Meet an Officer Who Transitioned at the CIA

Not too long ago, openly LGBT people were denied federal security clearances. These days, the CIA has an extensive strategy in place to help trans employees confirm their gender expression.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

August 14 2014 4:00 AM ET

Those who work at the Central Intelligence Agency are used to operating under a veil of secrecy. Some even take on undercover assignments, assuming identities that may have no reflection of who they really are.

But what if you had to assume an alternate identity just to show up at work at the CIA every day? Jenny was working as an intelligence officer with a top-secret security clearance for five years — until two years ago, when she first began informing her supervisors that she is transgender and planned to begin presenting at work as the woman she truly is.

Jenny (who declined to give her full name or official title, citing security concerns, in a phone interview with The Advocate) lived as a woman among friends and family but had to don what she calls male drag when she reported to work. It wore on her.

“While we’re undercover, we pledge to be honest with ourselves and the agency,” Jenny says.
In fact, the words “You shall know the truth and the truth will set you free” are engraved on the wall in the main building of the CIA. Jenny says everyone there takes that quote seriously.

“I write memos for the highest customers in the country — for the president — and we try to speak truth to power,” she continues. “But if we can’t be authentic and truthful about ourselves, then that’s a real problem.”

Nearly 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton finally rescinded a McCarthy-era government policy that kept gay and lesbian people from receiving elevated security clearances. Since that executive order went into effect in 1995, there has been some more visibility of gay and bisexual officers, but the message was unclear as to whether the agency could or would accept transgender officers. After years of hiding, however, Jenny decided it was time to find out.

“I knew that it was something I couldn’t carry on forever,” she concludes. “It was time.”

When she first told her superiors that she wanted to transition on the job, she says, the senior officers took the news in a way characteristic of professionals who frequently deal with sensitive, secure information.

“In our true, sort of normal agency fashion, we basically vested right to the logistics of when [my transition] would happen and who we would tell and what were the details of making sure it happened and went well and setting the timeline.”

Jenny worked with her immediate supervisors, members of the agency’s LGBT employee affinity group (the Agency Network for Gay and Lesbian Employees, or ANGLE), and a dedicated senior officer with the agency’s human resources department. She and her colleagues reviewed the latest federal guidelines around transgender employees and set out on what would be a two-year journey to support Jenny living and working as her authentic self.

A key tenet of supporting transgender employees who want to transition on the job is letting the officer take the lead on identifying the kind of support they need, says Fran Moore (pictured at left), who was part of Jenny’s transition team in Moore’s former role as the director for intelligence.

Moore, who was an ally to ANGLE at the time Jenny came out as transgender, first learned about Jenny’s case through an ANGLE representative on her staff and Jenny’s managers.

“Once they raised [Jenny’s case] with me, we actually got together to walk through where she was, what kind of support she needed, and what the professional sort of guidance was for how to enable and support an employee going through this process,” says Moore, who now serves as dean of the agency’s analytic training program.

Moore says one of the most important parts of that journey was fostering clear and respectful communication “so the employee can make that transition at their own pace, in a way that they are comfortable with.”

But that doesn’t mean Jenny didn’t have apprehensions about coming out at work.

“When I was going into it, I was very concerned that I would be fired,” Jenny says. “I didn’t know any trans people at the CIA. I didn’t know that you could be trans … if they employed people like that. I was terrified that I’d lose my job and all the things I had worked for. I didn’t know how I would explain to my employer how this hadn’t come up before. I was filled with a lot of fear.”

“In the end I just did what I had to do,” she says, “and I was very happy to find that the agency was a lot more inclusive and tolerant than it’s let on.”

Despite an initially disappointing realization that her coming out made her the only openly transgender person currently working at the CIA, Jenny says her colleagues — and particularly members of ANGLE — went to lengths great and small to affirm her identity.

Her colleagues bought her an Ann Taylor gift card, she says, which helped her rebuild her entire wardrobe. Others approached her privately with stories of friends, family members, and loved ones who were LGBT, making it clear they supported her unconditionally.

“That really meant a lot to me,” she says. “That people made that personal connection. I really had the support of everyone, because it went from my colleagues, to my immediate managers, and all the way up through the director of the agency.”

The agency’s LGBT group arranged for Jenny to attend a meeting of transgender people from various branches of the federal government. Those simple meetings, she says, helped her to let go of some of her own internalized negative stereotypes about transgender people built up from a childhood in a small American town, such as the misconception that all trans people are sex workers or sexual deviants.

(RELATED: 6 CIA Officers On Coming Out, McCarthy, and Gay Recruiting)

“These are doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists, spies, and a retired SEAL Team 6 member,” she recalls of her new network. “These are trans people doing extraordinary jobs, who just happen to be trans. They have the highest clearances our government has and are involved in really important work — and that was an enormous relief to me that I had not had before.”

Aside from her gender, Jenny says little has changed in her post-transition work life.

“I am still traveling around the world,” she says. “I’m still getting to brief policymakers. I’m still writing for the president, which is why I joined the CIA. But now I can be my full self and not feel like I have to hide anything.”

In seeking guidance on how to support Jenny, her supervisors looked to what was then a draft set of guidelines laying out best practices for managers and colleagues of transgender employees. Through the course of Jenny’s transition, those guidelines were finalized into a six-panel pamphlet that is now distributed to members of the intelligence community nationwide.

Aptly titled “The Intelligence Community’s Best Practices for the Managers and Colleagues of Transgender Employees,” the pamphlet serves as an introduction to basic terminology, including a definition of the term “transgender,” lists considerations that should be taken throughout the process, and addresses security concerns. In fact, the document bluntly confirms, “there are no additional security considerations regarding an employee’s decision to come out as transgender or to transition.”


Best Practices for Managers of Transgender Employees_page1-2

The document advises individual employees to set the direction of their transition at work. Some of the guidelines seem basic but set a no-nonsense standard for how to respect and support transgender employees. The guidelines include respecting the employee’s confidentiality regarding the level of disclosure they may or may not wish to engage in and always using the employee’s preferred name and pronouns, including on official identification, email, and dress code requirements. It also says nontrans employees should educate themselves about trans identities through their agency’s LGBT affinity group or national resources.

And as far as managers and employees go, the pamphlet encourages communication and reminds higher-ups that they don’t always have the answers, but to plan ahead together: “Managers and employees should develop a plan and discuss their concerns while respecting the needs of the employee. … Managers do not need to have all the answers, but seek them out and get back to your employee.”

Similarly, the pamphlet suggests creating a transition team, which Moore says provided the inspiration for building such a team for Jenny. That team addressed issues Moore describes as “practical” — including bathroom use, updated ID cards, and email addresses, getting Jenny’s security clearance connected to her preferred name, and, at Jenny’s request, informing her colleagues about the transition when she deemed it appropriate.

Coincidentally, Jenny formally came out during Pride Month 2013, and that provided a prime opportunity to express the agency’s fundamental valuing of diversity, according to Moore.

“I made sure that I emphasized the concept of respect and care in everything we do and say in that [Pride Month] message, and also in messages to our leadership team,” Moore explains. “I reminded people that unconscious bias is something we have to constantly — from the leadership perspective — be on guard against.”

The agency also invited prominent trans author and advocate Donna Rose to address officers to explain some of the struggles and triumphs of trans people. The idea was to provide an expert’s opinion, rather than rely on a colleague who was reticent to be the poster child for trans officers at the CIA.

“I wanted to make sure there were no inadvertent policy or process issues that would really heighten the painfulness of this because, no matter how smooth the transition, [Jenny] was going to be uncomfortable with being somewhat the center of attention during the period of transition,” Moore says. “So we really brainstormed all the things that might happen and put into play a plan to make sure that we smoothed over every bump that we could imagine.”

And indeed, Jenny characterizes her transition and her continued employment at the CIA as positive developments. Although she admits she heard stories from other transgender people in similar fields about being harassed in the workplace, Jenny says she “really experienced none of that.”

“We have a very young and open-minded workforce, and it’s a different era,” she says. If anything, she wishes she started the process sooner — and that the agency had been more forthcoming about its trans-affirming policies.

“I wish that they had done a better job communicating clearly both the legal protections and the choice of the agency that we are inclusive,” says Jenny. “We’ve gone from not firing people — which was the progress that was made in the ’90s and the early 2000s — to actively wanting LGBT people in our workforce because they have special skills and talents that we need to do our mission. So I wish that, at the time, we had done a more aggressive job letting our people know that they are included in our workforce.”

Officers with the CIA who are responsible for recruitment of new employees are all too aware of that tense history between the federal intelligence outfit and numerous minority populations, including LGBT people.

“Some people do hold on to these myths about who CIA is, and we do have this unfortunate history prior to 1996, when our LGBT brothers and sisters were not allowed to hold a security clearance,” acknowledges Carmen Middleton (pictured at left), director of the Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion at CIA.

But today’s agency abides by federal guidelines mandating nondiscrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation and — as of Obama's signature on the amended executive order 11478 last month — gender identity. 

More than three years before President Obama amended that executive order, the CIA launched its first earnest effort to actively recruit potential LGBT employees through its Center for Mission Diversity and Inclusion, which lists among its objectives “attracting diverse talent” and “instilling inclusive work practices.” For the third consecutive year, the CIA had a booth at Washington, D.C.’s Capital Pride, and the agency already has LGBT officers networking with universities and affinity groups like Out in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, in the interest of establishing a “hiring pipeline” of qualified LGBT people in relevant fields, Middleton says.

Seeking out that diversity is integral to the success of the CIA’s overall success and efficacy, since “we can’t meet our mission if we all think and look alike,” Middleton says. “The world is a very complicated place, and the challenges we have in the national security arena are increasingly complex. …We won’t get to those most creative and innovative solutions without that diversity of thought. And LGBT is a critical component of that.”

But the key to the agency’s successful efforts to recruit and retain LGBT employees is its senior leadership, Middleton says.

“Senior leadership is very much committed, they’re very vocal about the importance of diversity and inclusion at CIA,” explains Middleton, “And certainly, [Moore] has just walked that talk, as a senior leader here at CIA, for decades.”

The CIA stands apart from the military, where gays and lesbians are no longer restricted by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and now serve openly, but transgender service members still cannot. Moore demurs when asked about leading the implementation of such as cutting-edge policy while the Department of Defense still bars transgender people from serving openly in the armed services. She explains that it was simply part of her job as Jenny’s supervisor to help her feel comfortable at work.

“I do think, though, that others in the organization have benchmarked and learned from the same best practices,” she says. “And I have heard from Jenny, that other employees who are considering this kind of a transition in other parts of the agency are seeking her out for advice. So for me, the best representation of how well it went is if people are comfortable enough with Jenny’s story to take the risk themselves.”

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