manager and your closest colleagues to know to allow them a bit more into what makes you the awesome person that 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 call with the lovely person at HR, and discussing your options with them. You could also send a company-wide email, or write it down 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. We don't have to - you don't have to be apologetic, or explain too much. Everyone and anyone who hears it should be equally happy for you and indifferent about it. Of course it's a big deal, and at the same time, it isn't, and 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 think about doing it before. Just because they will be confused. Some people might assume that you came out to them as trans, but the other way around. There were some people in my case, for example, who thought that I was transitioning into a woman, and for me, it was a validating and made me laugh, but at the same time that's not the case entirely.

You might get invasive questions from people who don't know anything about what being transgender means and answer the question, "Have you had the surgery yet?" Question a couple of times. And by "have to answer", I definitely include the kind of, "It's none of your business kind of replies." Depending where you work, it might put you at the risk of getting fired because of it, not legally, because legally, they can't do that - and because correlations and getting fired events do exist. It is a difficult decision - correlations between getting fired and coming out times do co-exist. You have to ... and a healthy environment to spend so much of your timing. Coming out is something that you do for yourself, not for other people, and something that should make you feel better, not worse.

So I think it's time for me to confess to you that I'm not out at the place I'm working. If you're my colleague and watching this, there's your explanation why I'm five foot two! So, yes, 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've decided that I don't even intend to do so. I suspect there are some people who already know - my social media is full of trans discussions, and in some I have pictures of myself before my transitions, and it dates from important milestones in my bio. I don't believe my colleagues have nothing better to do than peek at my social media accounts, but I guess before hiring, at least a couple of them do. They're the people - they are the people I don't interact with at all, especially like 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 about how I look. Then there are the higher-ups and the HR. Do they need to know for some reason?

In my case, all my documents have been changed before the gender, so there are no discrepancies on my name or passport. They would find I changed my name with the HMRC after I - and there might be a discrepancy on the database by HR. I don't intend to tell my current workplace 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 lockdown were in place, maybe I would feel differently about it - weren't in place. I don't exclude the possibility of coming out to my next workplace, or even to this one at a different point in the future. Maybe this is my coming-out to them, who knows? Frankly, I don't think that at the moment it would make any realistic difference.

You see, coming out to anyone, whether they're your friends, family, or the place you're working at, it 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 and me being transgender at work in an exclusive 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 notifications mean I'm ashamed of it - does not mean I'm ashamed of it. Of course, this is just me, and this is how I'm dealing with what being trans means to me. What would it mean if people knew I was trans before I told them? 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're living a stealth life can feel like an ambush, especially when it comes to in an unfriendly way, or accompanied by, "Why didn't you tell me" kind of questions and accusations. If you're someone who works with someone who has not mentioned something about their gender identity and you somehow find out they're trans, here are a few things that you should not do. You should not start telling others before you tell them. It is impolite in the same that I it would be if you discussed something personal about someone behind their backs and it could compromise their safety. Don't come at them with accusations. Don't ask them why didn't they tell you? They probably had their reasons. Don't tell them they should tell people. They would know if they should. Most importantly, don't make it but.

Instead, you could try approaching them by sharing your pronouns, and asking for theirs, or letting them know that you've been hanging in their online spaces, if you've seen them online, for example, or just only a discussion about gender. This way, you can ease into the conversation, because the saying it's not paranoia when they're out to get you applies to a lot of 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 discussions, 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 should not worry about you telling others, and leave it at that.

A good analogy that I like to use that if you accidentally got into someone else's house, they would need to know because they would need to know to see what they can do so no-one else accidentally comes in, but that doesn't mean that they would be happy 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 discrimination coming from all angles, from our governments, homes, families, that it is impossible to keep up every single thing that we need to be careful of. It comes with so much joy and a perspective in life that is not easy to get when you're cis gendered. We all have heard at least once the statistics about diversity in the workplace, how diverse teams outperform others by 35%, how the workplace that value diversity benefits from 25% more revenue growth than others. It is not 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 people accommodating those users should be. If you can 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, and they would find enjoyable? There is still so much more to be done to make trans folk feel welcome and heard in the corporation, when for so many years we've been excluded and fired because we didn't fit the narrative.

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, it is really a huge step. I do wish some day this won't be a matter of discussion. I genuinely wish one day the act of coming out will be met with the same surprise and enthusiasm as announcing that you're getting married, or that your sister is pregnant. It is remarkable and huge for the people who share them, but unremarkable and everyday occurrences to the receivers. Until then, I hope that we continue to do everything in our power to make this journey a bit easier day by day with a bit of empathy, and a lot of understanding. Thanks!

About the talk

Navigating being transgender anywhere is not an easy task, let alone in the workplace and in a male-dominated field such as tech. Landing a new job after transitioning (or at any point during transitioning really) always comes accompanied with a variety of emotions. “Should I disclose my transness? If I don’t, am I lying?”, “I am afraid to tell my colleagues that I am trans, but I don’t feel okay with myself if I don’t”, “People can tell. I am a fraud.”

The thoughts mentioned above, 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. This talk will go through the experience of landing a new job as a transgender person, and ways to keep mental peace while doing so, as well as celebrate and showcase the importance of diversity in the workplace.

About Alex Papadopoulos

Alex Papadopoulos is a UX Designer at Reevoo and PhD Adventurer at UCL, committed to the noble cause of making the world suck less. He is 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.

Photo of Alex Papadopoulos

Alex Papadopoulos


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