Girl Power is the first phrase that came to mind when we were introduced to Transgender political activist, and all around superwoman, Michaela Mendelsohn. Working with OITNB creator Jenji Kohan to develop Laverne Cox's character, and becoming the first Trans board member on the Trevor Project are just a few of her accomplishments. Mendelsohn is also a savy business woman. She founded the California Transgender Workplace Program to promote trans-friendly job conditions, and is currently the CEO of Pollo West Corp, one of the largest franchisees for El Pollo Loco restaurant in the Western Region of the United States. Impressive right?
TFF had a chance to chat with the fabulous pioneer on everything from her accomplishments, to what life was like when she first realized she born in the wrong body. Her views are inspirational and insightful. Enjoy the interview and share with friends! Visit the link below to learn more about Michaela.
The Fab Femme: When did you first realize you were trans and how did your family accept your transition?
Michaela Mendelsohn: I knew I was different growing up. I grew up in Long Island, New York. Unlike the other boys my closest friend was a girl. We would play house, hop scotch and jump rope. I liked to wear my sister’s clothes but did that in private so as not to get into trouble.
Though I also liked playing games with the guys so I guess I had a “two spirited” thing going on. Of course, this was the 50’s and 60’s and there no reference for how I felt. Transgender or gender non-conforming was unheard of in those days. There was no internet or talk show hosts interviewing young trans gender children.
I became more acutely aware that I was “other” when I was picked on by the other kids. The bullying got really bad in the 8th and 9th grades culminating with the the class bully urinating on me in the boys shower. I hated myself after this and vowed to change. That summer I worked out for hours a day. I happened to grow three inches that summer and lost 15 pounds. Within two years I set so many physical fitness records I received a letter from then President Lyndon Johnson. I was covering up “my “true self “to be “acceptable.”
TFF: What was the process of transitioning like for you? How did you feel afterwards and how did your life change?
MM: I did not transition until I was 54 years old. I had lived my adult life in a “hyper masculine” way. I participated in all types of sports, built businesses and raised a family. My favorite thing was being a parent. I put a lot of time into my kids. Giving love to them was very healing for me.
I was doing my best to avoid my gender issue by being an overachiever in everything I did. This caught up with me at around 50 when I became emotionally and physically ill. I began giving up on life as I had known it and spent a year seldom leaving the house. One day I woke up thinking “If I don’t face my gender issues I’m not going to make it.”
My transition was difficult for my family. My being such a strong role model for my children worked against us. To my daughters I was the type of man they would marry one day and to my son an example of something to live up to. They were not ready for the drastic change entailed by their dad becoming a woman.
I was rejected by my immediate family, told to hide away from all their friends and their schools, so as not to embarrass them. One day I secretly visited my younger daughter’s middle school open house. On the wall of her classroom were poems from each of the kids. Her’s said, “ When I was three years old I would ride on my daddy’s shoulders. I was on top of the world and everything was perfect. I knew I was safe and that nothing could ever harm me. Now everything has changed and my world has come tumbling down. Things will never be the same. Even the sound of his voice sickens me.”
My daughter’s poem was like an arrow through my heart. For the first time suicide became the answer. I could not hurt my family any more. The next day I walked out of my car intending to step in front of an oncoming car. My son grabbed hold to stop me. “Dad, I don’t care what gender you are in. This family needs you.” The following day I was at my therapist who set me straight. She said that my suicide would be the worst thing that ever happened to my family.
“Every day they would wonder what they could have done to prevent it.”
I have not had a suicidal thought since. I left my family a year later as it became evident my wife and I could not continue living together. I spent a couple years in gender confusion as I had traded one box for another. Now I felt the pressure to be all woman in every way. There was facial and body surgeries and over 200 hours of painful electrolysis. I was learning how to dress, how to walk and how to talk; how to do make up and have perfect hair.
I was even the censor of my own thoughts, making sure they were “female enough.” This was not such a happy time for me. I was still fighting my gender dysphoria but now from a female body and without my family. There was a point of realization when this turned around. Maybe it was a renewed focus on my buddhist practice and going within. I learned to accept all parts of myself and to stop labeling them male or female. Along with this came the realization that my children had lost more than me. I was moving towards becoming my authentic self while they had lost an important role figure in their lives.
This realization seemed to create space for them to come back to me and now years later I am blessed with our renewed closeness.
During this time a new person entered my life. She made me feel whole by seeing myself through her eyes. We decided to have a child together and are now blessed with our two and half old son who helps me see life new every day.
Along with self acceptance came a sense of freedom I had never really know before. With it a huge dose of gratitude for how fortunate I was compared to so many others in my new found community. Unlike so many others in the trans community I had a good living and now two loving families. Today my new found career as an activist is a deeply rewarding part of my life.
TFF: That's very interesting and quite beautiful even though it started out difficult. You worked with Jenji Kohan on OITNB to help develop Laverne Cox’s character. What was that experience like for you and what were your thoughts after you saw Sophia’s character on the show?
MM: It was such a treat! I was asked to help Jenji and her writers by a writer friend of mine who was working on the show. When i got to the Johnny Carson building at Universal there was a parking spot reserved for me! Once inside Jenji greeted me and introduced me to her ten writers. They wanted guidance on the transgender experience especially how it related to the character, Sophia. I spent several hours with Jenji and her staff then phone calls with the writer assigned to Sophia’s “back story.” I helped them understand how trans women so often led “hyper masculine” lives in an attempt to erase what was going on inside them. Hence the back story of Sophia as a fireman.
I did not receive compensation or credits. I told Jenji what I really wanted was for them to get the story right and to hire a trans female actress to play the part. Of course she was Genji Cohen and could do what ever she wanted. But in the end they did both which made me very proud.
TFF: Aside from working with Kohan, you’re also very well known for being a successful businesswoman. Tell us a little about how you came to become the CEO of Pollo West Corp.
I guess I was sort of a born entrepreneur. I was self sufficient since I was 12 years old which was when I began my first business venture washing and waxing cars and hiring other kids to help. I started my first major business venture at 21 out of my parents garage. My coin operated amusement company became the largest in California by the time I was 30. But then the hone video games came on the scene which seriously affected our business. It was then I began building and operating restaurants.
TFF: You also do work with the Trevor Project. As an advocate, what has been your proudest moment thus far?
The whole experience with Trevor has been so rewarding. I am proud to be part of such an amazing organization while helping them advance their reach to the transgender community. I am inspired by their passion and the difference they make in the lives of LGBT youth. The 50 plus hours I have spent in training to be a life line counselor has been an incredibly moving experience. It’s a huge responsibility that none of their counselors takes lightly.
TFF: Trans women in the south have experienced quite a bit of injustice recently. Several women have come up dead and our justice system does absolutely nothing to end this problem. Especially in areas surrounding New Orleans. What advice can you give trans women and their allies on how to deal with these injustices?
Mostly that they are not alone. So many people are working towards improving their situation. In the meantime find resources that support who they are. Hopefully that is family but all too often they are not accepting. Choosing a close friend who feels safe to come out to is great if they have this. If not possibly a teacher as school who has said things that leads then to feel they are an ally of the LGBT community. Many areas have LGBT Centers. And there is Trevor. They can call our crisis line and speak to caring counselors or go on Trevor Space and communicate with other LGBT kids going through similar issues. It is so important not go through this alone.
If you’re thinking about suicide, you deserve immediate help - please call the Trevor Lifeline at 866-488-7386.
TFF: Tell us about the work you are doing helping trans people achieve labor equality?
The Mission of the California Trans Workplace Project/CTWP is to make California a truly trans-positive work place.
MM: CTWP in a partnership with a handful of major LGBT organizations, is working to make this happen. Together we are approaching major trade associations and Chambers of Commerce to educate their members on the practical, ethical and legal process needed to create a positive environment for trans employees to flourish. Second step is connecting transgender job seekers with these business establishments. All the pieces are now being put in place.
This program is a win/win for the businesses as well as the employees. The trans work population is a talent pool largely ignored in the past by business owners and their management. In my own company approximately 10% of our employees are now transgender. We get more compliments from customers on our trans employees than any other group.
At the moment we are working closely with the California Restaurant Association putting together a statewide diversity project. The restaurant industry in California employs about 1.8 million people.
TFF: Last question. What positive message would you like relay to women throughout the world?
MM: I think it is important for all of us to be true to who we are and never limit ourselves - never think or believe that something is impossible.
I forget where I read it but when you break down that word you actually get I’M POSSIBLE. I like that. Positive thinking!