From as early as preschool, Lisa Richardson has always felt more comfortable being grouped with girls and women - even though she was designated male at birth.
But Richardson grew up in the 60s and 70s in an era where this mismatch of who she felt like on the inside and who she looked like on the outside wasn’t something she could easily talk about without being labeled a freak, pervert, or insane.
Back then, the word “transgender” was new. Former tennis star Renée Richards upped awareness of the term when she became one of the first public figures to talk about her gender transition. It didn’t come without backlash. She faced scrutiny and ridicule as she unapologetically fought to join the professional women's tour, paving the way for other transgender athletes.
Richardson could identify with the tennis star and knew there had to be more to the story.
So, as a teenager, she’d hop on the city bus from the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio and go to the Cleveland Public Library. There, between the covers of sociology and medicine books, the media sensationalism about transgender people was swept away and the reality of their lives was acknowledged.
“It was then I started realizing that portrayals in the media of transgender people was way off from the reality of things,” she says.
It was also then she realized a gender transition was possible. Her plan was to go to college, begin a career in engineering, save money for five to ten years to finance the transition, and start her life over. The emotional cost was something she’d have to work out later.
“I knew it was likely that I couldn’t keep my career and would lose most of my family and friends,” she says.
But there was a glitch: Her best female friend in college asked her to start dating during senior year. Richardson kept her desire to transition a secret. It was 1984, and she knew that this wasn’t something that was casually discussed.
“You didn’t come out to anyone you didn’t want to lose,” she says.
Richardson also figured their relationship wouldn’t last: She was graduating from college in Indiana six months earlier than her partner, and was going to take an aerospace job in her partner’s hometown of Baltimore. The strains of a long-distance relationship would wear on them.
She was wrong. And a moment that could’ve broken them ended up making their relationship stronger.
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I started realizing that portrayals in the media of transgender people was way off from the reality of things.
Richardson’s partner decided to surprise her during Easter break. When she walked into Richardson's apartment, still unaware of the secret, she found Richardson’s choice in sleepwear was not what she’d expected. The words out of her mouth were, “Oh my God.” The words out of Richardson’s mouth were, “Please don’t go. Let’s talk.”
“We had a real long tearful conversation. When we got done with it, we basically came to the conclusion that there’s no guarantees in anybody’s life. Do we really love each other? Yes. Why do we love each other? Is it because of anatomy? No. It’s because of who we are,” she says. “That was really the fundamentals of our relationship. No matter what happens to our bodies the fundamentals didn’t change.”
Both Richardson and her partner wanted to be parents. So they got married. Had two kids. And over the course of twelve years, Richardson transitioned from male to female, going slow so that the family had time to adjust to the changes. She began with counseling and hormone therapy and facial hair removal in the 90s and finished with sex reassignment surgery in 2002. The choice to take 12 years to transition was a compromise that felt right but didn’t come without stress.
“It’s kind of like being an actor in a play where you could never step off the stage,” she says. “You might be doing a great job but you’re never being yourself.”
Overall, the experience of her transition was much more positive than she’d anticipated: She kept most of her friends and family, was able to continue with her career, and didn’t have to start over. Yet, even now, how others perceive her can be a challenge.
“I’m comfortable being a woman,” she says. “I’m less comfortable being considered a transgender woman; the transgender part comes to mind first, and woman comes as an afterthought."
The ups and downs of transitioning in the workplace
While transgender rights have become more mainstream thanks in part to television shows that have put a human face to the the trans experience - think Transparent and Orange is the New Black - there are still problems to contend with.
Leelah Alcorn’s suicide last year drew attention to the fact that 41% of trans or gender non-conforming people attempt suicide. The International Transgender Day of Remembrance, held on November 20 each year, reminds us that violent murders continue worldwide and often go unsolved and uninvestigated - especially when it comes to transgender women of color.
When it comes to the workplace, the stats are also grim. A 2013 report from the Movement Advancement Project titled "A Broken Bargain for Transgender Workers" states that transgender workers face twice the unemployment rate, encounter wage disparities, and suffer from a lack of federal laws to protect them from discrimination.
Richardson knows this firsthand.
Most of what happens in somebody’s transition happens at home, with friends, family, with social interactions with the public. Eventually it gets inside the office walls.
Twenty years ago, the trans and corporate community didn’t publicly intersect. Richardson remembers job hunting at the beginning of her transition, where she was looking more on the feminine side of androgynous but legally still had a male name. Two companies called her in because they loved her resume.
When she went in for the interviews, they suddenly weren’t interested anymore. One hiring manager told her she’d stand out too much. Another recruiter told her, “Why didn’t you wear a tie? They said you didn’t wear a tie!”
“I was somewhat pissed because c’mon, let’s be grownups about this. But a part of me was happy to have dodged those bullets. If I would’ve gone to work there, they wouldn’t have been very supportive places,” she says.
Richardson eventually did find an environment at a big computer company where her technical skills overshadowed her appearance. There, seven months later, she ended up finalizing the transition. By that point, she’d already transitioned socially. She’d also gone through the court ordered name change process so she could get a new driver’s license and social security card - crucial documents for getting a new job.
It was time to tell work. So she called a meeting with her manager.
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“I had no idea walking into that meeting if, an hour later, I was going to be turning my badge in and walking out the door. That was a very real possibility then,” she says.
To her relief, his response was borderline apathetic: As long as she still got her work done, he didn’t care. Then he sent her to HR. Richardson had already drafted an explanatory letter that she hoped to email to her co-workers. Incredibly, HR loved it. The only thing they wanted her to add was an initial paragraph stating “This is done with full support of the company.” Richardson couldn’t have imagined anything better.
When the email arrived in her coworker’s inboxes two weeks before her transition date, Richardson held her breath. The first thing she did after hitting “send” was get up and walk down the hallway to the admin’s desk. The woman looked at Richardson and smiled. Then handed her forms to change her email address and name plate on the mailbox. The email had worked, and clarified any confusion among her coworkers as to which direction the transition was happening as Richardson had been presenting very androgynously. There was no backlash. From that point on, it was business as usual.
How Richardson is helping others transition in the workplace
Richardson knows that at some point, who you are at home and who you are at work will have to merge.
“Most of what happens in somebody’s transition happens outside the office. It happens at home, it happens with friends, it happens with family, it happens with social interactions with the public,” she says. “Eventually it gets inside the office walls.”
This can be tricky to navigate, and having a supportive workplace is crucial. In previous jobs, Richardson has helped put systems and policies in place so that their Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Corporate Equality Index, a measure of how companies treat their LGBT community, was the highest it could be.
This year, when a temporary position opened up to work on projects with the HR Diversity team, she jumped at the opportunity to parlay her past volunteer experience and gain some program management skills while she was at it. One of those projects was updating a guide for transitioning at work.
The past guide was created by customizing a HRC template with the company’s policies. As those policies had been improved over the years, the guide had become out of date and incorrect as a result. It had scant information, and was only accessible if the employee asked for it from HR.
“If I was contemplating a transition, I’d be thinking that the company where I work was not a comfortable place to do it. When in reality, it’s not like that at all,” Richardson says.
An eight-member team made up of HR and Richardson helped make the guide more comprehensive and aimed at not just employees looking to transition, but anyone curious about what being transgender means and how to work alongside transgender colleagues. The tone is no-nonsense, with an emphasis on achieving understanding.
“It starts with stating how we respect the thoughts and beliefs of all our employees. We’re not trying to change someone’s mind. It’s just saying we all have to work together and have respect for another,” she says.
There’s this example in one of the case studies: Reginald will be officially transitioning to Regina on Monday. At a Friday meeting with Regina’s manager and employees, everything seems to be okay. The following week, one of Regina’s cohorts named Laura runs into Regina in the women’s restroom and becomes incensed.
The guide stresses that the company is not asking Laura to be an advocate for the change Regina is making. They only ask that she comply with company guidelines and treat her with professionalism and respect - and that means allowing Regina to use the women’s restroom if that’s the gender she identifies with. Laura is welcome to use a restroom on another floor. If Laura engages in behavior that violates the anti-harassment guidelines, such as calling her “Reginald,” it will result in disciplinary action.
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There are more case studies that deal with things like what happens when an employee’s faith causes conflict,and the deeper implications of a silly video of management dressing up in drag. Some of these are grounded in real world events. The company’s response is consistent in that it always has the same underlying thread: respect.
Now there’s knowledge out there through the Internet, and through employee resource groups, that give people the ability to understand they’re not alone.
Other sections in the 57-page guide include definitions of gender expression, gender identity, transsexual, and more; international guidelines by country (in Malaysia, for example, being transgender is illegal and can land you in a mental institution); considerations for communicating with your manager and immediate workgroup; available health benefits; nitty gritty logistics like changing the name on your badge; and other transgender support resources in the world.
One major shift is that the guide is now more directly accessible on the company’s internal website.
“It’s not like, ‘I have to go to HR and tell them I’m going to transition gender before they unlock the safe and hand me the sacred document,’ Richardson says. “It’s where it should be: right underneath the ‘getting married’ and ‘changing my name’ sections on the web page where we can update our personal profile information. It’s just considered a normal element in the list. There’s nothing special about it.”
Aware that policies are ever-changing, the team meets once every six months to make sure the guide stays fresh.
The reaction from employees to upper management has been incredibly positive so far. One woman who’s a straight ally took the guide to her manager who was confused about what it means to be transgender and used it to start a dialogue. Another employee about to transition went through the whole process of telling her manager and team without fear because of the guide’s straightforwardness. Others have commented on how useful and informative it is.
Richardson sees the guide as a part of a larger movement to raise awareness about the transgender community and communicate the notion that transitioning doesn’t have to be a career killer.
“Thirty years ago when I was hiding in the library doing research, that was it. Now there’s knowledge out there through the Internet, and through employee resource groups, that give people the ability to understand they’re not alone,” she says. “Having explicit support lets people bring their whole selves to work.”
By Celeste Hamilton Dennis