By Adrienne Kincaid
This is the story of a black transgender lesbian. Before you steel yourself for a long litany of pain, let me not bury the lede; there is no long litany of pain. Not that needs to be recounted here, at any rate, because this is a story about how things go right and how people can surprise you.
I started transitioning from male to female back in the early 1990s. Most employers, supervisors or coworkers have never known I am a transgender woman (meaning my gender at birth is different from the woman I know myself to be). In two decades, I had disclosed my gender identity to only three people in a professional context. That was 20 years ago, when I thought that surgery was just around the corner. After I left Sybase in 1997, I didn’t disclose to another employer, or coworker until the end of 2015 when circumstances conspired to get me to a place where I felt safe and because I had such amazingly good news to share.
At the beginning of the year, I held in my hand the second of two letters I needed to get surgery. My doctor submitted the referral and we waited. Two weeks before the Obergefell v. Hodges decision in the Supreme Court, I received the answer. The referral for surgery was rejected because Gender Confirmation Surgery (GCS) wasn’t covered on our plan in Oregon. The bottom dropped out of my world. My wife of 10 years reassured me as I stood frozen in the entry to the house, letter in my hand and a shocked look on my face.
When my brain started working again, I decided that my HR department was an easier nut to crack than the byzantine appeals process of a Health Maintenance Organization (HMO). So I wrote to them and explained the situation.
A few weeks later, the first update from HR came to my inbox. My timing was spot on. They were already negotiating coverage for the 2016 year. In October, I received a sneak peek at the surgery benefits. I was so elated that I wrote to the CEO, COO and CFO, whom I had all met, and told them what an amazing culture they had created here. There was never any pushback.
All along the way I have felt supported by many people in my life. I told my immediate supervisor and our director at the beginning of the year that surgery was coming. I tested the waters initially with my immediate teammates. Each time it’s been a little easier and a little easier. As more of my coworkers have learned about who I really am, my support has grown!
I went from being entirely closeted to writing this piece with my name and picture attached. All of this has happened in the last 5 months.
In my case this really is the difference a transgender-affirming employer makes. Instead of feeling the need to hide who I truly am at work, or deflect why I would be facing surgery major enough to necessitate a two month absence, I am able to be honest about this and let my own pride in myself show.
Today, my life is the best it’s ever been and I couldn’t be happier.
I’m married to an amazing woman. I have a fantastic circle of friends around me. I am well thought of in my company and in my neighborhood. In fact, my wife and I are now mentoring a young, non-transgender lesbian woman. I’ll soon be giving a talk to the women in the engineering organization about what it’s like to transition and how being able to be out at work has changed my life for the better. That talk will help another transgender person who has just started on hormone therapy and who I’ve been able to mentor and be a supportive resource for at work.
I turned 49 in March with nothing more than a high school diploma to my name. I have made a career in the software industry. I’ve managed to transition and been able to stay successfully stealth for two decades (because that was always my goal). Today, I am able to be out and therefore celebrate this journey’s end.
I want my story out because to hear the Internet tell it, black transgender women (and, for that matter, black lesbians) have one of two fates–celebrity or a desperate, marginal existence ending lonely, too young, and possibly violently. We are either a Laverne Cox, a Janet Mock, or one of the many black transgender women who continue to lose their lives to transphobic violence.
I am proof that when employers work with their employees to make workplaces more transgender-inclusive, their transgender employees are happier people, and can participate more fully in their jobs and in their lives. That’s why Basic Rights Oregon’s Fair Workplace Project is so vital to making workplaces in our state more transgender-affirming.
One of our corporate values is authenticity, and for the first time in my career, I can be authentic at work.
Adrienne Kincaid is a technical support engineer at New Relic.