When Pollo West Corporation CEO, writer, public speaker and activist Michaela Mendelsohn was a teenager, she suffered what she described as "extreme bullying."
"Every day I went to school, I didn't know if I would come back in one piece," she told Windy City Times. "So I decided to remake myself into a kind of He-Man athlete and I succeeded in that and set records but it was pushing my real identity further and further inside so that I could gain acceptance. Having gone through bullying makes me more empathetic to people who need help. I have a real chip on my shoulder when I see that happening to others."
So, when she became the first transgender board member of The Trevor Project in late 2015, Mendelsohn was determined not to make adjusting to her role a protracted process.
Instead, she jumped right in to contributing to the mission and work of the national organization which, through crisis intervention and suicide lifelines (including via instant messaging and text), LGBTQ training for school districts faculty and staff, youth and their allies along with a network of ambassadors, advocacy groups and a youth-led advisory council, has been fighting to end the scourge of bullying and the devastating numbers of suicide in LGBTQ youth for the past 18 years.
"I'm on a few standing committees and also involved in the Southern Initiative," Mendelsohn told Windy City Times. "I feel a responsibility as their first transgender board member to broaden their scope in terms of making sure I represent the trans community to them and represent them to the trans community in ways that are healthy in assisting in their mission and helping them grow."
Personal motivations aside, Mendelsohn admitted that enthusiastically diving into a problem is "kind of my style."
It was an understatement.
Mendelsohn not only helms of one of the largest franchises of Southern California's signature El Pollo Loco restaurants, but is the host of charity events and the founder of the California Transgender Workplace Project.
She has addressed more than 100 groups including The Museum of Tolerance, UCLA, Keck USC Medical Center, Pepperdine and Santa Monica College.
This year, the mother of four will see the evolution of an autobiographical play Making Michaela from a staged reading at Los Angeles' Celebration Theater into a full production.
Being an integral part of The Trevor Project's leadership presents Mendelsohn with a whole new set of challenges.
"The statistics are well known when we're talking about the 41 percent of trans individuals who have attempted suicide," she said. "The other mountain to climb is family and peer acceptance because those who don't have that are eight time more likely to commit suicide than those who do. Then there's also challenges culturally. The Southern Initiative exists because over 35 percent of their calls are coming in from the South so we are working towards getting greater visibility in that area of the country so we can help more kids who are dealing with overcoming religious values that have been there for generations."
Mendelsohn was born in the Bronx neighborhood of New York City in 1952. By the time she was nine, the family had relocated to Southern California.
"Growing up in the '50s and '60s, there was no information, no Internet, no one was interviewed on the Barbara Walter's show and I kept reverting back to dressing up as a girl and keeping it hidden," Mendelsohn recalled. "When I got married, I did that for 25 years. I put all my energy into building businesses and being a father, which was very important for me. It was a way for me to compartmentalize, put it back in and go back to being the athlete, businessman and community-minded father."
But suppressing her identity inevitably had devastating consequences.
"I was totally coming apart," Mendelsohn said. "I realized what I needed to do to live a healthy life moving forward."
The challenges of expressing that to her family and understanding their experiences is something Mendelsohn believes is not discussed enough in the various dialogues and stories about and from the transgender community.
"I was naÃŻve and I thought that may family would transition with me and make this work," she said. "But my kids had this image of me that was such a hero as a father that it worked against me. It was very painful for them. I was shunned by my family. I couldn't go to school events any more. One night, I snuck out to my daughter's middle school open house. I saw a poem on the wall which said 'when I was three-years-old, I would sit on my daddy's shoulders and I felt on top of the world and now my world's come crashing down. It will never be the same. Even the sound of his voice sickens me'."
The next night, Mendelsohn tried to step into oncoming traffic.
"My 19-year-old son grabbed me and pulled me to the ground and said to me 'Dad, I don't care what gender you are, your family needs you'," Mendelsohn recalled. "I haven't had a suicidal thought since."
Today, she is close to two of her children and maintains a more "speaking terms" relationship with her eldest. She has a partner, Carmel, to whom she was introduced on a vegan meet-up website. The couple have a 2-year-old son who Mendelsohn describes as "the light of my life."
At work, Mendelsohn took a year off to transition and reappeared at a heavily attended Christmas party in order to reintroduce herself.
"While I heard there was a little bit of talking behind my back, for the most part it was an affirming experience and I got a lot of support," she said. "There's a genuine comradery between my employees and I that we didn't have before.
However, she fully recognizes that her story is rare.
"Over four years ago, I hired my first trans employee and she had been at a large fast food chain," Mendelsohn said. "She had been presenting as a woman but was forced to use and was sexually molested in the men's restroom. She has since become the manager of my top restaurant. It's rated number two in the brand in customer service and quality. We get more compliments on her and the other trans employees we've hired."
Her determination to address the issue of the hiring discrimination faced by transgender individuals led Mendelsohn to found The California Transgender Workplace Project.
"My goal is to help mostly trans women of color who are having such a rough time that the only avenue for them is sex work," she said. "We've had laws in place in California for twenty years that are trans friendly, but that doesn't mean they get followed. So I help them find work while helping promote California as a trans-friendly workplace."
To that end, she has partnered with organizations such as The California Restaurant Association and is looking into working with the Hotel Association of California.
"If trans people can get jobs and be front and center, shining their light to the world here in California, we can start a movement towards promoting trans success in the workplace," Mendelsohn said.
When she was approached by The Trevor Project to join their board, Mendelsohn viewed it as a significant opportunity in a mission that is deeply rooted in her life-history and a passion to see her community flourish despite consistent attempts to marginalize transgender individuals.
"I was so impressed with the work The Trevor Project does and the depth of research that's done around the world," she said. "Working at their crisis line has been a profound experience for me. What I found was that 50 percent of the high risk crisis calls where they have to send out teams to save people's lives come from trans youth. It's heightened my sense of responsibility.
Next spring, Mendelsohn will serve as board chair for the first transgender convention, which will take place in Los Angeles.
"I made a condition of my getting involved that I wanted focuses on trans youth and trans employment," she stated. "We need to move on from the bigotry. Jobs are so basic. The more we achieve them, the more we can start elevating ourselves. There is a tremendous amount of work ahead of us."
Mendelsohn will not rest for a moment until that work is finished and, just as she was told by her family when she was at the edge of the abyss, the country lets transgender people know in no uncertain terms that it needs them.
For more information about The Trevor Project, visit: www.thetrevorproject.org .