Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Interview with Gabrielle Claiborne

Monika: For today's interview I have invited an inspirational woman from Georgia in the USA. Gabrielle Claiborne is a successful businesswoman that owned and operated successful businesses in the construction industry, overseeing multi-million dollar projects nationwide. She is a co-founder and CEO of Transformation Journeys Worldwide, an inclusion training and consulting firm with a transgender focus. Gabrielle received many awards and honors for her transgender activism, including the Atlanta’s 2015 Best Trans Activist, Emory University’s 2018 Alum of the Year Pride Award, and the 2019 Outstanding Voice for Diversity and Inclusion Award from the Atlanta Business Chronicle. She is the author of ‘Embrace Your Truth: A Journey of Authenticity’ (2020), TEDx speaker and her work has been featured in Forbes. Hello Gabrielle!
Gabrielle: Hi Monika! Thank you for the opportunity to be featured today.
Monika: How are you doing in these crazy pandemic times?
Gabrielle: Monika, we are definitely living in challenging times, a time when everyone’s safety, sense of belonging and connection with family, friends and well-being is being challenged unlike never before. In the midst of seemingly insurmountable challenges, we’re all being called on to find ways to survive, many times, moment-by-moment, one day at a time.
Personally, when I find myself feeling overwhelmed and spiraling down into a place of despair, a practice I’ve found helpful is to reframe these circumstances as something that is happening “for” me and not “to” me...as invitations to greater wholeness and opportunity. This intentional perspective is what keeps me going when things get darkest for me, although I certainly don’t want to make light of the suffering of those who have lost loved ones or their source of income during this pandemic.
Monika: I would like to start with your recently published biography ‘Embrace Your Truth: A Journey of Authenticity’ (2020). Is it a coincidence that you published it exactly 10 years after your transition?
Gabrielle: While I haven’t considered the connection between the timing of my transition and the book’s publication, I will say that it did take me 10 years to learn the universal lessons about how to live authentically that I highlight in my “memoir meets self-help” book. Some of these lessons included discovering how to listen and live from a heart space, learning to love myself, developing a support system, persevering through pushback, making peace with my past, living inside out and finding my purpose.
"I spent half of my life wrestling
with culture's expectations
regarding my gender."
Available via Amazon.
So perhaps there is something magical about the 10-year anniversary of my transition as it relates to the publication of my book. But I’ve also learned that our individual journeys of authenticity are not so much about the destination, rather, it’s about the journey. Consequently, as we realize one aspect of our authenticity, our heart will call us to embrace yet another aspect of our truth.
Monika: One of the main themes of your memoir is inviting the reader to take courageous steps to live their own authentic life... whatever that may look like for them. Has this been essential in becoming the woman that you are today?
Gabrielle: Absolutely!! In both my book and my TEDx talk, Building Your Courage Muscles, I talk about the relationship between courage and living an authentic life and the steps that we have to take to get unstuck from those places of inauthenticity.
Oftentimes, when I share my gender transition story in my keynotes, someone comes up to me afterwards and says, “Gabrielle, I could never do what you did. You’re so courageous!” But I tell them that I haven’t always been courageous, especially when it came to getting honest about the essence of who I am as a person. You see, I spent half of my life wrestling with culture's expectations regarding my gender. The fears in my head kept me stuck in a place that was not in integrity with heart.
It wasn’t until after a number of life’s invitations, and subsequent courageous steps, that I had the opportunity to see myself in the mirror for the very first time...internally aligned with my outward feminine gender expression. I was 49 years old and meeting myself for the very first time! Immediately my heart realized, “That’s me!!”
As a result of this life-changing event, I learned that to get unstuck, I needed to acknowledge the fears in my head but act on the truth of my heart. I realized that the risks of what I might lose or the pain that I may experience in embracing the truth of my gender identity will never be as devastating as the regret of denying the truth of who I was meant to be.
These new insights set me on the course of taking more courageous steps with the intention of discovering my destiny. Unfortunately, there was no step-by-step manual showing me what path to take. Consequently, I had to take each step without knowing my exact destination. But looking back, I now realize that each step had to be taken before the next step could unfold. And the beautiful thing was, with each step I took, no matter how small, I amplified my heart’s soft, quiet whispers. This empowered those whispers to grow into a strong, confident voice, a voice that could stand up to the fears in my head and keep me moving forward courageously.
So, the woman that I am today, and continue to become, is a result of me taking those frightening first steps and learning to trust that my heart will not mislead me. And with each step that I take, I get a little stronger, more courageous, less stuck...more authentic.
Monika: For some of my readers it may seem that transition is easier for an affluent person. I guess it is true when it comes to all the related medical costs and health care but I have a feeling that ironically such a person has more to lose. Is it true?
Gabrielle: That’s a great observation Monika. And I’ll be the first to acknowledge my privilege. Yes, I was raised in a loving family environment and was afforded many opportunities that created a distinct advantage for me that many others do not have. While we did not live lavishly, my parents blessed my sister and me with wonderful educations. I fell in love with the woman of my dreams, we had 30+ years of marriage and three amazing children. I had a successful 30+ year career in the construction industry and a very nice 6-figure income. By all outward appearances I had it all. But in reality, I was living a life of turmoil because of the internal gender dilemma...which I had no words to describe (due to the internet not yet being on the scene).

But when I came out 10 years ago, my life came crashing down around me. I lost everything...my family, my career, my spiritual community and found myself homeless. Consequently, I found myself at the lowest point in my life...having to start over at ground zero at the age of 50. And the journey has been difficult. My parents and sister have not spoken to me since I came out in 2010, yet I continue to hold space for them (refer to Chapter 5 - Persevere Through Pushback for more details) in hopes that their hearts will soften and they’ll want to reconnect. My ex-wife and kids have had their own journeys around my transition, but over time are making peace with it in their own ways. I’ve been able to draw upon my past entrepreneurial experience, rebrand myself and start my inclusion training and consulting firm with a transgender focus. Consequently, I now not only love what I do, but also do what I love!
And my life continues to unfold. This year I became a grandparent (GiGi), divorced my wife and have started dating again at the age of 60...in a different gender! Who says you can’t start your life over at 50?! 😊
Monika: What inspired you to co-found Transformation Journeys Worldwide?
Gabrielle: All my life I’ve wanted to make a difference in this world...to leave a legacy. Over the course of my transition, my vocational journey has evolved. When I first came out, fearing I would not be accepted by my colleagues in the construction industry, I fell back on my entrepreneurial experience and started a cleaning company and home renovation company. These vocational iterations were developed out of the need for survival. And survival it was.
But the more I leaned into my journey of authenticity, these vocational iterations no longer resonated with me. While they were an essential part of an uncertain, and somewhat volatile season of my transition, they no longer fed my soul. Consequently, this led me to the precipice of finding my purpose ...“what is mine to do”... that aligned with my evolving truth. So, after seeing a life coach for a year and learning to listen and live from my heart, I discovered that I didn’t have to find my purpose at all. As I showed up more authentically, embracing the truth of my being, my purpose found me (refer to Chapter 7 - Live Your Purpose for more details).
It was during this time that I served on the board of our local PRIDE organization. And it was through this volunteer work that I was invited to speak at various organizations and corporations, teaching them how to create inclusive environments for transgender people. Meanwhile, I had become good friends with a cisgender woman who shared my passion for educating others about transgender people, so we co-founded Transformation Journeys Worldwide.

"All my life I’ve wanted to make a difference in this
world... to leave a legacy."

And I’m happy to say that while we started as a fledgling consultancy 5 years ago, we are now working with global Fortune 500 companies helping them position themselves as an “employer of choice” for trans and gender non-conforming (TGNC) individuals. Over the course of the last 5 years, we’ve developed a robust training curriculum to meet our clients where they are on their journey of inclusion. 
Monika: How are transgender employees perceived by the corporate management? Are we in the same basket with the other members of LGBTQ+ or we are looked upon differently? 
Gabrielle: To help answer this question, it’s important to look at the statistics that reflect a trans person’s lived experience when it comes to employment. The National Center for Transgender Equality’s (NCTE) 2015 US Trans Survey revealed that “TGNC individuals in the US experience unemployment at twice the rate of the general population with rates for people of color up to four times the national unemployment rate. Ninety percent (90%) of those surveyed reported experiencing harassment, mistreatment or discrimination on the job or took actions like hiding who they are to avoid it. Forty-seven percent (47%) said they had experienced an adverse job outcome, such as being fired, not hired or denied a promotion because of being transgender or gender non-conforming. Over one-quarter (26%) reported that they had lost a job due to being transgender or gender non-conforming and 50% were harassed.” And these are only a few of the highlights.
So while organizations have taken significant steps to provide an inclusive workplace culture for our LGB siblings, there’s still much work to be done in advocating for full TGNC workplace equality. The good news is that many companies are now recognizing the business case reasons why creating a TGNC inclusive workplace culture is essential for their existence and success. However, many don’t know where to start and what steps to take. This is where firms like mine come in. We are supporting organizations as they take the necessary actions to provide an environment where ALL of their employees can show-up authentically and know that they belong. 
Monika: How do you advise your clients to improve the employment experiences for transgeder women at work?
Gabrielle: One of the first things we help our clients see is that this journey of creating TGNC inclusive cultures is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. Companies have to be willing and prepared to commit and invest in this inclusion initiative the same way they commit to, fund and roll-out other workplace initiatives. They have to recognize that creating a fully inclusive culture is more than just a 60-min conversation or checking off a few boxes. It requires a concerted training strategy, ensuring all employees are personally competent when it comes to interacting respectfully with their TGNC colleagues.
But they also have to take the necessary steps organizationally to implement TGNC Best Practices... things like creating inclusive policies and facilities, providing healthcare benefits and targeted trainings, and looking at operating systems, marketing and communications, and their community engagement practices, as well. Organizations that commit to this journey of inclusion not only talk-the-talk, but they walk-the-walk.

"Companies have to be willing and prepared to commit
and invest in this inclusion initiative the same way they
commit to, fund and roll-out other workplace initiatives."

Monika: I guess that one aspect is to have a set of rules developed by the management but maybe more important, is how these rules are observed, so for example, I would not have to fight against my female co-workers over my right to use the same restroom.
Gabrielle: Absolutely Monika! While creating inclusive facilities is one critical organizational best practice step, it’s not the end-all-be-all solution. Organizations are also recognizing the importance of developing inclusive policies around these facilities, thus creating the expectation of how they are to be used by everyone in the workplace. Further, these policies, in addition to employee personal cultural competency training, are critical in informing everyone in the workplace on why it’s acceptable for a TGNC individual to use a restroom that coincides with their gender identity (an internal knowing of our gender) rather than their sex assigned at birth.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Gabrielle: Unfortunately, I feel the media (as a result of their lack of understanding of the TGNC experience) has perpetuated the myth that we are to look like and fit into our binary culture (the belief that there are only two genders, male and female). So much so, that anything unlike the strict culturally acceptable masculine and feminine gender expressions are frowned upon. When in fact, when you look at our community we are as diverse as the different species of butterflies. Too bad humanity hasn’t yet evolved to the point of admiring human diversity the same way we revel in the diversity of the plant and animal kingdoms!
I feel it is these narrow cultural norms that make “passing” an issue for us. In response, many of us pursue various aspects of physical transitions to create that internal/external alignment that resonates with us...many times to fit into our binary culture. And while these steps are affirming for many, not all TGNC individuals have the resources to pursue such luxuries. This is why I push back on questions related to surgeries. Being trans is not about the surgeries that we may or may not elect to pursue, it’s all about - and only about - our gender identity...who we know ourselves to be.
So how do we respond to cultures that try to dictate how we show up? I believe the best way is to own our uniquenesses through our visibility. We are seeing this manifest with the growing emergence of non-binary and gender nonconforming people. They are pushing cultures' understanding of the expansiveness of gender by proudly owning and displaying their cutting edge gender expressions. They are emphatically stating, “gender does not look like just one thing!” Their courageous acts of visibility are demanding respect for all our differences. So, owning our differences isn’t about one being right and the other being wrong. Rather, it’s about being seen for who we are in all of our beautiful uniquenesses! 
"I feel the media has perpetuated
the myth that we are to look
like and fit into our binary culture."
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Gabrielle: Yes!! As is the case with many of us, if it weren’t for those who went before us, giving us permission to own our own truths, who knows where we’d be today. That role model for me was Laverne Cox. I talk about what I learned from her when it came to really accepting myself in Chapter 3 - “Learn to Love Yourself.”
Monika: Do you remember the first time when you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Gabrielle: I certainly do! Debbie Lynn was another client of Ramona’s, the woman who provided a dressing service here in Atlanta. Ramona introduced us. There were a lot of similarities in Debbie Lynn’s and my journeys.... we both worked in the construction industry, we were similar in age, she too was married and had children and we both we’re doing the best that we could with the knowledge that we had in balancing a dual life. It was so refreshing and liberating to know that I was “not the only one” who was navigating this scary terrain. We became good friends and ended up being advocates for each other’s cause. 
Confident in knowing that I had someone who understood the barriers and fears that confronted me, Debbie Lynn inspired me to lean into my journey with greater intention and fervor and take those first frightening steps. I’ll never forget when she shared with me a letter she had written to her wife, coming out to her. At that fragile, early stage in my journey, I thought to myself, “Wow! How courageous! I could never do anything like that!” But I got there! This dear friend has since passed, yet I think of her often and am grateful for the impact she had on my life. This was a lesson to me that we never know whose life we’re touching.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Gabrielle: I find the timing of your question ironic. Because, for the last 4 years, the US TGNC community has been the target for an onslaught of discriminatory actions perpetrated by our nation’s administration. According to the NCTE, there have been over 70 acts of discrimination committed toward TGNC Americans. As well, 2020 has been the deadliest year for the US TGNC community with at least 32 TGNC individuals being brutally murdered, with the majority of those victims being our trans sisters of color. And we know that number is likely even higher, since many trans people killed by violence are misgendered by police and can be misreported in the media.
Yet, despite these statistics, more and more trans people are coming out. But we’re not just coming out, we’re showing up in key places! In 2020, there were at least 5 transgender women elected to public office.
And even more promising news is, this past November, we elected a pro-equality President and Vice President in Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. There were record voter turnouts and statistics show that the LGBTQ community turnout was one of the deciding factors in the election.
So while our existence has and continues to be threatened, we are a resilient community. And as we forge ahead in our visibility, we will make it possible for those following in our footsteps to have a greater stake in the matters that affect us.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Gabrielle: I don’t JUST like fashion...I LOVE fashion! Among my friends, I have a reputation for being a fashionista!!😊 Because of my tall, thin frame, I prefer form fitting styles that accentuate my figure. And while I can sport a ponytail, skinny jeans, a casual blouse and flats (which has been my pandemic go-to attire), I will never turn down an opportunity to dress to the nines for an evening out on the town with a tall, handsome man. I’ve found that White House Black Market works well for me clothing-wise while Shoedazzle and JustFab are my go-to online shoe boutiques. As far as preferred colors go, I resonate with a winter palette.
"I don’t JUST like fashion. I
LOVE fashion! Among my
friends, I have a reputation for
being a fashionista!"
Monika: By the way, do you like being complimented on your looks?
Gabrielle: Who doesn’t like to be complimented on their looks, right? The only types of visual compliments that don’t resonate with me are those that are related to me being trans. For example, if someone makes the comment, “You’re so beautiful! I would have never guessed that you were trans!” Or the comment, “Wow! You’re so tall!” I consider these statements microaggressions because they imply that trans women can’t be beautiful or cisgender women can’t be tall.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Gabrielle: This is a great question and one that I get asked a lot. And unfortunately, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. I do, however, offer some recommendations in my book. But if I could say one thing to support an individual afraid of transitioning, it would be, don’t allow the weight of the journey to overwhelm or deter you from taking those courageous first steps, thus keeping you stuck in a place of inauthenticity.
Rome was not built in a day. So in much the same way, your magnificence will not emerge overnight. A good friend once told me, “Gabrielle, don’t lose sight of the steps that you have to take everyday as they will ultimately lead you to your transition goal. You can not bypass those steps, so embrace the moment and live in it fully. The steps that you take today will determine your tomorrow. So embrace the journey, not the destination.” This wise counsel has served me well and allowed me to step into my own authenticity.
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Gabrielle: Monika, I would go so far as to say, “our dreams are not relegated to the operating table.” While pursuing certain aspects of physical transitions are meaningful for many transgender people, surgeries do not define trans people, nor do they define our capacity as human beings...to do great things. If we, as a community, buy into this cultural misconception, that being trans is about undergoing physical transitions, then we perpetuate the very thing we’re trying to free ourselves from. First and foremost, we are human beings - and being transgender is only one aspect of the multifacted dimensions of our beautiful existence.
Monika: Gabrielle, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thank you so much!
Gabrielle: Thank you Monika for “doing what is yours do,” elevating the voices of transgender people and advancing equity and equality for our community.

Main photo credit: Kris Janovitz Photography and Jack Kinley.
All the photos: courtesy of Gabrielle Claiborne.

© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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