Michelle Sheppard works on the front line at ANZ’s merchant services centre, where she draws on over 18 years experience in business management, IT project management and technical support to quickly resolve problems for ANZ customers.
She’s also the founder of LGBTI Jobs, an Australian job website connecting graduates and jobseekers with organisations that have active LGBTI inclusion programs. This year, the site won the 2016 Globe Award for Excellence in Business, sponsored by ANZ.
Michelle says, like most trans people, she knew from a young age that she was different.
But she grew up in the US Bible Belt in the 1970s and 80s, where gender roles were strongly defined, and felt her only option was to keep being Daniel, in the gender she was born to, rather than to live in the gender she belonged to.
“There were times when I considered coming out but what I’d seen as transgender and what I felt, didn’t quite match,” she says.
The little that Michelle knew of transgender people came from exaggerated and unseemly appearances on shows like ‘Jerry Springer’ and she couldn’t identify with that.
“So I did my best to continue living that picket-fence life, marrying and having two children,” she says.
She moved to be with her wife in Australia and had two daughters; but eventually, the marriage fell apart.
“I remember putting on such a mask. It was who I was and it was how I portrayed myself at that time. It was a way to protect myself,” she recalls.
Three years ago Michelle realised she’d never be happy until she came out and lived as the woman she knew she was.
Making the transition
She went to two separate psychologists before signing up for a medical transition. “I needed to be sure,” she recalls.
“I learned that once people finally transition, they blend back in the crowd. And I needed to find one of those people – someone who was living their life after their transition,” she says.
Michelle found a GP who helped her make the change slowly, easing into hormone treatments and making connections with other people in the trans community to try to understand what her future might look like.
She also wanted to ease her family and friends in gently, she says.
“Some people finally figure out who they are, overnight, and are like: “I’m no longer Daniel, I’m Michelle, and how dare you say Daniel again, how dare you say he!” and people don’t understand,” she says.
“You might have had 26 years to process this – but meanwhile, everyone around you is going: “What are you talking about?!”
Michelle wanted her children to be comfortable with the process. “I actually let my children dress me, play with make-up - and my children were totally on board.”
At this time, she held a professional role in a large corporation in the financial services industry which had, on paper, a commitment to diversity.
But overhearing homophobic slurs and attitudes, Michelle found an entrenched corporate culture at odds with the policies.
“I noticed it more and more as I started becoming more myself, so I resigned from that job as my body started changing.”
But jobseeking was a nightmare for Michelle at this time. “People would see me as transgender and they’d say: ‘Look, being transgender isn’t a cultural fit within this organisation.’ A lot of employers wouldn’t even return my calls.”
Michelle started working in a friend’s business, and told her friend what was going on.
But her friend couldn’t handle it. “She said to me: ‘You’re not even looking like yourself any more, I’m happy for people thinking you are gay but no one will ever accept you as transgender or as a woman’,” Michelle remembers, and says that it was evident she was expected to resign.
She found it particularly galling when Michelle’s clients in the business recognised that she was transitioning and were really supportive.
It became harder to find work and, desperate, Michelle signed up for labouring jobs, doing gardening and landscaping.
“All of the weight I’d lost and all of the muscle I’d started stripping - I started to put back on, because I was lifting rocks and shifting gravel and mulch.”
Michelle says that at one stage, she had no food in her cupboard and nothing left.
“Finally, I found work with an insurance company but I was in a hard place,” she recalls. “I wasn’t going to see my kids for Christmas. My body was going through so much.”
It’s great just coming into work and people say, “Hey, Michelle!” and no one mis-genders me. I’m accepted
Being the Only Trans in the Village
Michelle found some support at networking events, but the only people she met were gay men, with experiences different from her own.
“I couldn’t find any women’s networks to connect with. Because I come from a background of IT, and there are few women in those areas - I’m the only trans in the village!”
Talking to her network and exploring the systems in place at different organisations, Michelle realised there was real need for better education in the workplace and that diversity policies in most organisations only went as far as recruitment.
“All they cared about was bringing in a wide variety of people … but there was no training.
People who were gay or lesbian didn’t feel they could be themselves either.”
Education is really important, she says; not just for LGBTI people, but for the whole workforce.
As social norms change, people need to be equipped to deal with the results.
“How do employees deal with things in the workplace? What happens when a gay person wants to bring their partner to a work event? What happens if they adopt a child? What happens if someone presenting as a cis-gendered woman finds out they’re actually genetically a male? For a trans person, when they come out, what kind of support do they have? How do you deal with those kinds of things?”
She says that most trans people get alienated and ignored because people don’t understand.
“I realised we needed to address these issues .. and that’s when we launched LGBTI Jobs.”
Michelle says that at her previous job, she presented as male “just to be left alone.”
She says, starting work at ANZ this year, she was pleasantly surprised. “We have openly gay managers, nobody cares - they’re accepted. People don’t make any issues here,” she says.
“I walk around here and no one bats an eye. Now I’m working on a trans, intersex and gender diverse working group with people who understand the issues we face in the trans community and we’re reaching out to make things better for others. We’re creating affirmation guides, and all these amazing things,” Michelle says.
“Here at ANZ, we are doing things that other organisations haven’t even thought of yet to make a better workplace for everyone.”
Making the transition easier for others
Rates of depression and suicide in the transgender population are disproportionately high. “The first year of transition is massive and people struggle with family and work,” Michelle says.
She says less than a third of the trans community are employed, and less than a third of employed trans people are on a full-time wage that’s more than $900 a fortnight.
“Most transgender people come through their transition and wind up being single for a very long time because no one understands us,” she says.
She’s not surprised by high rates of depression and suicide. “If you can imagine … losing your family, losing your wife, losing your children, losing your job, then you’re lonely, you can’t find anyone to be with for support and you’re ostracised from society.”
Having found acceptance and support in her own workplace, Michelle is committed to work through LGBTI Jobs to help others.
“Employment is massive. If we can at least get people employed, that’s massive. I’m going to put all of my energies into fixing this, because I don’t want to see someone else commit suicide or attempt it.”
She’s passionate about being open about who she is. “I’m a parent and I need employment. It’s a massive weight on my shoulders.”
In many ways, this commitment to living a truer life has paid off, she says.
“It’s great just coming into work and people say, “Hey, Michelle!” and no one mis-genders me. I’m accepted.”
But while her workplace is supportive, she still faces intolerance daily. “I’m on a train getting comments or even spit on. But I get up and keep coming. I keep going so that I can open the door wider for people to say, ‘This is a company I want to work for, because they hired Michelle.’ ”
Despite decades of feeling she was in the wrong body, Michelle’s developed an impressive resume – and she brings those years of experience to her role at ANZ.
“I come from management, I’ve got 18 years of IT experience, I’ve done project management, I’ve done consulting, and I’ve done field work. I could take apart your computer and put it back together to work better.”
ANZ is also benefiting from Michelle’s expertise in putting together support systems for staff who are transgender or going through a period of transition.
“Things like, having psychological assistance, putting together a plan to support someone for people who are transitioning or perhaps offering a mentoring system,” she suggests.
“Employers can also offer education so others in the workplace can understand and be compassionate. ANZ is great because they have those systems in place.”
In the wider community, families of transgender people need more support than anyone, she says. “I’ve met people who have family members who are transitioning - and they just don’t know what to do, and there is no support for them.”
Writer: Fran Molloy
Photography: Vikk Shayen