Financial impact of coming out on the job.
Last time, I shared with you the story of my friend’s very positive experience coming out on the job. This time, I’m going to share with you the story of my coming out on the job. This is the story of how not to do it. It was an unmitigated disaster: painful, humiliating and insulting. It left me high and dry both professionally and financially.
As you might have read in my biography, these days I’m a self-employed fundraising consultant. This wasn’t always so. When I transitioned I was an associate with another consulting firm. I was managing a contract with a small non profit which was in the early stages of a sizeable multi-million campaign. I was working with another of my firm’s consultants who lived in the area and was a close friend of the Chairman of the organization. The non profit was located 150 miles from my house. The client provided me with an onsite apartment and I spent three to four days a week working with them.
I was at a crucial moment in my transition. I was Ashley everywhere except at work and it was getting more difficult to “be” Craig. When I first joined the firm, I had short brown hair peppered with grey. I now had blond hair that was getting longer and longer. The hormones were doing their job just fine, which meant that all those power suits I wore just plain didn’t fit right any more. And I always had to wear my suit jacket. If I didn’t, somebody was going to notice that I was developing breasts.
But the most difficult part of it all at this moment was that I was on the verge of completely forgetting how to “play” a man. Everything about how I interacted with the world, body language, the way I phrased things when I spoke, even the sound of my voice was changing faster and faster.
The other consultant and I had developed a good relationship. Good to the point that he and his wife, a local doctor, would go out to dinner with me almost every week. My therapist and I spent a lot of time over several months debating whether or not we could “trust” the two of them and enlist them as allies in my transition.
About five months into the contract, events forced my hand. I very badly pulled my back out. (I have a herniated disc in my lower back and every once in a while it acts up.) This time it was really bad. The other consultant suggested that I go to see his wife after work. I was in so much pain I agreed. And then it dawned on me: she was probably going to prescribe some prescription drugs. I was going to have to tell her what other medications I was taking. SHE WAS GOING TO KNOW!
When I got to her office, the other consultant was there. I took them both aside, took a deep breath and told them the truth.
They didn’t bat an eye. They just seemed to accept it.
In fact we started to plan how to manage my transition with the client. The consulting contract was up for renewal in three months. We were fairly certain the client wouldn’t renew. (It was matter of money – they just couldn’t afford another year.)
My plan was simple. The other consultant was going to speak privately with the Chairman of the organization and set the stage. Then I would have a private meeting with the Chairman, disclose that I was transitioning and offer him a deal. Basically I said we can help each other. If you hire me as your consultant and can accept that I’m a transsexual female, then I’ll give you the deal of the century. I’ll do this campaign for cost plus a few percent profit and you pick up my health insurance. (That amounted to half what they had paid my employer.) The arrangement would initially be twelve months, renewable in twelve month increments should both parties agree.
He said yes.
Now here’s where I made my first mistake. I didn’t get it in writing. (Complete and utter stupidity on my part: consultants always have contracts! I think it was a matter of just being so relieved that things had seemed to go so well.)
So I quit my job and in doing so told the President of my firm the truth about being transgendered. (He was surprisingly supportive and congratulatory, or so he seemed.) Of course, that was two years ago and I have never once gotten a phone call from him saying “hey Ashley want to handle a contract for us?”
That was mistake number two. I burned my bridges behind me.
A week later the Chairman, the other consultant and I had a breakfast meeting to discuss the campaign. All of a sudden everything had changed. Out of the blue they made an outrageous demand: postpone transition until I had raised half the money. I didn’t say anything, but the look on my face must have been something to behold. The Chairman quickly said: “will you consider it over the weekend?” (It was Friday morning.)
I spent the weekend writing a letter to the Chairman and Board of the organization. I explained why I could not do this. I explained that the process of transition is a treatment protocol overseen by a team of professionals and that you cannot capriciously start and stop it. I finished with this:
“I have spent 47 years in humiliating pain and darkness. I can do so no longer. For to do so is to deny the truth of my existence. God made me as I am and God does not make mistakes. He chose to make some of his children transgendered. I do not know why, but I do know that He did so for a reason. I have searched for that reason all my life. While I still do not know it, I can tell you what I have learned: that at least part of the meaning of life is to have the courage to be the ‘you’ that God made regardless of what others think or do or tell you to be. To do any less is to waste the gift of life that God gave each of us. I refuse to waste this precious gift.”
When I walked into the office next Tuesday morning the silence was deafening. The Executive Director, a good ol’ boy whose politics were somewhere only slightly left of Fascist (he has a sticker on the back of his SUV that reads “Terrorist Hunting Permit – No Bag Limit”) wouldn’t look me in the eye. I asked him flat out. “What’s the deal?” “Where are we going here?” He told me the matter was to be taken up by the Board in a meeting scheduled for Wednesday night.
That meeting ran for over two hours. I later learned that they spent a great amount of that time discussing me. I went to bed that night not knowing my fate.
Early the next morning I received an e-mail from the Chairman, saying the Board had voted unanimously to hire me. The e-mail ended with “welcome to the family.” We agreed that next Tuesday morning Ashley would go to work for the first time.
It was all down hill from there.
Almost no one seemed to feel comfortable with Ashley. The wrong pronouns were constantly used. People didn’t want to look me in the eye. People began questioning me about my decisions and second guessing me at every turn. (I think that had more to do with me now being a woman than anything else. Nobody ever questioned or second guessed Craig.)
And then they began demanding the impossible. They complained that I wasn’t bringing in the money quickly enough. They essentially said they wanted millions right now. Instantly. (This, after I had told them up front that this fundraising campaign was going to take five years. I think they were hoping I would get fed up and quit.)
This went on for two months. At the end of that time, the Chairman took me to lunch. (Everything this guy did seemed to involved food.) He told me that he was sorry, but they just didn’t have the money to continue with the arrangement. So sorry. And then he actually said: “this isn’t about gender, really it’s not.”
The truth of the matter was they did have the money. I had access to all of the organization’s financial records. I knew as much about their finances as the Executive Director.
So what happened? I think that letter I wrote genuinely scared them. I think they thought that if they didn’t hire me I would hit them with a gender discrimination lawsuit. (Obviously, they didn’t know there has never been a successful one of those.) I think they thought it would be safer to wait two months and let me go pleading poverty.
So, all of a sudden there I was: no paycheck, no health insurance, and no real idea of what to do next.
So what did I learn from this experience? I learned this:
1. Get it in writing. And by this I mean everything (compensation, benefits and an understanding of how you expect people to treat and interact with you, right down to the protocol for bathroom usage).
2. Never burn your bridges behind you.
3. Anticipate every possible eventuality and design a scenario to deal with it.
4. Have a Plan B (even a Plan C) in case everything falls apart.
I didn’t do any of those things and I paid for it.
Photo credit: stock.xchng.