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Debi 2

Debi Saunders: My life as a trans woman at York College

Just nine months ago, Debi Saunders started presenting as a woman having worked at York College & University Centre for more than 20 years as a man.

As an education provider, we pride ourselves on offering a diverse, inclusive and tolerant environment for our students and staff members and are, therefore, really pleased and reassured to hear that Debi has always regarded work “as her safe place” and somewhere that she can truly be herself.

We are also full of admiration that Debi, our Senior Quality and Compliance Officer, has chosen to share with us her experiences of being a transwoman on campus and within the community of York.

She has made that difficult decision in the hope that, during LGBT+ History Month, it might also help others live their life as the person they have always wanted to be, rather than as the gender they were assigned with at birth.

Thank you, Debi, for answering the questions below with such soul-bearing honesty and we believe everybody can learn something from reading your words…

How long had you been considering presenting as a female at College and how much courage did you need to summon?

I started considering presenting as a woman at work back in 2020, having first come out to a few people just before Christmas 2019. That was at work, and I consider work my safe place. I felt I could allow myself to be more feminine there than I could at home at the time. I started counselling at the same time to try and understand the turmoil that was filling me.

In terms of courage, it hasn’t taken me too much to start presenting as a female, because that feels so right, but it did take a lot of courage to tell that first person. I was absolutely petrified before I told them and really didn’t know what was going to happen. I felt lost, like most trans people in that situation, and was unsure whether she would think I was weird and all the other stuff that goes through your head but, afterwards, I felt relieved because the response was lovely and positive.

I then found that, as I told more people, they were all very positive about it. I mainly told women and I will say that I did struggle to tell men but, as I told more women, I got this sense of people being fine with it and that it wasn’t going to be a problem. Some of these people have supported my transition since the start and, without them, I may never have had the courage to take this step. I owe them a debt which I will never be able to repay.

I was struggling with paying for counselling, and the College agreed to pay for it as part of the staff benefits package. That, and the Covid lockdowns, gave me time to think and work through all the thoughts that were in my head. The College’s support at this time was critical to me remaining healthy and being able to make rational decisions.

About a year before I came out, I made the decision to start using they/them pronouns at work and started to wear a little bit of make-up which I would take off before I went home. I started to give people the idea that something was going on and that some change was happening. Then, last April, things outside of work suddenly made it clear that this was an opportunity to do what I knew I had needed to do for a long time.

I found the room that I’m living in now and started planning to move out. I moved out from my family home and started living as a woman on the same day.

That was on the fifth of June, and, on the sixth of June, I came into work in the morning as myself for the first time. I had been occasionally presenting as a woman with work colleagues, but I had never presented fully as a woman at work. I’d presented as a woman before, but not for about 25 years, so it was quite a big thing.

How did it feel walking into College for the first time as Debi?

I didn’t really sleep the night before and, in the morning, it just all felt very new. There were a lot of firsts. It was the first time I’d stayed overnight in my new room, and the first time I’d travelled in by bus presenting as a woman. Everything was new – all in one day - and I was bricking it. That’s the only way to describe that morning.

I was wondering whether people were looking at me on the bus, and that made it very scary. I got to work without anybody being rude, and that felt like a plus. Then, I got to the building and three colleagues met me outside and walked in with me and there were three more waiting for me when I got inside. Two were from my office, so they walked up to the office with me and made me feel welcome.

That made it feel slightly less scary but, for that first half-term from June until the summer break, I would feel worried walking around College. I was wondering how people would respond. I never had a problem, but I was always wondering if I would.

At some point on that first day, I walked downstairs to buy a coffee, and somebody said: ‘Hi Debi, how are you?’. It felt very positive that someone knew my name and that they had used it.

How much interaction do you have with students in your role and how did you find you were received by them when you started presenting as female?

In my position at work now, I don’t teach classes, but I do run the College Eco Club and was doing at the point of the change, but I might as well have walked in the same as I did before. There was absolutely no difference in their response whatsoever. The students treat me as just another woman, which feels amazing. They have shown an interest in my being trans but have been overwhelmingly supportive.

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Debi and fellow staff member Charlie Barnes run College's Eco Club, whose students are currently organising a Clothes Swap event on Campus
Do you feel that any of your relationships with staff at work have changed for the better or for the worse?

What has happened, which is quite interesting, is my relationships with the people I work with have got better. I feel that I have been accepted and have most women I work with check up on me, in the same way as they check up on each other. It’s true that some people don’t talk to me very much and I sense they might feel a bit uncomfortable with the change, but no-one has said anything transphobic.

I think there are people really struggling with my transition, or they don’t like it. There are also some people who haven’t openly said they don’t like it, but our relationship has changed slightly for the worse. By and large, though, my relationships with staff have improved.

What are the heart-warming moments that you can recall over the past nine months?

That very first day when somebody said, ‘Hi Debi’ felt good. I’d also never expected to just walk around College and hear students, some of whom I’ve never met, shout ‘Hi Debi, how are you?’

That feels heart-warming and one of the nicest things that can happen is when somebody says, ‘You look great in that dress’. So many people said that when I went to the REACH Awards, and that’s heart-warming too.

During the first few weeks, I’d get messages on Teams from colleagues asking how I was, which meant a lot as well and, one day, a card appeared on my desk that said something along the lines of me being incredibly brave.

I didn’t immediately recognise the name at the bottom and had to work out who it was. It was somebody I knew and have spoken to, but not somebody I would have seen as being particularly supportive. They sent me this beautiful card that made me feel fantastic for having done what I’d done, and I felt they were recognising things in me that I don’t always accept.

Any particularly upsetting moments?

Upsetting moments are rare, but they do happen, mainly when somebody calls me by my old name or seems to misgender me, and then does not apologise which still happens very occasionally. I don’t feel that I need to do anything about it, but that is the one thing that hurts.

A lot of people in this building have known me for 20 years and they know my old name and have known me as ‘he’ so, most of them, if they say the wrong thing, will then be apologetic and I appreciate it’s just been a mistake because I’ve only been Debi to them for nine months. It’s when people say something like that and then say nothing that I feel uncomfortable.

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Debi admits that she owes her supportive York College colleagues a debt she will never be able to repay
Did you feel it was the right time to become a trans woman in terms of society being more accepting?

It was absolutely the right time for me in terms of society now being more accepting. Society has moved on so far in the last 10 or 15 years. If I had done this back in the 1980s when I first started to think about it, I’d have had few role models to follow, and attitudes would have been much more rigid than they are now. I admire those who did transition years ago as it must have been much harder. Now, most of society has come to sense that this is a normal thing, not abnormal, and are far more accepting, though being careful about my safety has become one thing I have had to develop.

The average person is incredibly accepting. I’ve only had one unpleasant incident in nine months and that was in a pub I go to regularly. A stranger came into the pub and made a comment, which I did not hear, and the regulars leapt into action. Two of the women rushed me into the Ladies to make me safe, and two of the guys pointed the person who was being unpleasant towards the door and said, ‘Out you go’. There are people in society who are transphobic, but they are rare.

If you go on Twitter, you can think it’s half of society, but that’s not true and the encouragement I took from that situation was that people were there for me and they were there for me as a woman. They were supporting me and that was just amazing.

I am Debi now and feel 100% comfortable in this body. It feels amazing and that my old life feels like a dream. Everything isn’t perfect and I should have done this years ago, but I didn’t because it never felt possible.

Are you part of any support networks for the trans community and what support do they offer?

In York, the support networks are thin, but they do exist. There’s GeneraTe which is a charity that helps trans people or potentially trans people think of all the legal, medical and other issues that you have to deal with when you’re trans. I’m part of that as a trustee, but my main support network is the Colours of the Rainbow Choir. I joined it on August 17th, having felt quite isolated during that first eight weeks.

I didn’t have a strong support network outside of work at that point. Everybody in the choir is LGBTQ+, or an ally of LGBTQ+ people, and they have been amazing for me. We meet every Thursday, and we sing after starting every session by telling the group our names and pronouns and answering a question of the week to get to know each other. It's not a ‘serious’ choir, though the music we produce is really good. It’s very much a fun, community, social thing with a WhatsApp group and regular social events.

If you use the definition of ‘trans’ that I prefer, which is anybody that is not cisgender (i.e. anybody who does not feel that their gender matches that which they were assigned with at birth), is trans, around 60% of the choir are trans or non-binary. Because York is quite small, the number of trans people is small but there is a network of groups that work together well.

There’s a lot of activity going on in York for LGBT+ History Month with something happening every day or night and lots of different groups and LGBTQ+ people involved. York sometimes feels like it doesn’t have a LGBTQ+ hub, apart from a lovely café called ‘Over the Rainbow’. It’s a very friendly café above the LGBTQ+ book shop next to the Valhalla Bar, but is quite small!

I’ve also been invited to consider taking further roles within local groups and am currently canvassing for money for Pride, so I do feel I’ve become a part of York’s LGBTQ+ community.

What advice would you give anybody who might be agonising over whether to start identifying as trans in the workplace?

First, I think they won’t be agonising over when to start identifying as trans. They will be trans. Based on everybody I know, they knew they were different from being knee high to a donkey, and trans as soon as they became aware of the term.

What people agonise over is whether they can give up their current life for a new life, knowing that when you make that step you can’t be sure that the people you have got with you will come along too. Some people will refuse to go on that journey with you, and you take the risk of losing touch with some people you considered yourself to be very close to.

There are also enormous legal issues. You might know you’re trans but, if you want to get hormones, you must persuade a doctor you’re trans and that’s not just your GP, you must get a consultant appointment too. That can take years and, if you wait and go through the official channels, it takes 12 years in York, so you must be supported and advocated for, and GeneraTe help with that.

I was very lucky. I had one very good GP at my practice, who gave me the name of the right consultant and I got what I needed but it has still been a nightmare legally. It took me from June to October to get everything changed that it is possible to do, and I am an experienced administrator who understands and knows where to find paperwork, send it off and have all the evidence lined up. It's much tougher for anybody who might be 16 and might not have the support of parents.

I think it all boils down to how early in your life you realise you can’t live as your assigned gender. For many people, it comes to a boil when they are in their late teens or early 20s. I knew I wanted to live as a woman when I was that age, but society stopped me from making that decision then. It’s fantastic that things have changed but those of us who are older, and have some influence, must fight for the community now.

It’s important that we speak out and try to make a difference as trans people are on the front line against those who want to take things back to how they were. I’m doing this interview because, no matter how hard it is to do, I’m probably more capable of doing it than somebody who might be 18 or 19, because I have the resilience that comes with age and experience.

My advice would be to think it through but, if you’re sure, then do it. Otherwise, you will never feel everything in the world is right, however good everything else is.

I can be going through a tough time or be stressed at work, but I’m Debi now and, in some ways, that’s all that matters. The last nine months have given me that opportunity to be myself and to genuinely experience that feeling of living as the person that I always felt I was.

To learn more about LGBT+ History Month please click here
For more information on the support that GeneraTe offer, please click here
Details on Pride in York activities can be found by clicking here
If you would like to read more about the Over the Rainbow café, please click here