How Being Myself Led Me To My Dream Job
“Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation and prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us and which parts we’ve created to protect us.” - Alexander Leon
My name is Alex, my pronouns are they/them. Currently, as a Transgender Program Coordinator at Youth Seen, an organization that works with our communities and stands as a leader in our local Colorado area, and beyond, we aim to establish partnerships with groups that specifically tailor their resources, education, and outreach to our youth and young QTBIPoC/LGBTQI community. (Q=Queer, T= Transgender, BIPoC= Black, Indigenous, People of Color.) This also includes community members identifying as gender non-conforming, nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer and two-spirit, which is often left out of the mainstream language around services. I do what I do to raise awareness with our community. I’m only one voice but together, we are louder and more resilient.
My professional life is not what I imagined when I was in high school; it’s better than I ever imagined. I get to do what I love and know I make a difference. Through high school and early college, I explored a range of wellness-related fields. For the longest time, I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted a career where I could help people but wasn’t sure exactly what it would look like. As a kid, I loved dancing, performing, sharing stories, and exercising. At 40, I still do all those things! Graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in Sport and Leisure Studies with an emphasis in exercise science and leisure management allowed me to go on after college, gaining experience as a personal trainer, fitness instructor, and physical education teacher.
Working as a fitness professional, for 12 years and counting at Life Time Fitness, I created many groups and fitness classes. My most well-attended classes were kickboxing and Dance Jam. For over 20 years, I connected with hundreds of people on a weekly basis doing what I love, cultivating a culture and a space where people have the opportunity to just be themselves. I open every class with, “Do the best you can with the mind and body that brought you here today.” As certain aspects of my gender identity revealed themselves to me as a nonbinary and transgender person, specifically my name and pronouns, I had to start sharing with my place of work. It was incredibly liberating. Also, I was anxious every step of the way not knowing what to expect. Being in the closet was lonely but it didn’t hurt as much as the self-hatred, the pain of not knowing myself, and not feeling seen or heard. This all ultimately affected how I viewed myself and the world as a whole.
Being nonbinary and transgender is only a small part of who I am yet at the same time, gender identity takes up a lot of space at first when you’ve been unaware for so long. Some people don’t understand gender beyond the two options we get assigned at birth (cisgender boy or cisgender girl) so when you finally acknowledge it, it feels like it’s always in your face. Gender, in fact, is not something we can see.
Sharing who I am with people shows me opportunities in our world for growth. Choosing self-acceptance means I define how I use my voice. Coming out at work was an act of courage and also this was my life; I had to keep showing up. When organizations invest in education to be anti-racist, deconstruct harmful narratives about transgender and nonbinary people, we can find healing. The Denver Foundation reports that when such measures are taken there is :
Higher job satisfaction, especially among the staff of color.
Higher employee morale.
Improved problem solving throughout the organization.
Increased creativity and innovation.
Increased organizational flexibility and ability to learn from people at all levels.
Improving the quality of personnel through better recruitment and retention.
Decreased vulnerability to legal challenges
A recent study by The National LGBTQ Workers Center suggests that nearly 50% of LGBT workers remain closeted at work and fear being stereotyped or jeopardizing professional connections. Anti-LGBT bias is highly prevalent in the workplace and creates massive hurdles in the day-to-day. 25% of LGBT people report experiencing discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year—half of whom said it negatively impacted their work environment.
Personally, as a parent of a transgender child, the choice was easy to be my daughter’s biggest fan and advocate for her at school. Part of being a better ally to transgender and LGBTQ+ youth means acknowledging who we are. The process can be challenging; it is a personal and professional goal of mine to participate in creating safer spaces for LGBTQ+ youth and their families. We have to have visibility. Schools and organizations absolutely have a responsibility because this affects learning, productivity, success, and connection. The Center for American Progress reported in 2020 that LGBTQ people choose where they will work, worry about what to wear, and even stay away from public places to avoid discrimination.
Most LGBTQ students in Colorado experienced anti-LGBTQ victimization at school. They also experienced victimization at school based on disability (35%), religion (24%), and race/ethnicity (18%). Most never reported the incident to school staff (59%). Only 29% of LGBTQ students who reported incidents said it resulted in effective staff intervention. (www.GLSEN.org)
Based on a study by www.GLSEN.org in 2019, they found: The vast majority of LGBTQ students in Colorado regularly (sometimes, often, or frequently) heard anti-LGBTQ remarks. Some also regularly heard school staff make homophobic remarks (15%) and negative remarks about someone’s gender expression (29%).
Collectively, my experiences have prepared me for the job I have today. I am in love with who I am and what I get to do. I learn so much every day. Language, being an ally, being inclusive isn’t a box to check or a final destination. It's ongoing, it’s hard work, it’s a choice every day to show up to be brave, vulnerable, and to speak up. It’s immensely fulfilling to get people connected with the resources they seek, sharing education with parents, teachers, businesses, teens, and youth to build a more loving and resilient community. Knowing the challenges helps shape how we can positively affect the statistics. When we share our stories, we connect and the voices once silent can be heard.
Alex Vaughan (they/them)
Transgender Program Coordinator, YouthSeen.org
Ohio State University, 2001