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Approaching your identity at work: Lisa Coombes shares her story

Lisa Coombes with trans flag
Lisa Coombes
By Lisa Coombes, Director of Psychometrics and Assessment Development

Once a week, I work with a small group of dedicated people who facilitate and host a support group for those who identify as transgender, non-binary, or any other non-conforming gender.

We aim to create a safe and welcome space for everyone regardless of their identity, as well as for friends, parents and allies of our wonderful community. It is one of the things I am proudest of, yet it’s also one of the most challenging things I do.

This is because each week we hear stories about the difficulties people face just for being themselves. I, therefore, count myself to be very lucky to have the support around me that I do, both personally and professionally.

Discussing my identity at work

When I joined Kaplan back in 2019, I had already made the decision to transition and I think it's fair to say that if I had any concerns about whether I would be supported here I would have moved on.

Throughout our lives, events like this are exceptional. Unless you know others who have been through the process before you and established a route, it can feel like you are making things up as you go along.

Based on my experiences in other workplaces, I had some insight into the best way to approach this, so the first person I spoke to was my line manager. The most important thing she did was to listen as I talked about the journey I had been on and the journey that was still ahead of me. We talked about the next steps I needed to take at work, and how I wanted things to proceed.

I also explained that I had legally changed my name, and so I got to introduce myself as Lisa for the first time.

I then spoke with HR about the practical implications of changing my identity at work. My employment record would need to be changed and updated, my ID card reissued, and my IT record updated along with a new email address. Again, they listened to my wishes and provided me with the agency to take control of how my friends and colleagues at Kaplan would be informed.

This was a recurring theme throughout these early discussions, and was a clear demonstration of the kind of support I have received at Kaplan. We moved things forward in the way I wanted, and it was only when I was ready and everything was set that I informed my friends and colleagues at work.

On an otherwise unremarkable Friday morning, I took a very deep breath and clicked ‘send’ on a life-changing email. It began, “As some of you will already be aware, I identify as transgender and over the last few months I’ve begun the process of transitioning”, and went on to tell people about myself, and what my name and pronouns would be.

Any anxiety I might have had about the reaction this email would receive quickly dissipated because the replies were universally warm and supportive.

How to show support

Trans is often used as an umbrella term, referring to a wide range of gender identities, and the support that each of us who find ourselves somewhere under this umbrella receives is critically important for our health and well-being.

Being a visible and active ally to the community does not go by unnoticed, and I certainly found myself appreciative of the small things people did to make me feel safe and welcome. Many of those that I speak to aren’t open about their gender identity for fear of the reaction it may receive, but there are some really simple ways in which you can show your support and allyship.

  • Respect boundaries - Some people will share information about themselves, but you should always treat it as confidential as they may not be out or as open about their identity with others.
  • Don’t make assumptions - The diversity of the community is something we celebrate, so we often don’t fit the stereotypes that people hold about us.
  • Avoid examining questions - People are generally happy to discuss their lives, but it’s good to avoid questions about their transition such as their pre-transition identity or healthcare as these may be uncomfortable topics.
  • Use appropriate language - Ask for and share pronouns, and use gender inclusive language. This is often the most obvious way in which someone can indicate they are an ally.
  • Show your colours - There are lots of flags, colours and symbols, covering every aspect of gender identity and sexuality. Showing these tells members of the community that you will treat them with dignity and respect.
  • Include and support your trans colleagues - Whether in your studies, in the workplace, or in social situations. We all want to feel like we belong and there is often no greater act of kindness than making sure someone doesn't feel left out.

Life can be complex regardless of who we are but for those of us who have LGBTQ+ identities, our lives are made immeasurably easier when we know who our allies are and can see them proactively advocating for equality, diversity and inclusion. Ultimately it falls to all of us to create and maintain the kind of positive culture within our working environments that we would want to be a part of, and from personal experience I can honestly say it really does make a difference.

Additional resources

Trans unite - This is a searchable index of transgender support groups across the UK

Gendered intelligence - A registered charity that exists to increase understandings of gender diversity, and improve trans people’s quality of life.

Gires - A UK-wide organisation whose purpose is to improve the lives of transgender and gender diverse people of all ages, including those who are non-binary and non-gender.

LGBT Foundation - A national charity delivering advice, support, and informational services to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

Terrence Higgins Trust - A range of other resources and people to go to for support can be found here.

Key dates

Transgender Awareness Week: 13 to 19 November 2023

Transgender Day of Remembrance: 20 November 2023

Kaplan resources available for staff and learners

If you need any support or general well-being advice, visit our equality, diversity, and inclusion page where you can find several resources and points of contact for whatever you need.

Want to share your story?

Whether you’re a member or an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, we would love to share your experience. If you’re interested in taking part, please complete our online form and we will be in touch shortly.

Our EDI Team are here if you need any support

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