In this episode of Room at the Table, Betsy Cerulo talks with Ashley Brundage, a leadership and empowerment expert, and Anne Stoner, a mother of a trans daughter and an HR consultant at AdNet/AccountNet. They discuss the journey of the transgender community, leadership, love, and support, and emphasize the importance of acceptance, understanding, and open conversations to create a more inclusive society. They also address how empowerment leads to positive business outcomes, urging people to focus on the benefits of diversity and inclusion.
About Anne Stoner
Anne Stoner was an elementary educator for over 15 years, former PFLAG Vice President of the Westminster/Carroll County Chapter, elected member of the Democratic Central Committee of Carroll County, as well as serving on the Maryland Democratic Party LGBTQ+ Diversity Leadership Council. Her advocacy has allowed her to present to future teachers at MICA, Carroll Community College and McDaniel College to combat the gender stereotyping that is pervasive throughout public education. She is currently a Human Resources Consultant with AdNet/AccountNet, Inc. However, her proudest achievement is being a mother to three brilliant, compassionate women.
About Ashley Brundage
Ashley T Brundage is the President & CEO of Empowering Differences. While seeking employment at a major financial institution, she self-identified during the interview process as a woman of transgender experience and subsequently was hired. Starting as a part time teller she rose to VP, Diversity and Inclusion in less than 5 years. She captured this 4-step process of empowerment to cultivate change in her new book and online course. Ashley credits her success to those closest to her for providing actionable allyship including her 2 teenage sons, Bryce and Blake.
Episode Transcript – The Courage of our Transgender Community and Allies
Welcome to Room at the Table, an opportunity for you to join me, Betsy Cerulo, and my guests for conversations about creating equitable and inclusive workplaces where leaders rise above mediocrity and our teams thrive. Pull up a chair, there’s always Room at the Table.
Welcome to another meaningful conversation on Room at the Table. I am Betsy Cerulo, your host, and welcome to my guests today, Ashley Brundage who is a leadership and empowerment expert, author of Empowering Differences and creator of Voyage of Empowerment Conference with the next cruise dates in September 2023. Ashley started with PNC Bank in 2011, and rose to the ranks to hold the role of a Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion before she left to focus on her company Empowering Differences. Ashley is an award-winning speaker from the transgender community who has overcome many obstacles including homelessness, as she blazed open doors and carved her own path inside and outside of the LGBTQ community. Ashley’s book Empowering Differences offers valuable tools for corporate cultures as well as I believe to be a must read for a high school or college curriculum. She is able to answer questions, fears, and myths about the transgender community in an embracing manner. Our other guest, Anne Stoner, is a past board member of PFLAG in Carroll County, Maryland. She is the mother of a beautiful and creative trans daughter Daisy and is an HR consultant with AdNet/AccountNet, bringing her fierce commitment to allyship to our work culture. Today, we are talking about the courageous journey of our transgender community and those whom we love and protect. So pull up a chair and enjoy your favorite beverage, and let’s get started. So welcome, welcome. I have been so excited to have this conversation and to have both of you share about your experiences. I know we’re having a conversation about the trans community, but about leadership, about love, and about supporting everyone. But, obviously, me being in the LGBTQ community, it’s passionate for me to see that everybody has a voice. So I want to get started. First, Ashley, can you briefly share with us what inspired you to write Empowering Differences?
Well, first, I wanted to say thank you so much for having me here. And I feel that you should read my introduction everywhere I go on the empowerment roadshow. So can you come on the Voyage of Empowerment just to do my introduction for everybody?
I would go anywhere with you.
I’ll take you into the ship captain section. And you know how it goes ding, ding, ding, and then like, literally, you’ll just start speaking to everyone on the ship in the morning reading my bio. Can we do that, please? Because that sounds like that would be a lot of fun.
You never know where I may show up in September.
But no, in all seriousness, everybody kept asking me. They said, “Ashley, how was it that you went from part-time bank teller to becoming the National Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion in four years?” Everybody kept saying, “Can you tell us how you did that?” And I said, “Well, I mean, I’ve empowered all of my differences.” It wasn’t just about my status as a transgender person, a woman of trans experience, it was about empowerment of every single difference that I had. I had to build a strategy for each thing that made me who I am. There are 8 billion different people on this planet, and if everyone centered into having a plan to drive empowerment for each of their differences, our physical abilities, our attributes, our social economic class, all of these things impact our experience and how we connect with other humans. So why not have an empowerment strategy for each of those things? The book was the first iteration of this and I’ve created it as a workbook, as a leadership course, as an empowerment tracking tool digitally where people come and I can actually measure how empowered they are for their differences, it’s grown to be so much more because there was such a need. So many people were wanting to be able to have guidance on an empowerment journey. And that’s what prompted me to write this book.
What would you say in your journey, because there was a point that you were homeless, what would you say was, I’ll do twofold, the biggest challenge for you, and the part that you’re most proud of?
I mean, I think the biggest challenge was hiding that from my kids. They had no idea that we were even homeless. I mean, I had a conversation with my youngest, and he said, “I heard you say that we were homeless.” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “I didn’t even know that.” And I said, “Yeah, that’s because as a parent, I shielded that from you, you had no idea. We were really strategic.” We were squatting illegally in houses. And then when we knew that someone was coming to check on the house, we would be out of the house. So, we would go out for dinner or go to friends’ houses, or go somewhere to the community and figure out where we could be while they were there scoping to see if anybody was living here. The hardest thing was hiding that and not exposing my kids to that. So that way they didn’t have any idea. And then what was the other half of the question?
What are you most proud of on your journey?
I’d probably say the connection that I still have to my kids. I always was fearful that transitioning would make me the parent that none of my kids ever wanted to talk to, and I was so afraid that I would never have a relationship with them. My relationship with them has only gotten stronger every day. And while they’ve known me more of my life as my authentic self, they still know that there was a transition and that there was a change. But every day, our relationship has gotten better because I got better as a human. With our relationship, I increased the things to help me be a better person so that way our relationship would always improve. Not living a double life any longer and living one life and being authentic allowed me to increase empathy, and increase emotional intelligence and increase awareness so that way I could be a better human. And that’s what helped me along this journey.
Now, you have two sons, correct?
How old are they now?
So, they’re almost 16 and almost 18. So I have two high schoolers finishing up high school now.
Wow. It’s interesting because one of my granddaughters is 17, and she was just in a play last month, and there was a lot of intersectionality with the characters in the play. They did Mamma Mia, and you would think one character was female, but a male would play it and vice versa. And there were quite a number of her friends in the play who were trans. And I thought, boy, we have come a long way. And it was so prideful, and she was so excited. So how are your kids in school, because sometimes, now, kids are wonderful and kids are also cruel, what do they encounter with this amazing mom?
Well, I guess it really depends on which one you ask because my oldest son goes to a deeply Christian faith-based camp, and I don’t get the sense that there’s a lot of belonging and welcoming, newness, and inclusive nature for me to be anywhere near the campus. So I really try to stay away and give him the space because that’s what he prefers, and that’s amazing. That’s what makes our relationship stronger. Sadly, I don’t get to be there for every single thing but he knows that I’m always available. And I’m always there for him, and we connect in different ways. But for my youngest, I’m there picking him up from school every once in a while, every few days. He doesn’t care. I mean, it’s just part of who we are and everything and yeah, it’s really great that I get to be a part of all the things that he does. But it’s give and take. You can’t just parent kids one way for all kids just like you can’t manage employees one way for all employees. You have to get to know the people, and you have to build a strategy that works best for how you’re going to communicate and partner with them.
Right. Well, I think that’s a perfect segue for you, Anne, as a parent, how has that journey been for you with Daisy and her evolution?
I sort of think the universe kind of aligned the planets for us. I became a member of PFLAG not because I, at the time, thought I had a gay son. I became a member of PFLAG because I worked in the school system, and I saw just a ton of gender stereotyping at the elementary level and because I wanted to advocate for kids, and there’s strength in numbers. The board just wasn’t listening to little old me. So I contacted PFLAG, which was the only LGBTQ+ advocacy organization in our county. And we went to work with the school system. And through PFLAG, I met a lot of very successful, very happy trans folks. I also met some trans folks that had some very, very tragic stories. So when I found out that I had not two daughters, but three daughters, I was able to breathe a little bit and not be so fear-based, which I think happens to a lot of families. Also, I think this was helpful, I didn’t really have a religious conflict, which, I can’t imagine what that’s like, but there wasn’t a religious conflict for us. Daisy is Daisy. The inner soul of someone, the inner core of someone, the personality of someone doesn’t really change because of their outward appearance. Well, that may not be true. When they are their authentic self, they become happier. So that does change. We’re just lucky, we have three kids. I have a husband that is very supportive. And we’re very open in our family, we ask questions, we’re not afraid to ask what might be difficult questions. If you dance around the subject, then you never get that relief you’re looking for. I always say, “People are who they say they are.”
I remember the first time that I told my mom I was gay when I was in college, and she drove down from New Jersey to DC to have this conversation with me. When you first say something, immediately, it felt like so much was lifted off my shoulders. And she went into denial mode, “Just come home this summer, we’ll work this through. It’s a phase.” And typically, that was customary back in the 1980s. So I’m curious for both of you on your journey. Ashley let me go to you first, so when you first knew that you wanted to make the transition to live your authentic self, when you first communicated it, what happened?
Well, there are a lot of layers to this onion because, first, I didn’t know how or what to communicate. Well, actually, the first layer was that I knew something wasn’t right when I was 17 in the 90s. I was trying to figure out what was wrong with me as I was going through puberty, and my body was now becoming more masculine. And my body was very feminine. Something was really wrong, and I just didn’t understand, and I actually had a conversation with my brother. He saw me as me. His reaction was, “Why is it that you want to be like that?” And I said, “Well, I identify this way, and I really want to be a mom, and I have all these maternal instincts to want to have kids and take care of kids.” And he said, “Well, then why don’t you just get married and have kids?” And so that actually kind of hid me in the closet for 11 years, successfully, until I reached a breaking point because I wasn’t living authentically. If not for that, I would have probably never had kids. So then, starting the process of coming out 11 years later, I didn’t know how I was going to do that, and how I was going to consolidate my lives. So that was really the hardest thing, not knowing what to say at all. And I was very cowardice in nature a lot, because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. I knew I just couldn’t live anymore like the way I was. And I didn’t know that even transitioning was an option because I was so afraid of losing my kids. There’s just so much fear involved in that. So I lived a double life. I mean, that was literally my solution. And then eventually, it all blew up. And I had to come out and say what happened. My ex, at the time, was like, initially, “Let’s break up, let’s not be together.” And then, we ended up separating for a little bit, then we got back together, and then we tried to figure out how to coexist. And we actually successfully coexisted for about 12 more years past that point until last year when we got divorced. So I think we did a pretty good job. Obviously, I improved as a human with more emotional intelligence and we coexisted. But for the immediate family, there was a different response for every stakeholder group, really, when you think about it. My sister was my person and still is, and she was the first person I told, and she thought that I was going to tell her that I was dying because I had been losing so much weight. Because with each pound that went off, I felt I looked more feminine. And so I was like, “Oh, well, let me just lose a bunch of weight. That’s going to help my appearance and help me fit into clothes.” Because it’s hard to find clothes if you don’t fit into smaller sizes, shocking things that are barriers that you don’t even realize. And then my mom, the conversation with her was really impactful. And she took it so hard thinking about what did she do wrong, she dropped me too many times. She was just distraught, like biting off all of her fingernails and cuticles, and it was rough for a couple of weeks. And then finally, my sister went to her and said, “Listen, right now, you have two daughters.” Then, my sister was leaving town to go back to where she lives in Thailand. So she told her that you can either have two daughters or you can have no daughter. And my mom was like, “Oh, okay.” And then, a couple of days later, she apologized. She was like, “I just hate to see you living so upset.” So that was really, probably, the most impactful situation around coming out. And yeah, it was amazing.
Yeah, yeah, you’re right. So, Anne, are you willing to share how it was for you when Daisy started to share with you her changes, her feelings?
Sure. Daisy went to college in Chicago, and we just had a sense that things just weren’t going in the direction that we had expected. We just knew there were some things that, perhaps, she was wrestling with that we weren’t truly aware of. And when she finally told us, I think there was some relief because now we have an answer to why we felt there might be something going on. I’m sure that was wrestling with coming to terms and recognizing who she truly was to herself, and then having the courage to share it with others. And then, there’s sort of a coming out for parents too, for the family because we all want to share stories about our kids. When you get together with couples at a restaurant for dinner, and they say, “So, how’s the family?” Well, I want to talk openly and honestly about all of my wonderful kids and what they’re doing, and who they’re dating and where they’re living and all those things. There are some people that don’t understand. And I just kind of tell them, “It’s okay that you don’t understand.” And there are some people that, maybe, we’re not as close as we thought we once were with. And there are some folks that we’ve actually gotten closer with, or have surprised us with their welcoming opening arms. They like the Stoner family, and they know if they don’t accept all of us… I can remember, in fact, we traditionally have a big Christmas Eve party. Daisy was a little concerned because the world would come into our house, and Daisy had pulled me aside and expressed that she was a little concerned about how people were going to receive her. And I said, “Look, they know whose house they’re coming to. And they know if they disrespect anybody in this house, they’re out. No one is going to come into our house and be disrespectful.” We were living in a very conservative community. We were sort of the oddballs as a family, not because of anyone being transgender. But it was just amazing how receptive folks were, and we leave ourselves open to questions. I get together with my girlfriends, they pull me aside, ask me a question. And I might say, “Yeah, I don’t really know. I’ll ask Daisy.” Because I don’t want to speak for someone else’s experience. It’s not my experience. I’m simply having the experience of a mother. On that note, people always say, “Oh, my God, you’re such a good mother,” because I accept and love my daughter. That’s what you’re supposed to do. I’m a good mother because I made their lunches for the entire time they were in school. That’s what makes me a good mother. Loving your kids, you’re supposed to do that.
Yeah. I can tell you that over, especially the past couple years with our granddaughter, she sometimes would ask us questions. Or if I didn’t know something, she would say, because she knows I’m a co-founder of the Maryland LGBT Chamber of Commerce and very active in the community, and if I don’t know something, she’ll say, “Nona, you’re supposed to know that.” I’m like, “Well, that’s what I have you for.” I go and ask questions because I found that, especially when I got active with National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and all these, it was like, when I went to my first conference, like, “Oh my God, where has this been?” To be able to do business that way with people who were having similar lives and meeting so many amazing people in every acronym of the community? I would ask questions because there were some things that were new for me, but to sit and listen to people’s journeys, and especially in the trans community, and the courage. Whenever I would be around someone who was just plain ignorant, I would think to myself, “You are such a wimp because you have no idea the courage that the community as a whole has, but especially everything that the trans community continues to still walk through. And how dare you judge or make a joke.” If that was 15 years ago, I may not have had the Kahunas to say it that way. But now, where I’m at in my career when I’m around a customer, rarely it’s a customer, my customers are awesome, but once in a while we’ll have one of the contract employees or someone over the years in the corporate side that would say something unevolved. I’d take them in another room and say, “Look, you can’t say that. Let me tell you why that’s just wrong, and it’s ignorant.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay, I just didn’t think.” Well, you need to think. You need to think, and you need to imagine the nasty comments that you’re posing at this person that may be on your team that you don’t understand their choices. How would you feel if that was your daughter, your son, or grandchild? How would you react then? And then, all of a sudden, they sink in the chair. “You’ve right.” I said, “Well, now, when you’re sitting around a poker table and your poker buddies or your drinking buddies are making comments, stop and think as they’re pointing to somebody and making a stupid comment. If that was my kid, how would I feel?” When I’ve come to that approach in the LGBTQ community, people have been like, “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” Even with sexual harassment, just going to say, when I’ve been around businessmen that have made, again, ignorant comments, I’d say, “Okay, how would you feel if so and so over there was was making that comment towards your daughter? How would you feel?” “Oh, I’d go and I’d kick his ass.” “Well, then don’t laugh at the joke.” So, anyway, I’m sorry. I kind of went off on a tangent on that because I just get really sick and tired when I hear people make judgments about our community and about people that I treasure and I look up to. I’m just so grateful that there are people like you, and we all know so many more that are out there just interrupting the behavior.
Well, I would really like to say thank you to Ashley and women like Ashley who are unafraid to be who they are, because if you aren’t in the public eye, then when a mother or a father finds out that their child is trans, they don’t have any evidence of happiness in the trans community unless trans people are leading happy lives. If all we see is what we hear on the news, then, I mean, it’s terrifying. It can be terrifying to be a parent of a trans child, because you’re only as happy as your unhappiest child, right? And if you think that your child is in danger all of the time, well, where does that leave you? But, I also applaud courageous people like yourself, Betsy, who are going to interrupt the conversation and say, “Yeah, I don’t really think that joke is very funny. And here’s why.” My husband has been a coach for most of his adult life. I mean, I was a member of PFLAG, marched in a parade and, things like that, lobbied, but my husband is the quiet advocate. He’s going to pull that kid aside and say, “Look, that’s not a funny thing. You just offended me. And here’s why.” And then when they hear, “Oh, Coach Mike is okay with all that stuff? Maybe I could start to wrap my head around it. Or maybe not just be a jerk about it.”
Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. Ashley, in all your travels, the so many different people that you’ve talked to, whatever the venue is, what has it felt like when you’ve been in the presence of an individual who is close-minded and you’ve walked away from that conversation and you felt their heart open?
Nine countries last year and three so far this year, with many more to come. I have to tell you, people will all disagree, but the most amount of disagreements and lack of respect is located right here in America, sadly, and it’s really sad to see that. The biggest thing I try to do is to liken it to something else and help them understand as much as I can. In the span of six months last year, I consulted for the Joe Biden White House on an Empowerment Task Force, and then I won an award from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. So, if I could sit here every day and tell people that empowerment is apolitical, and it’s a way that we can build connection between all humans, and then prove it, point and proof, point after proof, point after proof, empowered employees produce at a 86% rate comparatively speaking to non-empowered employees. The Dartmouth Tuck School of Business says the number two issue that businesses face is not empowering their employees. So I’m here to tell you that regardless of all of our differences, we have to be able to find empowerment to move the needle forward to produce more positive business results. And I hate to break it to you, but at the end of the day, the people who see positive business results on the bottom line of their paycheck and their shareholder price and everything else that they do, and getting more contracts, they don’t give a crap about who you are, or who you love, or how you dress, or whatever. And if you show somebody some more money, I guarantee you, you will change their perspective, and they will be like, “Oh, well, I want some of that. I want some of that empowerment, actually, T. Brundage, I’m ready for that. So let’s do it.”
That’s right. Yeah, I can tell you that it was definitely over the past 10 years, maybe over the past seven years, there were a couple of customers that we had that were just downright a-holes. They just were. The inappropriate comments of, I’ll go across the whole spectrum of anything that you could attack, they would. And I felt so good when I picked up the phone and called that CEO and said, “I’m firing you.” And she was like, “What do you mean?” I said, “You don’t get to treat my contract employees this way. And you don’t get to treat the people that started on temporary jobs and went permanent that way. You, as a woman, should be so ashamed of yourself, and I don’t want to be associated with you.” So when I started to do that with customers, my employees were like, “Wow!” They got empowered because they felt that I was putting the stake in the ground. I’m not taking that anymore. And I felt that in losing some of the business, we gained tenfold because it was almost like I cleared the space of the toxicity and attracted the customers that totally got it. And the customers that we have today are amazing. That’s because not just me, but the culture stands up and says, “Nope, you don’t get to treat somebody that way.” So you’re right. Empowerment goes right to the bottom line in a positive way. There you go, hun, as they say in Maryland. So I know we have to wrap up here. In closing, Anne, I’m going to start with you. Tell me, going forward, is there anything that you would continue to do or do differently as an advocate in the community to open up one mind? What would you do differently or keep doing?
I think I’d keep having conversations. I think I would keep making space for the uninformed, the questioning, and the fearful to get a vocabulary lesson. And once they hear of, I think, a positive experience or the possibility of a positive experience, once they know the proper language, and I certainly am no expert, I have heard, “Mom, you’re a bad ally. You don’t know that.” But teach me! But yeah, I think creating normalcy around the conversation. It’s not taboo. This is not taboo. We’re just talking about people. Trans people, gay people have been around forever. Stop pretending that you haven’t been around forever. That’s not changing. So I think really creating a safe space for the uninformed, or the person, maybe, that wants to be supportive, but doesn’t know how to be. Because some people are jerks, and once they have the information, they’ll continue to be a jerk. But some people are so afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing that they don’t say anything at all, and they live in their bubble of ignorance and don’t really know how to advocate for themselves and get the information they desire. That’s what I would continue to do.
You’d have to ask Daisy what I should stop doing. And my other two kids. I’m sure there’s a list.
Ash, how about you?
What are we doing? Stop, start, continue here?
You do it all the time. I want our listeners to hear this and maybe think, “Ah, maybe I should try that tomorrow to change someone’s perspective.”
Something specifically to do to change someone’s perspective. I mean, you have to give them the data. Oftentimes, we like to tell people the emotional side of what’s going on and how it affects you. I said, I overcame harassment, discrimination, and homelessness. But it’s not until I started talking about the fact that there are more than 2 million transgender people living in the United States, and I put an economic output number to it, like the $1.7 trillion buying power of the LGBT business community. And then I say, “It’s the 10th largest economy in the world, bigger than Russia.” And people are like, “What? Really?” I talk about annual buying power of more than a billion dollars from consumer goods, and I think that you have to do that, you have to talk about those numbers. And you can talk about those numbers in relation to any one of your differences, not just your gender, because LGBTQ people go across all the same spheres of the 10 most common differences we have as humans. When I was trying to empower my differences, really my social economic class and my educational background and having dropped out of high school was really the barrier to entry to find employment. Yeah, of course, I was still trying to interview with companies and trying to get them to hire a proud woman of transgender experience when they had never even heard of that, and what that was like, but it was talking about the economic impact, it was talking about the business model, that empowerment is leveraging of all impacts and change. And so if you aren’t able to encapsulate what that is and communicate it to people, and communicate it in a manner that they listen, because if they’re threatened — I know the other thing that we kind of skirted on is the fact that there’s this cancel culture thing that exists, and I love to call it council culture because you have the ability to share some empowering data with that person, and you can change their perspective this way. I tell you it will work, you just have to try it.
It does. Well, I thank you both. You’re both courageous in your work and advocacy, the difference that you make, especially the difference that you make in a workplace, because I’m determined to every workplace that we touch, we walk away with it being a little bit better. So I just want to thank you both for having this conversation today and for bringing your heart out to the conversation. Thank you so much for being here.
Thanks for creating space for it. It’s an important conversation.
I’m always glad to join you on any empowerment journey.
I know. I can’t wait to see you at NGLC in August.
Yes, I’ll be there.
Nice to meet you, Ashley.
Great to meet you as well.
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