What It Feels Like To Come Out As Trans At Work

Earlier this year, VMLY&R strategist Mbuso Shumba took the brave decision to come out as trans. Little did she know that her personal journey would influence the experience of all other trans employees into the future.

  • Mbuso

As a young child, Mbuso Shumba always knew she was a girl. In an open, honest tumblr about her experience of growing up trans, Mbuso recalls: “As a child (before kindergarten even) I used to tell everyone I was a girl and that my real name was Sis’ Nomshibo.”

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, this did not go down with well with other people, who saw Mbuso as a boy. Her childhood was littered with teasing and ridicule. It didn’t deter her. “I was such a girly girl and a show pony,” she says. “I played and talked with flowers and used my imagination to give them doll-like features when people insisted on buying me toy guns and cars instead of dolls.” She also wore dresses at every opportunity rather than traditional “boy’s clothes” – hand-me-downs donated by her sisters and her grandmother’s employer. This was not a phase, nor behaviour she was copying from someone else – there were no trans people in her community to copy from – it just felt right. “The honest truth is that I have never, for a day in my life, identified as a man and was never non-binary either,” she says.

Struggling To Fit In
Mbuso was fortunate in that she had a supportive family who accepted her and didn’t try to force her to change – her mom even started buying her skirts and dresses. But as she grew older, she discovered a whole world outside her immediate bubble. And like the people who had mocked and ridiculed her as a child, it was far from accepting. “I realised I was not allowed to be myself,” she says. “It felt like I was forced to carry this burden of a body that came assigned with all these societal regulations, expectations and norms that I couldn’t subscribe or relate to.” She called herself gay – a concept that people around her could understand. It was easier than trying to get them to comprehend the truth.

The Title Is “Ms”
After years of pretending to be someone she wasn’t, Mbuso finally decided to come out as trans this year, at the age of 27. She told her mom first – but moms have a way of knowing things without being told. “She was basically like, ‘Girl, I been knew.’ Turns out, she and my dad were already having that chat behind my back!”

There were other things to consider – like how much support Mbuso was likely to have and whether it would be enough to carry her through the inevitable tough moments. She also imagined the spaces she occupies regularly and how “trans-friendly” they were. Work was, naturally, a big one, but in VMLY&R, she found a culture of acceptance. “The organisation and my direct leadership are constantly having this type of conversation of inclusion and creating safe spaces for minority groups within the workplace. When I shared the news around my identity with management, the conversations became even more direct and intentional – to help me, as an individual, freely navigate the space.”

Colleagues and Allies
Of course, the other big question was how Mbuso’s colleagues would react. “I was a bit anxious,” she recalls. “I did not want people to think I was looking for attention or some sort of special treatment. This was obviously born of my own trauma – from where I grew up to some of the places I worked for before coming to this company. I also did not want people to view me any differently or treat me like I was not a normal human being.”

Those fears could not have been further from reality. What Mbuso found was a supportive group of allies who had her back. “I recall one specific conversation around how uncomfortable I felt about using the men’s bathroom but also wasn’t too sure how trans-friendly our bathroom policies were, or how the other ladies at the office would feel about sharing a bathroom with a transgender woman. Within a week, our bathrooms were made to be gender neutral. The company has also gotten rid of gender-specific titles in their comms and furthermore created a platform for micro aggressions and unfair treatment to be flagged or reported.”

Having the support of her colleagues and superiors has been validating for Mbuso. “Let’s just say I love what I do more now. I am more passionate, knowing that I have found my tribe – people who see and respect me as an equal. It has made me want to show up and deliver amazing work that will make everyone I work with proud.”

The Next Chapter
After spending the first 27 years of her life in hiding, Mbuso is excited to experience the world as her true self at last. “Life has been way better than before,” she says. “I am less tense and nervous around people because I have found harmony within myself and no longer feel like a walking fraud.

“If I could go back and speak to my younger myself, I would tell her not to take the horrible remarks and ridicule to heart; that just because the majority believes in something doesn’t automatically make it your own personal truth. I would also tell her not to give up on the things that she cares about in an attempt to please or make sense to everyone – knowing now, that in the end things will work out and her passions will be turned into a means of income.”

Originally published in The Citizen on 22 January 2022.

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