As part of a new series of blog posts, LGBT Great is interviewing inspiring figures from our community who have made waves both inside and outside of the financial sector. For the first of these, we sat down with the pioneering Rachel Reese, founder of Global Butterflies.
Global Butterflies is an organisation that focuses on mainstreaming and supporting trans and nonbinary workers internationally across a wide variety of sectors. The work they do is hugely important, and we highly recommend checking out their social media and website.
Talking to Rachel, it is easy to see how she’s managed to become so successful in her work, her kind nature and openness shine through at every opportunity. In our interview, we posed several questions to Rachel, all of which she answered with poise and grace. Rachel lives with her wife Emma, two cats, and four chickens. Here, Rachel shares her tips, tricks, and story.
Charlie: Good morning Rachel and thank you for agreeing to speak with us today. Firstly, for those of us who might be unaware of who you are and your work, could you give us an overview in your own words?
Rachel: Good morning! I was out from about 1990 onwards and I transitioned 20 years ago in the legal sector at the College of Law. Being a trans person in the legal sector was challenging, and there was definitely a lot of discrimination. There was no representation of trans people in the legal sector, corporates weren’t attracting trans people or looking for them, and I wasn’t seeing that representation. For 15 years I wasn’t really a campaigner at all, because trans rights were getting better right up until about 2015.
I’d love to say I had a big ‘aha’ moment, but when I left the legal sector in 2015 I decided with Global Butterflies I would start to do some talks, firstly within the legal sector. My very first talk was to the solicitor’s regulation authority in Birmingham, I remember that very well. That led to another law firm booking me, and I started to do trans & nonbinary 101s. From there, the portfolio has expanded to what you see on our website, HR, client-facing work, policy development, and more. Predominantly it was the legal sector, because my background as operations director at the University of Law was, well, law.
Then I met my wife Emma, who ran a group called Trans*formation which was a banking network for trans people. We became friends and she joined Global Butterflies and we suddenly started to work with banks, and investment houses and that’s how we met Matt Cameron, and became a partner alongside LGBT Great. We thought the investment industry needed this help and Emma and I wrote the Lloyds of London trans & nonbinary guide which got a lot of fanfare at the time. The idea was to get corporates to become allies, to attract trans & nonbinary people, promote them, keep them safe, develop ally networks, give them healthcare, and help to support them.
In November last year, we set up the Global Butterflies Charity Fund. So, we fund as we train, and that’s kind of where we are really, that’s our whole purpose, basically turn corporates into allies, get them to recruit trans & nonbinary people, and help them thrive, and raise money for the fund, that’s our three purposes really.
Charlie: How is life with two cats and four chickens?
Rachel: They give you balance in the force. My wife is a cat person, and I am an ally to cats, they love to sit with Emma and spend time with Emma and, well, they tolerate me. They love Emma, she’s an ex-HR director so she’s very calm and collected, cats love her because she doesn’t move very much and she’s not noisy. Whereas I’m a fire and brimstone kind of person, and loud. The chickens are lovely, we have four chickens, Hillary, Madeline, Condoleezza, and Levine, you can see where the names came from. We get four eggs a day and that’s lovely. If you’re having a bad day, you can sit and watch four chickens for half an hour, and your whole world resets. All they do is just dig and eat. They are, really, really, funny to watch, so that’s it. It gives me balance.
I read in an interview that your greatest achievement was marrying Emma. I know some younger LGBT people like me struggle to picture a future like yours with a stable partner and contentment. I know the old adage is it gets better, but what would you say to those young people who might struggle to see that it does, indeed, get better?
Sometimes I still feel this way. I look at what’s happening in the US, and I see the goings on and all the negative legislation, and I find it really depressing. We know there are these small, loud, nasty little well-funded groups in the UK doing the same thing with the same aims. Sometimes when the trans community gets attacked online or ends up on GB news, or the BBC does a nasty biased report about the community, I can get really disillusioned. But it is going to get better, you know, the fact is, the pendulum swings.
Whenever you have trans rights, you had Obama’s administration in the US and it became very liberal, you always get a pushback. I think politically the landscape of the next 8 years will be a bit more moderated, so that will help. I think that inclusive gender networks and inclusive feminist networks have realised that abortion and women’s rights are under threat by some of the groups attacking the trans community and have realised this and are now pulling with the other LGBT rights networks, so we’re seeing more cohesion across groups. I see the trans community working closer together than it’s ever done. Lastly, Gen Z, your generation, is the most inclusive generation.
Over 80% expect inclusion and diversity to be part of the corporate structure, you are much more aware of climate politics. You are a much more enlightened generation than Gen X where I’m from, and even to an extent from the millennial generation, and much more activist-focused. So, my feeling is once you all start voting things will get better, and we saw this in the so-called “red wave” in the US at the midterms which didn’t happen because women, LGBT people, and Gen Z all came out and voted and pushed it back. That’s why you’ve got to be optimistic.
Charlie: I know that I and a lot of other young LGBT people will find your story inspiring, but it can be hard to visualise how to get a career such as yours. What advice might you have for me or other young LGBT+ people just starting out their careers?
Rachel: So obviously if you’re going to become a campaigner do it in an area that makes you passionate. Because then, I know it’s a cliché but if you’re doing something you love then it’s not work. I really enjoy doing trans & nonbinary inclusion training, it’s hard, but I enjoy it because it allows me to get out there. I am a bit of a comedian when I’m on stage, and I quite enjoy the performance aspect of training as well. As a campaigner, I think you must find your zen.
Working in the charity sector, and I was a trustee of GiveOut in the LGBT sector, it’s hard because you do see a lot of grim realities, and what the anti-trans folks are up to. So, you need to find balance, you need to do something that’s not related to the campaign work you do. You know, I’m doing up a classic car now and I have a 737-flight simulator I built in my shed. These things consume a lot of my time and attention and it’s not campaigning. You need to find this balance because then you’ll be nourished and go back and be a campaigner that’s effective.
Charlie: I know that as you mentioned you’ve made it on the Inside Out leader board after being so frank and honest about your experience with mental health. What do you think organisations can change or adapt to help people who might be struggling with their mental health?
Rachel: I think every trans & nonbinary person I know has a mental health challenge, some small, some big. I think that I’m probably not the best person to give advice to because I’m not adhering to my own advice. I think talking about it is the best option, which is why I’m part of Rob Stephenson’s Inside Out board because it really is important to talk about it. People who are visible should talk about it so people in their companies can raise it without any stigma, and that’s what Rob says, “smashing the stigma”.
Your brain is a muscle, and it gets ill like every other part of your body, and you need to rest it and get treatment. I think a lot of us that do work as campaigners say there’s my mental health, I’ll put it in a box and put the lid on it. I will process all that pain and anguish and the consequences of that later when we’ve won the battle. I think there are a lot of us doing that and saying that personally ‘I am suffering, I don’t sleep well, I focus too much on the subject’, so I put a lid on that pain and anguish, and as I said I will deal with it later and pay the piper at some point.
Now that is bad advice, of course it is. You need to be talking about it, getting out there, and asking for help from the corporates you work for. You should be receiving it from them from their employee assistance programme or health insurance, and it should be there if you work in a corporate. Trans healthcare is super important, and many companies are beginning to offer it, but mental health pathways through their employee assistance programmes and healthcare should be there as well. It should be plentiful because it’s expensive and rare and never well-funded.
Charlie: My last question would be, what’s the one question you’ve always wanted to be asked in an interview but never have been?
Rachel: I think a lot of it is about trans joy, what is joyful about being trans. You know there’s a line I used to quote, and it comes from a Star Trek film called Generations and there’s a line where Captain Picard says to Guinan ‘What’s it like living in the nexus?’ and she says ‘It’s like living inside joy’. That’s what it’s like to be trans when you successfully transition. You know, I had an awful life before I transitioned, and after I did the noise in my head went. I think that’s the question, what is the joy of being trans?
That noise in your head goes, the interaction with your brain, the calm sea in your personality, it just feels, it is like living in joy. People don’t really ask that question because it’s always about the bad stuff; how can we be inclusive, what changes can we make to be inclusive? Certainly, all things they should be doing, but they forget to ask well, what’s the good stuff? The living in joy now, aspects of my life are wonderful.
I love being married to Emma, I love my life here in the middle of nowhere, and I love the interactions I have with others. Now, there’s a lot of darkness in the community, which I think will change. I think the joy is the question that doesn’t get asked enough, what’s fun about being trans, what’s good about being trans? Well, it’s super good when it works. When you’re allowed to be yourself and get on with your life it’s wonderful. I think that’s the question.