Raised in a rural ranching town of 900 people near the Cascades in Oregon, I knew about four LGBTQI+ people before I reached the age of 18 and left for college. The cultural mindset in my community was that of logging and driving cattle. Homophobia was everywhere, from the classroom to local politics, that included a mindset of “marriage is between a man and a woman.”
I was born just before the horrific death of Matthew Shepard and the founding of the Trevor Foundation. The life of a gay person was thought to be lonely, sad, and dangerous. When I came out as a lesbian at the age of 14, that was the attitude of my parents, friends, and teachers. They all believed that my existence as a lesbian would be lonely, sad, and greeted with hostility.
Facing this attitude, I immediately sought out the “right” way to be gay. A way that was quiet, demure, and socially acceptable. I worked hard to fit the mold. The comfort of others was my priority, a way to maintain a feeling of safety for myself.
Leaving for college, I left Oregon and went to school in the more conservative state of South Dakota. Everyone warned me that it would be dangerous for me there. I learned soon enough that this was true, based on the slurs I heard and the legislation being written. In response, I started an LGBTQI+ student organization on campus. I knew I wasn’t the only one; I just didn’t know who else was in the room.
Shortly thereafter, members of the local trans community were being fired for being visibly trans at work and legislation was introduced to protect the employers. A collaboration began between the campus group and the local LGBTQI+ center to organize protests, to fight back. The bills stalled, but the lingering message was clear: It was not safe to be visibly trans at work.
I came out as a transgender man and began my transition just as another round of anti-trans legislation hit. At the time I was working for the State of South Dakota at Fermi National Laboratory on a cutting-edge neutrino experiment. To show his support, the governor came to visit and we were introduced. We worked together to help the experiment become established and gain funding. When he returned to South Dakota, an anti-trans bill hit his desk for him to sign or to veto. His response was, “I do not know any trans people personally nor do I think I have met any, so let me take a moment to think about the impact of this legislation.”
Ironically, he had met me and several other trans people. We reached out to him and reminded him of our discussions. The governor then understood that you never know who’s in the room, working hard and doing their best to contribute to the world around us. He went on to veto any such bills that came his way during his time in office, since he recognized we all are equal members of our communities.
Despite this success, I joined Wipro believing that I still needed to “perform” my gender and that I couldn’t be visibly trans at work. The gendered language and assumptions I faced reinforced these views. I chose as a priority making the comfort of others, my managers, and my colleagues, believing this would enable me to continue to maintain a feeling of personal safety and job security.
It was exhausting! My daily routine consisted of monitoring my words and behaviors so that I could be the “correct” version of myself, not my authentic self. The work I produced, while good, was not great. I worried constantly: What ideas are getting tossed out before entering the board room because they are deemed “incorrect.” for the workplace? What ideas does that queer portion of myself want to contribute but is reluctant to share?
Fortunately, things changed this past year when I toured the site of my new client. The client had pictures of various public figures that he admired plastered all over his cubicle, including Michelle Obama, a novelist, and a drag queen. I felt relieved, as if I had found a kindred spirit. I realized I could simply be myself at work, and that was enough. My whole self deserves to exist because I am not my job, I am here to do a job.
Going forward, I realize how important it is for me to be out and open in my workplace. Others like me exist and having someone openly inclusive may allow them to feel the same confidence, acceptance and PRIDE that I felt at my client’s site.
Ultimately, we never know who is in the room and what they can contribute, if just accepted for who they are and given a chance.