The first time I had ever knowingly met a person going through transition was when I was in my late teens in the 1980s. As an aspiring actress, I’d somehow managed to wing a part in a professional theatre production and Sandra was the director. On my first meeting with her, my judgemental teenage mind suspected that there ‘wasn’t something quite right’ about this glamourous woman presented to me. Her feet and hands were larger than the average woman and her strong jawline frequently suggested ‘midnight shadow’.
I couldn’t put my finger on it. I dare not confide in my cast mates, as I’d been brought in at a late stage to replace another and the last thing I wanted was to be branded a gossip. However, two days into my rehearsal, my suspicions were confirmed when I walked into the ladies' loo. Sandra had forgotten to lock the door of her cubicle and was standing up to take a pee. Reeling with shock, I edged away unseen and kept a low profile, unaware of how to approach the situation. I didn’t know much about transgender; I had heard the term ‘sex change’ but had a limited understanding of it. I’d also heard of ‘transvestites’ and ‘cross-dressers’. While I knew that Sandra did not fall into these categories, I didn’t know whether to ignore or understand that Sandra was going through the most important change of her life.
Two days later I was put out of my inquisitive misery when Sandra announced that she would be late the following day due to having her ‘new boobs’ checked and her now routine hormone injections. As it turned out, many of the cast members had known Sandra when she had been Stephen and had been an integral part of her journey, so they couldn’t understand why this was of such high interest to me.
As a black woman, I have been to parts of the world where the locals have never seen a black face. On this occasion I found myself using this silly comparison, saying that I had never met someone going through transition before and it became my quest to find out more.
Sadly Sandra and I never became 'BFF', I believe she didn’t like me because I was a bad actress and she had not wanted my predecessor to leave. She sometimes joked that I must be angry because her body was ten times better than mine and she had physically been born a man. I never felt bad about her (sometimes not so subtle) bullying, as when I got to know her a little better, I realised that her journey had been horrific and those who are bullied often pass their anger on.
Like many people going through transition, Sandra had faced rejection in all corners: family, friends and former cast members. Even young people had been barred from taking part in the theatre group as their parents felt that Stephen had no right to become Sandra, and therefore posed a threat to their kids. She also faced harassment within the community; found herself having to move home twice, and on a number of occasions, experienced physical violence.
Trans: an uphill struggle
Now this all happened thirty years ago, and it is heart-warming to know that transgender is now out in the open and high on the topical agenda, but it’s equally sad to know that the trans community still face an uphill struggle.
Understanding is still limited and high profile people have tried to help, but along with the media, in many ways have ended up sensationalising or reinforcing misconceptions.Sadly, there is still a high suicide rate among people who come under the transgender umbrella, and despite legislation there is still a lack of a person-centred approach which adds to misunderstanding and ultimately leads to discrimination.
Understanding & supporting: role of employers
Transgender is not a black and white issue, and is very unique to the individual. There is a wealth of terminology and a catalogue of ideas regarding why in the western world we still accept that there are only two genders. Within society, there is a tendency to believe that an individual will have to undergo full gender reassignment to fully become another gender or to gain a ‘Gender Recognition Certificate’. This is not the case. Some people who are transgender also feel that they do not identify with any gender and therefore regard themselves as ‘gender fluid’, while others believe they might have been born ‘intersexed’.
Unfortunately, organisations and individuals sometimes fall flat when supporting staff going through change. If a person who has previously changed genders moves to a new employer, it's illegal for a member of HR to disclose this information.
However, if someone is changing gender identity during their employment, everyone around them has the ability and responsibility to educate themselves on transgender and transsexualism and find ways to help and support the individual. Some organisations facilitate workshops or share personal lived experiences to help others to understand the individuality of each person’s journey. Most importantly, do not be afraid to talk to the individual and let them take the lead.