PEOPLE IN GLASS OFFICES
Happy New Year, everyone!
The great post-Christmas return to work prompted me to to run this piece that I uploaded recently to my LinkedIn profile. You can find me there at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kimerincowley/
My gender transition belongs to another age – or at least another century. We’ve come a long way – though I imagine it must still seem like a huge challenge to anyone taking such a step in today’s work environment. Reassuringly though, it isn’t quite as scary as it was.
There are so many moments I recall from those first years. Days when I either felt drowned by hopeless despair or elated with a belief that anything might be possible.
When I look back now, there is one occasion that stands out. It wasn’t – by a distance – the worst experience. There was no violence or threat. No insults or barbs. There was just a subtle humiliation. The kind of gentle injury that leaves a tiny, never quite forgotten scar.
I worked for a magazine in a role that required me to pitch for ad campaigns from potential advertisers – sometimes directly, but also to corporate agencies. The title for which I worked, had an enviable editorial reputation, but not the broadest readership. There were other glossy mags in the market with ten times our readership and so getting an audience with a major agency was never an easy feat.
When I received a call (such business was primarily conducted by phone in those days) inviting me to pitch for a mainstream campaign, I was naturally thrilled. At that time, I was enduring the trials of mid-transition. I was required by a consultant psychiatrist to prove my ability to function in society, in what was clunkily termed ‘the female role’. This meant presenting myself definitively as a woman – in order to earn the right to actually live as a woman. I was required to carry documentation as proof that my behaviour wasn’t in some way underhand or designed for deception. It was a very weird time.
I had visited this particular classy, glassy HQ a year or so earlier. Apart from adding a little make-up and a fringe to already long blonde hair, I didn’t think that I looked so terribly different. But I knew that my would-be client had heard of my transition through the grapevine. There would have been a certain expectation. I recall that I dressed in a rather demure grey skirt and jacket in an effort to make my appearance less of an issue. These were the Major years. Greyness could make you boring – couldn’t it?
I didn’t meet my contact in the same small office-off-a-corridor as I had in the past. I was instead shown to a glass-walled meeting room on a large, open plan floor. At least half a dozen people greeted me, none of with whom I’d had any dealings before. They had been primed. During the introductions, the pronoun ‘he’ was most definitely used. Still, I duly stood and gave what I recall to have been a shaky, faltering presentation with nothing more than some A3 printed pages and a few stats for support. Nobody seemed to be listening. Hardly anyone asked a question. They just stared. I would occasionally notice over the heads of those in the room, that quite a few heads around the office had swivelled to look on, too. I’m sure they can’t all have been grinning – it just seemed that way.
As I look back now, I realise of course that I was just a novelty. I was the weirdo from the niche title. I shouldn’t have been there at all, but somebody thought it would be a bit of a laugh to put me on show. It wasn’t personal; just a bit of mischief to entertain the office. The joke was most definitely on me – but still I knew that I had to take that invitation.
It was without question, the longest hour of my professional life – and it was followed by the only time I would ever cry on London Transport (insert own commuting joke). I reflected a lot afterward. I thought about how my face had burned with self-consciousness and how my voice had trembled through gulps and faltering breath. But mostly, I remembered that I had seen it through. I had continued to do my job – and therefore justice to a wonderful group of colleagues and the title I represented.
That experience would never be repeated. Instead it steeled me. It made it possible for me to walk into any room, anywhere in my working world and simply get on with business. I remember three years later presenting to a dozen executives on 5th Avenue, New York. I don’t think my heartbeat was any higher than at breakfast. I just focused on the work. The message. I was already the best part of who I am today – and once my peers’ knowledge of where I came from was removed, there was simply no contrast to matter.
I don’t think I ever met anyone from the glass room at that London agency again. They will have gone home to their families that night and perhaps mentioned it but otherwise too, moved on with the times. These days, they’ll know better. They’ll have seen a hundred stories about trans people. Perhaps they now even know of one such in their own lives.
It will be easier today for someone announcing gender transition. There are laws and rules and a greater understanding. Sure, every new experience will still feel terrifying – and there will be bumps along the way, but time passes and as changes come, they move everyone forward so that in the end, we all just get back to work.
When I started my first job, men knew it all and women were encouraged to know their place. We all smoked our way through the day, spent hours on the phone and rifled through paper mountains and card indexes. We used language unacceptable by today’s standards and saw behaviour that would take decades to right. We dreamed of a better working tomorrow – and you know what? We got it.