Coming out at Work

It's Time for Us!

We all know the truth. If you're transgendered, you'd better keep it a secret. You don't *dare* come out at work, or you'd be fired for sure. Right?

Well, maybe not. The times are changing. Transsexuals are starting to transition *on the job*, keeping their *same job* in their new role! Our own dear Stephanie transitioned on the job, even travelling as I write this, on her employer's airline, to her final surgery.

But that's just for transsexuals. Crossdressers better stay in the closet. After all, transsexuals have made the committment. Crossdressers only crossdress recreationally. We can't defend who we are. If we come out, we're on the unemployment line. Much safer to stay in the closet and pretend to be an ordinary man. The absolute best you could hope for is not to be fired if they find out your crossdress off the job. Right?

Well, maybe not. Some companies value their employees, and the politically correct concept of *diversity*, enough to be willing to treat *all* employees with respect.

I am fortunate enough to work for such a company, Lucent Technologies. An opportunity was dropped in my lap when I discovered that our Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual employee diversity group had changed its mission to be a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender group. After asking myself "What would Jesus do?", I thought I could do the world more good by going for it. I hope the result will benefit us all.

The EQUAL! at Lucent Technologies chapter in Columbus advertised their weekly meeting, for GLBT employees, and I decided to get involved. Within weeks, I was on signed up to attend EQUAL!'s annual conference in Denver, as Mary Ann, and found myself on two committees putting on next year's conference here in Columbus.

It wasn't long until I had met many of the key shakers and movers in EQUAL!, offered to get involved, and to make sure the language "and Transgendered" has meat behind it, not just fluff. By being visible within EQUAL!, I found myself able to address transgender questions and concerns. And I asked for some things.

I wanted a mailing list for people interested in transgender issues. That included a few transgendered Lucent employees I met, and also many supportive gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and allies. I wanted a subdirectory on the company's web page, where I could put up TG content.

And most importantly, I wanted the Lucent Equal Opportunity policy, which has protected "sexual orientation" for over two decades, to protect transgendered employees as well. I asked, through EQUAL! channels, what it would take to get it changed. After some consultation to determine the "most inclusive possible" language ("gender identity, characteristics, or expression") I found that the wonderful HR people of Lucent were willing to "take a risk." The policy was passed in October of 1997.

So now that I'm safe, what do I do? Well, I needed to be visible to ordinary employees, so that transgendered employees could find me. So I needed to come out. I started with my boss, in Chicago, and my dotted-line boss in Columbus. The conversations made me nervous, but our corporate culture won out. In Lucent, only people who support diversity are promoted to management. Both managers asked their first question: "what can I do to support you?" If you come out to your boss, be prepared to answer that question.

I've also come out to the people I work directly with, both in my group, and my sister group. I was amazed that everyone was respectful and supportive. At least to my face...

Most of my group is in Chicago. I wanted to come out face to face, but I rarely see the group. We have an annual two day in-person meeting, and biweekly group meetings by telephone. I waited for the annual meeting, this June, and requested a half hour on the agenda at the end of the first day. My boss, being supportive, urged people to go the previous week to a GLBT sensitivity training workshop. When I came out, they were all very supportive.

I came prepared for them to meet Mary Ann, if they wanted to. I suggested that I could come to the group dinner that night, or to work the next day, as Mary Ann. I figured dinner was safer. I was surprised to find they felt work the next day was safer. At dinner, they invited me to bring Mary Ann to the second day of the meeting. (They didn't have to ask twice!)

The next day, I went to work as Mary Ann. Dressed appropriately for the job in stirrup pants and a tunic, I was well accepted. After a near wreck, people commented "Mary Ann is a *really bad driver*!" I had to deal with issues like "who gets the action item?" for things I volunteered for (Mark or Mary Ann?) People made it a point to get the pronouns right, to call me Mary Ann.

On that day, my boss had scheduled a tour of some of the facilities. We went by their old offices, then by a machine room to see some computers we've been working with. Then Chuck wanted to go say 'Hi" to Sherrie and Mary, two people we've worked with extensively over the phone. The next thing I knew, we were all trooping to their office for a brief hello. That put me in an awkward position, as I hadn't had a chance to come out to them. When I come out, I usually allow an hour to explain myself and answer questions. I decided to wait down the hallway, because there just wasn't enough time to do it properly.

The next week, I got e-mail from Sherrie. She'd seen me leaving in the hallway, figured out who I was, and been hurt that I hadn't told her. Eventually we had an hourlong heartfelt phone call, and I realized I had made a mistake. Leaving her hanging with no explanation was much worse than coming out while I was there in person.

When I got back, I asked my boss what the group's reaction was. He summed it up as "so what's the big deal?" That was the reaction I'd hoped for.

We had scheduled a transgender noon-hour talk that Friday in the Columbus auditorium. I was scheduled to introduce Meral Crane, and I hadn't been sure how who I should present as. The positive experience gave me the courage to come as Mary Ann! I stood in front of 75 people in the auditorium, gave my name as Mary Ann Horton, said that I'm transgender, and introduced Meral. It was another huge milestone.

But I wasn't ready to walk down the hall to my office to meet my Columbus coworkers as Mary Ann. I hadn't come out to all of them yet. So I went straight home from the presentation. One thing I've learned about coming out is that you're only out to some people, there are always new people you aren't out to yet. You have to decide whether to come out to every person you happen to meet. It's a never ending process.

A few weeks later, I made it a point to take a few minutes privately with each of the people I work with, to come out to them. I explained to them that I am transgender (a term less threatening than many others) and that I respect them enough to want them to hear it directly from me. I explain that there will be occasions when I need to be in the building as Mary Ann, for training workshops and EQUAL! events. I show them a photo of Beth and Mary Ann. I offer to answer any questions. The whole thing is done with emphasis on my respect for them, but with a clear self confidence showing that I am doing what I have to do and this is not negotiable.

So now I'm as "out" as I can be without hunting down 170,000 Lucent employees around the world and telling them each personally. It feels good. I'm no longer in fear of being discovered. Have I lost anything? Well, not that I can tell, at least not yet. The people who work with me still work with me. I still get the lunch invitations. But I've telecommuted for a few years now, and I work pretty independently, so it may be hard to tell the difference. I feel I'm doing the right thing.

This page and all columns are copyright (c) 1998-1999 Mary Ann Horton. All rights reserved.