Mendelsohn used the same language: “I got where I got with male privilege, and I recognize that.” It was an insight she learned quickly. “The first time I walked into a boardroom as Michaela, I was invisible.” Previously, Mendelsohn had had a “macho, physical way” of getting her point across. “I used to speak authoritatively and command respect,” she said. At first, going from “one box to another, in some ways, was worse,” she said. Mendelsohn did ultimately find her way as a woman and earned back that respect—although sometimes she still finds herself reaching for that tough guy: “I can’t back down,” she said. “I’m lucky guys don’t want to hit a woman!”
To be sure, gender bias goes both ways. Ming told me about a time, after transitioning, when she was walking down the street in Berkeley. She saw a woman with a baby in one arm and a bag in the other who was having trouble folding a stroller. Ming offered to help. She assumed the woman would ask her to fold the stroller. Instead, Ming found herself holding the child. “Free baby!” she joked as she related the story. “She would never have done that with a strange man.”
There are also logistical elements to transitioning at work, as See found. “H.R. is afraid of people like me,” said See. And See, who really likes what she does, did not want to jeopardize her job. So before she transitioned and came out at work, “I knew my legal rights down cold,” she said. Of course, See is also a lawyer. In Washington. “I knew on an OPM level of detail,” she said, referring to the fine-grained prescriptions of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.
See also laid the groundwork really well: She had done high-quality work that year, she was well-liked, known for navigating contentious issues without being disagreeable, and her colleagues appreciated the results she got. Plus, she made sure she didn’t reveal her plans to transition until after her annual review, and, she said, “My bosses are good people.” It all put her, she said, “in a real position of power. That’s a privilege. No doubt it’s a privilege.”
But most trans people don’t have that kind of power. “White-collar trans issues are working out better,” Mendelsohn said, “because they realize now that inclusivity is better for business. But that isn’t trickling down.” In fact, transgender people are, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality, four times more likely than other Americans to have a household income under $10,000 and more than twice as likely to be unemployed.
In response to findings like this, Mendelsohn started the California Trans Workplace Program, whose mission is to help California become a trans-positive workplace state. CTWP joins forces with the restaurant industry, which Mendelsohn of course knows a little something about, to create entry-level positions with pathways to management for transgender employees, so they can be out at work—something Mendelsohn thinks is invaluable. After successfully pitching one initiative to the state government, the CTWP now partners with restaurant owners across California, connecting them with jobseekers, who are mentored and whose first 60 hours on the job are paid for by the state. For trans people who need a chance, “being their authentic selves in the workplace is deeply meaningful to them,” said Mendelsohn, who was recently asked by the mayor of Los Angeles to join his workplace-development board.