The Foreign Office’s transgender receptionist knows very well how to handle awkward questions, she tells Etan Smallman
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If you visit the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in central London, you expect to see the hallmarks of British tradition – including the busts, statues and plaques honouring the (white, male, straight and cisgender) ministers who led the empire over the centuries. But before you get to any of that, you will be greeted by a young transgender woman – the 21st-century face of the UK’s diplomatic nerve centre.
This side of modern Britain still comes as a shock to some. After all, as Zelda Le Louarn points out herself, some of the foreign delegates she welcomes represent countries that mete out capital punishment to their LGBT citizens at home. Earlier this month, Brunei sparked global outrage when it made gay sex between men a crime punishable by stoning to death.
Le Louarn started work as the first point of contact for the world’s great and good, from presidents to royalty, in 2013, having previously run a pub. It was three years before she went to the human resources department to declare that she intended to come into work as a woman.
The 31-year-old did this with a certain trepidation, having heard “horror stories” from trans friends who had been forced out of their jobs. “It was all plain sailing,” she says, still with a look of surprise. A meeting was arranged with her managers, “and they went, ‘Yeah, that’s fine. From this date, we’ll know you as Zelda’.”
A change of uniform was agreed. A new profile was created on the computer system so no-one looking up her details would have any idea about her previous identity. Le Louarn decided to prepare an extensive question-and-answer presentation for colleagues. The document, displayed on noticeboards around the building, was remarkably frank, including questions on hormone treatment, facial hair and sexuality.
She recalls “I even went for the very personal questions, like ‘Do you want it chopped off?’ I said, this is inappropriate to ask anyone at any point, however, to educate you, yes, but not everyone chooses to have surgery.”
As the LGBT charity Stonewall makes clear: “You wouldn’t dream of asking someone else what they’ve got going on under their clothes, so why would anyone think it is appropriate to ask a trans person?”
Why, therefore, did Le Louarn not tell anyone enquiring about her genitals where to go? “I would rather someone come to me and ask me an inappropriate question so they don’t ask someone else and hurt them,” she says.
Le Louarn is at least the third person to transition while working at the Foreign Office, which has its own LGBT staff association – and which imposes no restrictions on anyone wanting to be posted to the almost 70 countries (including more than 30 in the Commonwealth) where homosexual sex is criminalised.
In the early days, Le Louarn was occasionally, mistakenly, referred to with male pronouns by mortified colleagues. She only sought to reassure them. “If you knew me previously, I’m not going to penalise you for misgendering me or deadnaming me,” she says, using the term for calling a person by their pre-transition name.
The receptionist takes a similarly easy-going attitude towards VIPs. “People aren’t dogs, you don’t yank a chain to correct them. Also, it’s not appropriate – you’ve got presidents of other countries that I have to see, and ambassadors. The only thing it’s going to serve is stress and anxiety for myself.”
I ponder aloud whether these are exactly the guests who could most do with being corrected. “You’re right,” she responds, “but you also have to take into consideration that in some of these countries, what I am serves a death penalty. Yet I have to face them – with a smile! Ensure that they are safely and professionally dealt with.
“There is a particular ambassador who comes in and I have lovely chats with her, but I know for a fact that in her country, what I am is a big no-no. But you can’t tar one person with an entire country’s brush.”
Le Louarn doesn’t need to look far to see how much Westminster’s attitude to LGBT people has been transformed. The Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan revealed that he was denied a job as a government whip in the 1990s because he was gay. Until 1991, the department deemed homosexuality a “character defect” and a reason for dismissal.
Is there a small part of Le Louarn that wishes she had transitioned in a slightly less exposing role? “I’m happy and proud to be doing the job I’m doing,” she says, emphatically. “I’m in a country that embraces me and supports me.”
And if any of her visitors take issue with it, she is unperturbed. “I take pride in what I do because, yeah, you may be from a country where I would have had my head chopped off by now. But, so what, we’re the Foreign Office, we embrace this. And, if you’re uncomfortable with it – tough.”