Last fall, the Center on Halsted began a search for a director of transgender relations and community engagement. This position, part of a plan to develop a strategic direction to engage transgender and gender non-conforming ( TGNC ) communities and create structure, was designed to lead and sustain programming.
In February, Minneapolis-based author, professional speaker, trainer and corporate consultant Vanessa Sheridan relocated to Chicago in order to fill the role.
Born in Asheville, North Carolina, and raised principally in Orlando, Florida, Sheridan authored Cross Purposes: On Being Christian and Crossgendered in 1997. Five years later, her book Crossing Over: Liberating The Transgendered Christian became a double finalist for the national Lambda Literary Award. It was also the first of its kind to be released by a mainstream publishing house.
Her 2009 project The Complete Guide to Transgender in the Workplace is described on Sheridan's website as "the premier resource for organizations seeking to successfully navigate the waters of transgender inclusion."
Windy City Times: What was it like growing up in the South?
Vanessa Sheridan: I grew up in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist home, which was perhaps not the most promising environment for a young trans kid. I knew I was different when I was 2 or 3 but, due to the lack of information, awareness and resources to help understand what it meant to be trans or different in terms of your gender identity or expression, I felt like I was the only person in the world who was crazy enough to be this way.
It was a long, drawn-out process of self-realization and a long journey to reach the point of self-acceptance. I enjoyed my high school years. I had a lot of friends and I was keeping my trans identity very much a secret and basically was living in denial even to myself. I just focused on living a cisgender life, fitting in and getting along and that seemed to work out pretty well. I spent four years in the Air Force. I was involved in top-secret crypto work basically monitoring Russian and Chinese communications. When I got out, I went to school [in Minneapolis] on the G.I. Bill and graduated with a degree in psychology and went on to do some graduate work in theology in seminary.
WCT: Why the shift in graduate studies?
VS: I've always been a very spiritual person and growing up in a Southern Baptist home had shaped my spiritual parameters to a certain degree. But I felt very confined by the narrow, theological perspective I'd grown up in. So I really wanted to expand that. I wanted to learn more about other approaches to theology. It was very eye-opening and sent me down a fairly extensive rabbit hole. I began looking at my gender identity situation from a theological perspective. That led to a lot of note-taking which eventually turned into a book. Writing Crossing Over was cathartic and gave me an opportunity to help other people.
WCT: Were you out at that point?
VS: I came out in 1987 to myself and started attending a local support group in Minneapolis and met other trans folks. That was a very transformative experience for me. It showed me that I was not the only person in the world who was crazy enough to want to do this and that I could potentially go out and operate in the world as Vanessa and make that happen and be successful at that. When something is real and intrinsic to who you are, you can repress it for a while but, sooner or later, it's going to bubble to the surface. I'd been repressing who I truly was and I began to suffer physically and psychologically.
WCT: For your public speaking and training business, what sort of groups formed your audience?
VS: It was mostly cisgender groups. I did some speaking to trans groups at local and regional conferences. As time went on, it became almost exclusively non-trans people because I felt that was where most of the education was needed and that's where I put most of my efforts. I started to look at the workplace as a target demographic and I began to do a lot of research on trans inclusion in the workplace.
[The Complete Guide] has gone on to make a difference for a lot of folks around the world. Employers have to be educated about the potential benefits that trans people could bring to the workplace. There's a lot of skilled, talented people who could potentially come into an organization and make a significant difference and employers either don't know that or aren't willing to take a look at it and that's a problem. We have to educate them.
WCT: With the success of your business and your books, why did you want to relocate to Chicago and take up this position?
VS: I was on the transgender advisory committee for Out & Equal Workplace Advocates and one of the members of the committee, Lori Fox, sent an email about the position. As I began to read the job description, I thought it sounded like an ideal position for me. I had reached a point where I felt I'd plateaued. I wanted to continue to work on behalf of the community but find a new venue in which to do it. I thought that, if I came to work at the Center, it would provide the infrastructure and the platform to move into new directions and create the support necessary to create new opportunities.
WCT: The Center has a troubled history with the trans community, particularly homeless youth. In your research about it, did that concern you?
VS: No. First of all, the things I heard about happened before I was here and what I have experienced so far has been nothing but positive.
WCT: How do you reach out to the trans community of color in Chicago? How do you bridge the gap?
VS: I'm well-aware of what the perception might be. I cannot help being what I am. I am white. I am a person of privilege and I don't take that lightly. I don't mean to imply that I can completely understand the struggles of people who are not white or in a position of privilege. That would be foolish and inaccurate. I will say that I have an authentic interest in reaching out to particularly people of color in the trans community and creating connections and building bridges. I can only be who I am. I can only listen. One of the things that I have learned here at the Center is that we want to listen, we want to grow from that listening and we want to engage and move forward.
WCT: Can you share some of your ideas?
VS: Not at this point. They've never had someone in this position before, so that we are still in the process of defining what this is going to be like as we move forward. We're in dialogue about that constantly. We want to listen and be responsive to the needs of the community. We have to discern those needs and be responsive to what we've learned. That's a process that's going to take time.
WCT: How would you answer those who wonder if someone with no experience with the local community could possibly understand the experience of a trans person living in, for example, the Austin neighborhood?
VS: I can only do what I can do. I can't be all things to all people. I can only learn as much as I can and try to be as responsive as I possibly can. I would ask people to meet me half way and judge me on my actions and attitude rather than some preconceived notion of who or what I might be. I've been doing trans advocacy work for a long time.
This isn't my first rodeo. I am aware of a lot of the problems that do exist. I can try to dialogue with people and learn from them and, out of that dialogue, will hopefully emerge some potential solutions. We're going to make the effort. This week I was at Deborah's Place on the South Side helping to do a training for the staff and I met several trans people of color who were on the panel with me and we had some in-depth sharing of information.
WCT: What will you do with that information?
VS: I will bring it here. I will process it and I will try to put it into whatever initiatives we choose to pursue.
WCT: What if you have an idea that could help trans people of color but leadership pushes back? How do you work with that?
VS: I would work with leadership to find a compromise if there was a specific need that deserved to be addressed. I don't think saying "no" just to say "no" is how leadership operates here. If leadership says "no" there's usually a pretty good reason for it. I want to give them the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, I expect leadership to be responsive to the stated and understood needs of the community. I tend to hold people's feet to the fire just as they hold mine to the fire and we're going to do what we can.
WCT: Do you believe you can help change some fairly widespread negative perceptions of the Center?
VS: I don't know that I can change anything. All I can do is be myself and be honest with people and try to make a difference. I have an opportunity to try to move the Center towards changing that perception. How I'm going to do that, I don't know. Leadership is well aware of the perception. It's an issue and it's something we're aware of and something we'll try to address on an ongoing basis.
VS: I certainly hope so. I think the fact that the Center has created this job, they have hired me and they are making trans issues part of their strategic plan moving forward says a great deal about the intent of the Center to really take this seriously. I like to think I'm Exhibit A in that regard.
A statement from the Center on Halsted to Windy City Times said: "Center on Halsted continually strives to hire the most qualified individuals to advance our mission. As an organization that both impacts the Chicagoland community and also works to produce national models for success, we often attract talent nationally. Vanessa Sheridan embodies these characteristics and was referred to the position and recommended by local members of the LGBTQ community as highly qualified to fill the role."