How Ballina Shire Council made life and work easier for transgender woman Emily Finch
A transgender person can often experience trauma and discrimination coming out at work, but that was not the case for Emily Finch.
Ms Finch’s positive experience with her employer, Ballina Shire Council in northern New South Wales, is being used as a global role model for other organisations to follow.
She, as Mark Silverwood, was employed by the council at the wastewater depot with a crew of 26 men.
She was tired of living a double life as Mr Silverwood during the working week and Ms Finch, a transgender female, on weekends.
A Christmas Eve party in 2015 sparked a desire to become Ms Finch permanently.
Ms Finch made an emotional call a few days later to Ballina Shire Council’s risk and human resources manager Kelly Brown to ask for help in transitioning at work.
“The fears that a transgender person has in coming out in the real world, some of them are completely unfounded and unreal,” Ms Finch said.
“It can be the fear of being rejected by friends, workmates. It can be passive aggression or outright aggression and violence.”
One chance to get it right
For Ms Brown, it was the first time handling a gender dysphoria case in her career and she wanted to get it right.
“For me, seeing Mark having to live a double life was quite painful, so I felt a responsibility,” she said.
“I knew I needed to provide help and support but I also knew that I needed to do it right, and probably had one chance to really make sure that Mark was able to transition into the organisation and achieve what he wanted to achieve.”
Ms Brown decided to get external help by approaching Ms Finch’s psychologist Ashley Van Houten, who is a member of the Australian and New Zealand Professional Association for Transgender Health, to ensure the transition was easy for Ms Finch and her work crew.
“We spoke to them about Emily’s transition and they had no idea,” Ms Brown said.
“They were really shocked but they understood. Because we had had sessions with the psychologist, we were able to explain the journey that Emily had been through, and this wasn’t just a rash decision but probably the biggest step that Emily would ever take in her life.”
Dr Van Houten was pleasantly surprised that such a request had come from a regional council.
He said Emily’s transition at work was a formal process with a detailed plan that proved to be highly successful and cost-effective.
“I think when organisations and individuals step up to the mark they are actually addressing their duty of care,” Dr Van Houten said.
“And we can say that is their duty of care, but I think we can all do with a pat on the back and say ‘Job well done’, and it’s as simple as that … it was a job well done.”
Work crew generally supportive
Ms Brown said making the necessary changes to help the transition took only three days to implement.
“We had all the meetings and went around and changed all the posters, the payroll system, time sheets, everything,” she said.
“I specifically remember one of Emily’s work crew came up to me and showed me the phone record and said ‘See, I’ve changed Mark to Emily. Done’. It was just great.”
The council issued Ms Finch a female uniform and her depot crew was informed she would now be using the female work toilets instead of the men’s.
Ms Finch was nervous returning to the depot as a female worker, but her fears quickly disappeared when her male colleagues warmly welcomed her back, with some even congratulating her for changing.
She said it was a positive outcome for her, although some of the crew had to make some adjustments to her change.
“Certainly language. I won’t accept language that’s not acceptable to other females,” she said.
“They were looking at me and thinking ‘Well, I’ve talked and acted this way before so what’s the difference?’ So there had to be a time of adjustment for people.”
All about respect
Ms Brown said she was proud of how the council had helped and accepted Ms Finch’s transition.
“For me fundamentally it’s all about respect. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all,” she said.
“I was really guided by Emily and what she wanted. I didn’t know Mark that well but I certainly know Emily.”
Ms Finch’s direct boss Bridget Walker said Ms Finch was definitely part of the depot team and was treated according to the merits of her work, not her gender.
“It’s really important that people are allowed to do the job that they were hired to do,” she said.
Ms Walker said Ms Finch had the respect of her workers and was now a union co-delegate for the council’s outdoor staff.
She has also been nominated for a Mentor of the Year award.
Ms Finch at work as a Ballina Shire Council wastewater employee. (ABC North Coast: Donna Harper)
Dr Van Houten wants the council to be commended for the positive action it took.
He also wants the case to be used as a model for organisations around the world to help gender workers transition.
He is discussing their success at a transgender health conference in Buenos Aires this month.
“I think it’s really important and I’m going to publish this as well in the international medical journal, so when other people are looking at examples they can see the example of Ballina Shire Council and see what we did almost like a step-by-step formula,” he said.
“It can be replicated and become a resource for other organisations. So that’s a good thing.”
Not all smooth sailing
Ms Finch said most people had been positive about her becoming a female, but she had lost some friends along the way.
“There’s one in particular where we’re not friends now, but everyone has their growth in their life and they may grow into something in their life where I become part of their life again,” she said.
“But who knows? That’s their story and I’ve met too many good people on my journey and made too many good friends to get hung up on little losses along the way.”
Ms Finch is well aware that coming out as a transgender person can be emotional, with many experiencing prejudice, but she is eager to share her story to help other transgender workers become who they really are at work.