Lori Fox was speaking three years ago at Aurora University when a male student asked Fox to describe herself in one word, explaining where she was at, at that very moment.
Fox went to the chalk board and wrote: INCONGRUENT.
She then circled the first two letters of the word.
"My goal is to get rid of the 'IN' and truly be congruent. That would be congruent physically, emotionally and spiritually. I think that's the goal of a lot of trans individuals," she said.
Flash forward to the present and, without a doubt, the word Fox would write about herself would be, CONGRUENT.
"I feel very congruent," she said.
Fox, a trans woman who lives in suburban Naperville, is the president and founder of Lori Fox Diversity/Business Consulting, working with individuals and corporations on workplace issues, especially LGBT personal and professional development.
"Today, I am an authentic woman, a business professional, a passionate advocate for the LGBT community who will do anything to help educate and facilitate change," she said.
Fox is happier than she's ever been, all smiles at the joy she experiences personally and professionally, mostly because that was not always the case.
Personally, Fox was born in Michigan, raised in a small, conservative, Catholic town near Lansing, with two brothers and three sistersand she always felt very connected with her sisters because, she now admits, "I felt that I was a girl."
"The struggle for me is the same [that it is] for many transgender individuals: I knew at a very young age that I was dealing with gender-identity [issues], though I didn't know what they were or what they meant. In fact, I hadn't even heard the term transgender [while growing up,] but I knew I was different," Fox said.
Those identity issues lingered, so Fox suppressed her deepest, most personal thoughts and feelings. After graduating from college, Fox moved to California, where she was working for McDonald's Corporation. She even married a woman and the relationship lasted almost 10 years.
"I never felt safe in coming out, so I just felt that if I do what others [traditionally] doget married, have a childthat would repress everything and I wouldn't have to deal with it," she said. "But that only works for so long. I was living and working here in Chicago, and married, and just couldn't take it anymore."
Fox and her ex had one son, Mark, who went to school in the Chicago area and, now 30, lives on the East Coast.
"I love him dearly," Fox said. "Very often, the process of change is very hard; people don't necessarily want change, especially family. My son knows that I now am much happier, that I am at a place in my life where I truly love who I amand he respects that, though he continues to struggle at times.
"I've told him, 'I haven't gone anywhere; [my] physical appearance has changed, but I'm still the same person and who I love and how I love certainly has not changed.'"
Fox first came out to Mark about 12 years ago, while he was a college intern working a summer in Los Angeles. They went walking on the beach in Santa Monica, and she revealed she is transgender.
He replied, "Oh, I thought you were gaybecause you fit the stereotype of a gay man: you dress impeccably, you have great taste, you're very professional and more."
Fox answered, "I had to explain to him what [transgender] meant, that there is truly a difference between sexual orientation, [meaning,] who we are physically and emotionally [attracted to,] and gender identity/expression, who we honestly know and feel we are deep inside, and I have always felt that I was a female, a woman."
Ultimately, one of the biggest struggles the two hadand still haveis with pronouns.
"Dad" is now Lori to Mark ... well, at least most of the time.
They were shopping together in San Francisco a few years ago. Mark was about 30 feet away from Fox and wanted to show her something, so he yelled, "Hey Dad, look at this."
Mark is getting married this spring, and Fox is excited, but also a bit sad. She purposely was not invited to participate in a recent bridal shower; Fox's ex and her son felt that it would make other women feel "uncomfortable" if she was there.
"This was incredibly hurtful and dismissive; a very painful experiencenot to be invited or included in the bridal shower celebration with all of the other women," Fox said. "Unfortunately, rejection, ignorance and bigotry are still very prevalent in the lives of so many transgender women and men."
Fox's professional life hasn't been as smooth as it now is, not even close.
She worked at McDonald's Corporation for more than 20 years, including time as a director of human resources and business partner, with both U.S. and international assignments.
"I was closeted the whole time at McDonald's, working as a man because I didn't feel safe coming out. One of the reasons was, there are no inclusive diversity policies, no benefits, in place for transgender women and men," Fox said. "I knew that there was no future as Lori [at McDonald's]. My boss at the time knew that I was struggling with transgender issues, yet if I came out as Lori Fox [while working at McDonald's], I most likely would have lost my job. There was a culture of homophobia, and transphobia, too. Fear and shame can truly wear you down when you have to hide and can't live an honest, authentic lifeI certainly know that first- hand.
"That journey from leaving McDonald's to starting my own consulting firm has taken a while. I felt that I needed to dig deep within myself, and understand, accept and love myself for who I am before I could get out in the world and make a difference, because shame and fear are powerful, powerful motivators.
"Today, I've never been happier."
The transition for Fox has included significant, in-depth work with therapist Barbra McCoy-Getz. Fox also participates in a women's group that McCoy-Getz has led for years. "The work we do is so powerful and life-changing," Fox said. "It has truly changed my life in so many wonderful ways, helping me to live my life in a more honest and truly healthy way."
Before Fox transitioned, McCoy-Getz asked Fox to write a letter to her parents, telling them everything, though she didn't have to actually send it. She wanted Fox to begin expressing her honest thoughts and feelings about who she was as a transgender woman.
Fox ultimately wrote a 10-page letter.
McCoy-Getz said it was OK; however, she felt that Fox's parents would not believe her.
Fox was surprised and upset by her therapist's comments.
McCoy-Getz replied, "Lori, you need to write about your struggle, and talk about the deep pain you have felt for so many years of your life. If your family, friends and colleagues don't feel your pain, they aren't going to understand; they aren't going to change."
"That was a powerful lesson for me," Fox said.
She tells that storyand all of the pain she endured over the yearsoften, anywhere, to everyone who will listen.
"Years ago, I would have loved it if someone was doing what I am now doing," she said. "Many employers/organizations don't necessarily embrace change, in fact, they often resist it. If, as an employer/organization you're not willing to change, even though your customer-base is changing, you eventually lose market share, you will lose loyal customers, and you will lose talented employees, many employees who may identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.
"We can't expect others to embrace change until they see us feel and embrace our own change. If we can't love and accept ourselves, how are we going to expect other people to."
Fox, now single, said she has always been attracted to women and is OK with the lesbian label, if she must be labeled. She has a large mix of friends, mostly women, and Fox enjoys many creative, artistic endeavors, as well traveling and scuba diving in her free time.
Fox's consulting firm works with companies in a diversity of industries, including manufacturing, hospitals, finance, law firms and moremost out of need. "I have a very niche business, and I love it, because there is a true need," she said.
Fox serves on the board of directors for Out & Equal, an international LGBT organization whose mission is dedicated to creating safe and equitable workplaces for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women and men. She was recently profiled in the new best-selling book "Out & Equal at Work: From Closet to Corner Office." The book is an anthology of authentic, inspirational stories of out LGBT executives and leaders who are business owners or who work for U.S. and internationally-based companies. Fox also volunteers as the national chairperson of the transgender workplace advisory board for Out & Equal.
"One of the big issues today facing the transgender community is under-employment or unemployment," Fox said. "Plus, there are so few healthy role models, champions for trans men and trans women; that's an ongoing challenge. Part of what my generation of trans men and trans women need to continue to do is serve as healthy role models and mentors for our community."
She spoke at a church in St. Charles earlier this year, telling the power of a storyher traditional tale.
"When you can honestly share your story and talk about what your life is, the struggles, etc., that's so important," she said. "To me, emotional health is as important as physical health. And I feel that a lot of transgender people would agree with that."
Fox laughs when asked her agethe lone question during this interview that she side-stepped. "I'm a young baby boomer … and a woman doesn't tell her age," she said, laughing.
"I wish I would have transitioned many, many years ago, but I wasn't ready. But I am sure ready now."
And doing wonders to represent the LGBT community, not just the T side.
"Lori's leadership on workplace issues is something that hasn't gotten nearly enough attention, but that's because she's in the workaday world of providing Corporate America with real answers and helping to create real employment opportunities for trans folk," said trans sportswriter Christina Kahrl, of Chicago. "She's already there and working on something where we, as a community, need to be, to be able to support ourselves and be able to make our own choices, just as anyone else would want for themselves."