Category Archives: Ageism

Despite it all…


For the first time in years, I actually bought one of those magazines at the check-out counter at the grocery store. You know the ones – they jostle in their gaudy colors, their provocative titles distracting (and generally irritating) overwhelmed shoppers like me. Yet for the first time ever, one of those better-known, thankfully non-gaudy magazines features (provocatively) a transgender girl on its cover – absent any subtext of outrage, disgust, or rejection. A girl, right there on that cover, just being herself. Whew…what a relief, and what a blessing.

Thank you, National Geographic.

Some upbeat news at the end of a very hard year is indeed a welcome Christmas present. And there is no pretending that 2016 has been OK; it hasn’t. For me this year has been marked by vulnerability, stigmatization, worry, financial insecurity, and exclusion. It’s been a year of first-hand encounters with ageism and transphobia, again and again and again. It’s sadly telling that this will be the first time in decades that I’m not sending out Christmas cards – it’s been that kind of a year. So yes, I’m glad to see 2016 go away, even if I’ve very little reason to hope that the coming year (the coming four years, really) will be any better for many, many people who are facing not only various emboldened forms of exclusion and stigma, but also the possibility of losing their health insurance, seeing their civil rights eroded, watching our country engage in bellicose and ill-judged international engagements, and standing aghast as our environmental protections go down the drain.

Somehow though, I’m feeling ready. Bring it on. I’ve made it this far, and there’s no stopping me now. And I sense I am not alone in that determination…

That simple magazine cover (and its well-written contents) reminded me of something that I sorely needed to be reminded of. There are good people “out there”, open to learning about and boldly – intentionally – embracing a new world of diversity in which people like me are accepted and even valued (my friends have been saying that consistently, but you know how a funky mood in a bad election year can shut down even the love and wisdom of terrific friends). But being around loving family and friends does make a huge difference, as does finding some income-generating work (and I have just found some, at least for a while), and maybe those Christmas carols and the cards I’ve received have also shone their rejuvenating light into the darkness. Whatever…I’m feeling more upbeat now than I have all year. Continue reading Despite it all…

Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving


It’s Thanksgiving, and so far I have sat mute as numerous messages have reached me across the Internet from friends and family, effusive in their gratitude for the many blessings that characterize their lives and relationships. These are sincere, warm, caring messages, and it is wonderful that this holiday opens the door to such expressions. Throughout the rest of the year, none of us says “thank you” nearly enough.

This year, however, I have not found the words inside me to be warmly responsive to these sentiments. Maybe I am just in a funky place…which might be forgivable in my current circumstances. I’m still trying – without measurable success – to make any sense of the recent presidential election, as the American political landscape seems to have entered into a place of irrationality and deep division. While the world around me seems very insecure, my own personal world also has more than a fair share of insecurity.  I’ve been unemployed (not counting a few consulting assignments and some modestly-remunerated adjunct teaching) for the past two years, despite my monumental efforts to find a new job. Success in securing employment eludes me. My small savings long ago were depleted, and despite many job applications still “pending” my prospects continue to look bleak. So…I am finding myself blocked from that congenial space in which to muse upon my blessings. I might take some small satisfaction in laying some blame for my plight on ageism and transphobia, but placing blame won’t change a culture that excludes well-qualified people from employment opportunities simply because they are mature, experienced, and living authentically.

Still, I know all too well that I am blessed.

I do indeed have much to be thankful for: my health, my family and friends, my Quaker faith community, my excellent education, my life’s narrative of so many international adventures, my growing and inspirational global community of LGBTI persons and allies. I should even be grateful for my cat…he’s a good cat.

Optimistic, idealistic do-gooders are generally not esteemed in society (cats or no cats), especially by those of a more hard-edged, pragmatic character. Still, I am grateful for my resilient idealism, despite the many knocks along the way. Among these ideals that mean the most to me are two: 1) that human dignity is universal, and 2) that ethical leadership makes all the difference in getting to a place where societies honor that dignity…for everyone. Continue reading Musings of an “East Coast liberal elite” on Thanksgiving

Honorable – and transgender.


I have quite an honorable week ahead of me, and it’s giving me pause.

On Tuesday evening, after the genuine honor and delight of teaching my “ethics and international development class” at the University of Maryland, I’ll make my way to a gathering in Washington that is admittedly a political fund-raiser, but also a moment of deep solidarity among Hillary Clinton LGBTI supporters and our allies, organized by the Foreign Policy Professionals for Hillary. I’ll be on the speakers’ panel with some truly distinguished folks – an activist who was once the openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Romania, the former senior LGBTI staffer at the White House, the former Special Advisor on Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, the Executive Director of Gender Rights Maryland, and a Research Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. These are smart, committed, thoughtful, caring, determined, and honorable people, and yes – it will indeed be an honor to be counted among them.

Later in the week, on Thursday night, I will again be in Washington at Center Global’s 4th Annual reception and fund-raiser. This organization works very hard (on a too-modest budget) to assist, welcome, care for, and stand in solidarity with LGBTI refugees and asylum seekers from around the world. Such refugees and asylum seekers often arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, and with their hearts and minds bruised and burdened by histories of deep trauma, persecution, and even violence. They need to heal. Center Global provides the essential welcome and safe refuge for that healing to begin, as well as much practical guidance to ease them through their adjustment to this new country. Among the Annual Reception’s three awardees that evening will be one who never expected to be there, and who is – quite frankly – overwhelmed at this recognition and enormous honor: the recipient of the Global Advocate Award.


The following day I will fly to Rhode Island, where on Saturday morning I will give a talk at the annual American Electrology Association‘s Convention. Electrology? Yes – for many transgender women, electrologists are an essential resource on the gender transition journey, and this profession has been at the forefront in accepting, welcoming, and providing quality services to transgender women. Given the fact that facial hair removal can easily exceed 300 hours of (painful!) treatment stretched out over many years, we often develop very good friendships with these caring and professional frontline service providers – our valued allies in the transition process. Still, being honored by this invitation from a national association is remarkable, and I am humbled.

There’s a certain irony to all this honorable attention. While I’m very comfortable in public speaking situations, and believe that my relatively unusual journey as a transgender person has bestowed upon me some important messages that warrant sharing, I’m also by most prominent economic measures a failure. Why would I be honored? Like so many transgender people in the United States and around the world, I cannot find full-time employment. Continue reading Honorable – and transgender.

Squeamish and freaked-out


The application went in, and in relatively short order I was thrilled to be invited to an interview. The international development consulting firm in the suburbs of Washington, DC is well-established, large, and successful, even if it is headquartered in another state. It would be wonderful to work there. In due course the interview took place, and it was all smiles. I was warmly received, but was told that there would need to be one more interview. A formality, really. More smiles. It would be scheduled shortly. I was cordially escorted to the door, and the body language looked terrific. Yes!

That final interview never happened. I waited and waited, and when I finally inquired, I was told that I was no longer a candidate for this position. No reasons were offered, and none given – even when I asked. They never are, of course.

This wasn’t the first time that such experiences – or uncomfortably similar episodes – have taken place in my now 22-month job quest. There isn’t any way to prove discrimination in what is happening, but it probably isn’t ageism since in each of these episodes I have already made it past that filter – itself quite an accomplishment. That isn’t to diminish how many times I wasn’t invited to an interview because of my age. Despite having great qualifications and exercising a lot of care in the selection of only the most appropriate job opportunities to pursue, even getting to the interview is rare.

Being cast aside after an interview is a curious experience for me. I’m really good at interviews. In some perverse way, I actually enjoy interviews! So why the poor success rate post-interview, all those smiles notwithstanding? My guess is that they subsequently did their more comprehensive digital research and came up with a fact about my “history” that hadn’t surfaced in the interview or in the application process to date.  Something that they would not have known about me just from talking with me at an interview…

They found out that I am transgender.

It is a rare job indeed where that status is an asset in terms of recruitment, and having a “gender history” is relatively difficult to conceal on-line. For those of us who’ve been very active in LGBTQ advocacy and – in my case – have held high-level positions associated with LGBTQ issues, it is integral to who I am. I’m neither proud nor ashamed to be transgender. Those are the cards I was dealt, and I get on with it. And while I don’t ever pin the label to myself in my resume, and seldom in my cover letter, that “truth” is but a few Google clicks away.

My mind plays out several scenarios about how that information is received by a potential employer when it is unearthed through their due-diligence background checks. I have ample scenario-material to draw upon, as I have seen how many people in the typical senior executive bracket (i.e. mostly male, mostly white, mostly straight, and always cisgender) react to the whole notion of transgender women. I think the word “squeamish” describes it well, but “freaked-out” also works. When such senior executives get close to a decision on a candidate, it doesn’t do my cause any good if they are either squeamish or freaked-out! That final interview or job offer never happens. Continue reading Squeamish and freaked-out

Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

GU lawn

Where did 13 weeks go?

As an ethics professor at the end of a university term, I’m once again challenged by such metaphysical questions…but since I’ve been doing this adjunct gig for the past two decades I’m at least no longer surprised when it all suddenly wraps up. Along the way, I’ve taken great pleasure in the effervescent enthusiasm for learning that my students have contributed to our joint endeavor. Still, I’m troubled… after all these years the most important questions I pose each term remain largely unanswered.

I get it. I know that “ethics” is an uncomfortable word, redolent of images of accountants and lawyers with their ponderously thick books of regulations, accountability standards, codes of conduct, and threats of dire consequences for malfeasance. The type of ethics that I teach however isn’t situated in that dry (if necessary) world of disclosures and compliance obligations. Instead, my modest goal is to teach my public policy students to acquire and use a different vocabulary that has its origin in the moral language of secularism.

In the moral context, that qualifies as a foreign language for the vast majority of people. The language of “ought”, of demands for rational justifications for decisions taken and plans made (usually on behalf of others), and the phraseology of that complicated moral world of good, bad, right, wrong, caring and callous, virtuous and corrupt, and similar values can baffle any of us. When faced with unsolvable moral dilemmas and the weighing of unpleasant trade-offs, wouldn’t we really rather be doing something else, or have someone else (or their rules) telling us what to do? The moral dialogue can be hard; we’d much rather wriggle away from it or pretend it isn’t there.

And most of us do just that…and we get away with it.

Will you be surprised when I assert that ethics can also be a heroic space? Ethical leaders inspire profound transformations. Courageous truth-seekers blow the whistle on self-interested, exploitative, venal officials, or quietly but firmly take principled stands. Some people even choose not to be complacent, when being complacent is so much easier.

Just occasionally (when we’re drained of outrage and indignation) we actually stop long enough to notice those remarkable and often self-effacing people who consistently exemplify integrity and sacrifice. They may not constitute the silent majority, but they are there, all around us. Integrity isn’t a scarce resource, but who would know?

In this day and age, the prevailing ethos is anchored in efficiency, power, and profit. There are very few spaces in our institutions of governance (public or private) or corporate boardrooms where we consciously and regularly set aside time and effort to sharpen our sensibilities about the “greater good”, or to conjecture about the implications of what it might be like were our society marked by fairness, mutual respect, and caring. We seldom consider what it might mean were we to balance our society’s glorification of fierce (and usually “manly”) competitiveness with the sense that our best natures might shine the brightest through collaboration, partnership, reciprocity, and unapologetic idealism. Continue reading Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

Ageism and transphobia? No fun at all…

growing older 6

At the distinct risk of sounding smug, I can recall many instances in my last job where I would enter into a discussion among co-workers on a vexing issue. I would listen carefully, ponder for a while, and then offer a suggestion. My co-workers would pause, look at me, and smile. “We never thought of that – what a terrific solution!”

This scenario isn’t as self-aggrandizing as it might appear at first blush. I too once sat around such a table, immersed in a similarly insolvable conundrum. In those distant days we’d found our way to a solution or at least a path to a solution, sometimes guided by the input of a mentor, by our own creative thought, or by blind luck. Turning to today, what’s important is the realization that within me is the mental “database” of over three decades of experience – often finding solutions – in international work on development and human rights. That internal database has been built from having carried out projects in 42 countries around the world, of having lived and worked in Africa and Asia for 15 years, and of having earned my way to a Ph.D.

This broad experience and the multitude of ways in which I’ve integrated all of this into my thinking, my attitudes, and my world view is an asset that is available to my younger co-workers. Yes, maybe it’s even now time for me to be the mentor. I’d be happy to give it my best shot.

One of my favorite people in the world and the co-founder of Search for Common Ground, Susan Collin Marks, once shared a personal reflection that I found remarkably illuminating. She recounted to me how, after a very serious illness while she was middle-aged, she was fighting her way back to health. During her difficult recuperation, she thought about her career like an hourglass. The only path to success was to climb your way to the upper part of that hourglass, even though the glass was slippery to climb and as you got closer to the middle, the path before you was more and more constricting. Most of those who were with you in that hourglass were also earnestly in pursuit of a career distinguished by meaningful impacts and progressively more responsibility, but ultimately most fell by the wayside or pursued other paths. Still, the experience of reaching that transition point and entering the upper part of the hourglass was transformative. The way ahead was bright and ever expanding, there was room to “be”, and the pressure of all that fierce competition evaporated. There was nothing more to prove. The ground rules were different too; from this point onward you were valued as much – or more – for your wisdom than for your knowledge.

For those of us of a “certain age” in America, wisdom has become a tough sell. The once-esteemed role of wise mentor has almost entirely been eclipsed and diminished by a new social phenomenon: ageism. That term is defined as stereotyping and discriminating against individuals or groups on the basis of their age. This discrimination may be systematic or causal. The term originated with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and gerontologist-physician Robert Neil Butler, who became the first director of the National Institute on Aging.

For me this is all particularly ironic; having spent a significant and grueling part of my life seeking to overcome the truly pernicious stereotypes that society assigns to people who are transgender, I now confront a new stereotype that is even more pervasive and more deeply entrenched. And while discrimination in America based on age is illegal (except in South Dakota and Arkansas, shame on them), employers are generally far too careful to ever let on that this is the reason for the negative response to that job application I submitted. Still, for those of us who are out there seeking a job, having to come to terms with the demoralizing flood of rejections for jobs that we know with every fiber in our being that we are exceptionally well suited for, the message isn’t subtle at all. We feel marginalized by and disrespected for something we have absolutely no control over – our age. Just like being transgender, getting older isn’t a choice. Continue reading Ageism and transphobia? No fun at all…