One by one, the women file into the Meeting Room, waving their invitations. “Lee invites you to a special evening event to celebrate” it says.
“Celebrate what?” Everyone wonders. “How mysterious!”
They are amazed at how the room has changed – a low stage has been set up in the centre with rows of seats arranged around three sides. The lighting is low, with spots directed onto a single chair in the middle of the stage.
“Isn’t this exciting!” they say to each other as they take their seats. There is an electric buzz in the air as the room fills. There is Molly, Nicola and Sally from Marketing. There is Victoria and Aileen and the Corporate Entertainment Team. There are the Accounts staff and there is Roz, Diane, Carol, Anna and the other Administrative staff.
“Have you noticed there are only women here” remarks Ellie from Investments to her neighbour Sonya.
“You’re absolutely right!” replies Sonya.
Over the excited hubub a voice can be heard. It’s coming from behind a red curtain across the end of the room. “They’re nearly all here” it says. Everyone recognises Ginny’s voice. “I’m really nervous” she says. “I’m not very good at speaking to big groups.”
“You’ll be fine.” says another voice. “Do it just like we practised.”
“It is Lee, no?” Whispers Huanita, eyebrows raised.
There is a cough from behind the curtain, it opens and out comes Ginny holding a large microphone. “Good evening everyone!” She starts. There is a piercing squeal of feedback. Everyone winces. “Sorry!” says Ginny, holding the mike further away. “Thank you all for coming along to this special event tonight. Lee has asked me to say a few words of introduction. As you know, we have all been working so hard on the Big Project. So so hard! Over the last few years… But now it has finally finished…”
“This isn’t yet another Launch, is it?” calls out Nel from the front row.
“No, no, it isn’t,” says Ginny, continuing. “Lee feels that, at its heart, the Big Project is about change and that, although it can be difficult, change is good. He feels we should all embrace change and be better for it. And so…” Here, Ginny pauses and looks nervously back at the curtain. “And so, Lee has decided that he should change… And he really wanted you to be part of that… He is so grateful for all the support you have given him through the project… He, urm…. Well, look. I can’t really explain this properly, but here is someone who can. I give you, I give you, ladies… Lilly!”
The curtain opens and a figure steps out. All eyes move to her. She walks forward to the chair – her movements are steady and firm, but there is a vulnerability, a softness to them that reveals nerves. She is wearing a velvet green knee-length skirt and a cream, low-necked blouse with a beautiful glass necklace. She wears brown leather boots and her red hair hangs down close around, leaving her face in shadow. As she takes her seat on the chair she instinctively tucks her hair behind her ear revealing a long, glass drop-earring. As the light falls on her face there is a gasp of surprise around the audience. No one can believe their eyes. Shocked exclamations echo around the room.
“Oh My God!” says Sonya, spilling her tea.
“I not believe it!” cries Maria, who has come back specially for the evening. “Is no possible!”
“He looks so different, so feminine!” exclaims Suzie.
An excited babble fills the air as everyone turns to their neighbour in astonishment.
As the comments die down all the faces turn to Lee because, yes, it really is him! This is the moment he has been dreading, when he comes face to face with people he knows, not just strangers, and he has to look them in the eye. There in front of him is Loise from Distribution, who has known him for nearly 30 years. He almost can’t look at her. He forces himself to make eye contact. She sees the uncertain, almost pleading look in his eyes. He see the surprise, the shock in hers and then he sees a light, a warm twinkle, and… she smiles. Everyone is looking at him intensely. He has never felt so on view, but the expressions on all the faces are bright, excited and friendly. He sees Ginny, standing at the back of the room now, and she is grinning from ear to ear. She nods slowly and he knows it is going to be alright. Suddenly someone claps and a wave of applause fills the room. He feels a lump in his throat and a tear comes to his eye. He reaches into his handbag and takes out a piece of paper.
“I would like to make a short statement” he says. The room falls quiet and there is a crackle of static from the speaker. “Thank you all for coming. This is the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life, but, at the same time I have never wanted to do something more than I have this. I have always admired women, been fascinated by them, but I have come to realise that it is much more than that. That I feel like a woman and I want to live like one. ‘You should meet life head on’, my granny used to say and so, today, that is what I am doing. And I couldn’t have got to this point without the help and support of a really good friend and so I would like to really thank her… Ginny!” Everyone turns to look at Ginny and there is another round of applause. Ginny goes bright red and shakes her head at me.
“So this is me – Lilly. I hope you are not too confused or freaked out by this transformation and I hope you will all be my friends. That’s all I wanted to say.”
He switches off the microphone and chatter fills the room again. Then he remembers to add “Oh and now there is time for a few questions.” A hand shoots up at the back. It’s Molly.
“Is this the first time you have actually dressed as a woman?” she asks.
“No, no. I like to dress up when I get a chance to and I have even been out once or twice.”
“Was it you who came to the Vesuvio product launch and got nail varnish all over the display case” She asks.
“Yes, it was.” he admits.
“I thought it was you!” she says.
Another hand is raised. Molly passes the microphone to Sally. “What does it feel like being a man being a woman?” There are nods around the room.
“That’s what I was going to ask.” Says Anna.
Lee pauses for a few seconds. “Well, it feels very liberating. Like a weight has been taken off me. I feel softer, more gentle, more honest. Just better, really.”
Sally says “thank you” and passes the microphone on.
Aileen takes it and asks “so, what does it feel like being a MAN?”
“Ooh, Good question!” calls Francis.
“Well, it’s hard to put it into words. I don’t think it feels like anything, really. Unexciting? Dull? I’m more aware of what I am not, what I am not allowed to be, than of what I am. Does that make sense?”
Aileen has another question. “Are women better than men?”
“Well, I feel better as a woman than as a man.” Lee says.
“So that’s a yes, then. I knew it! Women are better than men!”
The microphone passes to Diane. “I’m doing an evening class on gender identity. So what I would like to ask is: what is your sex, gender identity and sexuality?” There is a murmur round the room and Lee smiles. “If you don’t mind saying,” adds Diane.
“I thought someone would ask that!” says Lee. “Well, I am male – I have all the bits to prove it, and I don’t yet feel I want to change any of that. I think I am confused about my gender identity. Some days I am happy being a man but most of the time I think I would rather be a woman. My sexuality is straight, I really like women – I mean REALLY like women – though I have to admit I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to do it with a man.”
Diane looks at the ceiling, running through what Lee has just said. “So, I think that means you are either a straight male transvestite or a cis-curious-trans or, possibly, a gender-fluid semi-bi cross-dresser.”
“Now I REALLY am confused,” says Lee.
“I’ve always wondered what the L in LGBTQ+ stands for.” says Suzie.
“What do you mean?” asks Lee.
“It’s Lee Gay Bisexual Trans Queer +!”
“But if,” calls out Carol. “If he likes women and wants to be one, doesn’t that make him a lesbian?”
“Carol, Darling! You haven’t thought that through.” points out Nel
“Yes I have. Don’t be prejudiced.” Carol answers back.
“Go on then, imagine it. Let’s say Lee – sorry Lilly – meets a nice woman in a bar.”
“Yes…” says Carol, thinking hard.
“They really get on together.”
“They realise they fancy each other”
“Yes, like Lesbians…”
“They go back to her place”
“It really doesn’t matter”
“They get friendly on the sofa. Are you imagining this?”
“Lilly goes off to the bathroom and comes back, well, as naked as the day she was born.”
“Yes… OH! Goodness! OH! I see what you mean!”
Joan takes the microphone. “I had a boyfriend like you once. I came back from the local cafe with croissants one morning and he was wearing my bra and panties! We went to Rome for a ‘girlfriend weekend’, as Joan and ‘Michelle’ and he got his bottom pinched on the Metro.
“That’s funny, Joan!” Says Lee. “Do you have a question?”
“No. That’s all. It just reminds me.”
“Does the Boss know?” asks Alice from Personnel.
“Yes, he does,” replies Lee.
“What did he say?”
“I think his words were ‘mind the fumes from that nail varnish don’t set off the fire alarm!’”
“Thank you,” says Alice. “And don’t forget to get the photograph on your staff card changed.”
“Lee, sorry, Lilly.” Calls out Nel, standing up and waving for the mike. When it arrives she holds it very close and her voice booms out over the speaker. “Darling, is it sexual?”
There is a chorus of moans around room.
“Nel why is it always about sex, with you.” Complains Victoria.
“Well, life is, isn’t it!” Nel shoots back.
“No, it’s okay.” says Lee. “It’s a fair question. Do you know, I do feel very sexy as a woman. I love dressing up. I love the feeling of stretchy lace and nylon against my skin but it is much, much more than that. Being a woman makes me feel very intimate in a non-sexual way. I guess it’s a side of me that I’ve kept bottled up all my life. And I love talking about things I would never discuss with a man, like make up and fashion. It makes me feel close and intimate.” Lee shrugs.
“Thank you, darling.” says Nel, sitting down. “So it is sexual!” She sneaks in, to cries of protest.
Carla from personnel calls for the microphone. “I have a serious question,” she says. Why are there only women here? Where are the men?”
“I know, I know,” Lee sighs. “I just couldn’t bring myself to tell them face to face. Dealing with men – that’s the bit I find most difficult.”
“You could put it in the Newsletter,” suggests Rosie. “Maybe with a nice photo.”
“Or you could send an email to everyone,” says Huanita. “Or ask for a slot in one of the Boss’s monthly briefings.”
Lee sighs again. “Do you think you could, just, tell them all for me?”
He hears Ginny cough meaningfully from the back of the audience and remembers that he has more to say.
“Actually, everyone, I have another announcement to make.”
“What? There is more?” Exclaims Deborah. “I’m not sure we can take any more in one day!”
“Actually, I wanted to tell you today, right now, because actually this is my last day here. I am leaving.”
“Never! No!” everyone cries in utter disbelief. “We can get that you want to dress like a woman but we simply can’t believe you’re leaving! You’ve been here nearly thirty years! That’s the most shocking thing we have ever heard!”
The voices in the room rise to a crescendo of disbelief and then dies suddenly as someone shouts out “But what are you going to do?”
“Well, I have been offered a job. I am going to be the new Face of L’Oreal. They have come under criticism for being too gender-conventional and have asked me to shake things up. It’s based in Paris and the pay is really good. In fact, the advance is so good that I’ve been able to make a big donation to the company’s charity. They are going to rename the ‘Alan Sugar Room’ the ‘Lilly Barton Room’ in my honour. I feel very touched. Oh, and my name is going to be added to the plaque in the atrium.
“Ginny is really going to miss you,” says Jess.
“Well, actually, Ginny is leaving too. She has agreed to be my Head of Administration. We are going to be traveling all over the world doing promotions, speeches and charity work and I just couldn’t cope without her. We’ve been given a penthouse flat each on the right bank of the Seine opposite Notre Dame.”
“When are you actually leaving?” asks Diane.
“Well, right now! The CEO is waiting outside in her car to take us to Heathrow.”
Just then there is banging like thunder on the meeting room door and a man’s voice calls out. It’s Steve. “Who’s wedged the door shut? And why are all the women in the meeting room? Why aren’t men allowed in? Everyone panics and looks at Lee.
“There aren’t just women in here,” calls out Nel.
“No. Shush! There are.” hisses Maria. “Lilly is one of us now. This is a women’s only event, Steve.”
“You can’t have just women in there!” calls Steve through the door. “That’s discrimination! I want to come in. I’m going to get the Corporate Departmental Anti-Discrimination Anti-Prejudice Equality Officer.”
“Who’s that, then?” calls Carla.
“It’s Lee Barton!”
There is pandemonium in the meeting room. Ginny helps Lee down from the stage. Everyone comes over to congratulate them both and say goodbye. There are compliments about Lee’s make up and questions about where he gets his clothes from. There are request to not be forgotten and even invitations to come out to Paris.
“There are more men at the door!” someone calls out. “They’re trying to get in!” The Marketing girls wedge themselves against the door to hold them back but more men appear at the windows, jumping over the railings and trying to force open the casements. There is a standoff.
“We just want to know what you’re doing. And why we can’t come in? We’ve initiated the Emergency Plan and this building is now in lockdown.”
“Nothing is going on in here that you would be interested in,” says Nel. “Lee isn’t in here. And he hasn’t just come out as a transvestite.”
“What!?” the men shout and start banging on the windows again.
“Quick!” shouts Ginny. “The side door! Before they get there!”
There is a general surge towards the fire exit at the back of the room. To shouts of ‘Good luck!’ And ‘Don’t forget us!’ Lee and Ginny are carried along in the press out to the back door but it is locked. “Smash the dome!” Shouts Roz. An alarm goes off to add to the cacophony as the door bursts open. There are men clambering over the fence onto the smoking shelter roof but the side gate is open and Lee and Ginny make a dash for the street. There is the CEO’s car, with the engine running. They pull the doors open and jump in. “Quick, Geraldine!” Shouts Lee. “Put your foot down! Let’s get out of here!” The CEO races down the street and does a screeching U-turn in the middle. As they head back past the HQ building staff are spilling out onto the road. The men have broken through the barricade of women and lunge after the car. A mobile phone is slapped up against the window and there is a camera flash, then the car breaks away, crashes through the orange barriers at the junction and zooms away into the distance.
That Friday there is a special issue of the Newsletter with a retrospective of all Lee and Ginny’s work. On the front page there is a big photograph of a startled CEO, Ginny with mouth wide open and Lee with smudged lipstick and wig awry. Above it is the headline in big letters: ‘The New Face of the Company!’