'The woman I was truly meant to be': Gov't employee thankful for support during transition

Coming out as transgender in the workplace can lead to ostracization and isolation, but a Saskatchewan woman is crediting her employer and colleagues for making her feel supported and accepted during and after her decision to transition.
Sean Goalen made the decision to transition to Seanna Goalen and live as a woman more than two years ago. She says the support she received at work went above and beyond anything she ever imaged. (submitted by Seanna Goalen)

Coming out as transgender in the workplace can be an ostricizing and isolating experience, but a Regina woman is crediting her employer and colleagues for making her feel supported and accepted during and after her decision to transition.

Seanna Goalen spent nearly her entire 19-year career with Saskatchewan's Ministry of Health — and the majority of her life — living as Sean Goalen. But the married step-parent of two says it never felt quite right.

"Around the end of 2015 I'd been doing some personal development work, and in the program I was doing there was a question: What would you do if time or money weren't an issue?

"I put down 'be the woman I was truly meant to be,' and it just became so clear to me that that's what I needed to do," recalled Goalen, who decided to share her story after hearing a CBC interview about new research on the importance of inclusivity in the workplace for transgender employees.

'Fear came rushing in'

Though Goalen said it was the first time she felt truly certain about her identity, the next few months were anything but easy.

"Five seconds after that awakening moment, that's when the fear came rushing in. Fear of losing everything, my life partner, potentially my job."

Some of Goalen's fears were laid to rest about one month later when she decided to tell her wife, who supported her decision. The two remain married.

Goalen then started to present as female, but only outside the office.

"I could tell my behaviour and mannerisms were slightly changing, but I was still going to work in a button shirt and tie," she recalled.

A few months later she decided it was time to tell her colleagues, but she had no idea what the reaction would be and feared the worst.

"I started with someone in human resources, a person I knew for quite some time, so I thought approaching her felt safe.

"She did a bit of research on supports in the workplace, and there aren't a lot out there, so we came up with a bit of a game plan to tell more people."

That's when Goalen started to meet with her managers, slowly including more people in each meeting.

"Everyone was supportive up to that point, and always ensuring that I was in the driver's seat and that nothing would proceed unless I was comfortable with it."

'I'm still the same person'

Though Goalen was slowly starting to tell more people, she says the biggest milestone came on March 22, 2016: announcement day.

"I had written out what I was going to say in an email, and we had a little branch meeting and the [assistant deputy minister] came and said I had something to tell people and I read my email."

This is more like version 2.0. Just some different packaging and a few upgrades.- Seanna Goalen

Though she practiced reading the email countless times, Goalen says nothing could have prepared her for that meeting.

"One of the things I said is, 'I'm still the same person. I'm still going to do the same excellent work that I always do, and this is more like version 2.0. Just some different packaging and a few upgrades."   

Though Goalen described that day as one of the scariest of her life, "everyone was so supportive," she said.

"This email I had prepared and read was also what I sent to about 100 people I'd worked more closely with over the years and I think within three seconds replies started coming back with just the kindest things, and that went on all day."

Initially, Goalen planned to put off presenting as a woman in the office until she felt like her colleagues were more comfortable but said she felt so supported there was no reason to delay.

"I came to work the next day — it was the Thursday before the Easter long weekend — and then that following Tuesday I did full-time transition."

'I never had any negativity to my face'

Though Goalen acknowledged that many people may have a much more difficult experience, she said working so closely with her managers to develop an education and harassment strategy made a huge difference.

"I never had any negativity to my face. One of things we did in preparation was to develop a set of questions and answers, and also to remind people that discrimination or harassment would not be tolerated. If you had an issue you go to your manager, and I think that helped a lot."

In an email, the Ministry of Health says it continues its commitment to support Goalen through her journey and is developing an action plan to "create and sustain an inclusive workplace for all employees."

Goalen, who recently started her own life-coaching business, said she now wants to help other transgender people who may be struggling with similar issues "crystalize their dreams and build a structure of support."