Tuesday 28 January 2014

Interview with Stephanie Battaglino

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Stephanie Battaglino, an inspirational woman, transgender advocate, and activist, working with a number of LGBT organizations, serving on the Board of Directors of both the LGBT Community Center of New York and the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF), Out & Equal Workplace Advocates’ Transgender Advisory Committee, Corporate Vice President at a major life insurance company in New York and the founder and owner of Follow Your Heart LLC – in which she delivers to companies and organizations educational workshops, training, and motivational keynote speeches focused on personal empowerment and how to create transgender inclusive workplaces. Hello Stephanie!
Stephanie: Hello Monika! Thank you so very much for the opportunity to be a part of your website. I’m truly honored to be included among so many inspirational women.
Monika: You transitioned in October 2005 and were the first transgender person to do so at your company. What kind of challenges did you face then?
Stephanie: Well, there were a few. First of which is that there were no specific protections in place for transgender employees in my company at that time, specifically with regard to gender identity and expression.
Secondly, the culture of the company is quite conservative and male-dominated, so I was very concerned that, as is the case with so many transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, I would lose my job the moment I came out.
Monika: Since then you have been active in facilitating many transgender employment programs and transgender equality projects …
Stephanie: I am proud to say that is true, Monika. As a direct result of my coming out a number of things happened – all within the space of approximately 18 months’ time – at my company. First, the non-discrimination policy was amended to include protections for gender identity and expression.
Second, since I was the “trailblazer” of sorts, I took the opportunity to work closely with our Human Resources executives to create workplace transition guidelines for those that would follow me. Lastly, I was one of a small group of co-founding members of the company’s first-ever LGBT employee resource group, or “ERG’s” as they are commonly referred to.
Outside of the company, but related to it in a way, I championed the first-ever grants awarded from the company’s philanthropic foundation to LGBT non-profit organizations – to the LGBT Community Center of New York and the Hetrick-Martin Institute, home of the Harvey Milk High School. The total of those grants and the subsequent renewals is over $300,000.

Stephanie and her partner, Mari, at Women's Event 16  - the largest
lesbian-focused fundraising event  in the eastern U.S., which benefits
programs focused  on lesbian and transgender women of the LGBT
Community  Center of New York, where she serves as a Board Member.

Monika: What arguments should be used to convince an employer to develop solid transgender equality regulations?
Stephanie: As is the case with all LGBT employees, a company benefits when an employee – in this case, a transgender or gender non-conforming person – can bring their ENTIRE self to the workplace, openly, without fear of retribution.
What some people do not understand, Monika, is how energy-sapping it is when one has to hide their true self in the workplace day in and day out.
The other important point is that a company, in an effort to positively position itself and remain competitive against its peer companies amongst an increasingly diverse talent pool, must clearly demonstrate its commitment to a workplace that fully embraces diversity and inclusiveness. LGBT people, especially transgender and gender non-conforming individuals by definition, must be included via appropriate workplace protections – and now, transgender-inclusive healthcare benefits as well.
Monika: Are there any templates or standards available that could be adjusted and applied anywhere, regardless of the size of a company or country?
Stephanie: Yes, they are out there, Monika – and that’s a good thing! In the U.S., a very comprehensive place to start is the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) website: www.hrc.org and resources-for-transgender-employees.
Monika: What are the other current issues on the transgender advocacy agenda? 
Stephanie: Since I focus my activism in the workplace, the big issue in the U.S. involves the passing of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, commonly referred to as ENDA, which puts in place workplace protections for LGBT employees – including, thank goodness, transgender and gender non-conforming employees.
In a historic vote last November, ENDA was passed by the United States Senate, 64-32, but has yet to be taken up by the U.S. House of Representatives, which is discouraging, but the fight continues! The tragic fact of the matter, Monika, is that in 33 states a transgender person can still be fired on the spot for coming out. That simply must change!
The other issue, and one that I am currently involved in at my company, is getting transgender-inclusive health benefits instituted. At its core, it would provide coverage within employer-provided healthcare plans and short-term disability coverage for medically necessary treatments and procedures, such as those defined by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health's (WPATH) Standards of Care.
While many companies have adopted these benefits – and some that I have worked with do not even have any “out” trans employees that they know of – to keep pace with the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index (CEI) criteria, there are still many that are struggling with this issue and need to be educated about projected cost and utilization rates (both are much lower than they think).
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories which have been featured in media, films, books, etc. so far?
Stephanie: In my opinion, it can vary widely. In motion pictures, for example, I think some have been terrific, while others have been just awful. For me, it’s all about portraying a transgender person honestly, humanly. The ones that stand out for me are Felicity Huffman as Bree in Transamerica, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Lola in Kinky Boots, and Terence Stamp as Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Although I have yet to see the film, Jared Lehto has gotten wonderful reviews (and an Oscar nomination) for his portrayal of Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club.

Stephanie and Mari just before the New York City Pride March
kicks off, in June of last year.

Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Stephanie: Simply put, Monika – we have to. As I have often said in my workshops and speaking engagements, the need for education is great – and arguably that need is greatest amongst the L, G & B communities.
I will also say that as perhaps the most diverse community within a diverse community we do not help ourselves, in my opinion. A significant part of our community is either not full-time or they choose for very personal reasons to not be seen, leaving the advocacy work to a much smaller segment of our community.
Believe me, I do my best to empathize with their individual situations, as there was a time in my life when I was very much not full-time as my true self. But that said, it is difficult to advocate on behalf of a population that is invisible. And then there’s friction between the various sub-groups within our community.
My mantra has always been one of unity– we do our community a disservice by not presenting a unified front. It is our uniqueness–across the entire transgender spectrum- that sets us apart from the L, G, and B communities. We need to rally around that concept as a community for our collective voice to be heard. Honestly, Monika, I could go on, but I’ll stop here. This topic can actually be the sole topic of one of your interviews! 
Monika: Is there anyone in the US transgender society whose actions could be compared to what Harvey Milk was doing in the 60s and 70s for gay activism?
Stephanie: Honestly, Monika, I don’t think there’s just one individual. I think the movement has benefited from the efforts of a number of people, each doing what they can within their own particular sphere of influence to move the needle on trans equality – and there’s plenty of room for more.
Monika: At the time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Stephanie: Actually, I did Monika. Her name is Maggie Stumpp and her coming out story resonated with me because she came out of a company that is very similar to mine in terms of industry segment and culture. Her story drew wide media coverage at the time, and I drew great strength from that. The cool thing is that we’ve become friends and, among other things, participated in a workplace transitions panel together at the Center a few years back.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Stephanie: Without a doubt, it was coming out to my son, who was 10 at the time. That, and when you make the very personal decision to embrace your authentic self and transition EVERYONE transitions with you. Your children, your family, your friends and neighbors, your co-workers.
As I like to characterize it, there’s a lot of plates spinning in the air at the same time and it can be very mentally, physically, and emotionally draining to keep them all from falling on the ground. I made sure to place my son’s needs above my own – which I will admit was very difficult to do – so that he could be brought around to the whole concept of changing genders in his own time and on terms that he could understand for a child his age. I had some professional help with that as well.
Thankfully, all of that work has paid dividends as he is a wonderfully caring and sensitive young man now off at university who, next to Mari and my sister is my biggest supporter.

Monika: The relationship with your partner Mari is a really sweet love story. You first met at the 2007 Southern Comfort Conference in Atlanta …
Stephanie: Thank you for saying that, Monika. Yes, that is when our paths first crossed – and then again the following March at the IFGE conference in Tucson, Arizona. As I often say, she is the “yin to my yang” and I am so very blessed to share my life with someone who “gets me” like no one else does.
Monika: Your operation was covered in one of the episodes of The Sex Change Hospital series (2008), showing the clinic in Trinidad, Colorado, where Dr. Marci Bowers performs gender reassignment surgeries. How do you recall the customer service there?
Stephanie: For me, my choice of Dr. Bowers as my surgeon was an easy one. When we first met I sensed a very visceral connection between the two of us, which comes as no surprise given that we are both transwomen.
My time in Trinidad will always be thought of fondly, the care I received from the nurses at Mount San Rafael Hospital was just wonderful, and I was one of the few patients that stayed at the now-defunct recovery house, “Morning Glow” – a magical, but an all-too-short-lived, place.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Stephanie: I do love fashion, Monika – but I have a very busy travel schedule, so I don’t go out shopping as much as I’d like. For me, it’s more about adopting my own personal sense of style – styles and colors that I feel good about wearing, rather than trying to stay abreast of the latest trends. 

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Stephanie: I have – and started a manuscript a few years back. I’d like to get back to it but have yet to do so. I need to get my writing groove back, so to speak, so I’ve started a blog entitled “Follow Your Heart” where I now write regularly on a wide range of things that I hope those who read it can benefit from. Tell your friends and spread the word!
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Stephanie: Oh most definitely, Monika! I am very, very blessed with a wonderful loving partner, terrific friends, a son I am very proud of, and a supportive family. I am extremely fortunate and thank God each and every day.
Monika: Stephanie, thank you for the interview!
Stephanie: You are most welcome, Monika! Thank you for having me!

All the photos: courtesy of Stephanie Battaglino.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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