Fair Workplace Project: More than 90 percent of transgender people report experiencing discrimination or harassment in the workplace. As a result, transgender people are four times more likely to live in poverty. Many others choose to remain in the closet rather than risk their careers. To address the disparities, Basic Rights Oregon is re-launching its Fair Workplace Project, which was successful in creating safe and affirming workplaces for lesbian and gay employees during the 1990s and 2000s. This story is part of a series to better understand the experiences and challenges many transgender Oregonians face. 

By Jennifer Firth

I began questioning my gender identity as a child growing up in Florida. I would occasionally wear something from my mother’s closet when I was alone, but I was terrified that my parents would find out and punish me — my mother was an abusive alcoholic and my father was a strict disciplinarian. Since I couldn’t discuss my feelings with my parents, I hid them. I never tried to commit suicide, but I often wanted to disappear.

Transgender issues simply weren’t discussed in the 1970s. There was no internet, no library books and no understanding of the subject. When Renée Richards came out as transgender, the ridicule and scorn she was subjected to deepened my fear of discovery.

Jennifer and Elizabeth_Cropped

Jennifer and her wife, Elizabeth.

I lived a split life. During the day, I developed or consulted on spinal implants, ankle implants and cardiac devices. In the evening and on weekends, I lived as a woman. I never went out in public as a woman because I was terrified that discovery would destroy my career. My wife’s love helped me survive until I had the courage and financial resources to come out and transition in late 2014.

Coming out has been the most amazing experience. Since I work as a consultant, I had to come out to many companies in many countries. I discovered depths of understanding and caring that I never thought existed. At one company, the ladies in the company gave me a card that said “Welcome to our World”. At another company, the ladies took me to a “women only” luncheon. I received support from executive management and from colleagues throughout the world including Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and China. I received support from Protestants, Catholics and Muslims.

Since coming out, I stopped having migraine headaches, which plagued me for years; living a split life can be stressful! I get to be me instead of the pretend me, and people have responded. I have made more friends than in the previous 30 years. My relationship with my wife has never been better, and my relationship with my brother has strengthened. Perhaps even more importantly, I am comfortable with myself and look forward to the future. Happiness has replaced discomfort; ease has replaced fear.

Click here to learn more about the Fair Workplace Project.