July 4 is already known as Independence Day, but for Melissa Tilling, managing director of Funway Holidays, it has taken on a second meaning: it marks the date she began her transition into a female, aged 42.
There is a quiet determination in Tilling’s voice as we sit down for our interview over breakfast at TTG, and she takes me back to the day her life changed for ever.
In March 2008, Tilling was three months into her role as product development director for the Far East at Funway. It had been a somewhat turbulent few years for her professionally, having “had the rug pulled from under her feet” when the company she had been running in 2004, AsiaWorld, was sold to Argo Holidays.
“I had been a workaholic for so long – in complete denial about my gender, doing everything to lose myself in my career – and all of a sudden there was a temporary full stop on life,” she explains.
“That’s when I started to turn my thoughts to my own life [outside of work] and what it all meant… I wasn’t depressed, but I wasn’t innately happy. The years of deception and self-deception had undoubtedly taken an emotional toll.”
While Tilling had felt she was “different” since the age of 13, by the time she joined Funway in her early forties she says she reached a level of maturity that enabled her to be “confident in being authentic” – overcoming the fear of confronting her gender.
Her first action once she had made up her mind to start her permanent transition was to meet and hand a letter to her then boss – Funway founder Stephen Hughes – along with an advice book for employers produced by the Gender Identity Research & Education Society (Gires). Tilling had read the guide for employees “from cover to cover” and had also joined the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) union on its advice, for the support it lends the LGBT community.
The first steps of transition for Tilling were changing her name legally, as well as changing that and her gender on her passport, driving licence, bank accounts and medical records. “We are blessed with a general framework of government support for the LGBT community in the UK,” says Tilling.
She decided to book a Friday and Monday off work to sort out her documentation before heading into work as Melissa.
“Stephen and our affiliate Mark Travel in the States were absolutely incredible throughout – it was a journey of discovery for them too,” she explains. “I was advised by Gires to have some photographs taken of me dressed, with my hair done and make-up on so they could be shown to my colleagues. They were used to seeing me in a suit and tie. I was a director of the company and I think that move helped everyone – it lessened the shock, I hope.
“I also wrote an open letter to my colleagues explaining how I felt and why I was doing what I was doing.
“Stephen met with the management team on the Friday, who subsequently met with their teams, and showed a memo from the company about how they supported what I was doing.
“On the Tuesday, wearing my heels and skirt suit, I went into the office for the first time.”
Tilling recalls arriving early. “I was unbelievably nervous. It was the biggest day of my life – the first day of truly being myself, no more hiding…”
Despite her trepidation, Tilling remembers her transition as a “joyful experience”, adding: “That first day, I could hear people arriving at work gradually, and throughout the morning people came down – mainly the girls – and they were so encouraging.
“After a while, they joked about the flecks of nail varnish they had spotted on Monday mornings – and my pierced ears – and how they were glad they now understood. After all, I had been living as Melissa at the weekend for over a year.”
Tilling changed her email address and, rather than writing to suppliers, she put an out-of-office on her old address letting people know that from that day on she would be known as Melissa.
“I had a few amusing experiences when I first went out to the Far East,” Tilling recalls. “If people came up and asked me if I was married to my old name, I would reply with, ‘No, but I know him really well’,” she recalls with a grin. “It’s important to be able to laugh at yourself and develop an understanding of self along the way.”
While Tilling insists her journey has been “nothing but positive with lots of learning”, she appreciates there is still work to do to encourage all trans people to feel comfortable in the workplace.
“The approach I take to my work – methodical, planned and considered – was the one I took to my transition,” she explains. “I’m pleased it was – because rushing, forcing acceptance, doesn’t end well.
“Sadly, we live in an age where you have to conform to a binary. If the world was a different place, I would just be being me.
“But Gires counsels that if you abuse society by fighting it and presenting an image that is not in that binary environment – such as walking into work in a beard and a maxi dress – they will kick you back. It’s about working together to increase understanding.
“Society has come a long way but there is still much to do for true acceptance of transgender people.”
This idea of collaboration is a key part of Tilling’s advice for both employees and employers around trans issues.
For employees, she advises not to “punish people” if they sometimes get the pronoun wrong, or call you by your old name.
She urges: “You have to take a step back and accept this is an experience for them too.
“You want people to embrace and accept you – if you then slap them back every time they make a small indiscretion, they don’t know how to act around you.
“Use being transgender and the fact the law protects you as a weapon at your peril, because it’s about acceptance and collaboration.”
Tilling adds that being “true to yourself” is often not as “terrifying” as might be expected.
“From my personal experience, it hasn’t mattered what my gender is, or how I present, as long as I’ve remained true to my professionalism… Me transitioning hasn’t hindered me at work – in fact, quite the opposite. My colleagues have seen through the labels to what I do to lead the team.”
When it comes to employers, Tilling’s advice is to “be open and able to think of the individual and what they bring more than their gender identity”, as Mark Travel and Funway were.
Tilling has signed TTG’s Diversity Charter, which she describes as “a great statement”, adding: “Diversity makes companies. We all bring something – it’s a question of unlocking that and making the most of it for the person themselves and for the business.”
I ask Tilling why she felt it was the right time to share her story.
“As I pass the 10-year anniversary of my transition – and one year since becoming managing director – I feel the need to try and help raise the profile of transgender people and their issues of acceptance within society and the workplace.
“I feel the transgender community is somewhat behind the curve in terms of acceptance. I don’t know of one other trans person in travel, and it can’t be that they’re not out there. I hope now I’ve opened up about my journey, others will see that it really is possible to transition at work – and that it can improve you as a worker.
“If you truly believe that you have a gender identity issue, you owe it to yourself and all those around you to do something about it,” she adds.
While Tilling regrets that she has to conform to a binary at all, for her the benefits of transitioning have outweighed all else.
“Transitioning has definitely helped me achieve greater empathy and humility, and to be more open and relaxed,” she explains. “It’s made my relationships with others easier because I’m no longer pretending to be something I’m not – to others or myself… It’s almost like being reborn.
“I no longer feel the weight of deception with my colleagues, and I’ve found a greater depth of peace,” she muses.
“If I can inspire anyone else out there to open up about who they really are, then it will be mission accomplished.”