As a writer and activist, I was lucky enough to have a role model -- my stepsister, Michele Kort (pictured below), who last year left us all too soon, after a battle with cancer. Michele was senior editor of Ms. magazine for 14 years and left behind an amazing body of work spanning over 40 years, including biographies of strong women such as Laura Nyro and Martina Navratilova.
After her death, Ms. published a special edition of her articles titled "This Is What a Kickass Feminist Looks Like." Michele was certainly that. My transition was a challenge to her feminist ideals. She wrote about it in a piece for The Advocate, "As the only other LGBT person in the family, I was sort of the designated person to turn to for understanding -- and it was a good challenge for me. I needed to read transgender writers like Julia Serano and consider if my old feminist attitudes about trans men and their appropriation of male privilege, or about trans women and their performance of hyper-femininity, still held up under a present-day examination of gender. I decided that it was a lot more complicated than that."
I looked up to Michele. Her support meant a lot to me, as it did to so many others. During my transition, I was struggling with family rejection and was out on my own for the first time in over 30 years. I would meet her at or near her office at Ms. in Los Angeles. We'd go for lunch or coffee and chat. She reflected back to me my journey as a woman and as a lesbian. I introduced her to my partners. I never felt judged. Only seen and validated. She called me "little sis."
Flash forward to 2015. The Trevor Project approached me about the possibility of becoming their first transgender board member.
I was honored that Trevor reached out to me. My work for the trans community had become a central focus in my life. I was already using my 40-plus years as a CEO, entrepreneur, and national franchise president as experience to develop a program to improve labor conditions for trans people in California and make California the model for trans employment equality. I was also speaking regularly at schools, universities, job fairs directed toward trans people, and L.A.'s Museum of Tolerance.
I felt my work in this arena intersected perfectly with that of the Trevor Project, which provides resources and emergency aid for LGBT and questioning youth. As a board member I'm asked to provide strategic direction and to help the organization with needed resources to fulfill its mission. I use my expertise in public speaking, advocacy, business development, and LGBTQ issues to serve as an ambassador for the organization focusing on outreach to youth, speaking on issues specific to the transgender community, and informing the community about the work of the Trevor Project.
This makes my work with Trevor all the more poignant and important to me. I want the trans kids who are struggling for acceptance to know Trevor is there for them and make sure that we are there when they need us -- like Michele had been there for me.
In the beginning of my relationship with Trevor, I went through a series of interviews with high level board and staff members, including their CEO and executive director, Abbe Land, and the board chair, Michael Norton. The process went well, and through it I learned much about the organization, its professionalism and dedication to its mission. I was certainly pleased when I was informed four months ago that I was unanimously elected to the Trevor board.
Since that time I have become active on several standing committees along with Trevor's Southern Initiative, a major effort to bring Trevor's lifesaving and life-affirming services to LGBT youth who live in regions where they may not have the support of those youth in urban areas.
But there is so much more to be done. We are no longer the invisible minority. With visibility comes pushback by conservative forces. This year has seen an alarming uptick of anti-transgender state bills across the country. These bills came in several forms, aiming to restrict transgender Americans' access to public accommodations, school activities, or appropriate medical care.
The rate of attempted suicide (41 percent), especially among trans teens, is alarming. The greatest need seems to be coming from the Southern region of the country, from which Trevor now receives over 35 percent of its calls. We are working diligently with educators, religious groups, and popular YouTube personalities to reach more of these youth with our services.
LGBTQ children who are not supported by their family are eight times more likely to attempt suicide. And through our research, we know that lessens by 30 percent when they have just one compassionate person they can reach out to. It is Trevor's mission to make sure they are there when needed.
It is mine to help them get there.
For more info about the Trevor Project: www.thetrevorproject.org
MICHAELA MENDELSOHN is a transgender activist, public speaker, and businesswoman with over 40 years of entrepreneurial leadership experience as the CEO of Pollo West Corp. She is the founder of the California Transgender Workplace Program and now the first transgender board member for the Trevor Project. Follow Michaela on Twitter: @MichaelaIvri. Watch her YouTube sizzle reel here.