September 19, 2018, 8 min read
Interview by Julia Wagner
This week we are taking a deep-dive into transgender identity and transition, in a very open conversation with Melissa Griffiths. Read about being a woman ‘part-time’, feeling (un)comfortable going to the bathroom, and how to be supportive as a friend, co-worker or employer.
Melissa, how do you identify yourself in terms of your gender?
I identify as a woman both mentally and physically. I live as a woman on a daily basis. If I were to identify as a man and live as a woman that would mean I would not be in sync with myself as a person, my gender, spirit, and identity.
At what point in your life did you know that you were transgender?
I knew in my early 30’s that I was transgender. However, prior to that I always knew that I was different to the other boys at school. Growing up in Auckland, as early as 10 years of age, I realized that I was different from every other boy at school. My preference was to be and spend time with the girls. I didn’t fully comprehend or understand this at the time, however somehow deep down knew that this was ok.
"I basically went out as women ‘part-time’."
How did this express itself to you? What were some of the thoughts you had? Did people in your surrounding notice?
In my teens, I started dressing as a female and wearing my mother’s clothing. I also did this as an adult, prior to moving to Melbourne from Auckland in 1999. Coming to Melbourne allowed me to be myself and go out as such. So, I basically went out as women ‘part-time’.
I am sure some people noticed who I was. To a certain degree, I did care whether people knew or not, however except a few close friends most people didn’t know. I find that I was accepted by other transgender people, but society, in general, didn’t really.
You ‘transitioned’ in 2015. Tell us about that process: How long does it take, what does it involve physically and emotionally?
The transition is an ongoing process, it can take a lifetime for some people because of their situation. Physically and emotionally it is different for each individual. As far as timeframe goes that will also depend on the individual involved and their financial circumstances.
For me, it is a dream to have proper breasts. However, the involved costs are immense and it seems people like me get fobbed off by the medical profession about this. It is all very emotionally exhausting. Lack of support from family and friends means that you can be isolated and need to figure many things out on your own. There are a few support groups which can be of some help and assistance.
"It is a dream to have proper breasts for me."
Is a transition ever 'over'? Do you feel happy with your gender expression today?
Transition is an ongoing process of figuring yourself out, where you fit in the spectrum of life, and with regards to your gender. Whilst physically it may appear your transition is over, it really never is. You are constantly coming out to others about who you are.
I am open, comfortable and happy with my gender expression of female today. For those who do not understand or accept this, I have come to terms with the fact that whilst I can influence this to a certain extent, I cannot control it. Other people’s reaction to the way I express my gender is their reaction, not mine. As long as I am happy with who I am, both mentally and spiritually, then that is all that matters in the end.
"It is an emotional relief being able to be yourself and, like any other woman in the world, use the women’s bathroom."
How did you feel the first time you walked into a public bathroom after your transition? What emotion did you have?
I have walked into a female bathroom prior to living a ‘full-time’ female life, so it was not a big issue. I was glad I could not be rejected from going into the toilet as female. It also felt like this was the ‘real me’ and like the thing I should have always been doing.
Emotionally it has been hard going to the men’s bathroom knowing that you don’t feel comfortable going there or knowing that it is not really you. It is an emotional relief being able to be yourself and, like any other woman in the world, use the women’s bathroom.
How did you decide upon your new name?
I chose ‘Melissa’ a long time ago, when I was living part-time as a transgender female prior to my transition. The name had resonated in my spirit for a long time when I was still living as a male.
"They would call me ‘Sir’ and treat me as a male. Some would display shock or you could hear disapproval in their voice."
I am trying to think of all the administrative things, questionnaires etc. where I have ever registered or identified as female. In terms of administration, what do you do after you have changed your gender? Any surprising things you needed to do?
I changed my passport to my new female name and gender, with Medicare and the banks. I needed to wait five weeks off work until I could make the change since I needed the new passport. I also had to change all credit cards and needed to update memberships with my new details.
What surprised me was the lack of awareness or consideration about how to treat me as a transgender person by some organizations when calling them to get information about how to update my details. They would call me ‘Sir’ and treat me as a male. Some would display shock or you could hear disapproval in their voice. Even recently, I have had a call from an organization and the person treated me as a ‘joke’ or a ‘ladyboy’ and made lewd and sexual comments towards me.
How did your surrounding react, meaning friends, family, co-workers? What does support mean for you in this context?
I had mixed reactions from people. Overall, the lack of support was hard. I still feel lonely and vulnerable at times. People these days don’t seem to care about anyone but themselves. My family and friends, for the most part, have deserted me and don’t contact me. So I am on my own. It is a challenge remaining positive without support. Based on conversations with other transgender people, I can say that the behaviors of co-workers during transitions vary. Reactions can range from acceptance and politeness to complete dislike or active distancing.
"When I transitioned,
I got some interesting questions from people such as what bra size I would be."
I have never had a transgender co-worker or even friend, at least not that I know of. What is an appropriate reaction to someone transitioning in my surrounding whom I know only a little bit? Should I comment on certain things? Avoid talking about certain things? How can I be supportive?
The main thing is that you should treat a transgender person with respect and understand that they may want their privacy. When I transitioned, I got some interesting questions from people such as what bra size would I be. Instead, just treat them as a person, as you would other people. Be mindful when commenting on certain things, especially if political and affecting the transgender community in a negative way. Avoid talking or asking questions about their journey as a transgender person unless they bring it up. Be supportive by being a person they can talk to when they need it.
You talk about a transition plan at work. Can you explain what that is?
A transition plan outlines the timeline for transitioning to your affirmed gender in the workplace. It considers time off for medical appointments, changing legal documents and buying new work outfits. The details will vary for each individual depending on their circumstances. The important thing is that there are transparency, awareness and mutual agreement between the transitioning individual and employer about the necessary steps and time commitment that a successful transition involves.
"The employer or manager should be mindful of good communication and an evolving team dynamic."
How should the employer or manager communicate the transition?
The employer or manager should be mindful of good communication and an evolving team dynamic. The way a transgender transition is communicated to teams will vary depending on the organization. The most common and practical way is for it to be announced in a team meeting by the transitioning transgender person him- or herself, with the support of his or her manager. The manager will find that people act differently towards that transgender person for a while. Some of these behaviors will stay, others will resolve over time. The most common downside is that co-workers might treat the transgender person more cautious and potentially exclude them from social activities. A good manager should try to influence the team spirit to avoid such a dynamic from happening.
You said, “It is often the invisible barriers which are the hardest in society to overcome.” Which barriers are those?
People don’t seem to be able to handle anyone that is different. Many treat transgender people as a joke, give us nasty looks. Anyone that doesn’t fit into the norm like me is an outcast in society. Can the world grow up and treat us human beings, not aliens?
Many others in my community find it hard to fit in, let alone find friends or feel comfortable enough to be ourselves. If nothing changes, many more of us will continue to suffer, and lose our desire to live and feel as though we belong to this world.
The most common downside is that co-workers might treat the transgender person more cautious and potentially exclude them from social activities.
You are engaged to implement Gender Identity Policies in different institutions. What does such a policy state contain?
Such a policy provides definitions about what gender identity and a transgender person are and educated about the steps of transitioning from e.g. male to female in the workplace. It gives guidance and rules on how to treat transgender people in the workplace - before, during and after the transition. Lastly, it guides on how staff can be supportive and supported. Here are some example statements, to give you an idea:
“A transgender person may use the bathroom of their affirmed gender identity and this is fully supported by the management of this organization.”
“A person cannot be discriminated against in the workplace based on their gender identity as it is a protected attribute under equal opportunity laws.”
Melissa, thank you for the honest conversation.
Melissa Griffiths is a transgender consultant and public speaker. She grew up in Auckland, New Zealand and since 1999 calls Melbourne, Australia her home. She has worked for the Australian Government for sixteen years. After her transition to become ‘full-time’ female in 2015, she devoted herself to supporting members of the LGBTQI (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer and Intersex issues) community in managing their journey and educating employers about gender identity and transitions in the workplace. She is currently in the process of setting up a foundation called GendaCare.