Episode 11

Behind An Ordinary Life Is The Extraordinary Bravery, Generosity And Wisdom of Aoife Martin

Aoife’s vivid description of her journey to become the first person globally in her organisation to transition exudes warmth, generosity and wisdom. It provides a blueprint for HR professionals, and those in the wider organisation, on how to support individuals who are considering transitioning.

About my guest

This powerful, moving and uplifting interview shines a light on the extraordinary journey and bravery shown by Aoife Martin. Her vivid description of her journey to become the first person globally in her organisation to transition exudes warmth, generosity and wisdom. It provides a blueprint for HR professionals, and those in the wider organisation, on how to support individuals who are considering transitioning. More importantly, the interview provides a stark warning that transphobia remains embedded in both society and the workplace and that vigilance is required to ensure hard-won rights are not reversed.

Since then, Aoife’s given numerous talks and interviews about being transgender in Ireland today. She’s passionate about educating people around transgender issues and believes it’s only by sharing her experience that she can make a difference and change people’s perceptions. Thankfully, few of us in life have had to endure the level of scrutiny, hostility, and questions about our life and motives as much as Aoife does. The shocking level of abuse received on Twitter alone has seen a block, some 180,000 users.

Transcript

Chris]: If you’re enjoying the Oven-Ready HR Podcast, please do rate and review us and feel free to share with your network. To find out more about Chris Taylor, your host, visit OvenReadyHR.com and follow us on Twitter too @OvenHR. Thank you.

This week’s guest can be described as an IT professional and outspoken activist advocate, columnist, and an all-around Renaissance trans woman. In January 2017, Aoife Martin became the first person to transition globally within her workplace and therefore, revealing her true self to her work colleagues.

Since then, she’s given numerous talks and interviews about being transgender in Ireland today. She’s passionate about educating people around transgender issues and believes it’s only by talking to people and putting her side of the story out there that she can make a difference and change to how people perceive transgender people. Thankfully few of us in life had to have to enjoy the level of scrutiny, hostility, and questions about our life and motives as much as Aoife does. The shocking level of abuse received on Twitter alone has seen a block, some 180,000 users.

In 2018, she was listed as one of the OUTstanding Top 50 Future LGBT+ Leaders and was elected to the board of TENI Transgender Equality Network Ireland. She’s also recently been appointed a columnist with journal.ie. Evening, Aoife. This is a first for Oven-Ready. It’s my first evening interview, so I thought I’d pour myself a glass of wine.

[Aoife]: Thanks for having me. It’s lovely to be here.

[Chris]: No, no, it’s wonderful to have you. So, you’ve got a full-time job, and you’ve got all these other things going on. You’re an activist. You’ve got this new position. The columnist position is quite new. Isn’t it? Wasn’t that the beginning of the year?

[Aoife]: Yes. Yeah. It’s quite new. I only started writing for them just before Christmas. So, it’s only been a couple of months now, basically. Yeah.

[Chris]: Okay. Do you come up with the themes and the things that you’d like to cover, or is that something that you do in conjunction with the editorial team?

[Aoife]: I generally come up with it myself, but I do have discussions with my editors, and they’re happy enough with the columns that I’ve suggested so far. So, let’s hope it keeps going in that direction.

[Chris]: No, absolutely. I mean, there’s a lot written about transgender, isn’t there? There’s a lot of issues to cover. I guess there’s a lot of material.

[Aoife]: Yeah. I mean, the column won’t primarily be here, obviously. It’s I’m going to be writing stuff from a trans point of view because that’s the way I view the world from this prison and this way the world views me. But I don’t want it to be explicitly about trans issues. I just want it to be about just general stuff because trans people are just people like everybody else. We have the same issues and problems and worries and concerns like everybody else, so we’re just ordinary people. The same foibles as the rest of the population.

[Chris]: It’s an ordinary life, isn’t it?

[Aoife]: Yes, it is, or it should be.

[Chris]: Yeah, absolutely. So, certain sections of the media like to portray the equality as a zero-sum game. So, if you gain something, therefore, I must be losing something. That really isn’t the case, is it?

[Aoife]: No, certainly, certainly not. I think we all have to recognise what privileges we have. Certainly, as a white trans woman, I have a lot of privilege. I have more privilege than, say, a trans woman of colour. I think it’s important for us to recognise these privileges, and it’s important for Cisgender people to recognise their privilege as well.

You know? So am I. Yeah. So, there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of equality, not just for trans people, obviously, but for LGBT people, for people of colour, for disabled people. There’s a whole plethora of minorities out there. Thus that’s still our equal, so it’s important that we keep fighting over that, I think.

[Chris]: Okay, and Ireland in particular, though, it was sort of seen years ago, it was a very sort of deeply conservative nation very sort of close to the but it successfully rebranded itself, hasn’t it, in the last few years? There’s obviously been an openly gay prime minister. It’s a different vibe to perhaps almost the rest of Europe now.

[Aoife]: Yeah. I mean, yeah, it’s quite weird because I mean, I look at some countries around Europe, sort of they’re going, they’re sort of lurching to the right, while Ireland sort of is sort of holding—

[Chris]: it’s progressive.

[Aoife]: Yeah, it’s progressive. It’s holding sort of a more of a central course, I think. I mean, we’ve had to be dragged, kicking, and screaming into the 21st century Bush.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Aoife]: We have equal marriage now. We have a Gender Recognition Act. We have self-identification for trans people, and we have abortion since we repealed the eighth amendment. So, yeah, we’re going along the right tracks. We need to keep our foot on the accelerator, I think.

[Chris]: Is there anything that you think has driven that change? I mean, Ireland is also home to a lot of young organisations, isn’t it? So, it attracts a younger, perhaps more meritocratic crowd than perhaps it used to. Do you think that’s part of it?

[Aoife]: That’s part of it, yeah, and we also have a very young population. So, a lot of this has just been your feet underground, basically, and people getting out and protesting. Yeah, it’s a lot of groundwork by an awful lot of individual groups, so it’s taken a long time to get here, but we have pushed, and we’ve knocked on doors. We’ve gone on marches. We’ve done all the things that we needed to do to get our government to listen. You know? So finally, they’re starting to take notice, and we’re moving in the right direction. s

[Chris]: What areas do you think that they need to move forward on now?

[Aoife]: Well, there’s still a lot of issues around, certainly from a trans perspective. There’s a lot of issues around trans healthcare, and our Gender Recognition Act could be better.

Like we need to be able to recognise non-binary people. We also need to be able to recognise trans people who are under 18. Should be allowed to self-identify trans kids under 16. Should also be allowed to self-identify with parental approval.

We also need to have better abortion services. Yes, we have abortion, but there’s quite a number of sort of hoops you have to jump through before you can get it.

[Chris]: I see.

[Aoife]: Yeah, you have to take certain boxes. So, we definitely need to expand that as well.

[Chris]: Okay.

[Aoife]: So, there’s a lot done, but we have a lot more to do as well.

[Chris]: It sounds like there’s a bit more to do, absolutely.

[Aoife]: Yeah.

[Chris]: So, when you’re working in 2017 and let’s get back to because I read an article, I think it was Huffington Post, wasn’t it, where you had talked about your experience in revealing your true self to your colleagues? You mentioned meeting your HR colleague to tell her that you were transitioning and how supportive she was. Were you surprised by how supportive she was, or do you think this is the job of HR, and they should be?

[Aoife]: I don’t want to say I was surprised with how supportive she was. I was certainly, I was relieved how supportive she was, and I think that she told me that she had never, in her 20 years of working in HR, she had never encountered a trans person before in the workplace. So, she was coming at it from the point of view where she didn’t know how to approach this, and I didn’t know how to approach this, but we decided that we would—

[Chris]: You muddled through together.

[Aoife]: Yeah, we muddled through basically, you know?

[Chris]: Yeah, yeah.

[Aoife]: And I think a lot of what we did was just pure instinct, and we met on a regular basis. We had meetings every week to make sure we were planning things correctly, and it’s sort of bureaucratic things like who would we tell, when would we tell them, name changes on badges, email, address changes, all those sorts of things that you have to know, you know?

[Chris]: Yeah, yeah.

[Aoife]: Yeah, I have to say it went really well. I think those meetings every week and just setting that roadmap really, really helped and helped smooth the way I think.

[Chris]: Okay, and going back to the introduction. So, within the organisation you work for today, you were the very first person globally. Is that correct?

[Aoife]: That’s true, yeah.

[Chris]: There was no touchstone for anybody else, I guess, was there?

[Aoife]: No, no, I was the yeah, I worked for a large global organisation, so I was the first person within that organisation. Yeah, so there was nothing for my HR business partner to fall back on.

[Chris]: Or for you.

[Aoife]: Or for me either because I had done my research beforehand, and I knew that the company I worked for was a diverse and accepting company, but until you actually step forward and put your head above the power pitch, it’s hard to know how people are going to react and I was just very, very lucky that I had an HR business partner who was so, so supportive. I mean, on the day I came back to work, she had arranged a bouquet of flowers for me to say, Welcome back, Aoife. You’re welcome here.

[Chris]: From all the team, yeah.

[Aoife]: Which was really lovely, you know?

[Chris]: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I remember when I totally came out, it’s a big. For someone that’s never had to come out. It’s an enormous thing, isn’t it?

[Aoife]: It is, and everybody has different ways of doing this, you know? I’m aware of people who have sort of sent emails to their colleagues and said that they were trans or they were gay or whatever.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Aoife]: But when I spoke to my HR business partner, she said, “Well, we don’t need to send an email to the office because you wouldn’t send an email to the entire office to say that you were gay, so why would you send one to everyone saying that you were trans? So, obviously, we told some people like I told my manager. I told my work colleagues.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Aoife]: I told them all one at a time in person, rather than sending an email, and I’m not sure if that was a good idea, but I just wanted it to be in person.

[Chris]: Well, you work for a big firm, so it might have taken you quite a time.

[Aoife]: Yeah, I know. It was very stressful.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Aoife]: Telling people individually face-to-face is not an easy thing to do, you know?

[Chris]: Did you feel that they were slightly walking on eggshells in terms of using pronouns and things, or how did you cover that?

[Aoife]: No, I think it went quite well, actually. No, I was quite surprised at how quickly people accepted this and because, at the time, I was in the office only a couple of days a week. I was working from home the other days. It never really became that much of an issue. You know?

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Aoife]: So, yeah, at the stores, there were one or two slip-ups, of course. There were, but once you realise that it’s a genuine mistake, it’s perfectly fine, you know?

[Chris]: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I think people as I say, I think people do make mistakes occasionally. I mean, lots of organisations sort of like to change the colour of their logos and the rainbow flag and to sort of burnish all the LGBTQ+ credentials. Is this a money-making thing, or do you think that’s a genuine move towards more diversity and inclusivity, or is it cynical?

[Aoife]: Yeah. I think just this pops up every year during Pride.

[Chris]: Yes, it does.

[Aoife]: I’m on the Pride Committee at work, so I’m going to speak with my Pride hat on, my Pride colour is on here.

[Chris]: Exactly.

[Aoife]: I think, yeah. This pops up every year. Yeah, but you could argue that for some companies, it possibly is cynical, and they see the value in the pink [naudible 00:12:09]. Certainly, for some other companies, I would include the company I work for here in this. It’s a genuine attempt to show people that we are a diverse and accepting company and that if you are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, come and work for us. We need diversity. We need input from people who think differently to other people because if we all thought as cis-gender, white, straight males, it would be a very, very boring workplace to be.

[Chris]: Terrifically boring.

[Aoife]: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, where would all the colours be?

[Chris]: Where would all the colours be? Exactly.

[Aoife]: Yeah, exactly.

[Aoife]: So, yeah. I think a lot of other companies would approach us, certainly the more sort of multinational big companies that we see are I’m certainty that the tech companies are much more open to diversity and to inclusion. Somebody along the parade route, seeing that float go by or those marchers go by will go, “Oh yeah. I could go and work for that company.” So, I think that’s a good thing.

[Chris]: It’s definitely changing, isn’t it? I mean, it really is changing.

[Aoife]: Yes, it is.

[Chris]: But I’m not a great fan of acronyms, so I don’t really like the LGBTQ+. I didn’t really like—do you know what? I really struggled with it? I think it sort of defines me, and I don’t think it should somehow. Do you feel defined sometimes by things like that?

[Aoife]: No, I generally don’t tend to.

[Chris]: I mean, I get the initial

[Aoife]: There was a time where I probably would have not wanted to be seen as trans, just to be seen as a woman, but no, I’ve come around to the other way of thinking on that. There’s nothing wrong with being trans, so why shouldn’t I embrace that label and just go, “Yeah, I’m a trans woman.” So, let’s be proud of that. You know?

[Chris]: I mean, I was listening to a podcast this afternoon, and you were talking to the interview, and you said, “I am a trans woman,” and I think that was quite a moment for me, I think because as you said, you had you thought actually, I’m a woman, but no, actually, I’m a trans woman, and that’s really important to you. Isn’t it?

[Aoife]: It is. Yeah, because it’s taken me so long to accept who I was and to accept the fact that I was trans thus, I now am determined to embrace that label and go, “Yeah, I’m proud to be trans.”

[Chris]: I think that’s really good. I mean, yeah, absolutely. I mean, you’ve worked so hard to get that, right?

[Aoife]: Exactly. I’m not going to give it up now.

[Chris]: No, no. Okay, and obviously your employer, your colleagues, everyone’s been, it seems quite supportive of your journey, but I guess other trans or nonbinary people haven’t been quite so fortunate, have they?

[Aoife]: No. I mean, it is difficult for trans people, even in Ireland, where we are socially progressive at the moment.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Aoife]: A lot of trans people would be unemployed. It can be difficult. Like I said, “I’m a very privileged white, trans woman.” I have a good job. I have a roof over my head. I can put food on the table, but there are lots of trans people out there who don’t have that. I work for a large multi multinational organisation, whereas a trans person in, say, a smaller organisation that might not even have an HR department, it could be much, much more difficult for them, you know? Yeah, I think we need to recognise that it’s not all roses.

[Chris]: No. Is there any advice you would give to anybody that would be listening to this that would consider themselves unsure or on a trans journey?

[Aoife]: I think if you can, try and talk to somebody. Be it a work colleague that you trust or your HR department, if you can.

[Chris]: if you got one.

[Aoife]: If you have one.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Aoife]: Try and find out what the policies are if there are any policies in place, and sometimes, you might be that first person. Like I was that first person, and since I came out as trans, I know one person in one of our US offices saw my story, and they subsequently came out as trans, and a couple of other people in other offices have. So, sometimes—

[Chris]: How did that make you feel?

[Aoife]: It made me feel quite proud, actually.

[Chris]: Yeah, quite right.

[Aoife]: I think it’s only because of that visibility because somebody—

[Chris]: Yeah, and if you hadn’t done it.

[Aoife]: If I hadn’t done it, probably somebody else would have done it at some point, but when I was coming out, I didn’t know I was the first person. It was only later that I learnt that. So, it was never an issue for me, and I never even thought that I was going to be the first person. I just did what I had to do.

[Chris]: Obviously, you work for this, as you say, this sort of huge global corporation. But do you think there’s steps that all organisations at their size can take to make perhaps the environment more inclusive? Because I don’t know whether you see that much of the UK media, but over here, it seems to be an obsession about what signs to put on toilet bowls? That seems to be the lasting debate, and there must be so much more to it than just noodles.

[Aoife]: Yeah. Yeah, so I think, yeah. I think having policies in place is a good thing for companies and certainly, policies around healthcare and health insurance. Also, I mean, the bathroom thing is just, I think it’s more of a red herring than anything.

[Chris]: Definitely.

[Aoife]: We actually, yeah. Obviously, it came up when I was having discussions with my HR business partner, and she said, “Oh, but we have gender-neutral bathrooms on each floor of the building, you know?” So, the gender-neutral bathrooms were basically a disabled/gender-neutral bathroom, you know?

[Chris]: Right.

[Aoife]: She said, “You can use them.” And I said, “Well, yeah, that’s fine. But if you’re forcing me to use them, then you are singling me out, and you’re telling me that you don’t see me as a woman, you know?” And she said, “Oh, yeah, actually you’re right, and yeah. Use whatever bathroom you want,” she said. So, we didn’t ask permission, and we didn’t highlight it because it’s not, and it shouldn’t be an issue, you know? So, I just used the bathroom that I wanted to use.

[Chris]: No, no, but I was just [crosstalk 00:18:40] bias at the beginning, but as you say, you pointed it out, and therefore, there’s a reasonable solution to everything. Okay, well, all right. Now, obviously, life’s taking you down quite a different path, isn’t it at the moment, and there must be things that you’re quite excited about in terms of the column and the activism? All the sort of things that you do, the committees that you’re on. You have such a voice now, and it says that. How does that make you feel?

[Aoife]: Yeah, it’s sort of weird, I think, because for years, I didn’t have a voice, and I never intended having a voice, and it’s only because I stood up and said that I was trans that suddenly—

[Chris]: You got one.

[Aoife]: Suddenly, I do have a voice. Yeah.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Aoife]: So, I’m determined to use that voice to try and make things that little bit better for trans people who are coming after me because I think it’s only by having that sort of visibility. But when I was growing up, I didn’t know—there were no trans people on the television. There was no trans people who write columns on news sites.

So, by being this visible, and it can be a double-edged sword, but by being this visible, it means there could be a trans kid out there going, “Oh, look, there’s somebody just like me. I’m not alone in the world. I’m not the only person who feels this way.” So, I think that’s very important.

[Chris]: I think I don’t know whether you’ve seen It’s a Sin, the channel for production. There’s has been friends that were talking to me recently who had absolutely no idea that that sort of early 1980s AIDS crisis was going on. They didn’t have any idea, and they were apologised to me about how awful people were treated. I think people don’t realize, do they?

[Aoife]: I don’t think so. No. I mean, and it’s only recent history. Like I grew up in the 80s, so I would have been a teenager in the 80s. So, I can remember the ads on television and the fear around AIDS. I was still probably a little bit young to be aware of the politics around it, on how gay men were marginalised and treated and left to their own devices, basically. You know? So, it was pretty horrific.

Obviously, as I grew older, I became more aware of it, and I read up on this at night. I saw films, and I read books, and I read articles. But growing up at the time, I was only sort of aware of it as a tabloid thing and as this sort of scaremongering ads on the television, you know? Yeah, it was a difficult time.

[Chris]: Aoife, as I say, people were dehumanised, really.

[Aoife]: Yes.

[Chris]: It was only actually now that with another pandemic on the go at the moment that people actually realise that things that we had been here before.

[Aoife]: Yeah, and we’re seeing that dehumanization being shown on the trans community, I think.

[Chris]: Quite.

[Aoife]: Because I think trans people are nowhere where people were 30 years ago, and we’re seeing the scaremongering around toilets and changing rooms.

[Chris]: Yeah, obsession.

[Aoife]: And don’t let trans people near children. It’s obsession 20 years all over again. It’s quite scarey.

[Chris]: Yeah. I know. Obviously, on Twitter, you have this voice, and you use this voice very powerfully. But you have attracted, obviously, a lot of hate and lots of trolls. Was I right in saying 180,000 people you brought?

[Aoife]: I think it’s around that, yeah.

[Chris]: I mean, that’s a [crosstalk 00:22:29].

[Aoife]: I’m not sure what it is, but it’s certainly a couple hundred of trolls. Definitely.

[Chris]: I mean, the one that made me laugh, I did see something that says, “She trended on Twitter once, has been dining off the glory ever since.” That’s probably the nicest thing that someone probably ever said. I mean, it’s an extraordinary level of abuse, isn’t it?

[Aoife]: Yeah. It can be, so you definitely need to be in the right frame of mind first.

[Chris]: Oh, my god, yeah.

[Aoife]: When I first came out as trans, I was very optimistic, and I would engage with people, and I would try to argue my case, and I would try to persuade people.

[Chris]: Justify, yeah. Justify why you’re alive.

[Aoife]: Yeah. Yeah, exactly, but it gets to the point where you just realise that a lot of these people aren’t acting on good faith. They are just, they are, and it’s not what you say to them. They’re never going to change their minds. So, even if I get a whiff of transphobia off an account, I’ll just block it because my mental health is more important than that, you know?

[Chris]: Yeah. No. Absolutely. Aoife, but life is positive, though, right, for you?

[Aoife]: Yeah, it is. I mean, obviously, we’re all struggling during lockdown and that’s difficult. It’s difficult for everybody, I think. But yeah, I mean, there’s stuff happening I’m not ready to talk about yet, but exciting things happening in the future, I hope, and we’ll see where that goes, but yeah, life’s positive. I’m just going to keep fighting.

I am a little bit worried about the transphobia that’s in the UK at the moment. It’s starting to creep in over here in Ireland. There’s certain groups setting up over here, and so that’s a little bit concerning, but we’d have to see where that goes.

[Chris]: Yeah, absolutely. Aoife Martin, thank you very much.

[Aoife]: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.

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