One employee uses the lessons he learned from his own journey becoming his authentic self to insist that others who feel invisible are seen and heard
By Candace Whitney-Morris
Eight years into his career at Microsoft, Clark Ly, who identified as a woman at the time, decided to transition to being male. His friends and support system seemed surprised when he told them he was going to stay at the same company, in the same department, and on the same team.
“When you decide to transition, it’s not just you transitioning,” Ly said. “It’s everyone around you. You have to take that into consideration. Many people leave; they want a fresh start.”
But Ly loved his job helping Xbox publishers get their games out, so he decided to remain at his job as he transitioned to living openly as a man.
In January 2015, with the help of his manager, an email was sent to the team, rewelcoming Clark Ly. He knew the group was open and accepting, but he still wondered how this would affect everyone.
“The response was really great. I had grown adults crying in my office because they were so happy for me.”
Born in Vietnam to a father who was in the military, Ly grew up with an inclination toward law enforcement. After he moved to and grew up in the United States, he decided to become a police officer “to do some good in the world.” Though he moved on to Microsoft after a few years of patrolling the streets of Portland, his desire to do good in the world never waned. These days, that instinct powers his advocacy and support for those who are afraid to be who they are.
Ly is a big part of Microsoft’s efforts to help LGBTQ+ people and advocate against the kind of inequity that contributes to an unemployment rate among trans and gender nonbinary workers that is nearly twice that of the overall US working population.
As an active member in the LGBTQ+ employee resource group GLEAM, Ly helped cofound a subgroup of GLEAM called Gender Expression and Transgender* (GET*—the asterisk signifies inclusion of all who don’t identify under the term transgender) with two other transgender employees at Microsoft.
GET* members meet regularly to support each other and help influence inclusive policies in the workplace. The group is working on creating a “how to come out at Microsoft” recourse guide that helps transgender and nonbinary employees navigate their health benefits and anticipate what to expect if they decide to transition—for example, how to deal with people’s reactions and behaviors and what to do if coworkers accidentally call them by their old name or use the wrong pronouns. The group also shares personal stories to help prepare for some of the surprising things people might say out in the world.
“As the world continually changes and people become more visible, you’ll get more people who feel like they can just ask you anything,” Ly said. “Sometimes I get asked some of the most inappropriate questions from perfect strangers.”
Ly and GET* are chronicling these experiences so other transgender people can learn from them and to maybe make transitioning a little bit easier.
Ly said that GET*’s latest and most pressing focus is consulting with the Microsoft facilities team on designing new and renovating existing restrooms for all-gender use.
“While we’re transitioning, many of us don’t present as masculine or feminine. It’s important that we have restrooms where we don’t have to justify why we’re going into them, because we don’t look the way that people assume we should look,” Ly said.
Being asked “are you going into the wrong restroom?’” isn’t something anyone should have to face, he said. “Not when all they are trying to do is take care of a basic human need.”
Ly remembered responding with, “Well, I would rather go into the men’s restroom, but unfortunately, I am still presenting as a woman.” Or he would find a single-stall restroom somewhere just to avoid the conversation.
GET* also holds separate meetings just for allies of transgender and gender nonconforming employees. Microsoft has several parents of transgender kids who come to the ally meetings to connect with and support each other.
“It’s been really wonderful to have this resource,” Ly said. “We are building a community within Microsoft. Since creating GET*, we’ve had more people come out, whether they decide to transition or want to say ‘I identify as nonbinary’ or ‘I want people to know that they/them are my pronouns.’”
And just by walking around in the world, visible and empowered, Ly and others in his community are furthering acceptance and helping others to be seen for who they are. More acceptance, he said, means less time worrying about what others think or explaining yourself. It means more focus on work and creativity. It means hope.
“By being who I am, by being visible, other people, especially within the trans community, can see someone like me working at Microsoft and think, ‘I can do that. I can work at Microsoft, too.’ They will know that Microsoft values diversity and inclusion. Microsoft values people who want to be and bring all their authentic self.”
Ly believes that the more people who advocate and push for trans visibility, the easier it will get for transgender people to come out, both at work and in the community.
“At Microsoft, I don’t have to hide who I am.”