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Need to Know: Transgender Advocate Michaela Mendelsohn Is Leaving Her Mark

Michaela Mendelsohn

From Orange is the New Black to the Trevor Project, the restaurateur is a trailblazer for transgender rights and representation.

Without doubt, Michaela Mendelsohn has many irons in the fire.

Mendelsohn is the founder of the California Transgender Workplace Program, a board member of the Trevor Project, the CEO of the Pollo West Corporation (one of the West Coast's largest franchisees for El Pollo Loco restaurants), a passionate advocate for the transgender community, and an in-demand public speaker.

She was also a key player in the creation of Laverne Cox's groundbreaking transgender character, Sophia Burset, in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Mendelsohn advised show's staff on how to write Sophia's back story and even requested they hire a transgender actress to play the role.

Born into the restaurant business in the Bronx, New York, Mendelsohn is now a pioneering figure in the Californian restaurant industry, starting conversations about the importance of creating safe spaces for transgender individuals in restaurant and hospitality work.

She talked with Out about her work on OITNB, her passion for activism, and what transgender people can do to have their voices heard.

Out: You founded the California Transgender Workplace Program (CTWP) to promote transgender friendly job conditions. Can you tell us a bit about your work with them?

Michaela Mendelsohn: I own a small group of restaurants, and about four years ago one of my managers hired a transwoman as a cashier. I went in and met her and asked her a little bit about herself. She told me she'd come from another chain of stores and, even though she clearly identified as a woman, she was forced to use the men's restrooms, a place where she was also molested in. After being allowed to eventually use the women's restroom, and when just one customer got uncomfortable, she was fired.

This got me to open my eyes and my heart to these issues. I started reaching out to organizations that help transgender people who are looking for work, and we started hiring more transgender people at our restaurants. I started out doing it because it was the right thing. Then I started getting so many compliments from my customers. These girls have had such bad experiences in the workplace that once they're able to be out as themselves in the workplace, they really thrive. So we thought, wouldn't this be a great initiative for other businesses, so that's when we decided to start the CTWP. We have since formed our first coalition with the California Restaurant Association, which covers over 96,000 restaurants in California and some 1.7 million employees.

You recently became the first transgender board member of the Trevor Project. Do you think your presence has helped give more attention to transgender issues?

I got a call from the CEO of the Trevor Project (Abbe Land) because they were looking for a transgender member for the board. They had trans staff, and actually a lot of their time is devoted to transgender issues because nearly half of the people who call their crisis line identify as trans. With the Trevor Project, I find that I can take my 40 years of experience as a CEO and help them in governance (such as finance and programming), but I also get to help them really connect with the transgender community and with their needs in maybe ways they weren't as in touch with in on that level previously.

You worked closely with Jenji Kohan, the creator of Orange is the New Black, to help develop transgender character Sophia Burset played by Laverne Cox. What was that experience like for you?

A friend of mine is one of the head writers for OITNB and approached me because the creator wanted to know if anyone knew someone who could help them with a certain character that needed to be developed. I was called in and sat with Jenji and her team of writers for three hours, and we went through everything about the character. After that, I then worked with an individual writer on the back story of Sophia for a bit. From that experience, I think it really influenced her back story.

What I tried to express to them was so many of my friends who had transitioned were coming from places like the military, they were race car drivers, jet fighter pilots--people trying to erase what's going on within themselves through death-defying acts. The more macho, the better. From a lot of talks, they decided to make the back story be that she was a fireman. So one of the things I'm most pleased about it is that I said that I'd like two things to come out of this: I'd like to get the story right, since too many transgender characters are just that--characters--and I'd like the character played by a transgender actress. Both of which they did.

Members of the transgender community continue to face discrimination and violence. What advice can you give transgender individuals on how to deal with this ongoing discrimination?

One of the reasons I started CTPW is because even though you're reading about trans issues, like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, and TIME's "The Tipping Point," it's not always trickling down to the lower and middle segments of our community. So there's still hundreds of thousands of people really suffering out there and there's still so much work to be done. There's not much advice I can give to an individual experiencing injustice other than to get help--there are people out there who can help you. And continue to speak up.

What keeps you so motivated to talk publically about transgender issues, especially around safe working spaces for members of this community?

Every day I question myself and ask what do I need to do to make a difference. For me, I've always had this sense of social justice and wanting to help. But it wasn't really until I transitioned that that part of myself opened up so that I could help others. Now I feel like it's boundless. It's running a business, it's activism, it's public speaking--there's a lot to do and I don't want to give anything up.

Nathan Smith is an arts and culture writer. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, TheAtlantic, and Forbes. Nathan tweets at @nathansmithr.

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