When Ashley T Brundage came out as a transgender woman more than a decade ago in Tampa, Florida, her experience led her to start writing down what she calls her 10 Empowering Actions. For example, turning what she thought of as her weakness into her strength is what she says helped her go from bank teller to vice president in fewer than five years.
Brundage is now a member of GLAAD’s Board of Directors and spoke with GLAAD about her book, Empowering Differences: Leveraging Your Differences to Impact Change. These lessons she learned from living on two sides of the gender divide aren’t just for trans people; She believes the differences we all bring to the workplace can be empowering for everyone, and help anyone leverage their differences to achieve greater success.
Today she also spoke out against Florida’s dangerous bill to ban trans youth in sports, which Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said he would sign. Brundage sent the following message to trans youth in Florida: “Let’s focus on empowering trans youth instead of banning them from participating in sports. Empowerment leads to economic growth for our state and this bill would send the wrong message of exclusion.”
“Ashley is a proven and passionate business leader who understands the true power of creating diverse and inclusive workplaces, for both employees and the business overall,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “Empowering Differences is a resource to remind professionals at all levels of your career that embracing what makes you unique is key to moving forward in your professional life in a successful and a fulfilling way.”
Brundage’s book is available as a paperback and an ebook. The book is accompanied by a workbook, The 10 Empowering Actions to Leverage Change. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to GLAAD’s advocacy work.
Portions of this interview were edited for clarity and for space.
GLAAD: When did you come out?
ASHLEY T BRUNDAGE: I started talking to mental health professionals in 2008 and it was a much different world than it is now. I was living a double life and it was killing me! At the end of 2010, beginning of 2011, I was like, “Okay, I can’t do it anymore; I just have to be me.”
GLAAD: Who are the people who stood by you? The reality remains that too many transgender people lose their family and people we thought were friends.
ATB: I’m so aware of that, how privileged I am in this space. I often refer to them as Ashley’s Allies, which is just a fun way of presenting it. Bryce and Blake are my two teenagers. They know no fear, they want to take over the entire world. And then [my wife] Whitney, of course, standing by my side is a complete rarity. That does not happen. And I’m very much aware of how privileged that makes me to have that have her by my side. It definitely shows her character level.
She had the knee-jerk reaction when I came out: “Hey, you got to leave.” And so I actually did leave. And then I remember it vividly: It was literally the next day I got a call and she said, “When I made the decision to marry you, I didn’t put all these other conditions on it.” And so we agreed that we were going to see if we could coexist and co-mingle and that we hopefully liked each other enough to make this work. So that’s what we did. We started going on a date once a week. We recently celebrated being married 18 years.
GLAAD: Your inspiration for the book was how you encountered workplace inclusion and rejection, first-hand.
ATB: Actually, my “Aha! moment” was when I was looking for employment while battling homelessness while having the four mouths to feed. I had one employer say, “Oh, yeah, we’d love to hire you, and you have such great experience. But we want you to start at entry level and prove yourself.” I had worked for 12 years for a restaurant corporation and started at the bottom, worked my way up. So I said to myself, “Okay, well, if I’m going to do that, I’m gonna be me.” So literally, I showed up to the second interview the next day as Ashley, and I got the, “Oh, you don’t have an interview here today. You have the wrong address. Please leave!” I got the cops called on me for trespassing; that was my experience.
But at that point, I thought, “This is going to be a really good litmus test to see what employer wants me to start at the bottom because I’m starting at the bottom. I might as well just be me. And I’m going to find that employer.”
GLAAD: So, you self-identified as transgender during your next job interview?
ATB: Yes. One of the really cool things that I uncovered during more than 40 interviews at 40 different companies was prioritizing the empowering actions, and using them in different spaces at different places and different timing. The first job interviews, I would go through them like I wasn’t empowering myself. I wasn’t talking about any of my actions and those were the worst interviews. It was 15 minutes, on average; I would be in and out, if I got in.
Sometimes I had the door literally slammed in my face. And then I started to develop my strategy, the empowering action of education. What ended up happening was my average interview time went from 15-minutes to 45-minutes, because we were having a dialogue, we were having education. I was telling them what “trans” meant, a little mini-Trans 101, and that was interesting, but it wasn’t leading to any job offers.
So then, I started to incorporate a little bit of inspiration alongside education. I would talk about how, “I have this huge chip on my shoulder and I’m ready to prove that not only do I belong, but that the trans community belongs in your workplace. I’m overcoming homelessness to be in this job interview today. I’m ready to overcome anything for your organization.” And that was leading to an even longer conversation, but once again wasn’t leading to any job offers.
I asked myself, “What am I missing? Where’s my answer?” And the answer was the empowerment. I needed to lead with empowerment, and I would then bring the financial side to all the other stuff that I was doing, hitting the heart. It wasn’t enough to hit the mind. You have to hit the heart and the mind to really catapult somebody to being on your side. And that was leading with the statistical data and the information about LGBTQ buying power.
I went through a four step process: Step one is know yourself. Step two is knowing others. So I had to know all the data and be able to speak to it to come to that moment in time where I could actually get that job offer.
GLAAD: Who was it that hired you as your authentic self, as Ashley?
ATB: Eventually, a major financial services organization gave me a shot as a part-time teller. Now, granted, I had to use what I call the 10 Empowering Actions to really be able to position myself and my diversity. A lot of what my book is about, it’s not necessarily about trans experience; It’s about utilizing your diversity, your biggest perceived weakness as a strength and how you can position that to really grow yourself and grow your career. Honestly, that was what laid the foundation for my career arc and what laid the foundation for my book. It’s what literally led to this whole process of empowering one’s differences.
Access is one of those 10 key empowering actions that I often talk about in the book. Access is so incredibly important to your journey. I wasn’t being as purposeful for the first year or two, working in the bank, to really categorize who I had access to, and to then leverage as many of those access points: A sponsor, a mentor, all of the people that you’re going to have to influence to gain the type of commitment that’s going to take you from a part-time bank teller to be the V.P. of diversity and inclusion.
GLAAD: In addition to being a former executive, an author, and now founder and president of Empowering Differences, you’re also a public speaker. What do you do when you’re not doing all that?
ATB: I do a lot of advocacy work for our community. I just got voted to the executive committee of the GLAAD Board of Directors, where I’m just coming up on year two. I am now the immediate past chair of the TGNC Inclusion Task Force for the NGLCC, the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Through this task force we have grown trans and gender nonconforming entrepreneurship by 400% in the last 3 years that I served as chair, and I am looking forward to helping them with their community outreach committee because economic empowerment is so important to our community.
GLAAD: In addition to your book, you’ve published a workbook, too.
ATB: The workbook has a self-assessment baked into it. The first two of the four steps ask you to know yourself and to know others, which is like our trans superpower that we need to share with all the other different dimensions of diversity in the world.
GLAAD: If that’s your superpower, what’s your Kryptonite?
ATB: I think it was battling the interpersonal demons that a lot of us face around our different dimensions of diversity. So that was 2008 to 2011, making myself right. And then, each time that I encountered a negative reaction from someone, somebody calling me “It” on the teller line in the bank, or purposefully misgendering me. Those experiences, every single time, instead of treating them like Kryptonite, I treated each one of those as a building block. Then, instead of building a wall to protect myself, I built a stage or a platform to stand on, to be tall, to be proud, to be more visible, to fight back against that kind of oppression.
Dawn Ennis is the managing editor of Outsports.com and in 2013 was the first transgender journalist to come out in network TV news. In addition to being an award-winning journalist, she hosts the “RiseUP With Dawn Ennis” talk show, co-hosts “The Trans Sporter Room” podcast and is a television correspondent for: “Connecticut Voice Out Loud” on WTNH-TV. She is a contributor to Forbes.com, The Daily Beast, StarTrek.com, Out Magazine, The Advocate Magazine, CT Voice Magazine. NBC News, and NewNowNext.