Hello my darling readers. I hope you are well and that life is keeping you busy in a good way. My life, as is becoming entirely too common these days, has taken another somewhat unexpected turn that has thrown everything into a bit of chaos.
On Wednesday of this week, I was let go from my job as a paralegal, and as I’m sitting here going over the past few months in my head, I’m honestly struggling to see why this happened. I’m not saying that there wasn’t at least some grounds for concern that put a target on my back, but I’m also not certain letting me go was the appropriate response from my former employer either.
True, I did have a discussion with my supervisor a few weeks ago about my issues regarding attendance. In the aftermath of my divorce it became a struggle most days to even get out of bed, let alone get out of bed, get dressed, drive to work, and pretend for 8 hours that I was anything but an emotional wreck. I called in sick a handful of times and even struggled with arriving at my scheduled start time. This discussion with my supervisor was a bit of a wakeup call and it showed me how much I’d let things slip in the wake of my marriage’s collapse.
I promised her I would make a renewed effort to improve my attendance and to focus more on work rather than my personal life issues. I was sincere in this promise. We set up a plan of action for making sure I made good on my promise by scheduling a check-in at the end of this month to evaluate if any improvements had been observed and we’d go from there for another month to make sure things were sticking. I fully intended to uphold my end of the deal. Going to North Carolina and getting a few days away also helped me in my resolve. I knew I needed to pull my life together. I had to start to focus on what I needed to do rather than on what I’d been through.
Then I got sick. Like legitimately sick. Sore throat so bad I could hardly swallow and I definitely couldn’t talk, not without sounding like a bullfrog, at least. I took a few days off from work because I felt like hell. I had the time off for it and I didn’t want to get anyone else sick, so I felt safe in my decision. I explained to my supervisor that this was a legitimate need for time off and not the aforementioned absenteeism. I finally scrounged together enough energy to go in on Wednesday because I knew I couldn’t justify calling in again, even if I felt worse than I had the two days earlier.
I was at work for about an hour and a half before my newly appointed CEO (we’ll get into him in a moment) came to my desk and asked if we could meet in the conference room. I knew this could lead to no good. I suspected I was going to get a formal reprimand for calling in sick after the previous issues with attendance. What I did not expect was that they were planning to let me go. They framed it in the terms of laying me off because of budget issues that required them to downsize, but for all intents and purposes, they fired me.
They sat me down at the table filled with paperwork and went over what was going down, and this is where things get really interesting the more I reflect on them. It was a Wednesday and the HR lady who was present at this meeting doesn’t work on Wednesdays, so that means they had to plan this out at least a day in advance, if not longer (I’m suspecting longer, but we’ll get to that). They had everything ready to cross the t’s and dot the I’s too. They had a checklist/agenda of what was going to happen, they had my final timesheets ready and filled out for me to sign, and they had a severance agreement all prepared and ready to go.
They explained the terms of this severance, which I am under contractual agreement not to discuss in detail, but it went something like this: In exchange for some compensation I had to agree that I would not sue them or file an EEOC discrimination claim against them. They worded the severance in such a way that I would be eligible for unemployment benefits (they made a point to remind me of that at least 3 times) and I wouldn’t be required to refund them my paid time off that I’d taken prior to accruing it (contrary to my employee handbook agreement). In short, they were paying me off to keep my mouth shut about some of the very sketchy things that went down while I worked there after I made my transition. I cannot go into detail about those because, again, I’m under contractual agreement not to disparage them.
I was asked to return to my desk, collect my things right away, and turn in my security card and bus pass. They really wanted to like escort me to my desk but I insisted that I could handle it on my own. I regret that I didn’t think to send myself some of the personal documents I had saved on the computer but I wasn’t exactly in the right frame of mind for that. I packed up my shit, which was rather embarrassing as it was 10am in the morning and was rather obvious what I was doing to anyone who might have paid attention, and I shut my computer down. I went to the HR office and turned in my security card and bus pass, and that’s when things got a bit more interesting.
In discussing the severance in greater detail with her so that I knew what exactly to expect, my HR lady explained that in addition to the sick time not having to be refunded, the unpaid time I’d taken in December was also not counted against me, which is very interesting. If that time wasn’t being counted against me and they’d already paid me the full amount for that pay period two weeks earlier, then this severance had been in the works for at least a few weeks. Why would my supervisor give me a verbal warning and set up a plan of action to make sure things improved with the threat of a written warning being the next step in process should I fail to improve (which she sent to HR and which HR signed off on) if they were already planning to let me go?
The only thing I can think is that this newly appointed CEO, who took over in the beginning of December, had it out for me from the start. He’d never had the authority to fire me previously but now he did, and given the character of this man it’s really not a stretch of my imagination that he’d always been uncomfortable with me and my transition. First and foremost, he is a rich, white, cisgender man in his 70’s who has a history of sexual harassment claims against him. He is about as sexist and white-privileged as you would expect any man who grew up in the 1950’s to be. When he was presented with my previous coworker (the lesbian I came out to at the very beginning of this whole process) and her girlfriend at last year’s Christmas party, he was not only awkward, but honestly inappropriate about asking what their relationship was. It was so obvious that he was disturbed that his legal assistant might be gay, so what did he think of me coming to work as a woman?
I can only postulate, but this is what I think happened. Our former CEO stepped down in the beginning of December due to health concerns and this new CEO (who I’m thinking was never comfortable with me or my transition) took his place. In the short amount of time that he was the CEO, he and I had a single issue with a single client that didn’t go as planned. It wasn’t an enormous issue but it still looked bad, even if there was no monetary/business cost associated with it. This single issue probably sealed in his mind what he wanted to do all along, to let me go. He couldn’t really justify letting me go, not after I’d had 99% glowing reviews from my attorneys for my annual review a month earlier.
Despite not having solid grounds to fire me, he still wanted me gone, so what to do? He knew, given the history of my run-ins with their HR that I likely had a solid case to file an EEOC discrimination claim against them (and I really, really did, my friends. I had every incident documented with time, date, and circumstances). He also knew that if they let me go right before the holidays (when he came to power, so to speak) I’d be super pissed off and would likely feel very compelled to retaliate by filing the aforementioned EEOC claim, so I think he bided his time. He knew that if they waited until the new year that I’d be less likely to be upset and less likely to want to sue, but that wasn’t enough. In order to cover their asses, they had to sweeten the deal.
The only way they could make sure I wouldn’t file a claim and put their reputation as a nationally recognized diversity leader (they won a national award for diversity recently) in jeopardy was if I signed, for all intents and purposes, a gag order. Even if my EEOC claim was dismissed and I didn’t win anything from them, the fact that I’d filed the claim at all would be damaging enough to their credibility. A diversity award winning law firm doesn’t have discrimination claims filed against them and remain award winning for very long.
The fact that they went above and beyond to give me as much compensation as they could stomach tells me that my hunch is probably spot on. It was even further confirmed when this CEO sat across the table from me and explicitly told me that this agreement was so that I wouldn’t file any claims against them (he made sure to spell that out more than once) and that they didn’t normally do this for their employees when they let them go. Why would they give me special treatment unless their actions weren’t justified?
If I was being let go because of sub-optimal performance or because of budgetary constraints, why would they feel such a strong need to make sure I left their employment as happy as possible? They could have royally screwed me if they’d wanted to and short-changed me upwards of a thousand dollars, but they didn’t. I could be sitting here in tears, unsure of how I’m going to survive through the end of the month if they’d felt justified enough in letting me go that they didn’t offer to make my exit as painless as possible, but I’m not.
So, I signed the agreement. Not because I don’t think I could win an EEOC claim but because I’m not interested in picking a fight that could go on for years and be a total bust. I’m not a vindictive person and I’m not out to screw anyone over. If they’d canned me without all of this, then hell yes I would file a claim but as it is, I think I’m better off in the long run not going to battle over this. And besides, I hated that job. I hated going there and doing that work. When they said they were letting me go with severance I was relieved! At long last I could be free of the, as my therapist put it, golden handcuffs they had me shackled with.
The money there was too good to give up and so I was unable to make the decision I knew I wanted to make: to leave. I wanted out so bad and they gave me my golden ticket out. The best part, if I get a new job (which I had a third interview with a company on Tuesday) then I basically got paid to not have to work at a job I didn’t like anymore. Is there any better way to go out than that?
And so, right now, I feel free. Truly, free. 6 months ago I felt so trapped and so stuck. I was in a marriage that wasn’t really working, despite all of my efforts to make it into something worthwhile. I was in a career that I despised and which was pushing me to the point of suicide time and again. I was in a social vacuum with very few friends and almost no exposure to the LGBT community. I was basically living without sex or even physical affection, and was having to cohabitate with someone who didn’t find me attractive, sexy, and didn’t really respect me or my needs.
All of those things have changed. All of those shackles have been broken and now I am free. I have dreamed again and again of just being in school without the obligations of a fulltime job. I have dreamed about being with someone who finds me sexy, attractive, and who respects me. I have dreamed of having friends to go out with and having a vibrant social life again. I have dreamed of getting more time to write and more time to focus on school, and despite the pain that I’ve gone through to get here, I am realizing those dreams.
I’m in an open (non-committal, which is what I need right now) relationship with someone who is physically affectionate, sweet, and respectful of me and my feelings. I have so many new friends that I can hardly go to the gay bar and not run into at least 3 or 4 people I know and like. I have a blossoming friendship with someone I could easily see becoming one of my closest and most valued friends. I have the time now to pursue the things I truly care about (writing, school, volunteering), and I am now in a position to make a positive career move should I choose to do so.
Losing my job, while potentially disastrous, might be the very best thing that’s happened to me in a long time, and I would be remiss if I didn’t point out an important aspect to this situation. I’ve said it again and again, but little by little, my life as Robert is crumbling away to make room for my life as Emma. First was the change from HRT, second was the day-to-day appearance when I went fulltime, then came the decision to change career paths by going to grad school, then Robert’s marriage fell away, and now Robert’s last job is behind us.
I have a wonderful opportunity to start over and revolutionize my life, and I’m going to take it. Do I know for certain that things are going to go smoothly? Hell no, but I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that everything is always working out for me. Today’s tragedy is tomorrow’s blessing, my friends, and while I might be unemployed at this very moment, I’m certain that empty space where my job used to be has been cleared away for something far better and more suited to my needs.
We are Emma, and like the phoenix we will rise from the ashes of Robert’s collapsed life to build something far greater and more memorable. Chapter one of our journey into this new life has come to a close. Our transition from our life as Robert to Emma is nearly complete and the following chapters will document our rebirth into the world as a new and renewed person. There is still so much to come. Our life is truly just beginning.