Shauna Wilson MACN is an Enrolled Nurse currently practicing in Queensland, is the Chair of the ACN Enrolled Nursing faculty and co-Chair of the ACN Diversity and Inclusion Working Party. She has been an active voice in advocating for the inclusion of access for transgender and gender-diverse people in the nursing profession and has written a book on her experiences transitioning while working as a nurse.
Can you imagine carrying the emotional weight of hiding your true gender identity from all who love and know you, as it does not conform to the physical body that others see?
How would you handle having to hide these confused feelings for sometimes decades whilst still being forced to express yourself as society sees you and, in the role, given to you at birth?
The mental anguish that one who goes on the journey to transition is immense and unimaginable unless you have navigated it. Many do not survive this journey. Now that you have found peace in who you truly are and are either commencing transition or have completed that part of your journey you need work to pay the bills.
Starting a new role in any new organisation can be very daunting, both on a personal and professional level. This is amplified if you are transgender or gender diverse. There will always be that question going through the back of your mind about being accepted for who you identify as.
Being transgender can cause awkwardness. This is not because the trans person is awkward in the situation but because people around them may feel awkward. If they already know you personally then conversations may go smoothly. However, they can still be concerned that they do not know things they should about you and as a result, they never ask.
New acquaintances and strangers on the other hand would have many thoughts going through their minds. “Are you a man or a woman?”, “How do we address you?”, “Which washroom will you use?”, “Are you going to fit into the group without bias?” These can be answered only if they ask the question.
Often throughout life, we as humans consider some things just weird or wrong. This is only due to not being familiar or knowledgeable about it or setting aside enough time to learn and understand it. As a transgender woman, I am at complete peace with who I am and what I have achieved since my transition in February 2008. For many, this is not the case.
I would like to share some action points to assist you in breaking that conversation starter awkwardness. Relationships both personal and professional start with that first interaction so first impressions can set the grounding for an ongoing friendship and inclusive working environment achieving positive outcomes. The mental health of an individual and that of the team can deteriorate quickly if any conscious or unconscious bias is not addressed early.
1. Think before you speak
The introduction is always where the awkwardness can start. You may have an inkling that the other person may be transgender or non-binary but it is not up to you to ask. How they identify should have no bearing on the interaction. They will tell you if they feel it is pertinent and they are comfortable opening up with that information, but mostly it should not be relevant.
2. Understand the importance of pronouns
Do not assume you know the answer to the above situation. Pronouns can be a safe way as a conversational starter. As part of your introduction, you could say “Hi, my name is Mary and my pronouns are She and Her”, “How do you like to be referred” or “What pronouns do you use?”
Once you know this information it will not change unless they specifically tell you otherwise. You do not get to decide a person’s pronouns and it is not up to you to choose how you perceive someone’s identity. Using a different pronoun than told is called misgendering and regardless if it is unintentional, it can be hurtful towards the person. Most transgender and gender diverse people understand accidents happen so just acknowledge it was wrong, apologise and leave it at that. By using the right name and pronoun you are validating the individual which in turn is a boost to the confidence and mental wellbeing.
3. Respect the right to privacy
When speaking to a patient only ask relevant questions related to their admission. Do not allow your curiosity to lead you into a non-relevant area. The state of their genitals or hormonal regime is only relevant if they are related to their immediate presentation.
If you are curious and want to understand the topic better, do some of your own research and become more educated. I’ve included some resources at the end of the article which will help you but don’t stop there; share that knowledge with your colleagues and friends. This is in sync with cultural safety and how your behaviour can influence the healthcare experience for the patient.
4. Be a supportive Ally
It is difficult to achieve positive diversity and inclusivity in the gender space without the support of allies. A transgender individual is but one person and cannot bring about change on their own. But, the cascading effect of acceptance increases with every positive interaction and both, directly and indirectly, creates a safer environment to work in. You could be that ally who stands up for the individual who does not have the courage to stand up for themselves. Take advantage of training programs and become an informed ally.
Advocate for a designated staff member who people can go to ask those questions such as HR or a member of the Senior Leadership Team. Many transgender and gender diverse people are happy to answer questions, but it should not always be on them to educate about their personal lives, which is why it is so important to be an ally
As I exude confidence in how I present myself as the woman I am, I stress that please ask me if anyone has any questions.
There are countless numbers of resources available on the internet regarding this topic, so please don’t stop at the ones below. Everyone’s journey is different through life which can throw up alternative answers to the same questions. With this knowledge be happy to be led by the trans individual’s answers as to what is appropriate.
By Shauna Wilson MACN
Guiding Principles for Nursing Leadership in Diversity and Inclusion – These guiding principles are a by-nurse, for-nurse guide on how to address diversity and inclusion, including transgender and gender diverse people, in your workplace.
Pronoun checker – This interactive piece from Minus18 allows people to choose a pronoun and shows you examples of how to apply the pronoun in everyday conversation.
Trans101 – a starter resource by trans and gender diverse Australians about what their identity means to them, how to better understand the process and how to help support access and inclusion.
GLAAD tips for Allies – GLAAD is a media monitoring company in the US, but the advice given here allows you to be more inclusive in your communications.
You Say Different, I Say Individual – Autobiography by Shauna Wilson MACN. Shauna shares the torment of growing up with a conflicted gender identity and the path she travelled to finally find happiness and peace.
Thoroughgood, C., Sawyer, K. & Webster, J., 2020. Creating a Trans-Inclusive Workplace- How to make transgender employees feel valued at work. Harvard Business Review, 2 April.