It will forever be one of the scariest moments of my life.
Before I left for work that morning, my spouse, Jen, who I had been with since high school, hugged and reassured me that I could get through this day. She smiled and told me, above anything else, not to worry: she and the kids would be there regardless of where the day led.
I arrived at my company's auditorium early and hesitated at the door as I stared into the empty room. Throughout my career, I had been in the audience for many divisional updates, technical presentations, and had even stood at the podium and presented information to a room of my colleagues. I was always nervous before speaking, but the emotion that tangled in my stomach on this day was more extreme than anything I had ever felt before. Never had I expressed anything as personal and never before had I taken a genuine chance with anything that I had said.
At the front of the auditorium, three chairs were arranged together—one for me, one for my supervisor, Dale, and one for my closest friend and coworker, Lindsey. As I made my way to the front of the theatre, my body was entirely numb, my hands slightly trembling, and my palms sweating through the pages of the announcement I had taken months to write.
As my colleagues filed into the auditorium, a strange sense of composure overshadowed my nervousness. I watched them through the metaphorical cracks of a masculine facade that had, for so long, provided me with a sense of security and undoubtedly afforded me considerable privilege in my career. I had built that facade with deliberate precision and perfection and had used every bit of my strength to hold it all together, shielding any version of my authentic identity from bleeding out. For fifteen years, I had flawlessly caught my voice a million times from saying the wrong thing, inconspicuously absorbed every single tear, and for so much of that time, had naively thought I had the strength to hold it all together forever.
Waiting for my moment, my mind wrestled with an aching desire to run while simultaneously recognizing that there was no longer anywhere to go. Every day, more and more cracks had been forming, and a combination of hard-fought self-acceptance and sheer mental and physical exhaustion cut off my desire to fix them.
The room murmured with small talk of the weekend past and the week ahead. I connected glances and traded the odd smile with a few people as they took their seats. Throughout the previous weekend, my colleagues' cell phones had buzzed with gossiping emails and text messages containing predictions of what Monday's 'important' meeting was going to be about. Were there going to be more layoffs, a big management announcement, or some other bad news that had become the recent norm in the organization? I stood quietly absorbing the sobering reality that not one person in front of me knew what was about to happen.
I stared into the crowd, and at that moment, began to genuinely appreciate how through the countless collaboration sessions, the field trips scrambling around outcrops and trudging through muddy tidal flats, the marathon peer reviews, and the drinks after work, so many of these people were more than 'co-worker's' to me. Many had become good friends. Fear stole my breath as I worried that once the words I was there to speak left my lips, many of these relationships would be forever changed. There had been no way to test the water, and I found myself in an 'all or nothing' moment with each and every one of them.
I now believe that we tend to appreciate what we value the most in the few short moments before taking a considerable risk like the one I was about to take. Personally, at this moment, I realized I wasn't worried about how my gender change would impact my career. In my heart, I knew that I was terrified of how my transition would affect my relationships with the people that sat in front of me. What could I possibly say that would open a door for my change while protecting the reputation I had built throughout my career? How could anyone trust me again after realizing how much of my truth had been left unsaid? Of course I had needed time to figure out who I was, but I felt guilty for lying-by-omission to all of them. I doubted that my relationships with anyone sitting in front of me that morning would ever be the same again. I silently grieved in anticipation of how many of these friends I was about to lose.
Dale approached me and asked if I was ready. Lindsey smiled with support and said, "you got this." I nodded in agreement and took my cell phone from my pocket. As per our plan, I nervously typed a text message to my spouse. "Here it goes. I love you," a cue to signal her posting of a message to our entire network of family and friends. As I hit send, I knew the only way was forward.
The three of us sat down, facing the full auditorium, Dale on my left and Lindsey on my right. The room fell silent as Dale raised the microphone to his lips.
Dale, my boss, a man that I worked with since my first day at the company, had become an immediately fierce advocate for me after telling him about my true gender a short few months prior. I stared at the carpet in front of me as he began to speak. He reinforced the importance of the announcement I was about to make and spoke to his admiration of the amount of courage that was going to be required to say what I needed to say. His voice was firm with intermittent cracks of unprotected emotion, which set a distinctive tone that had never been felt in that room. As his last word disappeared into the crowd, the room fell silent.
As he passed me the microphone, my heart pounded, and the breath I needed to start speaking eluded me. I continued staring downwards, and buying myself a little time, I slowly unfolded the speech I had in my hand.
I had not memorized the entire letter, but I did remember the beginning in anticipation of how hard it was going to be to get out. I closed my eyes, I thought of my kids, of Jen, and of the decade of personal struggle and discovery that had gotten me to this moment. I thought of the authentic version of me, who had waited patiently through all those years for her turn. Motivated by a desire for authenticity and the life I wanted to live, I stole back a breath, raised the microphone and began to hear these words leave my body.
"To my friends,
I believe, and have learned in my life so far, that real and meaningful change is only ever possible when I fully embrace being open, honest and completely vulnerable. Today, with that awareness in hand, I am going to be very honest about who I am and trust that everything from this point forward will get better. To begin, on the advice of my wife, I am going to start with the conclusion."
I am transgender... "
(You can read the entire speech here)
After a rewarding fifteen-year career as a geologist, technical manager, and the gift of so many meaningful friendships, three words would shatter my facade and immediately leave me more exposed and vulnerable than I had ever been. I continued looking down and continued reading my message, knowing that there was no way to go back. I spoke about my spouse, about my children and about Lindsey, all of whom had been instrumental in helping me get to this moment and provided the safety net that would catch me if everything fell apart.
I was honest, I was open, and I was completely unguarded. I didn’t hide a single bit of our family's journey and asked for only one thing.
"I ask that you trust that everything you know about me is still the same. I am still the same person with the same personality, interests, and experiences. I promise you that my authentic gender is simply an addition to everything you already know about me."
As the last word made its way out of my mouth, I slowly closed my eyes and the papers I was holding fell to my lap. In the first second or two, I didn’t want to look up. I was completely lost in my own head, replaying all of the negative outcomes I had foretold would happen at this moment.
A booming applause pulled me back to reality, and like a magnet drew my head up. In that first moment, my eyes connected with a young geologist on my team, who standing on her feet and through misty eyes was clapping passionately with an unmistakable expression of support on her face. It was the gift of that exchange with her that afforded me the courage to continue to look around the rest of the room. As I scanned the auditorium every person I saw was on their feet, clapping and overflowing with emotion.
This was not one of the scenarios that I had predicted.
As the applause began to dissolve and people sunk back into their seats, I passed Lindsey the microphone. She had had the opportunity to absorb the magnitude of this transition in me over the last six years and had encouraged me throughout all the time since. She used the privilege of this head start to talk honestly about her experience supporting me on the road to self-acceptance. She shared messages of love and provided the audience with more perspective on what support could look like and, more than anything, reinforced the humanity in my change.
In less than half an hour, all the words that I had spent months agonizing over and preparing, had come out. As everyone left their seats and waited in line to give me an accepting hug, I felt cautiously optimistic that there just may be room for 'different' in our industry. My door had been opened and two weeks later I would step through it as my authentic self.
I would stay at the company for just over two years from that day before being laid off. A new normal would settle in, and while I was exponentially more comfortable in my skin during that
time, I quickly appreciated that my personal growth and life learning were just getting started. As an organizational leader, I enjoyed the gift of a front-row seat to observe the positive impact that vulnerability and real authenticity had on my coworkers. The work relationships that I had worried about losing grew more in-depth, meaningful and remain today. And with respect to my career, I began to experience a different reality working in the corporate setting as a transgender woman.
After three years, and enough time and space, my experience of workplace gender transition and the time that followed is the topic that I now want to tackle. The employment barriers facing the transgender and gender diverse community are staggering. I am hopeful that by sharing my experience and lessons learned, it will create discussion, awareness, and understanding in more corporate settings. I trust that it is within this conversation that unconscious bias is removed and, as a result, more space is created for everyone embarking on a journey of authenticity.
*Please join me as I dive deep into the subjects of authenticity and vulnerability in the workplace, gender transition, and organizational diversity and inclusion. Sign up to receive my blog, here.
**Terra Firma Transition Consulting is focused on supporting individuals and working with organizations to eliminate the employment barriers faced by the transgender and gender diverse community throughout Canada and beyond.