Harvard Business review

Coming Out as Trans at Work

I’ve known I was different since I was eight years old, but the process of coming out has been a journey of a thousand steps.

I joined Deloitte full-time in 2012. Shortly after that, I assumed a leadership position with the pride employee resource group. However, it wasn’t until 2019 that I decided to come out publicly as trans after meeting my partner. Her unwavering support of my identity made me realize I wanted the world to embrace and see me as she did. I was already in the process of transitioning socially, but at the time, no one at work knew.

My partner gave me great advice. She asked me: What are you willing to sacrifice? Are you prepared to be an island? Are you prepared to lose your job, your friends, your family? And I realized I was.

I decided to come out on my birthday. I took a four-pronged approach. First, I scheduled one-on-one conversations with individuals I wanted to make sure I spoke to before I was out publicly. Second, I went really broad and published an article on our internal website. Third, my leader at the time sent an email to the entire practice — about 900 people across Canada. And finally, I did the good millennial thing and posted on social media. I dressed up in a suit and tie — it was my first time wearing a tie to work — and my partner took a photo of me in the lobby wearing a button that said “Birthday Boy.” I posted it on social media with the caption: “Hi, I’m Mike. And today is my first day living my truth.”

  • Michael Cherny is the Senior Lead for the Centre for Trust at Deloitte Canada. He is a human rights advocate, an active member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community and an experienced Board Director. He has been recognized as a Catalyst Canada Honours Champion, CPA Ontario Emerging Leader and Notable Life LGBTQ+ Leader of the Year and is a thought leader in the diversity, equity and inclusion space.
  • Shalene Gupta is a research associate at Harvard Business School. She is co-author of The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, and Regain It (PublicAffairs, 2021).
  • Sandra J. Sucher is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. She is co-author of The Power of Trust: How Companies Build It, Lose It, and Regain It (PublicAffairs 2021).

I didn’t expect the overwhelming response I got. I had people texting me, I had people calling me, and I had thousands of comments on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. To date, my LinkedIn post has received more than 500,000 views. After countless speaking engagements, articles, and even a cover feature on a magazine, I’ve told my story to more than a million people.

I still get messages asking for advice about coming out at work, and I try to respond to each of them because I remember the feeling of not knowing where to start or who to turn to. I try to provide the support I wish I’d had, because coming out is complex. There is no playbook. There’s no one right way to do it.

By coming out, I’d unwittingly become a trailblazer in the corporate world. I didn’t have a choice about being a trailblazer, but the choice I do have is to be a road-paver, someone who ensures the path is just a little bit easier for everyone else going through a coming out journey.

As part of the road-paving, I’ve created a three-phase framework for thinking through what can happen before, during, and after coming out at work. Because everyone’s experience is different, I turned to an incredible network of people to ensure this framework includes multiple perspectives:

  • Rachel Clark, an information security specialist at TD Bank
  • Ry Maisonneuve, an inclusion leader at Deloitte Canada
  • Sophia David, a professional & leadership learning leader at Deloitte Consulting India
  • Harrison Browne, a former professional hockey player and current actor
  • Maeve DuVally, managing director of corporate communications at Goldman Sachs
  • Owen Heighes, an assistant vice president at MetLife
  • Katherine (Katie) Dudtschak, executive vice president at RBC

Their wide variety of experiences and strategies speak to different cultures, contexts, and situations. There’s no one right or wrong way to do this: Ultimately, it’s about navigating the journey in a way that is true to yourself.

Calculate your risks. 

When I came out, I was prepared to quit my job and have all of my social connections disintegrate. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, but the tragic reality is that many places are transphobic, and you may need a backup plan.

I also worried that I would be taken less seriously as a professional and passed over for promotions. Coming out actually gave me a platform and a way to connect with others more authentically, but again, I was lucky. That’s not everyone’s experience. So, think about what you are risking and what you are willing to give up.

Rachel Clark came out in 2007, 20 years into her technology career which included C-Suite roles, after quitting her job and had difficulty getting back into her industry because of discrimination. Doors she’d always thought would be open slammed shut. She was eventually able to find a job, and commented that today we live in a more progressive era. While we still have a long way to go, today there’s more dialogue about what it means to come out and be trans at work, and more people are visibly and openly challenging stereotypes and misconceptions. She stressed, however, that if she could go back and do it all over again, she would have come out sooner.

Do your homework.

Read up on the laws around discrimination in your country and city. Learn about your company’s policies around discrimination to find out how protected you are. Dig into the details of your company’s policy on gendered spaces, such as washrooms, and the dress code if there is one. Identify the gaps. Assess how important these gaps are to you and if you are willing to advocate for policy changes.

Look up your health insurance policy. Is hormone therapy covered? Surgery? Mental health support?

Make a list of all the people you’ll have to notify for a name change. Don’t forget important documents, such as identification documents (a passport or driver’s license), insurance policies, security badges, or email addresses.

Maeve DuVally did trial runs of her new routine before she transitioned at work. On weekends, she took the time to go to the women’s locker rooms, familiarize herself with the space, and lock in her routine. “Going into the women’s locker room was very intimidating to me given what’s happened in North Carolina,” she said.

Advocate for policy changes or protection if you need it.

When Sophia David came out in 2019, it was a crime to be LGBTQ+ in India. However, after she successfully battled cancer, she realized that for her, coming out was necessary. Since Deloitte is an international firm, she reasoned that if there were no legal protections in India, she could advocate for Deloitte Consulting India to create a policy that protected her. She was in the unique position of working for the Deloitte U.S. offices in India, which means the offices are an extension of Deloitte’s U.S. office.

Sophia went through an exhaustive process of meeting with leaders, asking for their support and introductions to other influential leaders. Once she had a crew of leaders backing her, she spoke with a sympathetic talent expert at Deloitte Consulting India who took action to create an inclusive policy and guidance to support LGBTQ+ employees which was comparable to what employees in the U.S. received. This included ensuring health insurance covered hormone replacement therapy and gender reconstruction surgery. Once the policy was published, Sophia began speaking with other members of her team as well as her managers about her identity and subsequently sent a note out to the larger office.

With the support of her employer, Sophia finally felt comfortable taking a calculated risk to come out. However, someone’s ability to self-advocate varies. And as Sophia points out, her position at Deloitte enabled her to advocate for herself in way that not everyone has access to, and her desire to come out in an environment where it was illegal was out of necessity.

Figure out who you need to inform.

I did a pulse check before officially coming out. Before I came out at work, I slowly came out to the people closest to me and figured out how they felt, as well as what their reactions were and how to best prepare for those reactions from others in the future. I started by writing down a list of about 25 people I wanted to tell personally and just systematically had one conversation after the other. It was tough. How do you start that conversation? I actually ended up writing out a script.

Owen Heighes started by going to his boss. Together with HR, they developed a strategy to identify people he wanted to connect with prior to updating his name and pronouns in the corporate directory. Owen has a highly visible, global role and chose to have one-on-one conversations with specific leaders at his company first. Maeve DuVally worked with a representative from HR to make lists of internal employees and external stakeholders who should be told in advance of the larger announcement, as well as who the news would come from: an HR rep, Maeve, or her manager. Ry Maisonneuve eschewed a company announcement and simply added their pronouns to their LinkedIn profile; then, they branched out to their email signature and finally to introductions during meetings. Katherine (Katie) Dudtschak stressed that her company partnered with her exceptionally well; the firm clearly respected that this was her story and plan. She owned it and made the key decisions.

Rachel recommends preparing for the unexpected: “There were people I thought would be allies and people I thought would be absolute nightmares. I was 100% wrong.”

Manage your mental health.

The day I came out I booked myself in back-to-back meetings so I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. It wasn’t the wisest idea in retrospect. There was an overwhelming response, and even though it was positive, it took a lot of mental and emotional energy to manage.

Give yourself the time and space to process all of these emotions. Lean on your personal networks for support. Don’t be afraid to ask for time off or to seek out therapy. It’s a big transition, and it stands to reason that you’ll have a lot of emotions that will take far more than one day to process.

Maeve had a similar experience — and was even shadowed by a New York Times journalist during the first three days of her experience. She pointed out that over time, people got used to her new identity, accepted her, and moved on with their lives.

Katie took the opposite approach. She came out by video with her CEO and her boss, and then worked remotely for two months, during which she went through some medical treatments, spent critical time with family, and prepared for her new life. “I was so afraid that if I sensed any negative visceral reaction, that it would ruin my self-confidence,” she said. “So I chose to not be at the office, I chose to be away from the office, do conference calls. This also gave the company time to let the more than 20,000 employees of the division work through important transgender training.”

Give yourself the time and space to process all of these emotions. Lean on your personal networks for support. Don’t be afraid to ask for time off or to seek out therapy. It’s a big transition, and it stands to reason that you’ll have a lot of emotions that will take far more than one day to process.

Manage the people around you. 

At one point, I had a list of who knew and who didn’t, which helped me stay organized. The most common reaction I got was “I support you, but I don’t know how to be helpful.” After a while, it can be draining to become the go-to source for everyone’s questions. I’ve been lucky to have some amazing people step up and say they’ll help me with that.

I actually had a friend from Deloitte’s pride employee resource group lead a closed session with senior members of the firm. She went over transitioning, explained what I was going through, and answered any questions — everything from the basics (like what does transitioning actually mean) to “How can we support Michael?” and “How do we answer questions around bathroom policy from other employees?” I didn’t have to be there, and she debriefed with me afterwards. Now, I try to offer myself as a similar resource to people around the world when they need it.

Similarly, while Katie was out of office for two months, her company held trainings so that she knew everyone would have time to process her transition and adjust to it. While she was away, Katie was flooded with hundreds of emails, each of which she took the time to respond to. This has continued to this day. “It was incredibly important to recharge emotionally and be ready to come back to work as me,” she said.

At Goldman Sachs, Maeve’s manager sent an internal memo to her floor the day she came out. She noted that in several ways, coming out actually strengthened her relationship with her coworkers who are also underrepresented. “I was perceived to now belong in a group that might experience discrimination,” she said. “I developed richer and more authentic experiences.”

Owen noted that he was intentional about not correcting people publicly if they were making an honest mistake, like accidentally using the wrong pronouns in referring to him. “My goal was to normalize my transition, and correcting the mistake draws more attention to something,” he said. “I gave it grace in the moment. A lot of people would make a mistake and apologize behind the scenes. I took it offline if it was important. I wanted to remove the feeling of walking on eggshells from the process.” He stressed the importance of assuming positive intent and remembering it’s a process for everyone, including yourself.

While it is important to assume positive intent, unfortunately people who harbor negative sentiments and perceptions about trans and non-binary individuals do exist. If you do face bullying at work, make sure to refer back to the policies and protections you researched earlier or identify what recourse you have against discrimination. Don’t hesitate to use these policies and mechanisms to report or respond to any harassment or workplace bullying. Lean on your allies in and outside of the workplace to both support and advocate for you and recognize it is not your responsibility to educate or manage these individuals alone.

Manage physical and emotional changes.

When I decided to come out, I was nervous about navigating the fact that I was going to change physically and emotionally. How do you begin a conversation about suddenly using a different washroom, wearing different clothing, or in my case, growing facial hair and having a deeper voice?

I started from a place of honesty and vulnerability. I’d never been down this road before and neither had the folks around me. I talked to my leaders and walked them through what I was feeling and what I needed, whether that was time off, flexible hours, or the space to experiment with a new leadership style. I had to be very aware of my emotions to make sure they weren’t impacting the people I managed. I was also gracious and open about how affirming comments like “Love the facial hair,” or “Is your voice getting deeper?” felt to me and how much I welcomed them. And most importantly, I leaned on my networks. I often asked my partner and friends for a sanity check on my emotions.

But that was just my approach. Owen noted that he chose to navigate the early stages of his transition privately until he was at a place where he was prepared to have conversations around his physical and emotional changes.

Coming out is a continual journey. You don’t get to take it back once you’re out. I’ve been out since 2019, but I still have to come out for people who don’t know me. I routinely speak at diversity and inclusion events where I have to come out to clients who otherwise see me as a white cis-passing male. Sometimes my voice trembles when I say my name and my pronouns out loud, just like it did in the early days of my coming out. It still feels surreal — and yet it’s the way it’s always been inside of my head.

There are still daily challenges. I deal with microaggressions, such as getting dead-named (called by my former name) and misgendered on a daily basis. It messes with my head, and I’ll wonder, “Did I do a good enough job of being me today?” which is an outlandish question. I haven’t figured out all the answers, but I try to take it one day at a time and ask for support when I need it.

Manage the spotlight.

When I came out, I was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. In many ways this has been positive: I’ve been able to speak and connect with people I otherwise wouldn’t get to meet. However, this wasn’t an experience I was necessarily prepared for. “Once you come out, people are going to demand your emotional capital,” as Rachel noted.

As a former professional hockey player, Harrison Browne is no stranger to the spotlight, but he struggled to balance being a role model for the trans community with taking care of his mental health. “I needed to distance myself from some of the news for my mental health,” he said. “As a result, I wasn’t as prepared as I would have liked to be for a panel, and I had to forgive myself for that.”

Maeve recommended thinking strategically about which engagements you want to speak at to avoid burnout. She recommended picking awareness days such as Pride Month, and Trans Awareness Week since these are moments when the greater community is paying more attention to trans and nonbinary experiences.

Owen stressed that you don’t have to be the spokesperson. “You don’t have to lean into all the forums and be the person representing,” he said. “I don’t represent all trans people. I represent my own journey.”

Establish boundaries.

When you’re in the spotlight, it can be easy to feel like you owe the public everything about yourself. It’s important to establish boundaries. Owen recalled that someone once told him: “People have to earn the opportunity to ask specific questions.” He uses this advice as a touchstone to decide what questions he answers and from whom. There are people he’s happy to have a long in-depth phone call with and others he’ll simply point to resources. He’s careful about which details he shares publicly and which are purely personal.

“I’ve been very open about my story. But there’s no reason that everybody has to be as open as I was,” Maeve noted. “If there are certain aspects of your story that you don’t want to go public with, that’s your right. It’s your life. It’s your story. It’s your story to tell. And you can tell it in any way that you want, because it’s your story.”

Recognize the void.

One aspect of coming out that I was wholly unprepared for was this void I felt afterwards. I’d prepared for weeks, months, and years for this big moment. Then I did it. I was living my truth. I felt grateful, drained, and ready for the rest of my life.

And then I hit the void. The adrenaline rush was over. My networks weren’t checking in as much. I wondered what I was supposed to be doing next. The world saw me as living my truth, affirmed, and validated, but they didn’t see how hard it can be to suddenly be thrust into the spotlight while still maintaining the same level of performance at work. Not only that, now you’re hyperaware of the people around you, braced for being deadnamed or for other microaggressions around your gender and name.

It’s particularly important to stay connected to your networks during this time and to continue taking care of yourself emotionally and mentally. “Avoiding the void after means not letting the airwaves get too quiet,” Katie said. “Recognize you’re not a burden and ask for check-ins. It’s easy to perceive silence as ‘something is wrong’ or as a rejection, but in reality, people see you’re okay on the outside and want to leave you alone to exist.”

“It’s your story to tell. And you can tell it in any way that you want, because it’s your story.”

For me, coming out was a gift. It freed up what felt like 40% of my brain that was constantly thinking about my identity, wondering about whether or not I should come out and what would happen if I did. I’ve been enormously lucky with the loving and supportive response I’ve received from my personal and professional networks. While there are still challenging days, coming out has helped me relate better to other people and created a platform for me to share my journey and help others be themselves while also supporting organizations to become more inclusive workplaces for everyone.

There’s no cookie-cutter approach, but my hope is to help create a world where the path will be paved with more than just good intentions, but with building blocks that make the journey a little bit easier for everyone else walking down this road.

Author’s Note: While HBR’s typical style is to refer to people by their last names, I’ve elected to use first names since everyone worked so hard to finally be called by their true name.

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