Words by Georgie, 28 VIC
Sit down with your beverage of choice, put your phone on flight mode and read this inspiring story.
Lauren from the WhyNot team sat down with Shulah – a young transgender woman from Melbourne to talk all things diversity and inclusion, safe spaces and finding the courage to be vulnerable.
Lauren describes Shulah as a “beautiful happy human”, her playful energy and optimism leaves you feeling hopeful that our future is in safe and kind hands.
Georgie from the WhyNot team sat quietly under the zoom cave of darkness (on mute, video off) frantically taking notes, laughing and smiling at the insightful snippets shared between these two amazing women.
Getting to know one another.
We got going with the classic interview kick off – So, who is Shulah?
Shulah describes herself as a trans woman, using she/her pronouns, living in lockdown Melbourne – “So much fun these days” she says sarcastically. ‘Lockdown Melbourne’ a bizarre phrase many of us have come to know all too well over the past 6 months. Shulah works for the Y among a bunch of other things and is “super passionate about trying to get everyone to be as good a person as possible.”
As we settled in – Shulah told us how her week had consisted of one of the few things that brings both intense excitement and exhausting overwhelm – moving house. Recently shuffling across the city from Williamstown to St Kilda, she believes she’s upgraded on the 5k radius front. Again a phrase that jars with Melbournians in these bizarre 2020 times.
“I have moved! Doing that in lockdown is kind of weird – having to wear a mask and move furniture up flights of stairs isn’t the most fun thing…”
Lauren smiled in acknowledgement. Despite the fact she resides in sunny QLD, many members of the WhyNot team are Melbourne based, so she’s gotten used to the frequent wailing in recent times (and the routine of offering her sympathies as part of daily pleasantries).
Lauren is the WhyNot Platform – Digital Content Coordinator. Her week began with the arrival of her favourite tea sipping magazine ‘Breathe’ and a serious case of tree envy. What’s that you ask? Feeling embarrassed that every tree in her street is blooming magnificently and yet the one outside her home stands alone “completely nude”.
With the ice well and truly broken and a friendliness in the air like these two had known each other for years – we kicked on with the first round of questions for our guest Shulah.
1. What was your initial reaction when you landed an interview at the Y?
(In 2016 Shulah began her transition, she had come out in certain social circles, however when she applied at the Y, she presented as male and used her birth name.)
Shulah takes us back to roughly late 2016. Having been out of work for a little while and desperately looking for a new role, she was grateful to see one open up at a YMCA in inner Melbourne, not too far from home.
As far as the YMCA was concerned, she describes this initial interaction as intimidating. Spelling out the Y-M-C-A on her hands “Young, Men’s, Christian, Association” – Shulah looks at Lauren as if to say are you picking up what I’m putting down here?
Both laughing, Shulah delves into the intimidation factor a bit more. Identifying as a Jewish trans woman, she was grateful to at least have ticked the still young box.
“Two thirds of those defining features are not me!” she laughs.
On paper she admits she was concerned and a little nervous, “this organisation goes against everything in my body, especially in a few years when I’m no longer young…”
Wondering if it’s just the name, is it actually Christian? She told us, “there was definitely nerves about that”.
Clearly having found a sense of belonging with the Y and still employed in 2020, Shulah smiles and tells Lauren there was no need to worry, “turns out all of those fears were not true at all”.
Lauren could relate and acknowledged her own disconnect, “I’m almost not young either, I’m not a man and I’m not Christian, so we have a lot in common there.”
The frequent laughter sets a warm scene as we press on.
2. What was it about this place/space (the Y) that made you want to stay on after your initial six-month stint? And how did your role change?
Shulah takes us through how her initial contract was extended from lifeguarding over the summer months, to a customer service role. Despite “not being out at the time” she wanted to stay because the centre was really “super duper inclusive.” Staff had engaged in training run by Transgender Victoria and she’d been a part of an incredibly fun community pride event held at the centre.
“The staff and the community and everyone was just so lovely…I don’t wanna leave! I just am enjoying working with these people…”
3. So, let’s talk coming out, courage and vulnerability.
The laughter had been on tap up until this point, but we all knew we were about to dive below the surface together and into the tough stuff – vulnerability. Lauren took the lead sharing honest and relatable reflections, getting pretty much straight to the point… “I haaate it – I don’t like being vulnerable” she confessed.
“Sharing any part of yourself to anyone is terrifying because you’re risking a lot – judgement and backlash… once it’s out there it’s really hard to take it back.”
As a professional creative, the involuntary fear and adrenaline that comes with putting a little or a lot of her unfiltered self into her work is exhausting. However, Lauren acknowledged the vulnerability that attaches to her creative expression is at least somewhat in her control.
“But that’s just snippets of me that I’m exposing to audiences that I choose” she said.
Acknowledging the vulnerability closely tied to one’s identity in its purest form requires a truck load of courage, Lauren invites Shulah to share what it was like coming out.
Shulah was predictably open and thoughtful, talking us through how she’d been planning the ideal scenario in her head for about 10 months.
“[My] struggles with vulnerability was a big thing of what kept stopping me.”
Finding it difficult to find the ideal time, place, which manager to tell first was having an overwhelming snowball effect. Knowing she’d need to have a conversation with one manager and then it would likely be escalated to another.
“[I was] constantly stressed about it.”
It wasn’t until the centre was nominated for a council award due to the recent success of the pride event, Shulah was asked to support the upcoming presentation. As the team was mulling over the correct terminology to use – she went to offer her expertise.
“I know LGBTQI+ terminology, I know what you can say…if I’m about to butt in, I should be super bloody honest” she told us.
Shulah’s re-telling of this experience had us holding our breath in the build up to this moment of sheer vulnerability. With all of the managers in the centre in one go, she went for it.
“Yeah so look…I’m actually a trans woman, Shulah’s my name – she/her is my pronouns – let’s do it”
Despite the fact that almost all faces from the centre were somewhat familiar – it was still “super unplanned and super intimidating.”
“I just blurted it out” she said.
4. What was the reaction from your colleagues at the Y?
A wave of relief swept the air as smiling Shulah assured us the centre was supportive, “it worked out”. The centre was small enough that she knew faces and had casual conversations with most people, yet she acknowledged the jump from casual to “this is my deep super personal history” is reasonably significant. At this point, Lauren’s eyes are wide and her mouth has fallen open.
“Immediately they were all on top of it – and were like yep we’re gonna change my name here, here and here.”
Rather than a centre wide announcement, it was more subtle and personal – a new person named Shulah on the roster and connections were made that way.
“Everyone was extremely supportive… nothing but smiles and support from the staff ”
The proactive efforts of this particular Y centre in their genuine commitment to inclusion of the LBGTQI+ community was a significant factor that supported Shulah being able to come out. She noted from her experience and awareness of others from her community, that this is not always the case.
“Very easy to say yeah we support you, it’s another thing to actually be it [supportive]…to have the event, to have the training…to constantly see the reinforcement…essentially walking the walk.”
5. Receiving feedback from customers and attending the centre yourself, what did you encounter given there was now trans representation at your centre?
As one of the first faces customers connect with, in her frontline role, Shulah told us about the warm feedback she’d received from the community. Customers have since approached her and conveyed how cool it is to see her behind the desk.
From a customer lens – “being part of the walking of the walking – is super rad for me because I get to be that representation” she said.
As a queer staff member she trusts her Y to support others too. If there are any issues with change rooms or patrons, she knows the centre would be there to back people up.
Prior to coming out at the Y and having taken hormones for over 18 months, she had very low levels of testosterone and had lost a lot of strength. Diagnosed with gender dysphoria, Shulah felt disconnected from her body. She really struggled to find the motivation to get in the gym and build her strength back up.
“I was terrified of working out especially in public for so many different reasons…it was really only because I’d come out [here], that I felt comfortable using the gym.”
As a user of facilities herself, she now refuses to go anywhere else – purely because she can’t predict the levels of managerial support elsewhere.
6. You went for a lifeguard position – never having been a lifeguard myself take me through what that looks like?
Shulah explains (to the non-life guarders) that every year pool side saviours have to get into the water to update their qualifications (re-qual). As Shulah hasn’t legally changed her name, when she re-qualifies, her old name is still registered.
She bravely goes on to tell us an anxiety provoking story. Taking us back to one of her re-quals, after 6-7 months of hormone treatment, Shulah explains she had a small amounts of breast growth, noticeably if wearing a bra, but not necessarily when topless.
“It’s a fun game you get to play… hey do I go into boy mode, if I do am I getting away with it?”
Lauren confirmed with Shulah that she had come out socially in some circles but not with yet with the Y. For this particular re-qual she’s presenting as a male for a number of reasons.
“I am technically breaking the rules, I’m bare chested as a woman in a public pool, for my own safety I was using the male change rooms… it was a pretty icky experience.”
Lauren playfully suggests that Shulah was technically freeing the nipple.
“I was! I was definitely freeing the nipple!” she says.
Laughter erupts but it is overshadowed by a disheartening ache in the air. Shulah has had to face and overcome these complex challenges on her own, and for no other reason than for just being who she is.
With her 2020 re-qual coming up, Shulah says it’s still a struggle she has to face that plays on her mind in the weeks leading up every year.
7. You began working at another Y site. Were you still living a double life? What was the difference between the two places you worked at?
“That was a fun thing,” she laughs.
Because of the spur of the moment decision to come out at centre A, she hadn’t really given thought to the other centre she worked at (centre B).
This prompted her to do some research on centre B, to suss things out, trying to identify any indicators that suggested similar levels of support.
“I combed through their socials, have they done any pride events?”
Not able to find any significant pride references on centre B’s social accounts, and due to its size, she felt it was much more intimidating compared to centre A.
She affirmed this Y site was a lovely centre and workplace and knew they would likely be supportive – but she couldn’t be certain.
8. 2020 has been a wild ride, to say the least, how have you been keeping busy and what’s in store for your 2021?
With an admirable enthusiasm, Shulah tells us how she got involved with an organisation when lockdown started. She works with LGBTI Jobs – which is essentially dedicated to community and workplace inclusion. Shulah explains how it allows folks to go to a website whereby all employers listed have gone through a comprehensive screening process to demonstrate they’re LGBTQI+ friendly and committed to inclusion.
“It’s a great marker for anyone in the community, to know they’re good places to go.”
Driven by her own experience, Shulah has already supported many companies to deepen their understanding of LGBTQI+ inclusion in the workplace.
In terms of the future, she appears as frazzled and disorientated as most Victorians.
“I don’t know what 2021 will look like, I’m still figuring out what I’m gonna do for 2020!”
Lauren laughs and indicates she too has completely given up on planning any more than 2 days in advance. Both Lauren and Shulah agree continuing to learn will be foundational to their future plans into 2021.
“It’s a whole life thing – you’ve gotta learn the whole time,” Shulah says.
9. We touched on at the very beginning, the importance of creating safe spaces and continued learning from those around us but I would love to ask why you wanted to share your story, and what it means to you?
Shulah’s candid response to this question is refreshing.
“[To] put a face to the reason and need for diversity and inclusion in workplaces…”
Shulah acknowledges the challenge of how exhausting it can be for individuals to share their lived experience in order to educate others. She further explains that it’s easy to read statistics, feel compelled by them and then put them in the back of your mind if they don’t directly relate to you personally or to someone close to you. Training is great, but research suggests if the learning is not integrated into workplace practices regularly, within 2-3 days it is often forgotten.
“This is important – it’s not just hypothetical… you don’t know who’s working in your workplace and you’ve got to be there for everyone.”
10. What’s your advice to those who are afraid of ‘putting their foot in it’, or saying the wrong thing in the diversity and inclusion space?
Her advice is concise and direct.
“You’ve got to accept that might happen.”
She encourages others to have open ears, know that you will likely mess up at times but learning from this in order to be better next time is what counts. She explains addressing diversity and inclusion in workplaces is literally an act of healing for some people.
“You’ve got to not be afraid to be uncomfortable. The second you start to withdraw you’re probably making the people that need support most uncomfortable and actually unsafe.”
Lauren is nodding and understands how leaning into discomfort is so important in order to share the load.
Shulah agrees and concludes: “Be a little bit uncomfortable for a minute so we’re not uncomfortable all the time.”
Final message from Shulah.
“Diversity and inclusion is a constant process, [we] can never think of it as an end goal…you’ve got to constantly re-assess…also don’t be a dick.”
Our interview wraps up with more laughter and a contagious sense of optimism – our extended thanks to you Shulah from the WhyNot team for your humility, patience and unbelievable courage.
Watch the full interview here.
Illustration by Aileen, You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc