Monday, 13 February 2023

Interview with Mary Ann Horton

Monika: Today I have the pleasure of talking to Mary Ann Horton, PhD, an American transgender activist, computer systems architect, Internet pioneer, entrepreneur, author, and speaker. In 1997, she persuaded Lucent Technologies to become the first Fortune 500 company to add transgender-inclusive language to its nondiscrimination policy, and to add coverage for transition care and surgery. Her work, which was soon replicated at Apple and Avaya, led Out & Equal Workplace Associates to present her with the 2001 Trailblazer Outie Award (since renamed the LGBT Corporate Advocate of the Year).
Mary Ann founded several transgender social and activist groups. She conducted a research study that proved the addition of transgender medical coverage would cost companies virtually nothing. She has been featured in the Daily Beast, Out Magazine, Google Arts and Culture, Salon, Diversity Factor, SHRM, L-Mag, Nokia, Faces of Open Source, and Out TV. Hello Mary Ann!
Mary Ann: Hi, Monika. Thanks for inviting me.
Monika: You give a lot of interviews. What is the most frequent question related to your professional career or transition that you are usually asked and you are already fed up with?
Mary Ann: You know, I get a lot of great questions, but none of them really annoy me. One of the most challenging questions is “Are you treated worse professionally as a woman than you were as a man?” After all, many professional women are talked down to, looked over for promotion, or asked to make coffee.
I did take a 20% pay cut in my first job after transition. It would have been 25% but I negotiated it up. But I’ve been treated with professional respect in my jobs. It helps that I’m very qualified, and that I helped write “vi”, the text editor most UNIX/Linux techies use in their daily jobs.
I’ve heard from other trans women that they were treated very differently when they transitioned, that they were no longer taken seriously. And trans men have commented they suddenly gained respect on the job. That just wasn’t my personal experience.
What I think the key to my success is that I don’t sit quietly in meetings. I speak up when I can offer solutions or help avoid pitfalls. I make sure I’m constructive and focus on the needs of the business. And I do it with kindness and respect for my colleagues.
Monika: Well, I know something about it. When I came out at work, my male co-workers treated me in the way as if the transition lowered my IQ. Do you think it happens because we are women or because we are transgender? Or both?
Mary Ann: Men are conditioned from an early age to be competitive, to use every perceived advantage to gain power. Men assume that being a woman, or being a man who does anything like a woman, makes a person “less than”. That includes being gay or trans. That doesn’t mean we have to let them get away with it.
"I did take a 20% pay cut in
my first job after transition."
Monika: I found male office outfits very monotonous and suddenly every day I have to deal with a sweet dilemma about what I shall wear tomorrow. Was it a challenge for you?
Mary Ann: Early on, my trans friends shared their frustration at boring men’s attire, where your only outlet for expression was which necktie you wore. I had so many wonderful women’s clothes. When I came out it was a pleasure to get to wear them to work.
Monika: It is amazing to see so many talented transgender women working in computing technology, just to mention: you, Lynn Conway, Rebecca Heineman, Megan Wallent, just to name a few. How would you explain such a wide representation of transgender women in the business?
Mary Ann: We were, in a sense, lucky to have gone through high school as boys, because we were encouraged to study science and technology, while girls were diverted to cooking and sewing classes. When we transitioned as adults, we weren’t in customer-facing roles. Management felt more comfortable with us hidden away in a back room. Even that didn’t work for Lynn Conway - she was ahead of her time, having been fired by IBM in 1968 when she told them she intended to transition.
Monika: Which arguments did you use to persuade Lucent Technologies to add coverage for transition care and surgery for transgender employees? From their point of view, was it more about financial ramifications or values they shared? Statistically, we represent less than 1% of the total population, so they should not have expected a big influx of applications for such coverage…
Mary Ann: For Lucent, it was about fairness and values. HR made the decision, and they supported diversity. It wasn’t until years later that I surveyed the surgeons and calculated the average annual cost to provide coverage at $.17 per insured. Surgery is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most trans people, so even though one person in 3100 wanted surgery, in 2001 only about one in 250,000 had surgery. When San Francisco offered trans health benefits in 2001, the anticipated flood of workers seeking coverage never materialized.
Monika: What would you advise to all transwomen looking for employment?
Mary Ann: Be a good match for the job, and focus your interview (and your work) on how you can help the company meet the needs of the business. It helps to apply to employers big enough to have an HR department, ideally with a diversity statement.
Monika: You earned your PhD in Computer Science from the University of California at Berkeley in 1981, where you created the first binary email attachment tool and led Usenet, an early social media network. The Internet and social media have improved the lives of transgender people immensely. It would be interesting to study the correlation between the growth of the transgender community and launch of the social media…
Mary Ann: I ran Usenet from 1980 to 1987, but I didn’t begin to explore my feminine side until 1988, so I missed out on that opportunity. Back in the 80s, the trans community used paper newsletters and face to face support groups. Crossdressers made up paper cards with PO box addresses to write for information, and inserted them into the T section in the card catalog at their libraries.
When the web came along, it was much easier to create web sites and email anonymously. Online forums sprang up for discussion and support. By the late 2000s, the support groups and newsletters faded away, as it became more acceptable to go out in public en femme.
Monika: Given my own experience as well as that of many girls and women that I interviewed, I wonder whether we should be called ‘runners’ instead of transwomen. We run, run, and run away from our feminine self until it catches up with us. The only difference is how long we can run away. Was it the same in your case?
Mary Ann: I like that. Yes, I resisted for years. I didn’t fully present as a woman until I was 31. I identified as a crossdresser even after I came out and led a dual life. I didn’t seriously consider transitioning until I was 45, and then it hit me all at once. When my wife didn’t oppose it, I transitioned shortly before my 46th birthday.
"I didn’t seriously consider
transitioning until I was 45,
and then it hit me all at once."
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Mary Ann: That’s so true. I went through two divorces because I was trans: the first because I needed to cross-dress, and the second because my supportive wife was straight and didn’t want to be married to a woman. I lost a lot of friends, and I could never tell in advance who it would be. My parents had a cow about it. My sons, though, were great, and work was not a problem, because I’d already convinced Lucent to add trans-inclusive language to their EO nondiscrimination policy.
Monika: What inspired you to write your biography "Trailblazer: Lighting the Path for Transgender Equality in Corporate America" (2022)? Which aspects of your transition could be relevant for other transgender women?
Mary Ann: I gave lots of educational presentations over the years, telling my personal story in 20 minutes to LGB groups, to employers, to churches. People told me they wanted to hear more, and over the years I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences. When I retired I had time to write it all down.
When I finished my first draft, I found I had enough for two books: one about my transgender experiences, and one about my technical experiences. I took four years to finish Trailblazer, because as a trans book it can reach a wider audience. The tech book will come later.
Every person is unique, and every journey is different. I was a late bloomer. Kids these days are able to come out as young children, and they’ll often have a much smoother experience than I do. I had the opportunity to make history, and it’s an interesting story because of that history.
Monika: Mary Ann is such a nice name. Why did you choose it?
Mary Ann: The first ever day I spent as a woman, I got a makeover. The makeup artist asked me my name. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me “Mark” wasn’t the right answer. I had no idea what to say. In moment of inspiration, I came up with a response. It started like Mark and went femme. “My name is Mary Ann.” I always liked Dawn Wells from Gilligan’s Island.
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?
Mary Ann: In my early days, I put a lot of energy into learning to pass. That changed in 1997 when several dozen of us trans activists were lobbying Congress. I met Penni Ashe Matz, a respected trans activist who made no attempt to pass. She told me that by not passing, she educated people every day just by being herself. She inspired me to stop passing. I went back to my natural voice, and I’ve never regretted it. As another wise trans woman, Paula Jordan Sinclair, once said, it’s not important to pass, it’s important to be accepted.
Monika: Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Mary Ann: In the last century, TV and movies usually presented crossdressing men as comedy. Beginning with Milton Berle, TV had Bosom Buddies, Ally McBeal. Popular movies were Some Like it Hot, Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire, where, absurdly, the character always passed and was hit on by an unsuspecting male. Then we got drag queens in To Wong Foo and Priscilla. I think the first movie I saw with an actual trans character was Boys Don’t Cry (1999), the trans man played by ciswoman Hillary Swank. Trans characters in TransAmerica (2005) and Normal (2007) were played by cisgender actors. By then I’d played a trans woman in a TV commercial (The Boardroom - Stonewall Columbus, in 2003). It wasn’t until Laverne Cox appeared in Orange is the New Black in 2013 that we saw a major show with a trans actor playing a trans character. Fortunately, that’s getting better.
Happily married.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Mary Ann: Sigh. Parts of America are an embarrassment to the trans community right now. We’re front and center, used as a wedge issue by Republican politicians throwing red meat to their base by attacking trans kids. No minority will tolerate people coming after their kids, and the trans community certainly won’t. Politicians are trying to outlaw widely used medical care for trans kids, not to solve any problem, just to be mean. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent legal organizations fighting back in the legislature and in the courts.
I spent many years in Ohio, with no legal rights, fighting for trans acceptance, first in the gay and lesbian community, then in the workplace, then in my church. Then I moved to California, where all that work, and more, had already been done. I’m blessed to live in a liberal paradise, where I can enjoy life.
Monika: You got married in 2021. Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Mary Ann: I've never liked being single. After Beth left, I was miserable. Dating is hard anyway, but for a trans woman, dating in a lesbian circle feels impossible. I had a string of really bad dates, and two long term relationships that didn't work out. In San Diego, I joined a lesbian social group, and made a lot of great friends. One was a beauty named Katie. I thought she was out of my league, but somehow she found me attractive. I took her to dinner and, following a lead from my son, looked into her eyes and asked her for permission to date her. She thought we were already dating. Oops. We've been together for over 10 years now, and got legally married in 2021. I'm so happy to have her in my life!
Monika: What would you recommend to older transgender women that are afraid of transition?
Mary Ann: My father once told me “You can have anything in the world that you want. The question is, what will you have to give up to get it?” He wasn’t talking about being trans, but his words resonated with me when I transitioned. You decide what’s most important to you, and whether you’re better off transitioning or holding back. If you’re not sure whether to come out, you can discuss the general topic with someone to assess their attitude. My experience has been that most people don’t really know what to think, so when I come out I present my transition as a wonderfully positive, not as some deadly disease, and often they’ll follow my lead.
Monika: Mary Ann, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Mary Ann: Thanks for inviting me, Monika. It was fun!

All the photos: courtesy of Mary Ann Horton.
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

"Available via Amazon"
To have invented the email attachment is one thing. To have done so while transitioning from male to female and paving the way for Trans rights in the workplace is quite another. Trailblazer is a brave and powerful memoir that is both touching and thought-provoking and absolutely worth the read for those who care about equality.
As a child, Mark Horton loved wearing women’s clothes. Short denim skirts, high heels, anything that made him feel like a woman. As he grew, he hid his proclivities in favor of a more traditional home and work life. But soon the question “who am I, really” was too loud and Mark began to make room for Mary Ann. 
In her debut memoir, Mary Ann Horton recounts her search for her true self and reveals the intimate details, both professional and personal, of her transition from male to female. From navigating the dissolution of her marriage to parenting young boys, to “coming out” to coworkers, Mary Ann balanced both her responsibilities and staying true to herself. But not without struggle. She would quickly learn the challenges and heartbreak that came with navigating the maze of social, medical and legal rights afforded, or rather not afforded to the Trans community.
As Mary Ann fully became Mary Ann, her voice grew and with it a commitment to advocacy and activism. Aided by her indomitable spirit, Mary Ann became a powerful force for the acceptance of transgender benefits and rights, first at Lucent Technologies, blazing the trail for corporate America to follow.

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