How My Gender Transition Helped Create a Path for Future Agency Employees

'Freedom really is the best policy'

It's time. It's hard to believe, but here I am. My boss, the managing director of Possible, Cincinnati, introduces me to a conference room full of my peers. I begin the presentation.

My home life is unique, I say. Click. Slide 1 is a photo of my kids. As I talk about them, it's clear how proud I am. The typical beaming dad. I go on. We celebrate an unusual holiday at my house—a holiday the kids made up. Click. A calendar appears, with March 24 marked as "Maddy's Day."

Jen Henderson 

My kids invented the word, "Maddy," I explain. It's a blend of Mom and Daddy, because we don't celebrate Father's or Mother's Day. Click. The next slide, another photograph, shows me with my children. It's not the version of me most people in the room know.

The transgender population is small, from 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent, therefore most people have never knowingly met a trans person. The unknown breeds fear. Fear breeds hate. In 2015, there were more killings of trans people than in any other year on record, and trans people are four times more likely to live in poverty than the general population. When employed, 90 percent report harassment, mistreatment or discrimination.

Fear can also advance legislative agendas. North Carolina's "bathroom bill" now bans trans people from using certain state public restrooms. It and similar bills in other states also strike existing LGBT nondiscrimination statutes.

Given this atmosphere, the decision to transition comes with risks: potential loss of employment, friends, family, safety and dignity. But the truth is you don't choose to be transgender. You choose to do something about it.

Why did I choose? There are too many reasons to list here. But one crucial component was that, being ready in other aspects of my life, I knew that Possible's parent company WPP held inclusive policies towards minorities, including LGBT people. I sought a job at Possible partly because of that.

I came out to my bosses soon after joining the company. It was nerve wracking, to say the least. When their immediate reaction was to offer their full and sincerest support, my gratitude ran as deep as my relief. At the time, I was dressing as male in the office, then changing at home. But because I had started a medically supervised transition, I was beginning to look more feminine. How would we proceed when it was time to come to work as my true self?

Transition is an extremely unusual event for most people in an office. HR and I realized there was no policy for helping managers navigate legal and social issues associate with such an event. So, with help from HR, I wrote one.

We recognized that every transition is different. As a leader, I was public about my transition. Others won't want to be. Management should ask: How involved, or not, would you like to be? Would you like to tell your peers, or would you prefer that management do so?

We wrote with a focus on bringing dignity to the process, respecting the needs of both the transitioning person and those around that person. Which means everyone has the right to ask questions without fear of reprisal. The resulting document reflects our values as a company that cherishes diversity and the inherit value of every employee.

As it happens, giving people freedom to be who they are isn't just the right thing to do. It's good business.

When people hide behind masks, they can't get air. If they can remove that mask safely, without discrimination, the energy they spent keeping secrets goes elsewhere, namely into their career. Employers should not be surprised if they see an uptick in productivity.

Company culture, too, is likely to benefit. The office may feel lighter. Healthier. People may breathe easier, knowing they're in a place that honors everyone there. That was certainly our experience.

Back in the conference room, my peers stare at the screen.

The photo—that "big reveal"—shows me in my kitchen, surrounded by my kids. With my hair in a long bob, I'm dressed as the woman I have long known myself to be.
 
The room erupts in applause. People hug me. They congratulate me. The next day, I show up to work as Jen. And an amazing thing happens—nothing. 

It's just another work day. I'm the same person Possible hired to lead our office's technology, which is what I proceed to do. Only now I have the freedom to bring my entire self to work, without fear that someone will discover my big secret.

People take to calling me Jen quickly. As per our policy, I use the bathroom with which I identify. And it is 100 percent a non-issue. Freedom really is the best policy.

Jen "JJ" Henderson (@JJHenderson2010), is regional director of technology at Cincinnati-based creative agency Possible.