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Proud to be a transgender business owner

Pollo West Corp. is proof that success comes when all are treated with dignity

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Michaela Mendelsohn, gay news, Washington Blade, Pollo West

Michaela Mendelsohn (Photo courtesy of Mendelsohn)

I am the leader of a franchise small business, and I am a transgender woman. For the past 30 years, I have been an El Pollo Loco franchise owner, and I serve as the CEO of Pollo West Corp., a multi-unit franchise in Southern California. Pollo West Corp. operates six restaurant locations, and we employ 175 people across Los Angeles and Ventura Counties. In my role, it is my top priority to grow a business that is respectful and inclusive of all my employees and customers, not in spite of their gender identity, but because of it.

The business world and the transgender community intersect in important and challenging ways. In the United States, transgender people face unemployment at a rate two to three times higher than the national average. Forty-seven percent of transgender people are fired, not hired, or denied a promotion due to their gender identity, and of those who are employed, 90 percent report being harassed or discriminated against at their workplaces. These statistics are humbling, and they’re why I’m called to speak out, advocate for transgender people entering into business environments, and continue to lead to make my business diverse and inclusive.

Our success in creating a business that is diverse, respectful of difference, and inclusive of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals is due in large part to the franchise model itself. Franchising places the recognition and responsibility of a larger brand into the hands of entrepreneurs like me to create, shape, and grow a small business. The franchise model drives the creation of small business opportunities, and it allows owners and operators to make the important decisions to pursue hiring that suits the needs of the business and expands opportunity for workers. In the areas where we operate, we know that franchising is an engine for business development and employment. In Ventura County alone, the franchise sector employs more than 18,000 people and contributes over $1.1 billion to GDP.

I’ve implemented best practices at Pollo West Corp. – from hiring, to training, to management – to achieve our goal of a diverse and thriving workplace. I require management to complete “sensitivity training,” known in our business as “demystifying the workforce.” We hire consultants to conduct in-person training that includes role-playing as a way for everyone to learn what it is like to “walk in another’s shoes,” specifically including those of a transgender person. This training is integral in creating a business culture that encourages openness and respect for all my employees.

Hiring and integrating transgender employees is a win on both humanitarian and business levels. We decided to take this success and create an organization called TransCanWork.org, which could help businesses succeed in hiring transgender and gender non-conforming individuals into their organizations. We are encouraged by the widespread national interest in our program.

Policy implementation is not enough. At TransCanWork we are about changing corporate culture. The results have been encouraging.

The steps that I have taken to create an environment of respect and diversity directly impact the face of our business – our employees and management. We see that when we promote the dignity of all people, we are lifting livelihoods and opening doors to transgender individuals who might not otherwise have those opportunities. Over a five-year period, we have hired more than 40 transgender people. Of those, 25 percent have risen to management positions. They are hardworking, ambitious employees, and they have flourished in their professional lives due to a safe and respectful workplace.

Sales and revenue at Pollo West Corp. have improved alongside our increasingly welcoming environment. We started in 1988 with one El Pollo Loco location, at the corner of Venice Blvd. and Western Ave. in Los Angeles. From there, my company has owned and operated 17 restaurants, some of which we’ve since sold. This growth and success shouldn’t be limited to my business. Every business, from a restaurant to a bank to a law firm or repair shop can benefit from increased diversity and an openness to employees and customers of all backgrounds.

There are 1.4 million transgender adults living in the United States. If our hope is to live in a safe, peaceful, and respectful society, we must work together in Washington, D.C., and in statehouses across the country to ensure that laws are enacted to protect transgender people, and that small businesses like mine are given the tools and freedom they need to grow and succeed. My franchised business has empowered transgender people, and created opportunities open to all.

I am proud to be a transgender woman, and a transgender leader of a company that is affording business opportunities to the trans community. All of my employees, and my transgender employees in particular, are able to look and see that you can be transgender, and you can succeed at the highest levels in a franchise small business like mine. The Pollo West Corp. story is evidence of success in the franchise business model, of advancement in the workplace when all people are treated with dignity and respect, and how franchised businesses must be free to grow their businesses with tools that uplift all people.

 

Michaela Mendelsohn is CEO of the Pollo West Corp.

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Judy Heumann helped so many of us with disabilities to be out and proud

‘Like the color of my eyes or the color of my hair, it is a part of who I am’

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Judy Heumann speaks in the TED Talk 'Our fight for disability rights -- and why we're not done yet.' (Screen capture via TED YouTube)

When I was growing up, people like me, who were disabled, were usually met with scorn, pity and exclusion. 

On March 4, Judith (Judy) Heumann, a founder of the disability rights movement,  died at 75 in Washington, D.C. 

For decades, Heumann, who contracted polio when she was 18 months old, was a leader of a civil rights movement that changed the lives of millions of folks like me.

Judy (so many of us, whether we knew or not, connected with her on a first-name basis), was known as the “mother” of the disability rights movement. She was the Harvey Milk of our struggle.

You might think: why should LGBTQ people care about the passing of a disability rights leader?

Here’s why: Nearly, 20 percent of people in this country have a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This includes LGBTQ+ people. An estimated three to five million people are queer and disabled.  

Studies, including a study by the Map Advancement Project, reveal that queer people are more likely than non-queer people to become disabled. We face the double-whammy of anti-queer and disability-based discrimination. The MAP study reported that of the more than 26,000 transgender people surveyed, 39 percent reported having a disability.

If you’re queer and have a disability (blindness, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, psychiatric disorder, etc.), you’ve likely run up against employers who don’t want to hire you or restaurants who don’t care to serve you. If you’re a queer parent of a disabled child, you’ve probably had to fight to get your kid the education they need.

These battles are hard. But, thanks to Heumann and the movement she led, there are ways — from the Americans with Disabilities Act to working the media — to fight this injustice.

Heumann, who at 29 led a month-long protest that was the Stonewall of the disability rights movement, and in her 70s was the star of the fab, Oscar-nominated documentary “Crip Camp,” was a powerhouse of energy, discipline, hard work and humor. She was a quintessential bad ass who worked for justice 24/7, and  kicked your butt if you didn’t.“Kathi, get your self together!” commanded the voice over the phone, “or you won’t get anything done.”

It was 1987, and I was writing my first news story. I was interviewing Heumann about an historic protest that she’d led a decade earlier. It was the 10th anniversary of what is believed to be the longest non-violent sit-in a federal building. 

In April 1977, more than 100 disabled people took over the (then) Health, Education and Welfare building in San Francisco. President Richard Nixon had signed the Rehabilitation Act into law in 1973. But, regulations, known as “504,” a section of the Act that prohibited discrimination against disabled people by institutions (schools, hospitals, etc.) receiving federal funding, hadn’t been signed. After protesting in the San Francisco building for a month and in Washington, D.C. (including at then President Jimmy Carter’s church), the “504″ regulations were signed.

Heumann, who was an official in the Clinton administration and a special adviser in the Obama State Department, was tough, kind, and proud of herself and the movement that she founded.

For Heumann, who is survived by her husband and brothers, disability was a normal part of life, not a tragedy.

“I never wished I didn’t have a disability,” Heumann wrote in her memoirs “Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist.”

When Heumann was a child, disabled children were often institutionalized. Like being queer, being disabled wasn’t considered to be normal then. 

Doctors advised Heumann’s parents to send Judy to an institution when she was a child. But her parents, who were Jewish and had fled Nazi Germany, refused. This experience turned her mother and father against institutionalizing her, Heumann wrote in her memoir.

“If I’d been born just 10 years earlier and become disabled in Germany, it is almost certain the German doctor would also have advised that I be institutionalized,” Heumann wrote, “The difference is that instead of growing up being fed by nurses in a small room with white walls and a roommate, I would have been taken to a special clinic, and at that special clinic, I would have been killed.”

Just as it is if you’re queer, if you’re disabled, if you want to respect yourself, you need to be out and proud.

Judy more than anyone I’ve ever known, helped so many of us with disabilities to be out and proud. She taught us that being disabled isn’t something to be ashamed of. That it’s an important aspect of who we are.

Her disability, Judy often said,  is, “Like the color of my eyes or the color of my hair, it is a part of who I am.” 

I knew Judy only from interviewing her over the years and being on an episode of her podcast “The Heumann Perspective.” But Judy, whether you’d known for decades or just a few months, made you feel like you were a friend.  She’d advise you, cheer you on and challenge you over the phone, in texts and on Zoom.

She almost got me, a non-make-up wearing lesbian, to wear lipstick (so I wouldn’t look like a ghost on her podcast). Earlier this winter, Judy wondered why I didn’t put my disability on my resume. Being nervous could be good, she said, when I was scared of reading at a poetry festival.

“If you don’t respect yourself and if you don’t demand what you believe in for yourself, you’re not going to get it,” Judy said.

Thank you, Judy for teaching us to respect ourselves and to demand our rights! R.I.P., Judy!

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Latest Uganda anti-homosexuality bill incites new wave of anti-LGBTQ hate

Mbarara Rise Foundation appeals to international community for help

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(Image by rarrarorro/Bigstock)

To the international community, 

I write to you today on behalf of the organization I lead, Mbarara Rise Foundation.

Since the year began, our rural grassroots LGBTQI+ communities have faced life threatening problems including an increased number of mob attacks, individual threats, police arrests and non-stop fears and insecurities arising from the homophobic campaigns happening in Uganda. Sadly, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2023 was introduced on March 9, inciting a new wave of anti-LGBTQI+ hatred.

This anti-homosexuality bill is worse than previous bills because, under this new law, simply identifying as LGBTQI+ means you have committed a crime. Even before the bill has passed, this homophobic action in Parliament has encouraged more of the general population, bloggers, celebrities and politicians to increase their hate campaigns all over the country. More than ever, Uganda is not a safe environment for us now. 

Currently, attacks are happening all over Uganda. Our communities have faced mob “justice” scenarios, threats and arrests and we have no legal recourse. Many of our constituents have received death threats, and in fact some have gone into hiding. This all increased dramatically when the bill was read in the Parliament and homophobic people are using it as a new excuse to inflict harm upon us. In just one of many examples, a transgender woman associated with our organization was beaten, publicly, by a group of cis men and she now sustains serious wounds. The police do not care.

Your voices are needed to speak out against these human rights abuses in Uganda. Your kind support is crucial and timely for us because we need protection, visibility and defense of our basic human rights. Mbarara Rise Foundation is working tirelessly to help LGBTIQ persons through building the capacity of the LGBTQI+ community, by documenting and advocating against violence, and through providing safety and security where we are able. We are fighting to increase access to legal counsel and justice and working to repeal homophobic laws and transform the attitudes of duty bearers towards LGBTQI+ persons. We cannot do this work alone.

These matters are urgent because Uganda needs interventions to protect the rights of LGBTQI+ persons amidst escalating violence and homophobia given the limited capacity of LGBTQI-led organizations, a shrinking civic space. In short, we need your outrage, your voices, and your support and we need it now.

Yours sincerely,

Real Raymond

Executive Director

Mbarara Rise Foundation

www.mbarararisefoundation.org

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My 60th high school reunion in Florida – say ‘GAY!’

Even MAGA classmates joined the cheer

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(Image by larich/Bigstock)

I had a very special and wonderful experience at my high school 60th reunion I recently attended on Jan. 28 in Deerfield Beach, Fla. Although I graduated from Great Neck North Senior High School, located in Great Neck, Long Island, N.Y., the reunion event was held in Deerfield Beach, Fla. You may ask: Why did we have our reunion in Florida if our high school was in Great Neck, N.Y.? Like many New York-Long Island Jews, most of the folks in my high school class moved to Florida. Whatever our political beliefs, it’s the weather. 

Initially, I was not going to attend the reunion because I was boycotting Florida. I opposed Florida’s horrible homophobic Gov. Ron DeSantis and the homophobic legislation enacted in Florida — especially the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. But I realized that this is our 60th class reunion. We are in our late 70s. Will I ever see these guys again? Will I be around to attend? I relented and decided to go. 

It was a wonderful experience. I hardly recognized most of my alumni. We look quite a bit different than what we looked like 60 years ago in 1962. We all enjoyed getting together. We shared stories about where we worked, who we married (or in my case, my domestic partner), where we live, and more.  

After a pre-cocktail party and dinner, the coordinators of the event passed around the microphone, asking for recollections and comments from our classmates. At first, I passed up on the microphone. (What, me shy?) However, after a few comments from my fellow classmates, I grabbed the microphone.

I explained to my classmates that I initially refused to attend the 60th reunion because of DeSantis and Florida’s homophobic laws. My fellow classmates listened intently to the reasons I thought about skipping the reunion. Even though a few of my classmates are MAGA/Trumpers, they listened.

I introduced my classmates to Tom, my partner of 18 years. (I think they liked him more than me.)  At that point, I asked my classmates to please support me and the rights of LGBTQ people by shouting out the forbidden words in Florida: “G-A-Y.”  I said I would count to three, and asked them to say “GAY” on the count of three. 

One, two, three: GAY!  GAY! And they said it two times.

After I reluctantly gave up the mic, many of my fellow classmates came up to me afterwards and said: “We love you. We support you.” It was one of the best moments I will ever remember in my life.

And, yes, I intend to attend the 70th reunion – I hope with Tom. Let’s hope that Florida will have a new governor by then and the “Don’t Say Gay Law” will be repealed.  

Larry Berman is a D.C. resident.

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