Harlean Carpenter joined the Department for Work and Pensions in August 2016 and works on the Recovery from Estates Admin Team, dealing with Pension Credit, at Ambler Mill in Bradford.
Harlean started her transition from male to female in 2002. It has been an ongoing process, with lots of milestone moments, her most recent being her first passport with her gender recorded as a woman. She’s now looking forward to making her first flight as a female passenger in May this year.
It’s been a lifelong struggle for Harlean, who realised she was a woman trapped in a man’s body in 2000, after years of knowing something was different about her. In 2007 she announced she was transgender and in 2010 she formally changed her name.
I met Harlean over coffee to discuss Transgender Day of Visibility, perceptions and prejudices, ‘if onlys’ and her hopes for a future of ‘so what’s?’
Rachel: Why is Transgender Day of Visibility (31 March) important?
[Harlean:] It’s important to show that transgender people are just normal folk; it sometimes feels like the whole issue of transgender is shrouded in mystery. Transgender Day of Visibility recognises discrimination faced by transgender people and aims to raise awareness of trans’ issues. So, any publicity to help people to understand that has got to be a good thing.
How do you feel perceptions and prejudices have changed in your lifetime?
I feel like the whole attitude to transgender is changing. Twenty years ago it was looked on as something awful, but it’s much more accepted now. In the last decade perceptions have changed dramatically, so hopefully in the future attitudes will have progressed and people in the wrong gender will be treated much better than people were treated when I was younger.
In my previous job I encountered some prejudice. I was working in a predominantly male setting and there was a very macho approach. Some people refused to accept the new me and insisted on using my old male name. However, I’m delighted to say it’s a complete contrast working in DWP. I’ve been amazed by my colleagues attitudes to people from diverse backgrounds. It’s such a laid back and accepting environment to be in. We have some excellent equality policies in the Civil Service, which help, but my biggest positive has come from the people I work alongside who are genuinely warm and supportive.
People who don’t know about the Civil Service may perceive it to be like ‘Yes, Minister’ and think we’re a stuffy bunch, sat at antiquated desks in formal attire – that couldn’t be further from the truth! It’s the place with the most inclusive attitude that I’ve come across in my working life.
What was the hardest part of coming out as transgender?
The most difficult thing about changing your life and deciding that you are no longer going to hide your true self is the worry of how people will react to you. The hardest bit was dealing with certain attitudes, and the people who won’t accept you for who you are – but I’ve come to realise that it doesn’t matter what those people think. It’s more important for my health and well-being to be able to be who I am. Luckily my friends were very supportive. I’ve done a bit of amateur dramatics, theatre and acting and have friends who are easygoing and open-minded from an array of backgrounds, including other members of the LGBT* community. So that made it a little bit easier, and overall most people were happy for me.
What were you most excited about when you transitioned?
It was just so nice to be able to be me. It makes me think of the Helen Reddy song, ‘I am woman’, the lyrics really resonate. There’s no more pretending. I can relax and enjoy being the woman I’ve longed to be. And, it’s really great to be able to do normal girly things like get my make-up done and wear nice dresses.
If you could go back and have a chat with your younger self what advice would you give?
I’d share the knowledge that I have now. The advancement of the internet made a huge difference to me. If I’d known in my 20s what I know now, my life could have been a lot different. I’d have told the younger me to “go for it” and knowing how attitudes have changed would have really boosted my confidence back then.
Have you got any regrets or if onlys?
I really began to think seriously about becoming a woman in 2000. If I’d known 17 years ago what I know now and how perceptions and attitudes have changed I could have lived a different life. I guess my regret is that I never got to be somebody’s wife or mother. I know life will be so much better for people who are just starting out on their transgender journey and I’m thankful for that.
What are your hopes for the future?
Attitudes to transgender people are becoming more positive, our portrayal in the media is improving and people are becoming more empathetic as they learn more and see real people in documentaries or articles. I’d like to see this progress and look forward to the day when people think ‘so what’ about transgender, and it just becomes a normal situation like any other.
Medical advances are making it so much better for transgender people, and I’m hopeful that before too long male-to-female transgender people will be able to enjoy pregnancy and equally female-to-male will be able to biologically father a baby.
When I think about how far we’ve come in the last 20 years it excites me to think about what could be achieved in the next 20.
I don’t want special rights for transgender people, I just want equal rights.
Transgender Day of Visibility is dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments and victories of transgender & gender non-conforming people, while raising awareness of the work that is still needed to save trans lives.
a:gender is a Civil Service wide support network that offers a wide range of services across the Civil Service to Trans and Intersex staff.
The Civil Service aims to be the most inclusive UK employer by 2020. Learn more here about what we are doing to achieve this.