Monday, 9 June 2014

Interview with Vanessa Sheridan

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Vanessa Sheridan, an American expert consultant, published author, inclusion/ awareness trainer, and speaker/presenter on transgender workplace issues; the Executive Director of the Institute for Transgender Economic Advancement; a member of the national Transgender Advisory Committee for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates; a member of the Advisory Board for GLBTQ Online High School; a former (and the first transgender) member of the Board of Directors for the Stonewall National Museum and Archives; a two-time national Lambda Literary Award finalist for her pioneering books on transgender spirituality topics; and the author of the groundbreaking business book, "The Complete Guide to Transgender in the Workplace." Hello Vanessa!
Vanessa: Hello Monika, and thank you for this invitation. I'm delighted to be with you and am very honored to be included with some of the other amazing individuals whom you have previously interviewed. I appreciate the opportunity to share some thoughts with you and your readers.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Vanessa: I'm a fairly boring person and don't think I'm all that interesting. I am passionate, however, about doing what I can to help the transgender community achieve equality in society. I've been committed to that goal since 1991 and will continue until we get there or until I die, whichever comes first.
Toward that end, I write, speak, consult, train, and do as much as possible to educate the public about the transgender phenomenon. We transfolk are a legitimate asset to the world, and the rest of the population needs to learn the truth about us.
via Amazon
Monika: It has been five years since the release of your book titled "The Complete Guide to Transgender in the Workplace" (2009), which includes recommendations for the improvement of the cultural climate and quality of life for transgender workers. Have we witnessed any new trends in the treatment of transgender employees since then?
Vanessa: Happily, I can answer in the affirmative. My book was the first full-length, hardcover book on this topic ever released by a mainstream publisher. This was, paradoxically, both good and bad. I was delighted that the book was exposed to a mainstream audience but saddened by the fact that it was only the first of its kind. We need many more solid, factual resources that can help the business community.
In terms of new trends for the treatment of transgender employees, I'm glad to say that several things have happened since 2009, all of which bode well for us. For example, many parts of the world--particularly Europe--have come a long way in terms of legal protections for transgender citizens.
Here in the U.S., there have been some remarkable court cases and legal actions that improve life, affirm transgender realities, and create new opportunities for transgender workers. The corporate sphere has continued to embrace the transgender phenomenon in positive ways, and gender identity/gender expression is becoming increasingly common for Fortune 500 companies as well as for growing numbers of states and municipalities.
Transgender health care has become more accessible for many. More resources have been created, more momentum has built, and transgender equality--once only a pipe dream--is moving toward becoming a tangible reality, at least in some places. Additionally, we've seen more people and organizations become involved in the transgender-in-the-workplace movement in general, which is encouraging. Still, there is a tremendous amount of work left to be done, and we cannot stop or even slow down until full equality is the norm for every transgender worker.
We will not achieve our civil/human rights by merely asking for them or depending on the largesse of others. It doesn't work that way and never has. Instead, we must struggle and demand and educate and lobby and strive unceasingly to achieve and maintain those rights. If we don't do all of those things, we will never attain our rights or else we'll lose them quickly.
Monika: Although there might be a visible change in the transgender policies of Fortune 500 companies, what is the status of transgender rights in the small and medium sized businesses?
Vanessa: It's an ongoing journey for acceptance and equality in many of those organizations. Some companies get it and are already doing the right thing with regard to transgender inclusion. Others don't have a clue and trans inclusion isn't even on their radar yet. Some don't feel it's an issue that needs or deserves attention. In smaller organizations it's often difficult to introduce a new or unfamiliar issue such as transgender, especially if there's no overtly visible transgender presence in that organization. That's why it's so important to make people aware of the necessity for a more diverse and inclusive workforce that includes transgender workers.
The only cure for ignorance is education, which is why I spend so much of my time speaking and training in the business community. One thing that's especially critical is to make employers, recruiters and HR professionals aware of changing local, state and federal laws. Also, and with the 2012 U.S. federal EEOC ruling about transgender discrimination (re Macy v. Holder), it's essential that businesses be educated about possible discrimination lawsuits.
Since transgender inclusion is becoming the norm for many major corporations, the trickle-down effect is also beginning to slowly be felt in medium to smaller sized businesses as well. We're seeing more public awareness, more legal action, and more business initiatives that are driving the movement for transgender equality in the workplace. I find that exhilarating and exciting, to say the least.
Courtesy of Vanessa Sheridan.
Monika: Transgender people usually constitute a small minority within a company staff. How do you persuade their employers that the fair treatment of transgender employees will result in increased productivity and improved profitability?
Vanessa: The point is not there are relatively few transgender employees--it's that transgender equality and inclusion is beneficial to any organization. There are so many valid business reasons to do this, all of which are usually very persuasive to employers.
For example, the fair treatment of transgender employees can:
• Enhance an organization's cultural competence;
• Help a business achieve a competitive advantage in the marketplace;
• Raise awareness and improve teamwork;
• Demonstrate an organization's commitment to equality for every employee;
• Improve internal branding among employees;
• Help a company be a diversity leader within its industry;
• Provide positive PR and community relations;
• Improve recruiting and retention of top talent. (In particular, Millenials, Gen X, and Gen Y workers expect their companies to be diverse and open to different kinds of people. Young talent wants to work in organizations where their LGBT friends can work, too.)
• Increase the pool of potential breakthrough ideas by hiring people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews. (Homogeneity of talent can be the death of an organization in today's competitive marketplace.)
These are just some examples of the strong business case for transgender inclusion and full equality on the job. The business reasons are indisputable, and increasing numbers of organizations around the world are recognizing the many advantages of transgender equality in the workplace.
Monika: Would it help to address the problems of transgender employees as a part of the whole LGBT community?
Vanessa: I have always believed that transpersons have more in common with lesbian, gay, and bisexual people than we don't, especially in terms of the human need for social equality. Therefore, allying ourselves with those communities really ought to be a no-brainer for us. We can certainly achieve more through unity and coalition than we can by pulling apart and making enemies.
I have worked closely with many wonderful gay, bi, and lesbian people over the years--many of whom were in HR or corporate LGBT Employee Resource Groups (ERGs)--to help make a difference for all of us. I'm well aware that the transgender community has its own unique set of issues and concerns, and I don't mean to minimize those in any way. For example, we transfolk are, by definition and in general, focused more on gender identity and gender expression than we are on sexual orientation. Those are different sides of the same human coin.
Nevertheless, our similarities always trump our differences, at least in my opinion. Why not work together in the effort to achieve equality for everyone? You know, I've often heard it said that "A rising tide lifts all boats." That's true enough, but it only works if you actually have a boat--otherwise, you'll simply drown when the tide comes in. That's why I encourage all of us to become boat builders so that when the tide rises, our boat will hold more of us and we can all rise together.
via Amazon
Monika: After the publication of Cross Purposes: On Being Christian and Crossgendered (1999), Crossing Over: Liberating the Transgendered Christian (2001), and Transgender Journeys (2003), you have been profiled as a "leader in religious movements for justice for LGBT persons". Would you agree that the acceptance versus persecution of transgender Christians is biblically rooted and consistent with the teachings of Jesus?
Vanessa: In those books I demonstrated why the oppression of transgender persons by Christians is antithetical to everything that Jesus taught and modeled. 
Most religious persecution of transpeople is due to emotional insecurity, valueless and discriminatory traditions, and inaccurate interpretations of certain scripture passages which are usually taken out of context, then skewed further and applied in a mean spirited manner. Those are some of the several reasons why I have chosen to purposely begin distancing myself from the institution of religion and now focus more on personal spirituality.
Monika: Is there any reference in the Bible in this respect?
Vanessa: There is a strong case to be made, and we don't have enough time or space to do it here. I would simply encourage people to find a copy of my books--or contact me personally if they're interested and want to buy them--so they can read about it for themselves.
As I have continued to learn and grow and progress in my own spirituality, I find I have less and less interest in (and tolerance for) organized religion. It simply does not enhance my life the way I once believed it did. I've discovered that I don't necessarily need a church or a denomination to meet my personal spiritual needs. Together, God and I can do that quite well on our own. I don't tell others what to think or believe in this regard. I'm only sharing what works for me. 
Monika: At what age did you transition into woman yourself? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends?
Vanessa: This may surprise or even shock a whole lot of people who may have made some assumptions about my gender status, but I have never transitioned physically from male to female and have no intention of doing so. While I identify as transgender and am very committed to the trans community, I am not transsexual and have never desired to change my sex.
Frankly, I don't have a transsexual bone in my body. However, I honestly don't think that should matter one iota to anyone else in the larger scheme of things. What DOES matter, I believe, is that I identify as transgender and have spent the last couple of decades out on the front lines standing up and trying to make a positive difference for our community. Like everyone, I have the right to self-determination and self-identification. I choose to identify as transgender, and I'm perfectly content with who and what I am. If anyone has a problem with that, then that's just what it is: their problem, not mine.
Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Vanessa: Again, I have not transitioned and don't intend to. However, I have many transgender role models who have influenced and inspired me during my journey to this point. We humans are a model-driven species, and we all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us or even march along beside us. I think of people like the friendly, welcoming, supportive members of my first very first transgender support group that I attended so long ago.
They were the first people I met in the trans community, and they generously gave me the confidence and encouragement I needed to be able to start writing and speaking publicly. I think of my friends Jane Fee, Denise Norris, Dr. Jamison Green, Dr. Jillian Weiss, and of pioneers like Christine Jorgensen and yes, even the controversial Virginia Prince.
They have all impacted my life in different ways. There are so many others who have demonstrated tremendous courage, paved the way, modeled integrity, and helped me learn more about who I am. I'm grateful to all of those who have made a difference for me.
via Amazon
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Vanessa: I'm still coming out. I come out all the time. It's a process, not an event. But the hardest thing for me has always been overcoming my own fear of rejection and/or ridicule from someone else. I think that's almost a universal experience for transpeople.
As I've matured, I tend to worry a little less about what others may think of me, but I do care and want to be liked. So being afraid of negative reactions is the hardest part for me. That doesn't stop me from being who I am, and it doesn't send me scurrying back into the closet, but it's an obstacle that needs to be overcome.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in the American society?
Vanessa: Over the past couple of decades we have come a long way in terms of visibility and viability, but I know we still have a long, long way to go before we have achieved full equality and acceptance on a social level. 
The only way that will happen is through education, and it's incumbent upon all of us to do whatever we can to let people know about the truth and integrity of our transgender lives. Transgender women are strong, smart, capable, and can do anything if provided with the opportunity. I've seen that demonstrated over and over again, and we've only scratched the surface of our potential to make magnificent contributions to the world.
We need and deserve full equality under the law because we are intrinsically valuable human beings and citizens. We have to find ways to elect politicians who will pass the laws we need, and then we must be about the business of living into our potential.
Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers or books so far? 
Vanessa: For the most part, I think it's been inaccurate and fairly unrealistic. The real lives of transgender people who deal with real problems here in the real world have rarely been portrayed with true sensitivity, depth, integrity and authenticity. The film, television and print media still tend to focus on our sexuality and on titillation rather than our full humanity and our contributions to the world.
The media has historically tended to portray us as either prostitutes or punchlines, and most of us are neither. Also, and despite the wonderful and deserved success of people like the great Laverne Cox, we need a lot more transgender actors and actresses on the screen. It's asinine to have cisgender actors playing transgender roles when there are perfectly marvelous transgender actors who should be doing that instead, and who could bring unparalleled honesty to their portrayals.
Frankly, I look forward to the day when it's no big deal for transgender actors to play ANY roles. We are certainly more than capable of doing so.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Vanessa: Yes, yes, and yes. I am proudly progressive and vote accordingly. I don't understand how any thinking, caring citizen--especially any woman or minority--can vote for regressive political candidates who don't give a rip about the welfare of minority groups like the transgender community. I work to help elect politicians who have the interests of people at heart, especially those who will try to make a difference for the most vulnerable in our society.
I strongly believe that every transgender person owes it to themselves and to our community to help elect progressive candidates to office so we can get past old prejudices and bigotry and improve our lives through the political system.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Vanessa: I think everyone wants to love and be loved. I'm no different. It's a human thing, and--at least the last time I looked--I'm a human.
Courtesy of Vanessa Sheridan.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Vanessa: I tried doing something like that once and found it to be a somewhat counterproductive effort. Writing about myself is not something with which I feel comfortable.
It feels a bit arrogant and perhaps even egotistical to me, although I don't want to sit in judgment of anyone who feels compelled to write about their life. We all work out our issues in different ways. For example, I've never kept a journal because I truly believe my life is so humdrum and boring that it would be a waste of my time.
Also, and to be completely honest, I don't believe anyone would be interested in my memoirs anyway. I'm just one of many people who care and try to make a difference, and I don't think I'm a big deal at all. In my opinion, my life wouldn't make for very compelling reading. I'm just a very average person who would rather spend my time taking action and working for transgender equality than writing about myself. Don't look for an autobiography from me anytime soon, because I'm not particularly interested in writing one. (Besides, I'd probably end up misquoting myself anyway!)
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Vanessa: Oh, yes! I'm very excited about a lot of new projects that are going on. For example, I'm currently doing several presentations on transgender workplace issues at regional and national conferences around the country for the U.S. federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Also, I've recently become the executive director for a new nonprofit organization called the Institute for Transgender Economic Advancement, which exists to promote social equality through financial equality (meaning employment) for transpeople. That's going to be a major focus for me as I move forward. I'm working on a couple of book projects, do some occasional writing for the Huffington Post website, and am always looking for new consulting/training/speaking opportunities in the corporate sphere.
In addition, I just worked with Dr. Jamison Green and George Zuber, the producer/director of a remarkable new transgender-themed documentary called "Just Gender" to create a new corporate training program based on the film. We'll be releasing and promoting that soon. There is so much to be done, and I want to do all I can to help our community achieve full equality. Let's just say that I'm rarely bored these days.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Vanessa: I believe that everyone--including transgender girls, boys, women and men--should do what they believe in their hearts is right for them. Discomfort with one's gender status is something that needs to be addressed and rectified in a healthy way so it can bring peace and harmony to that person's life.
I hope that every person, no matter what their gender status or identity may be, can find that kind of happiness. So, if any of our readers are struggling with gender dysphoria, I encourage you to seek help from a knowledgeable, experienced professional. I've been around long enough to know that there are many ways to address gender discomfort, and getting good professional help is a great place to start. You're worth it. Do it for yourself and your own peace of mind.
Monika: Vanessa, thank you for the interview!
Vanessa: You're very welcome, and thank you for these great questions. I hope I've shared something that can help someone. 
In closing, I want to say to all of my transgender sisters and brothers, no matter who you are or where you may be: "Be proud of yourself. You are special and worthy just because you're you. Don't ever let anyone convince you otherwise, even though some will almost surely try because they're afraid (or maybe jealous) of anyone they don't understand.
Remember, the world needs you and your gifts. Find a way to be yourself. Come out as much as you can. Share yourself with the world. Being trans is a gift, not a curse.
Embrace it and maximize your gender gift so you can make a difference with your life. I believe in you."

All the photos: courtesy of Vanessa Sheridan.
Done on 9 June 2014
© 2014 - Monika 

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