Time to speak

“I think the biggest misconception is that we are ‘lying’ about our gender identity”

An optometrist on transphobia, how to be a good ally, and making sure all patients are welcome in practice

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Trigger warning: This article contains unacceptable transphobic behaviour that readers may find disturbing and offensive.

“It's easy to say ‘I support LGBT people’ but much harder to call out inappropriate comments in real time”

I think the biggest misconception, which is very harmful to trans people, is that we are ‘lying’ or were ‘lying’ about our gender identity – ‘So all those years you were lying about liking football and beer’ or ‘But you can't be a man, you always did your make up and hair so well’. 

More damaging still is the idea that someone would lie about their gender identity in order to access single-sex spaces for some kind of predatory act. This is an idea portrayed by the media for decades (the Netflix documentary Disclosure does a great job of reviewing how this myth engrained itself in common thought).

Let's break this down for a minute. I think many trans people learn early on that to digress from the gender binary– for example, for men to enjoy makeup and be caring and empathic, or women to enjoy boxing and loud ‘banter’ – sets us apart from what is expected of us based on sex assigned at birth.

As children we learn to fit in. Most people ultimately want to fit in and be accepted by society, after all. I think it takes a bold child with bold parents to let them truly express themselves and be different. We learn to behave in a way that people expect of us, and either hide or completely suppress our true selves to avoid the bullying.

It can take many years to finally accept that there are aspects of our personalities that don't fit the expectations placed on us based on our sex assigned at birth. Then comes the realisation that this means there will be certain people in our lives or in wider society who will potentially not understand, or even hate us.

Assuming that people will have certain interests or personality traits based on their sex is damaging to everyone


The fear of rejection is a major aspect of what keeps people in the closet. People adjust themselves to fit in, and it takes a lot of self-acceptance and trust in others to come out. So, we do not lie about our identities, personalities, or interests; we simply take time to accept our true selves in the face of incredible pressure to be something else. It is not a decision taken on a whim, and definitely not a decision made simply to gain access to single-sex spaces.

Strangers asking directions have walked off halfway through a sentence when they realise I am trans. I’ve been asked to leave a venue and shouted at when walking through town on a night out. Then there are the general stares and whispered comments.

For colleagues within optometry, I think the most important thing is to speak out against transphobia and be a proactive ally. It's easy to say ‘I support LGBT people’ but much harder to call out inappropriate comments in real time.

I think assuming that people will have certain interests or personality traits based on their sex is damaging to everyone. If you're going to a football match and inviting your colleagues, invite all of them. If you're talking about nail polish colours, ask everyone what they think. For a closeted trans or gender-non-conforming person this would make a world of difference.

From a store owner's perspective, I would encourage staff to have pronouns on name badges and email signatures to show they are aware that others may use different pronouns and are happy to discuss this. Pride Progress Flag pin badges give a similar signal. I also ask patients how they prefer to be called, rather than saying ‘sir’ or ‘Mr Smith’. This helps build rapport with all patients, not just trans patients. Misgendering is a source of constant irritation (‘microaggression’ for some trans people, and this ‘microaggression’ builds up, causing distress, and is likely one of the reasons trans people are less likely to seek healthcare when they need it. Allowing patients to express a preference for name and title helps to prevent this from the start.

The segregation of ‘men’s’ and ‘women’s’ spectacle frames has become increasingly irksome for me, and seems somewhat archaic. If store owners feel it is necessary to separate frames, it would be better to label them ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, so the choice is based on gender expression rather than sex. 

And finally, having at least one unisex bathroom facility allows trans and especially non-binary people to use the toilet without worrying about discrimination. Sanitary bins should be provided in both male and female facilities, which allows trans men or intersex people who menstruate to do the necessaries in a bathroom aligned with their identity and expression. It also helps cisgender [meaning a person whose gender identity corresponds to their sex at birth] men who have ileostomy or colostomy bags to dispose of their waste in a safe and hygienic way, which is often difficult in men’s toilets without these facilities.

For optometrists who may face discrimination on the basis of their gender identity, my advice would be to know your rights. You are protected from discrimination at work and in many other settings under the Equality Act 2010 and under the Gender Reassignment Act 2004. A 2020 UK employment tribunal case, Taylor vs. Jaguar Land Rover, determined that non-binary and gender fluid identities fall under the protected characteristic of gender reassignment within the Equality Act.

We should carefully follow potential moves by the Government to diminish the power of the European Court of Human Rights and reform equality legislation in the UK. Encourage your friends to do the same – we need allies and taking away freedoms from minority groups tends to be a slippery slope that leads to the removal of general freedoms. Be ready to write to your MP if proposals seem likely to diminish your rights. Also, seek out local support networks – it is invaluable to have likeminded friends nearby.

Strong protection from professional bodies to help support employees who encounter gender-based discrimination would be really useful. This may help people feel safe to come out at work. Education packs and guides on how to support trans employees and colleagues would also potentially help.

  • As told to Selina Powell.