Joanne Lockwood is the Founder and CEO of SEE Change Happen, and is an international speaker and podcaster about inclusion and belonging.
In 2017 she decided to gender transition to become a woman.
She was part of a Channel 4 documentary about transgender people, and has written about the subject for magazines and newspapers. She has been named in The Powerlist of the Top 200 Biggest Voices in Leadership to Watch For in 2022, by leadersHum.com
Joanne is married to Marie, who has been her partner for more than 20 years. Here, she shares with Diversity Network her personal journey about becoming a woman – and why she lives by the mantra ‘Smile, Engage and Educate’.
Q Can you share your journey to becoming a woman: when did you first recognise that you didn’t identify as a man? How did it make you feel? Was there much information about transgender people at that time?
“I was born in the mid 1960s, so if you think about the context, in the United Kingdom at the time, homosexuality was still a criminal offence. The queer community was pre-Stonewall riots, there was a lot of stigma around being queer and being gay. My parents – I love them to bits – were very traditional.
“I was always fascinated by Boy George by those early New Romantics and that messing with gender that they were doing. I remember taking part in school pantomimes as one of the evil sisters, and even school fancy dress parties, I dressed up in my friend’s clothing – they lent me their bras, their skirts, tops and things. And so I was always taking those advantages; I knew that that was in me. But I didn’t have any language.
“I didn’t feel gay. I didn’t fancy men in that way. But I knew that I wasn’t wholly a boy, or a man. As teenage years progressed, I embraced it a little bit more and it became something that was part of my secret life. Again, I had no one to share that with and no language, no internet, nothing on telly. As I got older and older, I collected these obligations and responsibilities – you pass your exams, leave school, get a job. I met my wife, Marie, in 1985. And suddenly, we’re thinking about getting married, having a family. Then we have a family, we’ve got a bigger house, I run a business. This conveyor belt of destiny kicks in.
“But it’s kind of just there in the background, you know, this imposter syndrome, these limiting beliefs. This is my lot. I’ve got to get on with it.
“But then from about 2010 Facebook and the internet became more prevalent. The Equality Act in the UK introduced the particular characteristic of gender reassignment, following the Gender Recognition Act of 2004.
“Suddenly there was a lot more awareness and discussion about being queer, being gay, being lesbian, being bi. It was less stigmatised, we had gone past the 80s with AIDS, and there wasn’t that demonisation of gay people. We start to get to a point where there was a bit more liberation and I started exploring it.
“I started to understand that there were other people who were just like me – they were clever, intelligent, articulate CEOs of companies, people in the media, people in the press, in all echelons of life.
“In my late 40s I had tried to box myself off, I grew a beard and tried to reject the femininity about me. But in mid-2014 I looked at myself in the mirror, and said, No, no, this is me, I can’t do this anymore. This is a mask I’m wearing. So I shaved the beard off.
“A couple of years earlier I’d told my wife about my cross-dressing and my gender confusion. I didn’t have a language to describe it. But I was finding that my entire thinking process about myself was changing.
“In 2016 I came out. First to my wife and to my children, and then a week later on Facebook. I still didn’t know what that meant. I. wasn’t out at work: I was the co-director of an IT company employing about 20 staff. It probably the worst kept secret! I was not in a good place at work. My mental health was suffering, I couldn’t concentrate at work, I was spending days in bed crying. By the middle of 2016 I had started taking HRT hormones, estrogen and testosterone blockers.”
Q Can you explain your view about gender?
A “If you think about the various components of our identity, we’ve got our gender identity, which is the brain – our sense of self. Gender identity is just one part of who we are and our personality and how we fit into society. We also have our race and ethnicity as part of our identity. I believe gender identity is innate.
“Our sexuality is also innate – who we are interested in getting down and dirty with. We also have our romantic attachments to people who we want to fall in love with and have emotional support.
“We’ve also got our biology, the bits between our legs, the bits on our chest, the chromosomes and the DNA.
“I describe the expectations of how men and women are supposed to behave in society as a gender box. Wind the clock back 10, 20, 50 100, 200 years, we see that men and women have had to define gender-type roles such as women have babies and stay at home, and men go out to fight or to work.
“We have started to evolve as a society but expectations mean we still put people into boxes according to their gender.
“For me, gender identity is innate, as is sexuality. People quite understand that if you’re gay, you’re gay. If you’re trans, there’s no difference. Whether I’m gay or straight has no bearing on me being trans. In my case, I’m going against how my body was designed.
“Also, being trans in Britain in 2022 might be different from being trans in 1822 or 1622. Or different from how it would be for someone in Australia or the Middle East or China or South America.
“Today, I don’t aspire to collect water from a bowl on my head, having walked two miles to the local well to collect it and bring it home to my village. That’s not my sense of identity as a woman. But there are many women for whom that is their sense of identity and duty to perform on a daily basis.”
Q As a career man, you spent 32 years working in the IT industry. You have said you couldn’t face coming out at work – was your work performance suffering because you weren’t able to be your authentic self?
“I couldn’t face being open at work because I had heard colleagues describing transgender people as a ‘thing’ or ‘it’. I had to sit and listen to those conversations with people who I was supposed to work with and respect. When we took on someone with work experience, there was a witch hunt against them for supposedly surfing transgender porn on a work computer. Looking back on that, it might have been me – I was doing a lot of research on gender identity at the time.
“As an employer, I felt that transitioning at work would have been detrimental and a major distraction when I had a responsibility to pay people’s wages and to the 100 or so customers our network had built.
“Outside of work I was the national president of the Round Table organisation, a charity group run by men.
“I felt under great mental pressure and I was suffering during that time. I wasn’t a great director during those years and I saw no way out. I was in despair.
“I had no stability. It felt as if I was in a flight simulator going up and down and around and around. My brain was all over the place. I was tearful, confused. I couldn’t sleep or function properly. I couldn’t talk to my wife about it as she was struggling. My children didn’t want to talk about it, and when I spoke to my friends, they were unsure about transitioning.
“I had nothing to anchor myself, I felt I was just tumbling through space with nothing stable except for work and at work I didn’t have any support.
“So when my business partner offered to buy me out at the end of 2016, I said yes. On 1 March 2017 I sold my shares, business and had a small pile of cash.”
Q You transitioned at the same time as launching your own inclusion and belonging company, SEE Change Happen. Can you share more about your experience of transtioning?
“It was a tricky time. And I think one of the key things is that I had to try and understand was the impact on others around me.
“There is this belief that if you’re transitioning you will lose your family, your house, your job – you will end up destitute. But despite losing everything, it is worth it.
“But I was determined that I wasn’t going to be another statistic, I wasn’t going to be that person who lost everything. I had to build empathy and understanding with my wife about how she was going through this.
“I remember lying in bed one day trying to imagine how I would feel if my wife transitioned to be a man. If she took testosterone, grew a beard, lost her hair. If she had a mastectomy, grew hairy legs, began to have body odour and became very manly. I realised I would struggle to embrace that.
“Developing empathy for my wife allowed me a lot more compassion for what she was going through and what I was doing to our family – fundamentally altering the rules of parenthood and marriage. I didn’t have the right to unilaterally do that. So it was a negotiated settlement.
“In the early stages, the transition itself was extremely tricky: it’s like trying to land a jumbo jet without a manual. People are trying to talk you down. You’ve never done it before, you’re probably never going do it again.
“But I learned that talking was really, really important. Shouting, screaming, expressing yourself, allowing everybody to have their say, was really, really important. No matter how painful that was at times. It required a lot of patience.
“I developed the mantra of trying to do the most selfish thing I could ever do in the least selfish way possible.
“I wasn’t transitioning for anybody else’s benefit, therefore, it was inherently selfish and I had to try and find a way where it didn’t destroy everything around me.
“And it wasn’t easy, it really wasn’t easy. All credit to my wife, Marie. It wasn’t fair of me to demand love or respect. I realised I had to be likable to be liked. I had to be lovable to be loved. And I had to be worthy of respect. I had to be a decent human being in order to carry on. I found myself at times not being a person I liked and I realised that that’s how people saw me. I had to become self-aware, and self-manage and understand who I was and how I wanted to show up.
“Our daughter struggled: she has major anxiety about facing big challenges in her life. And unfortunately, for two years we lost contact. It put a huge strain on the family because my wife was in the middle. There were two Christmases I spent on my own.
“It was painful for me, and painful for my wife.
“But we worked through it. And now it’s fantastic and we are a close family again. My own mother has been amazing. It took her about six months to meet me in person. She doesn’t call me daughter but she doesn’t call me son anymore. And my dad, he’s almost 90, when he called me Jo for the first time it was one of the moments when I thought, Wow. Acceptance.
“Overall, I have been very lucky. But I always emphasise the fact that every day is a school for our family; every day you’re coming out – not just me, but my wife and children as well. Maybe not every day in their situation, but it is always part of their lives. Suddenly we are part of the queer community as a family.
“My wife now identifies as bisexual. She is proud to be. So my transition has affected everyone around me, and to a depth and breadth I could never have considered.
“I am most proud of the people around me – they are the ones who have had the most trauma out of this since I transitioned six years ago.”
Q What advice would you have to HR managers and DEI leaders about how they can best support transgender colleagues at work?
A “If you’re not sure when the right time is to develop an HR support policy for trans and gender diverse people, then now is the time. Nobody wants to feel flustered or unsure of what to say when a trans person comes to your work, so develop a tried and tested policy before it happens.
“Make sure your line managers and leaders in the business are confident and competent about having conversations with transgender colleagues. You’ve got a second or two to react to what someone tells you: so be prepared to make sure your body language, your eye movements, your first thought, the first words that come out of your mouth are prepared.
“I hear so often when people are transitioning at work that there is suddenly a whole host of activity – training courses, awareness – and the person transitioning feels the opposite of being included or belonging.
“If you are nervous, have a conversation with someone like myself to help you lose that anxiety by helping you further your knowledge.
“Don’t just peg events on particular awareness months or weeks – your DEI events should go on throughout the year.
“Stories are a good way to share experiences and create empathy. But remember that a story is just a single lived experience. I am a white 57-year-old woman with a roof over my head. That isn’t everybody else’s story who is transgender.
“Make sure any training has actionable outcomes. And start thinking what you can do as an ally. We need people to step up and educate outside of trans voices.”
Q Your mantra is smile, engage and educate.
A “I think people are never going to listen to you or be guided by you if they don’t like you. Adapt your communication style to meet people’s needs. If I get angry and shout, that will turn people off. Encourage people to learn by their mistakes and to always be curious.
“I have to put up with microaggressions all the time. The misgendering and pronouns.
“I am always aware that when I walk into the room, I could be the only transgender person. I don’t feel uncomfortable about it but it does mean I am always coming out. That’s part of my USP in my work but when I am in Sainsbury’s having a coffee, I’d much prefer other adjectives to describe me – entrepreneur, businesswoman, clever, fun, amazing, inspirational.
“There is far more to me than being transgender.”