Michaela Mendelsohn is a leader on the go, or more correctly, a woman on the way up who famously wants to pull you up with her, especially if you are part of the transgender community. Her mission is to level the playing field so that trans people can focus on living lives that flourish and have a family of their own.
“If we are not lifting up the community from the lowest denominator up, then we aren’t really doing our job for social justice,” Mendelsohn says.
It’s an approach that has served Mendelsohn well and one that has benefited the LGBT community in profound ways, both nationally and here in LA. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. LA Pride recently announced she will serve as the 2018 LA Pride Parade Grand Marshal, making her the first transgender person in the parade’s 48 year history to do so.
The author and speaker founded TransCanWork to promote trans-friendly employment policies and workplace equality. As a transwoman CEO of Pollo West Corp, one of the largest franchisees for El Pollo Loco, she understands the value and potential of transgender employees in the workplace. Recently, she was selected as 2018’s state and national recipient of the Faces of Diversity Award by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s (NRAEF) celebration of the “best of the best” in diversity and inclusion, community service and hospitality leadership.
“I began to think of the idea for TransCanWork when I hired my first transgender employee in one of my restaurants,” she says. “Living as a woman, the employee was forced by her previous employer to use the men’s restroom where she was sexually molested. She was then allowed to use the women’s restroom but a customer complained and she was fired.”
Creating an employment advocacy organization is not the only way the 65-year-old Mendelsohn champions her community. She is the first transwoman to serve on the board of the Trevor Project, a national organization focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth. It’s an important step for both Mendelsohn and the organization as 43 percent of trans people have attempted suicide, including Mendelsohn. She also serves on Mayor Garcetti’s Workforce Development Board.
At age 55, Mendelsohn started living life as a woman which caused tension with her family, including her three children. They did not want her around their friends and she was not allowed to go to their school events, a rejection that ultimately led to a suicide attempt.
“Being a parent was the best part of my life and I was angry I wasn’t getting back the love I had given them,” Mendelsohn said. “I expected their support and when I felt rejected, it felt awful.”
The tension peaked when Mendelsohn went anonymously to her daughter’s classroom and read a poem her daughter had written and was posted on the wall.
“When I was four years old I would sit on my daddy’s shoulders and I was on top of the world. Nothing could hurt me. Now everything has changed. I am no longer daddy’s little girl. I am no longer safe. Now even the sound of his voice sickens me,” her daughter wrote.
“It was like an arrow through my heart,” Mendohlson says. “I had never been suicidal but I thought I realized my being alive was hurting my family too much. I was not in my right mind when the following night I stepped out my car in front of an oncoming car. My then 19-year-old son jumped out of the passenger seat, grabbed me, and pulled me away. He looked in my eyes and said, ‘Dad, I don’t care what gender you are, this family needs you.’”
Mendelsohn’s therapist explained the lifetime of pain suicide causes the surviving family members and she has never thought about it again.
“It’s important that we all celebrate uniqueness,” said Mendelsohn. “My struggles have made me stronger and happier – that’s the message.”
She went on to become the first transgender contestant in the Ms. Senior California Pageant and worked with Jenji Kohan as a consultant on “Orange is the New Black,” in the development of Laverne Cox’s character.
She didn’t want payment for her consultation for the television series but she did have a couple of requests.
“Jenji in her position is going to do whatever she wants, but I asked her to get the role right because so many roles have been stereotyped and to hire a transgender actress, which she did,” Mendelsohn said.
Mendelsohn fully transitioned in 2013. Today, she and her partner Carmel are raising a son. Mendelsohn describes 4-year old Isadore as the light of her life.
She has also reconciled with her 3 adult children, who continue to call her Dad.
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
Eleven years and my three children were the hardest to tell. They had me on a pedestal as “super dad.”
Who’s your LGBT hero?
No contest. Abbe Land and she’s not even LGBT!
What’s Los Angeles’ best nightspot, past or present?
Describe your dream wedding.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markel. They’re out to change the world!
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
Supporting our youth to live happy lives excited for a bright future.
What historical outcome would you change?
That’s dangerous but probably the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. So much hope lost when he died. I sometimes imagine what he would have accomplished if he had lived.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
The Beatles taking America by storm.
On what do you insist?
Treating others with love and respect.
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
On Facebook, I posted a link to a plea to help a woman in Khartoum who refused to be forcibly married and who was then raped. She fought back and she stabbed him but he died. She will be hanged.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Break into the lab and burn all the papers.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
That I’ll find out when I die.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Check your intentions every night before going to sleep.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
The notion that we’re mentally ill.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
“All About My Mother” by Pedro Almodovar.
What’s the most overrated social custom?
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
Seeing an LGBT child being loved and adored by their parents.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That I was transgender and what that meant.
Why Los Angeles?
My parents moved here from New York when I was nine. You can take the boy out of New York but you can’t take New York out of the girl!