This article was published on June 20th, 2015
Sparkling Hill Resort is a world-class resort located in the interior region of British Columbia. Situated just outside of the North Okanagan city of Vernon, the Okanagan Valley is well know for outdoor recreation and leisure getaways, farming and agriculture, and a long history rooted in conservative values. When the luxury wellness and spa resort opened in 2010, little did they know the vital role they would play in the transformation of one of their employees. This is Katie’s story.
Katie was born in Cambridge, Ontario, and grew up in the small community of Paris, a rural town of about 10,000 people. Growing up, she knew she was different from the other kids. This is common for many LGBT youth; they often recognize or feel something is different about them, but they aren’t sure what it is because sexual education isn’t taught until later in school, and even then, LGBT education is limited at best.
“My first memory was wanting to be just like my mom; I was probably four or five years old,” said Katie, reflecting back on when she first recognized she was different. “Before I was fifteen, I knew I wanted to be female. I knew I was transgendered before I hit puberty. It was confusing.”
When Katie was about fourteen years old she gained access to the Internet. She started conducting her own research, trying to understand her thoughts and feelings, and why she had a strong connection to wanting to be female.
“When the Internet first came out and I could get information, there was a lot of mis-information that labeled transgendered people as having a third sexuality,” explained Katie. “I had contacted someone from the LGBT community who was transgender. I told her my situation.”
At the time, Katie made a conscious decision to continue to live her life as a boy, and went on through high school. She never dated, let alone make an attempt to experiment sexually. She kept her true feelings to herself. It was a very confusing time for her. During college, Katie started to experiment with cross-dressing. She went to a councilor, try to help her try to sort out her thoughts, feelings and emotions; to get clarity and direction on what she was to make of everything.
“At that point, she encouraged me to continue with cross-dressing,” Katie explained. “I did lots of things to deal with it and cope. I was cross-dressing the entire time. I finally met someone in a support group and they helped me identify as someone who is transgender.”
Up until this stage Katie still had not told her parents or friends about her newfound knowledge. After attending therapy sessions, Katie decided it was time to tell her parents.
“My parents knew I was different when I was younger,” Katie said, describing the reaction she received from her parents when she revealed to them that she identified as being transgendered. “They were finding women’s clothes in my room when I was growing up and living at home. There was an initial reaction from my dad, in a fatherly way. My mom was really supportive and wanted to talk about it.”
At first, Katie’s dad tried to talk her out of it, calling her androgynous, but after doing his own research, he began to understand and began to support and embrace Katie.
It wasn’t until after she completed school and moved to British Columbia that her real journey would begin. Katie was dressing and identifying as male in the work environment. While working at Canadian Tire, a big box retail chain that sells everything from automotive parts to tools, Katie took a huge gamble. Despite a very masculine work environment, she told her manager she identified as transgender, right about the time she handed in her resignation.
“I was in a really bad mood when I was there,” said Katie, recalling how she felt while working at Canadian Tire. “I think that it helped me by initially telling someone. They were really supportive. I was happy about that. That gave me the confidence that I could really do it.”
Katie applied at Sparkling Hill Resort and accepted a position in the 280+ employee strong company. Katie’s plan to work at Sparkling Hill Resort wasn’t random. It was a well thought-out, strategic plan, where she knew it would be the right time and environment for her journey to transition from male to female.
“When I came to Sparkling Hill, I came as Ben,” said Katie. “I didn’t know how they were going to react. I knew there would be a large community of women working here. I thought it would be easier to transition and tell other women, because they would understand more.”
Katie first came out to a couple of people within her department, even before hitting her three months probation period. She knew it would be a risk, but she was confident it wouldn’t be an issue. She felt very comfortable with the work environment and her fellow co-workers, and she felt would be safe.
“I told my manager and she was really supportive,” Katie explained. “She told me she would keep it a secret until I was ready to come out.”
Katie worked with Sparkling Hill Resort Operations Manager, Jana Gohl, to put a transition plan together. The plan was very thoughtful and laid out with a specific process in mind.
“It was really good how we did it,” said Katie in a very proud and confident voice. “We picked a date and stuck to the plan. The steps were really good.”
“Honestly, there were no immediate concerns,” said Janna Gohl. “We have really great management. I knew everyone would be really supportive. It was more about how could we make it as comfortable and smooth transition for her.”
Jana’s plan included hosting an education and workshop style session for the management team. It allowed them to learn more about what it means to be transgendered, ask questions, and to have an open dialogue.
“It was really important on how to present the information to the management team,” said Jana Gohl. “For our management team, it was important to communicate to them property. It wasn’t presented to them as Ben is transgendered, but it was ‘put yourself into this situation’. ‘How would you feel and how would you like to be treated?’ It made them all very comfortable to ask questions.”
With the first big step in the plan complete, it was on to the next step.
“Katie gave me permission to let the managers know, and then to tell their employees,” said Jana Gohl. “We set the date when Katie would show up as female. We had a month and a half to prepare.
With an organization as large as Sparkling Hill, especially in a region known for strong, politically conservative values, there was a risk something could go wrong.
“There were no issues or concerns that came up with the employees,” Jana Gohl said in a reassuring voice. “There was no one that came to me or any of the other managers. A lot of them were really eager to see her.”
And as the days counted by, it came time for the day everyone had been waiting for. The day Katie was finally revealed.
“The first time I came as Katie, most people were supportive,” said Katie. “The first time I walked into a department, I was nervous. But it was OK. Someone laughed and thought it was a joke. It wasn’t traumatic. By the time I saw the person for a second time, there weren’t any issues.”
With the transformation complete, Katie could finally be the person she had always wanted to be. It was all possible thanks to the wonderful management and staff at Sparkling Hill Resort, who embraced her for who she was and gave her the courage and support she needed.
“There is a really open culture here,” said Katie. “The culture is European; very open. There are openly gay men working here. We have promotions for the LGBT community. It’s a good culture.”
With Sparkling Hill Resort being such a young company, they were already well prepared with an employee handbook that outlined the policies and guidelines. This meant that Jana and the rest of the management team did not have to implement a lot of training or resources when Katie came to them with her situation.
“We are a very diverse environment,” said Jana Gohl. “We don’t accept harassment of ay type. The policies are reviewed in our employee orientations that are held once a month. Since we are such a young company, we already came with an open mind. We didn’t really need to change any of our processes.”
“I couldn’t be happier about Sparkling Hill Resort and how things went,” said Katie, looking back on the entire experience. “It was a dream come true. There’s nothing I would have done differently.”
For Jana Gohl and the management team at Sparking Hill, they agree, it was a smooth and almost uneventful process. But it was because their organization was up-to-date with HR policies and practices.
“I think the more familiar and more open you are, for anything, for the entire LGBT community, the more people you’ll attract to your organization,” said Jana Gohl. “People want to work where they don’t feel out of place or are being judged. They are people, just like everyone else.”
Jana also says it’s important to make all employees feel equal and to have support systems in place, especially with senior management. Being open will allow employees to be more comfortable and not have your company be left behind.
“It’s been really special for Sparkling Hill Resort to go through this change with Katie,” Jana Gohl said with a giant glow. “It really starts from the top down, with your senior management and executives. It’s really difficult for the organization to be open and accepted. You need to be open for anybody. There should be no judgment, regardless of orientation. Employees need to know they can be themselves.”
Katie’s story is a fantastic example of how today’s companies need to ensure they have up-to-date employee training, policies, and handbooks, to ensure the rights of all employees are guaranteed. Employers need to ensure they are embracing all employees, regardless of their sexual orientation, race, creed, or religious beliefs.
Today, Katie is proud to work at Sparkling Hill Resort and is very humble about the change and impact she has made to improve the culture at the luxury resort. Her story will be an important legacy within their organization and one other employers can use to learn from.