by LAURA HAYES
On a Monday morning, Michael Hughes was called into the board room. The staff threw a printout of Hughes’ website onto the table. They called him a liar and fired him on the spot.
Hughes is transgender. “A whole team of people that I worked with on a daily basis and were very good friends with sat there as I was called a liar and told I have no integrity,” Hughes recalled to a room filled with Winona State University (WSU) students. “About eight people were in that workroom and not one of them were willing to say, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t right.’”
Hughes worked at a Minnesota company. When another transgender person was looking for resources, Hughes, who also ran a resource website, linked the person to his website using his work email address. When company staff went through its workers’ deleted emails, they found the email linked to his website. He was fired on the spot.
The panel was the final event in WSU Inclusion and Diversity Office’s Inclusion and Diversity Speaker Series for Fall 2017. Charlie Opatz is an advisor with the Warrior Success Center and the College of Business liaison. Over the summer, he was on sabbatical studying transgender career development and issues. “I learned a lot and there’s still more to learn,” Opatz said.
Hughes, who graduated from WSU in 2013, recalled his experience at the company when an audience member asked what allies in the workplace can do. “Just be vocal if you see any stuff like that going on and be willing to stand up and speak out. They all sat there stone-faced as I lost my job,” he explained.
Hughes was one of three transgender WSU alumni who shared their experiences during their time at the university and in the workplace. “I was terrified to tell potential employers that I was transgender so I always kept that to myself,” Hughes said. That is until he started working at Apple. During the group interview, candidates were asked what was something they were proud of, and Hughes referred to his experience transitioning. “I knew Apple was a diverse company and I had no reason to fear with them,” Hughes said.
Kaylee Jakubowski (’15) currently works at the Women’s Resource Center. She said she has looked for trans-friendly companies and organizations to work for because she doesn’t want to hide who she is. While Jakubowski said it may limit potential jobs, she added that it made her employment easier. “Because I don’t have anything to hide or lie about,” she explained.
When Cole Moravec graduated from WSU in 2017, they started working at a temp agency. After working for the agency for several weeks, Moravec, who identifies as gender nonconforming, told staff that they use “they” and “them” pronouns and wanted to go by the name “Cole.” At first agency staff members were supportive, but Moravec realized that potential employers still used the wrong name and pronouns. Similar to Jakubowski, after Moravec left the agency, they started looking for trans-inclusive companies.
Currently Moravec works at LUSH — a gay bar in Minneapolis. “The first question was [during the interview], ‘What are your pronouns?’ And that felt amazing,” they said.
Opatz and the students asked numerous questions — some questions were specific to their time at WSU while other questions were more general about life as a transgender person. How important is it that someone uses the right pronouns? Opatz asked. Pronouns are incredibly important, Jakubowski stated. “They’re a way of saying, ‘I see you for who you are. I see you and I respect you for yourself’ … It’s the number-one way to respect transgender people, to use the pronouns that they want,” Jakubowski said.
Moravec admitted that because they go by “they” and “them” pronouns, they often have to educate other people. “I get a lot of people being like, ‘Well I don’t know how to use those [pronouns] so can I use something else?’ It comes down to respect, honestly,” Moravec said.
Moravec said while companies can advertise as being inclusive, they have to be able to back up their statements with action. All of us, they said, would stay at a company if we felt like we could be ourselves. “And we’re not going to get fired because we’re trans, or if we have a name change then everyone is going to respect that and respect your pronouns,” they said. “That’s huge for me. I have to feel respected ,otherwise I’m not going to work for your company.”
For more information about WSU’s Inclusion and Diversity Office, visit https://www.winona.edu/inclusion-diversity/.