Rena Barton, Academy Customer Assistant at Marks & Spencer, spoke to myGwork about her courageous journey navigating the workplace as a trans woman. Sharing her coming out story, she also discussed the current negative rhetoric surrounding the transgender community and how despite these setbacks, her journey at Marks & Spencer has been one of acceptance and support.
When Rena first joined Marks & Spencer’s store operations in August 2021, she approached with fear that her identity as a trans individual might hinder her chances of securing a job. This apprehension was only further fueled by the consistent anti-trans narrative often seen in the British media. However, Rena took the leap and decided to disclose her gender identity to the company.
To her surprise, Marks & Spencer responded with the utmost support and understanding. When Rena informed them that she wasn’t comfortable wearing the allocated men’s uniform, they promptly assured her that it was perfectly acceptable. In fact, their response demonstrated clear affirmation by asking about her preferred name and pronouns. This level of acceptance and consideration reassured her that her identity would be respected and celebrated within the company.
“I think lot of trans people will mask their identity sometimes, due to a lot of the negative content online,” explained Rena. “I was worried that if I did announce it, I wouldn’t be hired. Looking back now it seems incredible to think that I was so paranoid, but at the time it was coming from a real place.”
Rena’s journey accepting her trans identity began long before her employment at Marks & Spencer. Growing up in Maidstone, Rena always felt like a bit of an outsider. Attending a comprehensive school where diversity was scarce, she experienced the familiar struggles of LGBTQ+ individuals who felt excluded. However, it wasn’t until around the age of 11 that Rena started recognizing her own gender identity. Drawing inspiration from female pop singers, she considered them as role models, but soon realised a deeper, internal layer to that admiration.
As one of three triplets, it took a long time for her to disclose her identity to her brothers. However, they both responded very gently and kindly, only needing some time to adjust. When Rena eventually decided to confide in her parents, she wrote a detailed three-page letter explaining her gender identity and left it for her parents to read while she went on a walk. As she walked outside, Rena felt an overwhelming sense of liberation, finally free to live openly and authentically, whatever the response. By stepping away, this allowed her parents to consider how they wanted to react, as opposed to any knee-jerk reaction they may regret.
“I got the idea from when I was a kid, if I ever got in trouble or something, I’d just write a letter for them,” Rena recounted. “We’re quite fiery as a family, so I knew that if I had brought up so much stuff, we wouldn’t have been able to communicate in that same way, they wouldn’t be able to process it as well.”
Rena’s role as an Academy Customer Assistant allows her to meet people face to face, extending a warm welcome and demonstrating what Marks & Spencer represents as a company. Through her involvement in the LGBTQ+ network, she actively promotes inclusion and diversity within the company, taking the initiative to create posters and boards, highlighting important dates like Mental Health Awareness Day, all with the aim of promoting awareness and understanding.
One of the most significant experiences in Rena’s career so far was participating in Pride events with Marks & Spencer. This year, the company hired a full-fledged float for London Pride to showcase their commitment to the LGBTQ+ community, even attending four other Pride marches across the UK. She eagerly joined her colleagues and other members of the LGBTQ+ network on the float, basking in the love and support received from both colleagues and the general public.
Invited by a fellow LGBTQ+ employee, it didn’t take long for Rena to join the LGBTQ+ network at Marks & Spencer. This connection opened doors for her to engage in various events and activities organised by the network. She recalled her involvement in a Fireside Chat for Trans Day of Remembrance, which was well-received by colleagues. The network serves as a pillar of support for LGBTQ+ members within the company, while also educating allies who are eager to learn more about the community. It acts as a resource by directing individuals to relevant policies and providing guidance in specific situations, and even provides further opportunities to progress in the business.
“Our main goal is acting as a network and a place to have that support for LGBTQ+ members at Marks & Spencer, but then also as an opportunity to gain knowledge and learn for allies that want to know more, too,” says Rena.
Looking ahead, Rena expressed excitement about making events more interactive and inclusive. She envisions hosting workshops that can help educate individuals who may be resistant to understanding the LGBTQ+ community. Rena acknowledged that there are people who feel unheard and confused in current conversations, but she hopes to bridge the gap by dispelling misinformation and providing accurate knowledge. Aware of the challenges brought on by the British press, she expressed the need for companies like Marks & Spencer to consistently support and stand behind the LGBTQ+ community.
Rena’s story serves as a testament to the impact of true inclusivity within the workplace, and the immense value of companies such as Marks & Spencer. Through actively promoting diversity and empowering employees, individuals and institutions can come together to celebrate and uplift the marginalised communities, and particularly urgently, the transgender community.