It’s not often we see the deeply personal sides of co-workers.
Even more rare is when someone voluntarily shares an intensely intimate look at their family’s life in front of a group of relative strangers.
That’s exactly what happened in May 2017, when I attended Becoming Eli – My Child’s Journey from Daughter to Son, a talk hosted by the PDX Women In Tech (PDXWIT) and Code Fellows.
At this event, Colleen Yeager, Corporate Controller at Jama Software — where she’s worked for the past five years — shared her journey about learning that her five-year-old daughter was actually her son.
A few months afterwards, Colleen was invited to speak at the TEDxPortland Salon event in November 2017. It was then that Colleen presented an updated version of “Becoming Eli,” which eventually lead to an invitation to speak at the upcoming TEDxPortland 2018: Bridges event on April 21, 2018 at Keller Auditorium.
Inspired by Colleen’s story about her family, I asked some questions about her experience as a public speaker and advocate for social justice.
Jama Software: The topic of your TEDxPortland talk is incredibly personal. What inspired you to start sharing your story with others and what has that process been like?
Colleen Yeager: Honestly, fear inspired me to share our story. The world is very unkind to transgender people, and like most parents, I want my kids to have a good life. My gut was that if we didn’t hide, and instead shared our personal journey and all of the hard stuff that came along with it, that people would learn something and respond compassionately. I was mostly right.
JS: What has been the most valuable thing you’ve learned in becoming an advocate and public speaker on social justice and equality, specifically as an ally to the trans community?
CY: It’s hard to distill it into a single thing. About myself: I’ve learned that allowing myself to be vulnerable, while scary, pays dividends in what I get back from others and what I can teach them about my son and the trans community. About the trans community: Transgender people are one of the most misunderstood, vulnerable and unprotected members of our society. My goal is to change that.
JS: What advice do you have for someone who’s new to the discussion around transgender issues?
CY: Set aside everything you think you know about biological sex and gender, and listen with an open heart and mind. There is nothing new or abnormal about existing as a transgender person.
JS: As a leader in Portland’s tech community, in what ways do you hope to inspire action and change?
CY: I hope to show others that it’s ok to be both a business professional and your vulnerable, authentic self. You do not have to choose.
JS: What do you hope attendees of the TEDxPortland will get out of your talk?
CY: I hope that attendees will leave with a greater sense of empathy for the very real challenges of the transgender community (41% of transgender people attempt suicide, for example, because of the lack of community support), and that they will be inspired to act in ways in their daily lives to improve those circumstances.
JS: Who is someone you look up to as an advocate for equality and inclusion?
CY: I look up to the transgender and gender non-conforming kids in my life – my son and the kids we’ve been lucky enough to meet along this journey. They have overcome so much just to be who they know themselves to be in this world, all long before they have the emotional capacity to process such hard sh*t. They are advocates simply by their courage to be who they are in a world that doesn’t always welcome that.
There are still some remaining tickets available for TEDxPortland 2018: Bridges. Get them here.