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A lesson in allyship: an interview with Greg Keller

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Tammi Harris

INTRO: As a part of NetApp’s commitment to DI&B, we are highlighting and celebrating NetApp employees who are working to build belonging every day and foster a greater understanding of the importance of diversity, inclusion, and belonging throughout the NetApp community. Hear their stories in our new series. The next episode in our series is an interview with Meghan Whitmore with Jared Karol.

Jared Karol is the founder of and a trusted advisor to executives, people managers, and dedicated change agents at Fortune 500 companies, startups, and nonprofits. A sought-after professional speaker, panel moderator, leadership coach, and facilitator of difficult conversations who lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area.

This conversation was recorded on June 8, 2021. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Jared Karol: Meghan, you were the first person I met when I started at NetApp. You asked me to be a guest at the Pride Celebration 2020. I knew you then as Mickey and I didn’t know anything about you. What do you remember about that time in your life?

Meghan Whitmore: COVID was upon us. I was working as part of the Pride group to kick off the 2020 Pride celebration. They remembered that I had reached out to them in 2019 for the first Pride celebration. I didn’t even know then that we had a Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging group in the company. I said I was transgender and I’m thinking about how to navigate this professionally. What should I do? What would be the right way to go about this? They were awesome. They directed me to H.R., and that was amazing.

For the 2020 Pride celebration, the leadership team asked if I’d like to help. I ended up volunteering on the speaker panel selection committee. That’s when I engaged with Susan (the former head of DI&B at NetApp) and she gave me your name and said you had a really great story about your father being gay and dying of AIDS. It was awesome to get to know you.

Jared:: Yeah, I remember that conversation. You were still using your old name, and then soon after that, you made the transition. In 2019 you were telling people internally from a legal and professional angle, and they were supportive. Fast forward a year and now you’re doing it on a bigger scale. I’m curious to hear what that was like emotionally, and logistically as well.

Meghan: My name was Mickey. And then I was telling people one at a time about my new name. I was going through therapy and talking to people and meeting more people and I just became more comfortable making incremental changes to coming out. I remember having this huge fear about “What would it be like someday when I do?” You know, come out all the way, 100% percent presenting as woman or female. Just how terrifying and difficult that would be, and thinking I would never have the courage to get to that point. I was wondering, how do people do that?

But it happened very naturally. And I felt good, sort of clearing the air and prepping people ahead of time so that there were no awkward big surprises. I’d tell someone confidently: “Hey, by the way, I’m transgender, and I’m coming out and I’m working toward transition.” And then 6 months later when they see me wearing a blouse, or my hair is getting longer, it’s just like, “oh, cool.” There’s nothing to explain. In the fall I changed my name at work and started using Meghan, which is a name I remembered from growing up.

Jared: You’ve talked before about how you used to have shame but now you don’t. I’m curious to hear about that evolution of feeling shame to no longer feeling shame. What was that journey like?

Meghan: People ask sometimes, “How did you know?” Or “Why did you wait so long?” I remember at an early age wishing I looked like my female cousins. There are specific moments I remember playing on the playground, or when my cousins were over, so I knew back in the early ’90s. But it wasn’t something you said out loud. No one pulled me aside and told me anything specific, but the message was clear that it was wrong to think that. Being transgender wasn’t even well-known back then, but any time you saw a guy in woman’s clothes it was usually a bit of a joke. There were enough social pressures I could sense as a kid to know that it was not “the right thing to do.”

So I thought it was this weird, shameful thing that I wanted to be a woman, but I couldn’t quite formulate that into something to take any action on. I didn’t know there were transgender or gender identity therapists. I didn’t know people could take hormones. There are so many things you just don’t know.

And then I’d get the “man up” speeches from my dad. They made sense, I mean, I’m a guy, right? I should do this and that, and I would give those speeches to myself over time, and it sort of tucked away the shame or the desire. I could put it away for a little bit, but it was tough.

Jared: Was there a specific moment when you finally moved through some of the shame of these memories and got to a place where you said, “I’m going to do this”? Who did you first tell? Was it your mom or was it someone else? And what was the initial reaction?

Meghan: My sister Tammy was the first person I told, and I remember being absolutely terrified of telling her. I thought she would reject me. I felt like I had a lot to explain to paint the picture. The first time I was going to tell her, I chickened out. I just sat there in her living room acting weird, melting hours away while we talked. A couple of months later I was back at her house, and I did the same thing. Finally, I said, “I’ve got something to tell you.” And boy, did I beat around the bush on it. I just kept on and on. She thought I was dying of cancer. No, I’m not dying of cancer.

Then she asked if someone else is dying of cancer. No, no. And at one point she jumped off the sofa, looked at me with dagger eyes and said, "Is my husband cheating on me?" It's not any of those things. So finally, I come out with it, and she said, "Really? I would never have thought that. So do you like makeup?" This was within minutes. And I said yes. She's very girly. She doesn't have any kids and she has a spare bedroom dedicated as a makeup room with the vanity setup and the lighting. She immediately was very embracing. It was nice.

Jared: That's awesome. That must have been a relief to have that first revealing go so well.

Meghan: Yeah, it felt good. I asked her not to tell anyone, but she couldn't help but tell her husband, who's a great guy. He called me up on my way home gushing with support. I couldn't believe it. It was months before I worked up the courage to tell another person. Over time it got easy, and I revised my coming-out pitch to something like, "I have good news to tell you.” And I would just come out with it.

Jared: What can colleagues and friends do to be an ally for the transgender community?

Meghan: It's amazing when people come up to me, maybe if I'm out doing errands, and they say something positive. I don’t need to be showered with praise, but someone could say “your nails look nice” or just strike up a conversation. It happens often enough where I get the sense they're trying to show allyship by breaking the ice and talking. Yeah, just talking to someone and being treated like a regular person is good.

Tammi Harris

Tammi Harris is a Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Manager at NetApp. She is a thought leader and champion for diversity and equity in the workplace. She has over 20 years of experience in Program Management with a laser focus on translating strategy into actionable plans to drive business outcomes. Her passion for diversity is also exemplified through volunteer events, tutoring, and educational program development benefitting underserved communities. She enjoys reading, traveling, and spending time with her husband and two children in her spare time.

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