Guest Opinion: Navigating gender transition in the workplace

  • by Wynne Nowland
  • Wednesday January 3, 2024
Share this Post:
Wynne Nowland. Photo: Courtesy Wynne Nowland
Wynne Nowland. Photo: Courtesy Wynne Nowland

As the CEO of a business, you are responsible for the company's performance as well as its image in the eyes of employees, clients, and the public. When I decided to come out as a trans woman in the office, I had to consider how my identity would affect my career.

Unfortunately, I had let this worry over how I would be affected prevent me from living as my authentic self for far too long. Especially as the CEO of my company, navigating my gender transition in the workplace was one of the biggest challenges I faced.

Like many other trans people, I came out everywhere else before I decided to come out in the professional sphere, but living this "double life" grew to be taxing. I worried that someone from the office might see me living as Wynne in a restaurant or another public venue, which would cause people to talk, and I would lose control over making the announcement the way I wanted to.

Making the decision to come out in the workplace

The most significant factor I had to consider when deciding to come out in the workplace was how it would affect my career. I had spent a long time building my career, working hard to reach the executive suite and eventually become CEO. I developed many significant relationships and friendships with our team members, business partners, vendors, and clients. I wondered how those relationships would change if I transitioned and came out as a trans woman.

One morning in 2017, I sent an email to my 70-person staff, stating that I would be working as Wynne effective immediately. I showed up in a woman's pantsuit, pearls, and full makeup with a pixie haircut. To my surprise, the response was primarily positive.

When I decided to rip the proverbial Band-Aid off, I found out that I didn't have much to worry about in that department. With very few exceptions, all the relationships that were important to my success in my career survived. In some cases, my relationships even got stronger.

Of course, it took some time for some people to get used to the changes, such as using my name and my preferred pronouns, but that's understandable given that they knew me as a different person for so long. The important thing was that they were willing to accept me and learn how best to do so.

One thing that many people don't realize is that coming out, at least for me, was not about building up enough courage to overcome the fears I had. In fact, I don't think I ever overcame my agitation until my co-workers, clients, and vendors accepted me, and I realized that I had very little to fear. Instead, it was a matter of becoming so uncomfortable hiding my true self that I realized I would be better off dealing with those challenges if they arose.

How my story of acceptance can guide others

I am the first to admit that my story is not the same as everyone else's. Many trans people have faced dreadful consequences for revealing their true selves — just look at the staggering amount of anti-trans legislation that has been passed in the United States. However, I was lucky that I was surrounded by people who were accepting and supportive of my transition. I even found that some of my co-workers stood up for me when others ridiculed me behind my back.

I can also confidently say that coming out in the workplace only positively affected my performance as a leader. Now that I am not struggling to juggle two different personas, I can be far more effective and engaged at my job. My employees, team members, vendors, and clients all get the real me — not the facade I had forced myself to maintain for so long. My abilities are now focused entirely on business rather than trying to hide who I am.

Ultimately, the biggest regret that I have is that I did not make this life-changing decision to come out sooner. I'd known that I was a woman since I was a child, but I waited until I was 56 to transition. I wasted so much time in fear and worry that I could have spent at peace with myself.

While it's understandable why many trans people are anxious about living as their true selves, I hope my story and its outcome show others in the trans community that coming out can be a meaningful, positive experience.

Wynne Nowland is the CEO of Bradley & Parker, and she is also a transgender woman. Her coming out story was featured in the Wall Street Journal. As one of the very few trans CEOs, Nowland is able to provide unique insight on coming out to family, as well as in the workplace. She has been featured in The Hill, Newsweek, Business Insider, "Today," CNBC, and more.

Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife. Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!