At some point in our lives, we take a long look in the mirror. Marks and blemishes are illuminated in our reflection, and our only job in those moments is to pay attention to what is staring back at us. The uneasy feeling in our stomach lets us know that there’s something more beneath the surface; an epiphany is on the horizon. As you look in the mirror, you know deep down that the seeds were already planted, and it’s only a matter of time before you bloom into the person you were meant to be all along. For me, it was February 29, 2016 — the day I presented as a woman as a software engineer at Ford Motor Co.
Although I dated women early on, in hindsight, I knew that something didn’t feel right as early as my teenage years. When I realized I was attracted to men, I thought I was a gay man, and for years that’s how I identified. It was during this time that I met my soon-to-be husband.
We met in 1995 in New Jersey. Before the age of internet dating and mobile apps, there were newspaper ads. In the mid '90s, this was one way to navigate the dating scene. I didn’t know at the time that answering a newspaper ad would be the beginning of my love story and, in many ways, the journey toward realizing who I truly am.
As in every good love story, there were some bumps in the road. Our bump was a work visa. After dating for three years, my soon-to-be husband’s work visa was about to expire. This meant that he would have to either go back to his home country, Malaysia, or go to another country to find a job. Unfortunately, in 1998 the law prevented me from sponsoring him for a green card because we were a same-sex couple. Luckily, we found an immigration attorney in Vancouver, and we decided to move to Canada to be together. Happily ever after didn’t come so easy, though.
Although my husband and I were together, and we both had good jobs and a home, and made a lot of friends, something was still missing. I figured out what it was in 2010. While I was watching a movie I found myself thinking how I wanted to look like the beautiful actress who appeared on the screen. Soon after I began buying women’s jewelry and women’s clothing, and when I looked in the mirror, I began to cry because I knew what it meant.
On June 26, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor declared part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, allowing the U.S. government to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman, unconstitutional. This meant that same-sex couples would now receive the same marital benefits as heterosexual couples. Shortly after, I applied for a green card to be able to sponsor my husband. We chose to move to Silicon Valley because we both work in the tech field. I relocated first and found a job in order to prove I could support him in the United States. When the application was finally approved in fall 2014, he joined me in California.
I began working at a start-up company, and my husband began working for a small company as well. As we began to take root in the valley, I still felt that the way I was presenting to the world was not the same as the person I was inside. I finally told my husband in 2015 that I had to transition, which was hard at first. There were so many changes happening in our lives, and I knew this wasn’t easy on him. Our friendship and love triumphed through the changes, so I had to figure out the next steps. I didn’t think the start-up I was working for would be supportive of my decision, so I began my search for a new employer. I wanted a career change that would not only allow me to work for an innovative company but also provide a culture that would be very supportive as I transitioned.
After conducting some research, I found the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index and learned more about Ford Motor Co., which has scored a 100 on the index every year since 2004 and was the only automotive company on the list. I already had an interest in autonomous vehicle technology, and being a software engineer, I believed Ford was the perfect place for my career while also making my transition. I went through the application process and was hired. I began working at Ford in September 2015.
While everything was going well in my new job in those early months, I’d find myself crying in my car or crying myself to sleep because I wanted the freedom to be myself — the self that I knew was inside of me. I knew I had to take action to be happy, and after talking with my husband, that’s exactly what I did.
After a few months of working at Ford, nervous and not knowing the response I’d receive, I decided to talk to the HR manager to let him know of my decision to transition to a woman, and then I spoke with my supervisor. I didn’t know what to expect, but the support I received put my mind at ease. In addition to helping me understand the paperwork, he put me in contact with Ford’s LGBT employee resource group. I was connected with LGBT employees and allies across the world for mentoring and support, and I was able to have conversations with other trans women from Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn.
My manager and I decided the date for my transition would be February 29, and it seemed almost poetic that I would be leaping into this new phase of my life. They made an announcement at our all-staff meeting with my blessing. It showed my coworkers that Ford management was supportive of my decision. Everyone has accepted me and made me feel very comfortable as I made my transition. Not only do my coworkers accept me, but even a couple of Ford’s top executives have asked me how I’m doing and expressed interest in learning about my experience as a trans woman at work.
I’m not a shy person, and I think my outgoing personality has been instrumental in my transition. Regardless of your personality type, I do believe there are some important things to keep in mind, especially if you are looking for an employer that will support your sexual orientation and/or your transition.
• Speak up. It might be cliché to say, but you have to be vocal about what you’re interested in, whether it’s for your career or in your personal life.
• Investigate. Do your homework. In addition to consulting the HRC CEI, you can read news articles about companies and where they stand on LGBT issues and what their company policies reflect. Look for companies that have a diverse work culture with management support.
• Represent. Be a good representative of our "tribe." We have to be our own best advocates.
• Don’t believe the horror stories. We all see the drama-filled stories on television, but we have to remember those shows aren’t "real" reality. It won’t always be roses, but there are great companies that want great employees working for them, and having the support of your employer while transitioning can be an amazing experience.
Since joining Ford, I can truly say that I’m able to bring my whole self to work. I’m a happier person as a result of my decision, and I’m proud to work for a company that not only encourages me to pursue my passion but also supports me personally. As I approach the one-year mark of presenting as a woman at work, it’s business as usual, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
LYNN KEISER is a software engineer at Ford Motor Co.'s Silicon Valley Research & Innovation Lab.