Wednesday 13 May 2020

Interview with Rachel Reese

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Rachel Reese, who trained be a Solicitor, transgender activist, Vice-chair of the Law Society’s LGBT Lawyers Division Committee, former Avionics Software Engineer working within the defense sector at GEC Avionics Ltd (now British Aerospace), trustee of Give Out, a charity that funds LGBT+ causes worldwide, the founder of Global Butterflies, a consultancy that helps firms develop trans and non-binary inclusive work environments. She is a co-author of the 2019 Lloyds of London Trans & Non-binary Guide. In 2017 she was nominated for the European Diversity Award’s, Coca-Cola Hero of the Year Award.
Hello Rachel! In the introduction, I have listed only some of your positions. Do you have any time for yourself? :)
Rachel: Hi Monika, great to meet you. You know it’s got pretty crazy timewise but I love my life and the work I do. Time management is key but my motto (and my partner Emma) is “you have to have a little fun every day”, and we do. The people in all the organizations I volunteer for are amazing and fun, so it doesn’t feel like work at all.
Monika: You started your career in avionics as a software engineer. Why did you decide to give it up and become a lawyer?
Rachel: When I started in defense, in the late 1980s, I spent a great deal of time in front of a computer writing computer code, and didn’t really meet and speak with other people. So I moved into the HR and Training function (to meet actual people) just after the Berlin Wall came down and the defense market collapsed, I spent a lot of time working on contracts and visiting employment tribunals, and that is where I got my taste for law. My brother and sister are also both Solicitors.

Monika: I read in one of the former interviews that you transitioned twice. You had some second thoughts or butterflies after the first transition?
Rachel: LOL. indeed, when I came out of Law School looking for a training contract at a law firm, I interviewed several times in feminine expression but this was the 90s and law firms didn’t have rainbow flags hanging outside their offices back then. The experience was truly horrible, so I reverted to male expression and applied to the College of Law where I originally trained to be a Solicitor.
Once I was employed at the College and felt secure, I told them I was trans and wanted to transition. This was before the UK implemented the Equality Act and Gender Recognition Act, or really had any basic rights for trans people in the workplace, but the College handled it well and the transition was very successful. I was happy and worked up to Production Director over the 15 years or so that I was there.
Monika: Since 2015, your Global Butterflies company has rendered its services to the British corporate community with a view to promoting trans and non-binary inclusive workplaces. Do you see any difference in the perception of transgender employees by the corporate management now and then?
Rachel: I do indeed, where I started out 5 years ago as compared to today is very different. Each sector is at a different place, for instance, the legal sector is probably leading followed by banking and insurance.
The investment and advertising industries are getting started now and are making incredible progress; though all sectors still have work to do. Employers realize that having a diverse workforce (and recruiting them) gives them a competitive edge because their customers come from diverse backgrounds too. If customers/clients see their faces being reflected back at them, they are more likely to buy products and use the services from that company.
Further, employers are now understanding that a diverse and included workforce gives them better R&D, staff motivation, and general happiness from all in their workforce. Five years ago, I am not sure that trans and non-binary people were included as much in this thinking but they certainly are now.
Photo by Simon Fenandez.
Monika: I guess that one aspect is to have a set of rules developed by the management but maybe more important, is how these rules are observed, so for example, I would not have to fight against my female co-workers over my right to use the same restroom.
Rachel: It is really important for companies to write, publish and regularly update their policies on D&I. These policies of course must include their Trans & Non-binary guidelines which set out their shop front on supporting trans and non-binary individuals in their workforce e.g. Clear statements of support, recognition of the contribution of trans and non-binary people in the workplace, healthcare, right to use restrooms in line with their gender expression, legal protections, and key company contact points for help & advice. 
Also, they must have clear and up-to-date policies on bullying and harassment, clearly setting out what will happen if an employee is bullied, discriminated against, or harassed by another employee based on their characteristics e.g. being trans or non-binary.
Good HR departments usually deal with the person complaining by making them adjust their working environment, not the trans person who is going about their daily life in the workplace. If the policies are clearly documented and HR teams trained, the rights of trans & non-binary people in the workplace should be maintained and protected.
Monika: It has been over a decade since the Equality Act and Gender Recognition Act entered into force, allowing British people who have gender dysphoria to change their legal gender. Although it was regarded a great success of the trans community then, given the passage of time, would you identify some aspects that should be added or revisited there? 
Rachel: Oh goodness yes!!! The Equality Act 2010 has got very creaky!! I think two areas should be improved, firstly to change the characteristic protecting trans people from “Gender Reassignment” to “Gender Identity”.
The former is an outdated term that sounds medicalized (even though it is not meant to be). The latter term is more representative of the trans community recognizing in particular non-binary people. Non-binary people, at present, are not expressly protected by the Equality Act, this small change would clearly and unambiguously include them.
Secondly, the Genuine Occupational Requirements in the workplace need to be removed or reduced, there are not many jobs now in the workplace that can only be done exclusively by a man or by a woman.
The Gender Recognition Act 2004, is too bureaucratic, medicalized, time-consuming, and can be expensive. Its main failing is that it does not recognize non-binary people and people aged 16 & 17 years of age can’t apply (i.e. over 18 only). There is also a consideration that needs to be added for children, under 16, with parental consent to have access to this system. A system like Malta and Ireland e.g. Self-Declaration would be ideal.
Monika: The trans movement has always faced a myriad of vocal anti-trans groups. What is the main battlefield these days?
Rachel: Sadly in the UK, there are a lot of gender-critical (GC) hate groups, justifying this transphobia as “safety issues” for women (where obviously there are none); they have stalled the Self-Declaration process/review. The UK Government were initially supportive of trans/non-binary self-declaration rights, but following hundreds of inaccurate transphobic articles in the UK media, fuelled and written by the GC groups, the Government have almost u-turned on this process and may in fact implement processes that are worse than we have now. We are waiting for the Summer to see what the UK Women & Equalities Minister, Liz Truss, will announce. It does not look promising and is a worrying time for my community.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the penultimate letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Rachel: Absolutely, I think there are two levels of education, the first is helping people to understand the “T” in terms of our struggles, challenges, and the benefits to our lives in order to see that being allowed to express our gender identity is not only beneficial to us but to society, and this is what Global Butterflies starts within our training.
However, the second step, of course, is that we are not just “T, people are more than one characteristic, many trans people are in fact LGB so we are intertwined. I am Trans, a Woman, Irish & British, Lesbian, Dyslexic, etc. ... we are all onions!!! Lots of layers. So although we do need to push the “T” quite firmly at first, we don’t lose anything by promoting and educating alongside LGBQI, as we are all often interrelated.
Monika: Is there any difference between the Labour party and the Conservative party in the way they address the needs of the UK trans community?
Rachel: Lol! I try not to follow the politics in the UK. Both parties are not squeaky clean in regard to trans & non-binary rights. The Gender Recognition Act was brought in 2004 by the Labour Government but that was following an ECHR ruling, so they didn’t really have a choice, many notable Conservative MPs voted against this Act.
The Equality Act 2010 was brought in again by Labour, so they do score some positive points here. If we look at more recent history, the Conservatives undertook the UK Women’s and Equality Committee review of trans and non-binary rights in the UK, which was reported in 2016, however many of the recommendations have not been followed up by them.
The Conservatives also undertook the Gender Recognition Act Consultation (under Theresa May’s leadership), which we were all excited about, however, due to the GC movement and much negative press, the Conservatives delayed reporting, now we are hearing very worrying comments from the current minister of the UK Women & Equalities Committee, Liz Truss, who seems to have been swayed by the GC movement, we will see what her report will be this summer.
Back to Labour, the leadership contest had 4 candidates; Emily Thornberry, Rebeca Long-Baily, Lisa Nandy, and Keir Starmer. Emily, Rebecca, and Lisa all signed a pledge supporting the trans community against GC hate groups, sadly Keir Starmer, who won the leadership contest would not sign the pledge.
As you can see, neither party really shines over UK trans rights. My advice, vote Liberal Democrat!!

Courtesy of Rachel Reese. Source: Gettyimages.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Rachel: There was a distinct lack of role models when I was younger. However, there were two I so admired, firstly, the wonderful Julia Grant who was the first trans person I saw on television in 1978. She went through her transition on television, and had an awful time but came through it with good grace. She sadly died in 2019.
Secondly, was the fantastic model Caroline Cossey, who was in the 1981 Bond movie. She battled with the European Court for 7 years over her Human Rights because she couldn’t change her birth certificate. The UK media hounded her, but she was strong and survived them.
Today I really only admire trans role models that are doing it for the activism and the community, not just wanting to be famous for being trans.
Monika: Are there are any transgender ladies that you admire and respect now?
Rachel: That is easy, my partner Emma Cusdin, who is calm, kind, and my best friend. There can be a lot of unkindness coming from my own trans community and this upsets me but Emma is always the voice of reason and kindness that puts me back on balance. She has been through a lot in her life and has come through to be a great community role model recognised by the British Prime Minister as a Point of Light for her trans activism.
Monika: I have read somewhere that cisgender women were liberated thanks to the development of contraceptive pills whereas transgender women are free now thanks to the development of cosmetic surgery, so they are no longer prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome
Rachel: I have never heard that, interesting. My view is when I was young, maybe trans women wanted surgery to pass and set them free but today, I think “passing privilege” is not as important as maybe some of us thought it was. In the ’80s, I wanted to pass so people wouldn’t beat me up on the street.
Now I am older and don’t pass any longer (I have stopped trying), people don’t really react. Lots of trans women don’t have surgery or train their voices because they are happy being themselves as they are. Societies defined views on what a woman should be, look like, and sound like have changed so much. I am glad the surgeries are there for those that want them but I am not sure they set us free anymore, it all depends on a person's personal journey.

Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Rachel: We are working on two projects, one is the delivery of trans & non-binary inclusion training virtually (we were only face to face before). The recent lockdown in the UK has meant that all our training, presentations, and consultation are now delivered online. Global Butterflies is the number 1 corporate trans inclusion training company in the UK and we want to stay in this position.
Secondly, we are called “Global” Butterflies, thus we are intending to deliver training in Hong Kong at the end of the year, so we are working on content for this. On a personal level, I am trying to find ways to raise funding for my charity GiveOut which needs funding at this difficult time under lockdown.
Monika: What would you recommend to all trans people struggling with gender dysphoria?
Rachel: The are two journeys that we all undertake; the gender expression change journey (medically and/or social change) and the mental health journey. Most of us concentrate on the first but not the second. The mental health journey is very important, so I advise trans people to ensure that they have a network of support in place before they start their transition journey. This usually consists of friends, employment (good work colleagues), counseling, and family. You can’t always have all these in place but try to line up some support, so it is in place when you need it. Without a support mechanism in place, any transition is considerably harder and more challenging.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin.
Rachel: A lovely saying, thanks for sharing. For me, every transition journey is different, no two transitions are the same. For me, my dreams started the day I went full-time in my female gender expression, not when I had surgery. Many of the community won’t have any surgery, but may socially change their gender expression.
I think, all our lives improve and our dreams can come true but it does not necessarily start on the operating table, they can start anytime, e.g. family acceptance, self-acceptance, work acceptance, first day at work in new gender expression, meeting a new supportive partner. Every journey and our expectations and dreams will be different.

All the photos: courtesy of Rachel Reese.
© 2020 - Monika Kowalska

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