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 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), a 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 hearts 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.

"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: How do you advise your clients to improve the employment experiences for transgender 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 training 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.


Main photo credit: Kris Janovitz Photography and Jack Kinley.
All the photos: courtesy of Gabrielle Claiborne.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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