When the mind and body are at odds, there is no way to change the mind to match the body, but you can change the body to match the mind.
Reading these words from an open letter by a co-worker about her upcoming transition from male to female, I was floored and inspired.
For the last six years, I’ve worked in a warehouse in Northeast Ohio, a place dominated by straight, white men who do a remarkably good job keeping up the norms typically associated with blue collar jobs in the 1950s. Many support traditional families on a single income, and a surprising number of these guys are looking forward to comfortable retirements. Many of these norms, including traditional orientation to gender roles, exert unspoken pressure on everyone to conform. This is why, almost two years after escaping an abusive relationship, I still hadn’t been open at work about my divorce. But this letter, daring and open, changed me. And with her transition came a new name, Lillian Rose. I think of her as Lily in the lion’s den, and a role model.
Almost two years after Lillian Rose posted that letter, it’s clear she has changed our entire community, from high-level company policies down to the attitudes of co-workers. As one co-worker says, “I’m used to people in a bubble, and we’re all the same way. If we didn’t have this, we would be the same as we always were. It’s really amazing and special.”
But before such acceptance, Lillian was facing a world of frightening unknowns. Under current Ohio law, there are no protections against employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Adding to the already high stakes, our company opted out of benefits required for transition in our healthcare plan, so Lillian had to get creative in her search for answers before coming out. She contacted the benefits department anonymously and, once she determined it was safe, worked with the company to update that policy to include coverage for at least one major component of transition: gender reassignment surgery. Most of the costs associated with transitioning still fall to Lillian and her partner, Megan, but having some support has helped.
“I was very pleased that the company supports the LGBTQ community,” explains a longtime staff person who is part of the small LGBTQ community at work.
Several LGBTQ folks noted they were surprised by the level of acceptance among the staff, though support is far from universal. One straight co-worker admits, “I still catch myself wondering if people can tell.” Another straight employee says lunch table comments resurface periodically, some snarky, most centered around the question of whether or not Lillian passes for a woman to new co-workers. Every straight person I interviewed says Lillian is the first trans person they have known during a transition, and all think it was courageous. “I just appreciate the fact that she did it,” one says.
For Lillian, though, it wasn’t an act of courage. It was a necessary step toward authentically living her life. On the first day she wore makeup, one really thoughtless comment was directed at her, and she continues to bear lingering sidelong glances. But overall, Lillian finds co-workers to be either openly supportive or quiet on the matter. The positive response may be due in part to how she worded the letter. In it, Lillian outlined what her co-workers could expect, and she also promised to answer questions so long as they were in a spirit of learning.
“We could never fault someone for not understanding,” she explains.
The day she posted her letter at work, Lillian also posted it on her social media accounts. She came out in all of her spheres at once. Some relationships are forever altered, and a few were lost.
She doesn’t consider herself brave or special. In fact, the things that worried her most had to do with potentially upsetting her relationship with her life partner, Megan.
Now recovering from her reassignment surgery, Lillian and Megan are stronger than ever and still keeping their focus on the important issues. Lillian cautions against letting her transition set any sort of norm: “No person’s experience is more legit than another’s.”
How Can I Help?
- Speak up! Ask whether your company’s healthcare policy covers gender reassignment surgery.
- Be an ally to your LGBTQ coworkers by learning and using their preferred pronouns, etc.
- Support the work of organizations such as Equality Ohio, GLAAD and WPATH.
- Attend Pride in the CLE on June 2 at Public Square.