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Justine Smithies: ‘We assume how they will react rather than giving them the opportunity to be understanding’

Justine Smithies: ‘We assume how they will react rather than giving them the opportunity to be understanding’

I work as a marine electronics engineer based in Peterhead.

I travel all around the UK installing and repairing satellite TV and Internet systems, radars and autopilots on everything from yachts and fishing vessels to oil standby boats and jack-up rigs.

I mainly work on fishing vessels in Peterhead. I work alongside the guys that starred in the TV series, Trawlermen, and the recent ITV program, Trawlermen’s Lives, which should give you a clue of how male dominated the environment is.

I have always known that there was something different about me, and around 10 years ago I realized that I am actually female.

Back then there was no way I would have come out to my friends or family. I worried that I would be disowned by my parents or put in an institution.

I just had to try and live how everybody else thought I should. It was very difficult living with the recurring feeling that I was living a lie and never feeling comfortable within myself.

I got married and had three children, which I do not regret one bit. But at 36 I knew that I had to do something. I didn’t want to look back and say, ‘I wasted my life because I didn’t live it as me.’

I started taking hormones, and I hid my plans from colleagues for four years. I was worried I would lose my job if my boss didn’t accept my status. Or worse that the fishermen I worked with would not allow me to do my job. Luckily in my line of work I had to wear a boiler suit, so things could be hidden quite easily.

In August 2011 I had to change my name legally to progress further with my transition. This forced the issue with my employer. I braced for the worst. I worked with my wife Julie to make sure that if I lost my job we could still survive on one income.

I arranged a meeting with my boss to tell him what the future held. I felt sick, but he was very understanding. We had a long and positive discussion and agreed to take things one day at a time. He apologized if he came across as ignorant, as he had never had to deal with this before.

He also suggested that I tell my colleagues individually, as it would be better coming from myself. So I sat them down one at a time and told them who I really was and let them ask questions.

It went really well and they all supported me. Even the skippers and crews on the boats congratulated me and stood by me. I made even more friends, including the wives of the skippers.

Since that day my work has improved and my boss would agree too. I am at ease with myself, which in turn has made me more confident. I no longer waste time trying to hide a secret, and worrying if people have found me out.

Having gone through this experience in the fishing industry, where men are supposed to be men and hardly any women work on the vessels, I can see how far society has come. People are much more open-minded than we give them credit for.

People like me – who have judged colleagues by the landscape from 10 or 20 years ago – show the same ignorance we presume in others. We assume how they will react rather than giving them the opportunity to be understanding.

You can learn more about Justine on her website.