My story of coming out at Sandia
NOTE: Every LGBTQ+ person’s experience is different, and transgender people, in particular, have a broad spectrum of needs and experiences. In my personal story that follows, I share my experience coming out at Sandia. However, please don’t project my experience on others, including LGBTQ+ Sandians. I hope my story provides a useful starting point, but that is no substitute for taking time to get to know people as individuals and learning how to best be an ally on a case-by-case basis.
I am transgender.
It’s been a long, long time in coming. I spent decades fighting it, grasping at straws, pretending there was going to be some world in which this didn’t end with me going through the long, hard, expensive and painful process of social and medical gender transition.
I knew for a very long time that I wanted to transition, to show the world who I really am inside. But I was terrified of everything I knew I would lose, from little things like the ability to walk alone at night or roll out of bed and be at my desk at work 15 minutes later, to big things like the loss of my family, some of my long-time friends, or the implicit presumption of competence in a professional setting by colleagues who refuse to address their subconscious biases.
In the seven months since I started coming out to friends, and particularly in the past two months since I came out publicly, I have lost many of these things. But what I’ve gained — the ability to live openly and honestly as myself — is so much more valuable and rewarding than I ever imagined. Even in the process of coping with some profound and difficult losses in my life that have come as a result of my transition, I am deeply and unimaginably happy. I’m happy in ways that I didn’t even know happiness could feel like until now.
Sense of safety
Fortunately, one loss that I never had to worry about was my employment. And for that, I am immensely grateful to Sandia and everyone at the Labs who has worked hard to create an environment where I feel that way. It’s difficult to fully disentangle the set of factors that made me feel this sense of safety, but there are a few that are probably worth calling out explicitly.
One factor that readily stands out is the annual harassment-free workplace training. I know we all complain about having yet another cheesy slide show to click through each year, but it’s hard to describe how comforting it is to be in a marginalized group and then see an explicit statement of support for your safety in a training course that everyone is required to take.
When I came to Sandia, these corporate trainings were one of the first times I had heard someone say that I couldn’t be harassed or discriminated against based on my gender expression. When that training was altered (probably by someone with good intentions) at some point later to collapse “gender identity and expression” into just “gender identity,” I noticed. When “gender expression” returned a few years later, I also noticed. It’s a really small thing, but it went a long way toward me feeling comfortable being myself at work.
It’s worth re-emphasizing that every transgender person’s experience is different. For me, gender expression was a critical aspect of coping with my gender dysphoria and a big part of what helped me get to where I am today. “Gender dysphoria” is the medical term used when a person feels distress due to a mismatch between their gender identity and the sex assigned to them at birth.
It’s important to note that not every gender nonconforming individual has gender dysphoria, nor does everyone with gender dysphoria think of it as a medical disorder. Personally, though, I needed to be able to think of it as a medical diagnosis and work with medical professionals throughout the process. I spent a long time poking my toes or “leaking” out of the closet in the form of feminine gender expression before I got to the point where I was comfortable admitting I needed professional help. I am grateful that for me, Sandia was the accepting environment that allowed me to do that.
Support of allies
There are many people I have to thank for fostering the acceptance I have felt at Sandia, but I particularly want to mention how supported I’ve felt by administrative staff. We often underappreciate how our office administrators act as friends, sounding boards and informal therapists to the staff in their departments.
During the four or so years where my gender expression leaked out of the closet before I was ready to be honest with myself and others about my gender identity, they always seemed to know the right things to say, from the office management assistant who complimented my nail polish and comforted me after the Orlando night club shooting, to another administrative staff member who was so consistently encouraging and complimentary of my gender expression that I would walk across the California site — often in heels — to visit her after her office moved, to my current office administrator who printed out a replacement nameplate with my new name and left it on my desk with a post-it note saying “whenever you’re ready :-).”
There are so many stories I wish I had the space to tell here. While many of my technical colleagues felt uncomfortable voicing the unspoken question of “why are you wearing a dress?” that was obviously on their minds, I am grateful for the administrative staff (and several technical colleagues) who dared to risk awkwardness and treat me like any other woman.
I am also grateful for the women in management and other leadership positions at Sandia who have shown me through their actions and careers that expressing my true gender doesn’t have to limit my professional potential. Particularly over the past two months, these women have welcomed me with open arms into their professional organizations as enthusiastically as they do any other woman. As someone who has benefited from male privilege my whole life until now, the enthusiasm with which these women have welcomed me into their professional circles has been an enormously positive and frankly unexpected experience.
Finally, specifically to my other transgender and LGBTQ+ colleagues at Sandia — both closeted and varying degrees of out — I am here for you. Please reach out to me if you need to talk or just want a friend. I cannot say enough about how hard this would have been without the transgender women in my life who reached out to me to make sure everything was okay and who shared so freely from their own experiences. I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. To anyone questioning out there: you don’t have to do this alone.