My family upbringing was traditional, and sexual orientation and gender identity were never discussed – if they had been, any comments made would certainly have been negative and discriminatory. Today, I identify as a trans man, having been assigned female at birth. My pronouns are he/him. I also identify as heterosexual and I’m 56 years old. So, my motivation for wanting to share my story with other therapists is a simple one – our clients place such trust in us when sharing their own stories and courageously express their vulnerability and I wanted to honour this. I find sitting alongside a client and catching glimpses of their deepest, authentic self, which is so often shrouded in shame, to be a great privilege.
I’d like to think that telling my story will help you when you meet your next trans/non-binary client, offering a deeper understanding of how your client may see themselves and how others see them. I also hope that my story triggers your curiosity and interest in your own knowledge and understanding about gender, identity and how the culture of our workplaces can impact on how safe people feel to be their true selves at work, whether with colleagues, managers or clients.
I first remember feeling that I was different from my two sisters when I was about seven years old, as I always identified more with boys. I dreamt in the male gender and I found school difficult, particularly going through puberty and recognising that my body was changing and feeling out of place being with girls. I remember the girls’ changing rooms at secondary school and running through the showers quickly, feeling that I was going to be ‘found out’ for being with the girls and sent to the head’s office. A deep sense of feeling misplaced, along with accompanying anxiety, fear and shame, were constants in my life.
Around the age of seven, I recall my mum looking at me in the garden, and what I saw on her face was her shame, rejection and despair at what I felt she could see in me. It’s a moment that stays with me and I have carried it for years – realising that she did not have the capacity or understanding to accept me as I was. While I had a secure home life and my parents were loving and kind, I’ve learnt to understand how that moment in the garden formed my life’s direction towards becoming Jack, my authentic self, and learning to replace shame and the fear of my family’s rejection with self-acceptance and love.
Aged 20, I married and had two children and then embarked on counselling training, which proved life changing. By 30, I was divorced and came out as a cisgendered lesbian woman, and then met my current partner and lived in a same-sex relationship. My fears of being rejected by my family proved to be grounded as my parents expressed their deep disapproval and disappointment in me, and consequently, my relationship with them became distant and fractured.
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At work, I felt unable to come out as I feared more rejection, yet questioned the ethics of working as a counsellor while not being able to be my authentic self in the counselling room. Feeling a deep sense of shame, I had periods of feeling suicidal and highly anxious and spent hours in therapy and supervision, working out what I needed to do.
This led me to end my relationship with my (current) partner, but without telling her about my gender identity, fearing her rejection, if I did. I finally admitted to myself and my partner that I was transgender and my sexual orientation was heterosexual and we were able to reconcile our relationship shortly afterwards.
After the death of both my parents, I decided to open up to my GP, but was told not to ‘go jumping from Adam to Eve’ and to not make a major life decision. It’s true I was grieving, but equally I felt a sense of release from the fear of being rejected by my parents, and yet it took a further two years to pluck up the courage to ask a different GP for help again.
Fortunately, I have a partner who worked through my becoming Jack with me, despite this challenging her own sense of identity and sexual orientation. However, throughout this time, she had no one to talk to as I was ‘out’ at home as Jack, but I was not ‘out’ at work. She had to remember to call me ‘he’ at home and ‘she’ when outside of our home. I tell you this to highlight how important it is to hold in mind the people and family around your client, if and when they are ready to open up.
My children have all been supportive and accepting and still now call me mum. Yet I’ve learnt the importance of giving my children time and space to grieve for the loss of me as I used to be. For instance, some years ago, I recall my daughter came to stay, and when I opened the door, she noticed my beard, hair loss and heard my deeper voice – she burst into tears realising that she would never see her mum or hear her mum’s voice again. I suddenly became aware of her loss and the shift in our relationship.
While I was, and always will be, my children’s mum, our relationship is different since I have become Jack. I have had to allow space for their grief and the grief that my partner experienced too and make room for this alongside their delight and celebration of me and my happiness.
Gift of acceptance
I can remember the moment when I first disclosed to my therapist that I was trans, and my therapist’s response was one of absolute acceptance and warmth. For the first time, I felt someone was looking at me, seeing me and giving me a strong sense that it was OK to be Jack. I felt as if something within me aligned, and I felt whole.
A famous quote by Maya Angelou is one that I feel captures that moment for me in therapy: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
This is the cornerstone of my work as a therapist – it’s at the core of our relationship with our clients when we see them and offer our profound acceptance.
Becoming Jack at work
I finally came out at the age of 50 as Jack, rather unexpectedly at a job interview in Wales. I applied for the role as female, in my dead name (this is the term given to describe the name given on the birth certificate), and as we got to the end of the interview, the panel asked me if I had any questions. I think this is the point when you usually ask about holidays and pay, but I was looking at one of the members of the panel who was wearing a rainbow lanyard and I remember thinking, ‘If you really are inclusive, I’m going to test it out now’, so I asked the panel how they would help me to transition in the workplace.
Immediately, I was met with silence, and then after a few moments the response from one of them was, ‘I’m not sure we’ve been asked that before, so you need to tell us what we can do and what you need from us.’ I was offered the job, which I accepted, and so I began my life living fully as Jack.
Since then, I have learnt to love, accept and celebrate the person I am today, and the impact on my mental health and wellbeing has been incredible. Being able to be authentic in all parts of my life, at work and at home, means that I can now engage at a deeper level with my clients and colleagues, family and friends.
Safety at work
What I’ve found most helpful in my working life is feeling it’s safe enough for me to speak up and speak out, a culture of psychological safety where it is OK to challenge and to not be met with a defensive response. I have allies and colleagues whom I know I can trust, who have undertaken increased awareness training and who accept me and my authentic self. At work, clearly stating your pronouns on your email helps to show an awareness to the recipient that gender isn’t necessarily binary and it also gives an important visible signal that you have recognised this and are open minded.
It also matters to me that I have colleagues who are sensitive about the impact on me when I am/have been misgendered. The best way I know to explain how being misgendered feels for me, is to ask you to think of something you feel deeply ashamed of, or self-conscious about and then imagine walking into a room full of people and someone loudly pointing it out and it being heard by every single person in the room.
When it comes to conversations about being trans, there is a lot of talk about toilets, and I often find myself saying, ‘It’s not all about toilets!’ However, I did experience incidents at work early on in my transition where I was reported for using the male toilets, or I had to manage the discomfort of a male colleague using the toilets and their awkwardness at me being in there with them. It helps when workplaces have thought about the available facilities, including having gender-neutral areas.
I made a conscious decision to be ‘out’ at work as trans, to be a role model, to raise awareness, challenge perceptions and social constructs about what it means to be trans and so that I can use my position of privilege to speak out for others who may not be in that position in society.
Being Jack with clients
There is a lot to think about as a therapist when it comes to being with clients in the therapy room and being my authentic self, not least what is appropriate to share with clients? And if I do self-disclose, when should I do so, how and why? When I have disclosed my trans status in the past to clients and colleagues, it has led to questions including: Can I touch you? Are you on hormones? Have you had surgery? When did you decide to be a man? And comments such as: I wanted to see a woman, but you are telling me you are a man, but it’s OK because you still look like a woman.
Initially, it was uncomfortable being asked this type of question, and I remember feeling self-conscious and nervous about how much to self-disclose with clients. However, with time to reflect and exploration in supervision, I recognise that some people may never have met a trans/non-binary person, and difference often triggers our curiosity. Self-disclosure can have huge value in developing a secure therapeutic alliance with our clients, and being open to their questions has enabled me to also model that it is not shameful to be our authentic self, whoever we are. Societal constructs and beliefs form our often-unconscious bias, and if I am willing to share openly with my clients when they ask a question, I have an opportunity to challenge prejudice and stereotypes.
I use my internal supervisor to check in before reflecting with my client the basis of their question and what my response will mean to them. I often have clients who recognise that the need to ask came from a place of genuine interest in what gender really is, and others have told me that knowing I was able to answer with honesty has enabled them to look at their own lives and offered a sense of self-acceptance.
Between us, we then shift the focus back onto the client, with the knowledge that it is OK for the client to ask questions and for me to decide the level of disclosure that I feel is appropriate to share. This models a safe interaction for the client, which they can take out of the therapy room and apply in their own lives, to help establish boundaries around what they choose to share with others
It’s not uncommon for therapists to invite clients to focus on their bodies, and it feels important to share an experience that I had as a client when a therapist invited me to do a body scan. I felt very uncomfortable and nervous about focusing on my body, as I had spent my entire life trying to detach from it and not acknowledging that its female form betrayed me. I also felt a deep sense of embarrassment that I couldn’t simply say, ‘No, I don’t feel comfortable doing this’, and a deeper sense of shame that I was a counsellor and yet I still felt I couldn’t speak out in the therapy room from the place of being the client. I wasn’t out at this point as Jack and this was having a deep impact on my mental health and my self-worth. It’s left me wondering how many times our clients feel unable to say ‘no’ to us.
I continued with the body scan and noticed that I was becoming highly agitated and anxious, and my breathing was fast and shallow. The counsellor noticed how I was feeling and tried to reassure me to continue, to breathe steadily and to stay with the scan. Again, I struggled to say, ‘No, I can’t do this’. Instead, I smiled and carried on, but was aware that I was starting to feel trapped and in a state of panic. I tried my best to hide this and noticed that I was starting to dissociate and leave my body to try to find a safe place outside of myself. I needed to find my exit point, and, on this occasion, it was outside of myself and not outside of the room.
Afterwards, the therapist asked if I had found the exercise helpful. I was able to feed back that this particular exercise had triggered my dysphoria, but I didn’t feel comfortable elaborating on this.
I now use this experience when working with clients and wondering how they experience their bodies and if they have or don’t have dysphoric pain and distress – as not everyone does. Some clients may find this type of exercise helpful, but we need to avoid making any assumptions and be able to contain and support whatever may come up for the client during and after a session. For me, it’s also highlighted how much power we hold as counsellors, and the importance of checking out with clients their ability to say ‘no’ and go with what feels right and safe for them.
Every encounter with someone, whether a client or a work colleague, is an opportunity to offer the gift of acceptance. It’s a potentially radical act, as in doing so you have the power to challenge their self-concept and internalised shame from their experience of prejudice, microaggressions and discrimination – in return, you can offer them the possibility of a life-affirming and sometimes life-saving sense of hope.
If I could speak to my younger self now, I would say, ‘Thank you for the courage you found at that young age to continue the journey that led to where we are today. We loved, we have found acceptance and we are finally Jack – we did it!’