In 2007, Antonia Belcher co-founded MHBC, a London-based building consultancy, with partners she’d worked with since before her gender transition.
She has more than 40 years of experience in the construction and property industries and was recognized as one of the Financial Times’ Top 100 LGBT+ Executives in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
When did you first realize that you were transgender?
I realized that I was different when I was very young. Probably as soon as I was putting sensible, logical thought together. At a very young age I thought – am I really a boy? Obviously I didn’t think I was a girl, because that would be a strange thing to think. But I never really felt I was a full boy. I had these other thoughts that confused my thinking.
How old was I? Probably about six I think. Then the questioning in my head just grew stronger. And then in my early teens, I thought, “This is not good.” I challenged my own gender, because I didn’t think that I was really a boy. I thought, “Why wasn’t I born a girl?” And that I found really hard to deal with, at that age, being the eldest of two brothers and a younger sister. I just thought, yeah, this is not something I should think about so I just need to lock it away and not think about it.
In terms of saying I’m a trans member of the LGBT+ community, that’s been much more recent. I transitioned between 2000 and 2003. Until about 2010 I was getting on with being, and enjoying being, the woman I knew I was. But I started to get annoyed about what I was reading in the press, seeing how transgender people like me were being hounded, having their stories told in a negative light.
And I remember saying to my wife: “Look, these things we read. It’s not what’s happened to you and I. I’ve managed to transition and stay married to you. You’ve wanted to be married to me. My kids, my three adult children have supported me massively. I think it’s about time we tried to talk about our wonderful story, so that people can hear that identifying as trans isn’t always a horror story.” Because it isn’t.
And that’s why I joined the LGBT+ community, by standing up and talking about my journey.
How has being openly trans at work influenced your leadership approach and your style?
My transition has been welcomed at work, I’m fairly clear sighted on this. Being authentic and leading from the front as an authentic trans person, hasn’t been a handicap in any way. It’s been positive for our business. As far as my clients are concerned, I think they see a strength in what I’ve done.
Who are your role models?
Strong women standing up for their beliefs. Women like Emily Pankhurst, who was the suffragette who spearheaded woman getting the right to vote in the UK. Women who use charm, sense, and persistence to make sure right prevails.
If you could have any job other than the one you have right now, what would it be?
The Head Gardener to the Queen.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from someone you work with?
To be patient. My longstanding business partner is an immensely patient person. Very clever, very patient, very calm, very measured. I’ve always admired those qualities in him. Some of those things I never really had in the early years, when I was pretending to be the man everyone thought I was.
In those pretending years, I experienced a lot of – not anger, but discomfort, trying to portray someone I wasn’t. I found it hard to be patient. Just working with Andrew, and having his support as an ally, has taught me a lot.
If you could tell someone who graduated from college this year one thing that you’ve learned in your career, what would it be?
Never assume or presume, and always be certain of the facts.
When was a time in your career when a sponsor helped you take your next step?
My business partner Andrew comes to mind again. He and I started working together fairly early. I recruited him when I was still going by Anthony. He and I built a very successful practice, he was my lieutenant, a very strong and capable lieutenant. We formed a strong bond as men. The day when I told him I wasn’t really the person he thought I was, it was similar to the conversation I had with my wife, but with a man. And he didn’t bat an eyelid. He has been the world’s best ally.
When you’re hiring, what kinds of interview questions help you understand an applicant?
I ask the person what they believe their weaknesses are.
Everyone wants to talk about their strengths, barely anyone will talk about their weaknesses. We all have weaknesses. It’s important that we understand them, that we manage them. It’s important that your colleagues around you understand your weaknesses so that they can make sure they’re helping you where you are weak. We’re all a team. Early on in the interview, I say “Let’s talk about your weaknesses.” It tells me a lot about you. I’m happy to talk about mine.
Who is an LGBT+ hero of yours?
He’s not LGBT+, but I really credit David Cameron, our former prime minister, for having the gumption to get same sex marriage passed, and for following through all the way. He made sure that transgender people who were already married to opposite sex spouses would be able to convert their marriages.
I married my wife Andrea 38 years ago. In the year 2000, I told her that I wasn’t a man, that I had deluded her. I told her that I’d married her under false pretenses, that she should divorce me and go off and find a new man. Be happy. I apologized deeply. But she didn’t leave, she didn’t ask me to leave.
It was very difficult for a couple of years. We worked through my transition. After two years she just said to me, I’m okay now. She said, “Anthony, or ‘Tony with a y,’ has died, and it’s taken me a long time to mourn his death, but there’s another Toni, it’s ‘Toni with an i.’’’ And she said, “Actually, Toni’s very nice. I would like, if she’s okay with it, to spend the rest of my life with Toni.”
And I said, “Well, yeah. That’s a dream to me.” I never really thought it would be possible. We never divorced.
So from 2003 we were two girls living together. We were married but not really married, because under English law there was no such thing as a same sex marriage. But we didn’t tell anyone. We just stayed married. I didn’t change my passport, my birth certificate or my driving license, because I didn’t want to risk anyone poking around. I conducted my business as a woman, looking as I do, but with a passport that still said I was male. A driving license that said I was male.
But then in 2013, same sex marriage passed, and it included provisions allowing transgender people in marriages to convert them. We did that and took ourselves to a beach in Antigua to ‘redo’ our vows to one another. Since we’ve been married 38 years, we’ve probably got one of the longest same sex marriages on the books.
And I credit David Cameron for his small part.
It certainly sounds like your wife is one of your greatest allies.
She’s more than an ally, she’s one of god’s angels walking this earth.
When you look around the world, what’s a tantalizing leadership opportunity you see?
There’s certainly an opportunity to make the world a better place for trans people. I don’t think enough is being done, and there’s a leadership opportunity. It needs someone with the credibility and the persona and the presence to try and bring trans communities, individually in countries, but also maybe globally, to get them to come together. We need, as a group, to say to the general public, “Yes we are a minority, but we’re not the minority you think we are. We are in your daily lives. We are moving in all your circles. We are conducting wonderful business.”
Do you have a motto?
Do unto others as you’d wish they’d do unto you or yours.
What do you think the next big thing for the global LGBT+ community is?
The fight to end criminalization of sexual orientation and gender identity, globally.
If you were planning a dinner party, and you could invite any 5 people from history or your life living or dead, who would they be and why?
I’ve got two definite people and I can name them, and then I’d want a representative from three different groups.
My groupings are: first, a famous actor or actress from the classic Hollywood era, for example Elizabeth Taylor. I’d want them to regale us with their stories. I’m so interested in that period. And also a politician from a historical period I know a bit about, for example Churchill.
I would then have Freud along so that he can make sense of it all, or try to. That would be interesting to hear. And then also I’d invite Jesus, so we could check if it was all true, and to try and assure me about my faith.
Then lastly, I would have the first trans person to really undergo Gender Reassignment Surgery, so we could hear what it was like for them.
Do you have a song that you associate with coming out?
Modjo – “Lady Hear Me Tonight”
When it plays, it reminds me of the early days before I transitioned, when I first started going out secretly as Antonia. It was doing the rounds in the clubs, and I sort of thought to myself, “Yeah, that’s my song. I’m gonna get up and dance now.”
What are six things you could never live without?
Right, so these are in priority. Firstly, my family. Secondly, The Good Book. The third, a good pair of shoes. Fourth, tea. Five, biscuits. Six, a nice car.
What’s your favorite vacation destination?
I like going to new places.
What would be the three books you would take to a desert island?
The first one would be How to Survive on a Desert Island. The second one would be, How to Escape a Desert Island, and the third one would, be How to Amuse Myself on a Desert Island.