My Workplace Transition
My name is Angelique Piwinski and I am a transgendered person. As we read more and more about transitions in the news, I believe more transgendered employees will feel that now may be the right time to finally lift the burden they have repressed, some for many years.
My personal journey would fill many chapters in a large book, which eventually I will write, but today I will talk about the workplace and my own story. My position at the EVP level is client-facing and revenue generating, a vastly different scenario than one might encounter who does not have a client-facing position. Of course, regardless of the type of professional position one holds, there are challenges of transitioning in the workplace. They are magnified when that position is one that has a direct impact on the financial health of a business.
So here is my story in short form. I had known I was different for many years, but hadn’t really understood what it all meant and why. I truly believe that it is impossible for the vast majority of people to actually “understand” the true gravity of a transgendered person’s mindset and the internal struggle one endures on a daily and sustained basis. But a primary goal for all of us at its most basic level is acceptance, and hence in the workplace, inclusion by co-workers and all who interact with us. It was only through years of personal research that I came to understand myself. Once I finally had this “epiphany,” the quandary was what to do about it and what path to take to be true to myself and finally lift the burden within, but not to invoke damage to those around me, my co-workers or my company.
Thus started a slow transition. See the photo of me in March of 2012.
Over a period of several years, my co-workers began to notice my physical changes. I was able to bluff away most for a time, until it became too obvious. At that point it was finally time to reveal my real self, but I needed to speak to my clients first, since if they didn't accept me, all bets would be off.
Prior to traveling for some key meetings with my largest client in mid 2014, an ally and friend at that client volunteered to speak on my behalf to his superior, the person who directly contracts with our agency and negotiates with me on behalf of the agency to do their work. What made this particularly delicate was that this client is one of our agency’s largest, and responsible for generating the revenue that supports many jobs. In addition, I have worked with this client for over three decades, and, as such, have earned a level of trust where they often refer to me as “family.” So imagine coming out to your “family,”but with the caveat that if you failed, you would negatively impact the livelihood of so many coworkers who place their trust in you, the head of the account.
So my coming out was a conversation that should have happened face-to-face. However, I was afraid that the change in my appearance was too significant not to pave the way beforehand, even though my mode of dress was still male. Fortunately, the reactions were overwhelmingly positive and all were extremely happy for me. Interestingly, the focus was not about my transitioning, but genuine caring for me and my happiness. All of our contacts at the client said, “we love the person you are and we don't care what you look like.” After that was done, the same scenario was repeated with my other smaller clients and all with the same positive reaction and acceptance. Internally I was also well received. Two important lessons learned here are: the critical value of allies and the importance of the person you are. Employees who are well liked and have many friends should fare best.
But transitions are not simple at all. Restrooms are usually the first issue. We have only a few gender specific restrooms for a ninety-employee office. For a time, I was using the men’s room, since the guys all knew me and it didn't bother them. The problem occurred when we had other clients or visitors in house who didn't know me. It could be a bit disconcerting to see a woman using the men’s rest room. When clients were in house, I was notified and agreed to wait until they left. Eventually working with our HR department to find a solution, I asked most of the women in our office if they would have any issues with me using the women’s room. Everyone I asked was fine with surmounted that obstacle – at least at the office! But what about everywhere else? The rule I’ve been living by is to always use the women’s room wherever I am. Not without a bit of trepidation sometimes – I do travel a lot and one doesn't always know the rules and laws in different cities and states. I am far enough along in my transition that I do believe strangers will not readily ID me as formerly male. I’ve come to realize too, it’s largely about attitude. If you look like you belong, generally no one will pay any attention. It’s when you seem unsure of yourself or perhaps dress in a way that calls too much attention to yourself, that you emit signals that lead to uncertain results.
There is much more to my transition, of course. Even a name change can be daunting, especially prior to legally changing it. I wanted to change everything to my new chosen first name. But this posed potential legal issues because my official employment records show a legal male name. If phone lists and my email signature indicated something different, to outside auditors it would set off red flags and have the appearance of two employees. So on official phone lists, I had to remain with a legal male name. On my email signature, however, I included a co-branded statement. This too is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Nearly every area of my life has changed as I have transitioned – and this is true on both the business and personal fronts. … not totally true. Here is a better way to say this: So needless to say “transitions” are complicated on so many levels. Our goal is to align our internal gender identity and “transition” our exterior gender expression to match - the ultimate remodeling. The essence of our being, our soul and personality never changes. We still love the same, cry the same tears, laugh at the same jokes and care about the same things as before.
But the practical challenges continue. Case in point – it is truly a teaching experience when I travel and encounter the TSA. Although I have never been prevented from travel, there have been some interesting moments presenting a male ID and clearly having a female appearance and mode of dress. This is not just confined to airports, but anywhere access is required via a photo ID. Think about this too: having dinner at a restaurant with a client, having a waiter flirt with you and then presenting a corporate credit card with a clearly male name. Interesting moments, but my solution to all of this is to tread lightly, use humor and try to educate where possible.
As a contributor to our corporate transition guidelines, I can tell you that even the best guidelines must be used flexibly. Every situation is unique, but most important, employee education is the key to workplace inclusion. The proverbial do’s and don'ts can be so helpful to employees and the transitioning employee, because they will elevate sensitivity and respect throughout the workplace. In the end there are really two transitions that happen: the transitioning employee and all employees who come in contact with that individual. Ultimately, as our companies can testify though, workplace diversity with inclusion makes for happier employees and a more cohesive workplace that ultimately results in the best product deliverable possible.
Angelique Piwinski is National Chair of IPGLBT, IPG’s GLBT Employee Business Resource Group whose mission is to foster inclusion among all agencies within the holding company through educational events and programs and to make IPG the employer of choice for the GLBT community.
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