For years, Mary Ann Horton’s work as a transgender advocate has included leading workshops where she advises employers on how to make workplaces more inclusive and accessible. In sharing the story of her own transition, people were always telling her they wanted to hear more. With the release of her debut memoir last month, “Trailblazer: Lighting the Path for Transgender Equality in Corporate America,” they can.
“Now that I’m retired, I have time to tell it properly,” she says. “ ‘Trailblazer’ is the story of my life becoming a trans woman.”
The first chapter of her book was selected as one of nine winners in the International Memoir Writers Association’s annual San Diego Memoir Showcase, where it will be performed at 7 p.m. Dec. 8 at The Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla. The event matches writers with local writing coaches and hires professional actors and directors perform the stories. The winners, along with 25 honorable mention stories, will be included in the sixth volume of the San Diego Memoir Showcase anthology, “Shaking the Tree: Brazen. Short. Memoir.” in 2024.
Horton, 66, has a doctorate in computer science and a career in software development that has included protecting the San Diego Gas & Electric power grid from hackers, and getting a former employer to become among the first to include transgender-inclusive language in its corporate equal opportunity non-discrimination policy. Today, she’s retired, living in Poway with her wife, Katie Tucker, and has two sons from a previous marriage, as well as four grandchildren. She took some time to talk about “Trailblazer,” her advocacy work, and her contribution to the creation of email attachments.
Q: Congratulations on your inclusion as one of the winners in this year’s showcase, for your work, “My First Day as a Woman.” That piece is based on the first chapter of your recently published memoir, “Trailblazer.” Can you tell us a little about some of the specific things you talk about in that piece, that first chapter?
A: My piece goes back to my life in 1987 as a married man, not understanding why I was driven to wear women’s clothing. My wife catches me, leading to marital strife and a white-knuckle adventure on a business trip. I’ve seen marvelous dramatic performances in past memoir showcases, so I’m excited to see “My First Day as a Woman” performed at this year’s event. Even though I’m a woman now, in 1987 I was male, so I love the dramatic casting of the amazing Charles Peters to perform my piece.
Q: You’ve been a longtime transgender activist, writer and computer scientist, and in 1997, you were able to get Lucent Technologies to become a major corporation that added transgender-inclusive language to their nondiscrimination policy and health coverage for transgender care. During that time, what was your experience in terms of support and acceptance of your transition and your advocacy work in these areas of nondiscrimination and obtaining health care coverage?
A: My big break came in 1997, when I asked Lucent, my employer, to do something nobody had ever done — add trans-inclusive language to their equal opportunity nondiscrimination policy. I rejoiced when, on Oct. 28, 1997, they added “gender identity, characteristics, or expression.” It was finally safe for me to come out at work and my productivity soared. Three years later, I persuaded them to add coverage for hormones and surgery.
Q: On your website, you talk about transitioning and navigating the end of your marriage, parenting your sons, and your work relationships, and mention there being struggles. Are you comfortable sharing what some of those struggles were?
A: My dad once told me I could have anything I wanted if I was willing to give up something just as important. I lost my first wife when she found me cross dressing; my second wife was fine with it, but as a straight woman, didn’t want to be married to a woman. My kids have been wonderful, but when I came out, they went into their own closets to avoid being harassed at school. I lost some friends, but I’ve found that by being kind and helpful, most people accept me.
What I love about Poway …
After 26 winters shoveling snow in Ohio, I love the beauty all around me. The greenery, the mountains, and the views soothe my soul. On Saturdays, Old Poway Park bustles with the farmers market, train rides and picnics.
Q: With the transgender social and activist groups you founded, what were you looking for when you created those groups? What were you hoping to find for yourself, and to provide for others?
A: When we founded the Crystal Club, the transgender social group in Columbus, Ohio, I just wanted a safe space to be Mary Ann and to share that space with others just coming out. As I gained confidence and saw people being excluded or fired for who they were, I looked for opportunities to make the world more inclusive, one group at a time. I’d participate in gay, lesbian and bisexual groups and encourage them to include trans people.
Q: When you’re consulting on transgender workplace issues, what do you find yourself going over most often with corporations?
A: Often, it’s when a trans person is transitioning at work. I lead a workshop explaining what being transgender is all about and what to expect when the worker comes as their true self; human resources explains company policy; the boss tells the employees that the trans employee has their full support; and I tell my personal story and answer questions.
In the early days, people asked about restrooms (yes, they’ll use the new restroom, it’s perfectly OK) and surgeries (none of your business). Now, they want to know about pronouns (the trans person will tell you their pronouns). Human resources wants to know about equal opportunity policy language and health insurance.
Q: With all of the years of advocacy work that you’ve done, and continue to do, what do you make of the latest efforts by politicians in drafting and passing anti-trans legislation?
A: America is supposed to be a free country, so I’m disgusted to see politicians sticking their noses into transgender medical care, saying they know more than doctors who’ve specialized in the field for years. It’s especially disheartening to see them attacking our kids. Our leaders should be finding solutions, not sowing division to score points with their base.
Q: What would you like to see allies do to better support transgender folks?
A: Sharing your pronouns is a great way to show that it’s safe to come out to you. Please use the name and pronouns a trans person goes by. Speak up when you hear an anti-gay or anti-trans remark or joke. GLAAD has more great tips for allies.
Q: What did you want to say in “Trailblazer”? What do you hope people understand after reading your story?
A: Transgender people are individuals and every journey is different. Mine was unique in many ways, showing that one person really can change the world. There’s a lot of history in “Trailblazer” and people tell me it’s a page-turner.
Q: What has your advocacy work taught you about yourself?
A: It took me years to discover I’m much happier and more productive as a woman. As an activist, I’ve developed a thick skin, so the little annoyances in life don’t bother me. Trolls leave nasty comments on my book ads, but they don’t bother me.
Q: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A: I like to learn from the best experts. Groups like the International Memoir Writers Association and San Diego Writers and Editors Guild have experienced members and bring in expert speakers. I’ve learned so much about writing and publishing from them.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: While I was a graduate student at [the University of California] Berkeley, I needed to send binary files to other researchers, and magnetic tapes were a hassle to mail, so I created the first email attachment program.
Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: I love to be outdoors in this gorgeous area — hiking the San Diego Trans-County Trail or Torrey Pines, biking around Poway or Lake Miramar, or just having lunch on my deck and enjoying the view.