Feeling comfortable, welcomed and included in the workplace is something everyone wants and needs. For Kat Ferguson, a parole officer at the Ottawa Parole Office and non-binary trans-masculine person, this is especially important.
“I know that understanding my gender and gender expression is an adjustment for a lot of people, but it is important to me and to everyone else who is gender-diverse to feel accepted and safe at work,” he says. “We are colleagues and in many cases friends. We should support one another.”
Non-binary means that a person’s gender identity may include male and female, androgynous, fluid, multiple and even no gender. In Kat’s case, he does not identify as male or female. In the gender section of his driver’s licence is an X. His passport contains a special sticker indicating that his sex is unspecified. Kat’s gender expression is male. While in his personal life, Kat also uses the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them,” at work he has chosen “he” for various reasons.
“I do not identify with a particular gender,” he explains. “I’ve always just been me - Kat. I’m not male or female, I’m non-binary.
“Becoming accustomed to gender neutral pronouns can be challenging, even for me. I think it’s even more difficult in a professional setting where we are used to using Mr. or Mrs. and your only check-box options on forms are female and male. My gender expression and presentation is male – I look and sound like what people would typically assume is a male person - so to keep things easy, I have chosen to use ‘he’ as my pronoun in the workplace. This allows me to go about my duties without constantly having to explain my gender identity to clients. It’s also a staff-safety issue as I am regularly visiting violent offenders in their home.”
Kat was born 39 years ago and assigned female at birth (AFAB). His process toward becoming his true self began about eight years ago when he could no longer stand the disconnect between what he was seeing on the outside and what he felt inside. He experienced self-hatred and self-destructive behaviour, feeling like something just wasn’t quite right. What Kat was going through was severe gender and body dysphoria, something he wouldn’t wish on anyone. It wasn’t until he found a community of gender diverse people that he realized he wasn’t alone.
“I was always a little tomboy growing up,” he says. “My mom let me shave my head when I was eight years old. Gender was never really an issue for me. I was always just me. In my teens, I tried to accept that I was born a female so I was female even though that never felt totally right. In my 20s, I started meeting other people who were transgender, but they strongly identified as either male or female. That wasn’t me either. It was later on when I encountered people who were non-binary that I realized that while I needed to achieve a more masculine presentation, there were no rules on what medical interventions, if any, were necessary to have my gender identity recognized. That was big for me.”
Kat had been working for CSC for many years when he decided to explore his options. That meant that the offenders on his caseload and his colleagues knew him as a female. When he decided to undergo male chest reconstruction (top surgery) and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to transition toward a more masculine expression, he wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of a reaction. As it turned out, there wasn’t much.
“I started my transition with top surgery and my lifers (offenders who have life sentences and work with Kat long-term) knew something was up because they knew me as appearing as a female, but they never said anything,” explains Kat. “I guess they just figured it wasn’t any of their business? Which it really isn’t. I obviously looked a little different, and some were concerned that I had a health condition that led to my surgery, but when I told them I was healthy and fine, they let it go. My colleagues were the same.”
It was only when he started hormone therapy that Kat decided to change pronouns from she to he. As you could imagine, this was a difficult and stressful time for Kat, but it was necessary for his own mental well-being and happiness. With the offenders he worked with, he simply waited for the right time in a conversation to tell them. With his colleagues, he sent an email asking that they now refer to him as he rather than she from now on. That, he says, was really the only ‘coming out’ moment he has had in his life.
“To be honest I was always pretty open and honest with my colleagues about my situation, so the email was more just to formalize it,” he says. “They have always been extremely supportive. My offenders were the same and any new offenders that I work with have no idea about my gender history. They just know me as he. From time to time I’ll be called she and it can be hurtful, but I just ask that it be corrected and I move on.”
Kat continues to deal with the implications of being a non-binary person in the workplace. It’s a slow-moving process that comes with its ups and downs. Whether he’s faced with selecting Mr. or Ms., male or female, or referred to as his old name or she, he continues to have ongoing discussions about how CSC can be more inclusive and welcoming of gender-diverse people. He has lots of ideas for how to do this, such as implementing gender-neutral washrooms, allowing people to select X on forms for gender, or Mx in place of Mr. or Mrs. He also encourages people to use more gender-neutral language to signal to everyone that they are welcomed, no matter what. Think of “Hello friends” instead of “Hello ladies and gentlemen,” for example. And, he says, if someone you know requests that you use a different pronoun for them, do it because not doing it makes them feel invalidated and dismissed.
“We still have work to do here at CSC,” says Kat. “Breaking through old mentalities is hard to do. Please take the time to educate yourself and to listen to the personal stories of people like myself who are gender-diverse. If you are confused or want to know more, ask questions, get training, or look for resources that can help you. They are out there.”
For Kat, preparing CSC employees to support gender-diverse offenders is just as important as preparing them to support one another as colleagues. He is actively involved with the Positive Space Initiative at CSC to educate others about gender-diversity, but would like to support CSC in developing front line staff training related to this important topic. As a person who has lived all aspects of it, he can offer his unique and valuable perspective.
Today, Kat is more confident, happy, and emotionally stable than before his transition. We couldn’t be happier for him and thank him for sharing his personal story with us. CSC is proud to have one of the most diverse and inclusive workforces in government.
It is so refreshing to really start to see gender diversity come out in society now. Ever since I learned of non-binary identity I have wanted to know more about it...it is such a relief to know there is more out there then just male and female genders. I can see how it would be nice not to be pigeon-holed to either a male or female identity. Kat's story is a wonderful story!
Thank you for you inspiring story Kat. It has given me the courage to come out to all of my colleagues via email. I've been humming and hawing over this for some time and your story has helped me to let people know that I am she/her. I appreciate your candor.