Chris Bergeron wasn’t sure how the pitch would go.
The proposal didn’t worry her. She and her team at Cossette, the Canadian communications and marketing agency, had prepared a good one. But she had worked with this client before, and that was the problem. They knew her as Christophe—a man.
Now VP of content experience at the agency, Bergeron, a trans woman, recalls this moment as a turning point in her life. “How are you going to present me to these people that knew me in the past as a man?” she asked CEO Melanie Dunn.
“I’m going to present you as a woman,” came the reply, “because that’s what you are.”
That sentence changed everything. “Every other aspect of my life before that was about fitting into a culture,” Bergeron says. “For the first time in my entire life, at the age of 40, I had acceptance and encouragement. I needed that extra push, of somebody actually making the effort to reach out and say, ‘By the way, you’re OK. You’re safe with us.’”
Cossette ended up winning most of the business, and still has the account nearly five years later.
“The next day, I was booking an appointment with the psychologist to start my [transition] process medically,” Bergeron says, “and six months after that I was taking hormones.”
Today, Bergeron tells her story to nods and applause from large crowds at industry events, a sign of how far society has come in just a few short years. Now brands like Squarespace include preferred pronouns in email signatures, and at least half a dozen presidential candidates list them in their Twitter bios. “Orange Is the New Black” actor Laverne Cox is a household name, and last month Virginia’s Danica Roem became the first openly transgender politician to be re-elected to a state legislature.
At the same time, at least 22 trans women of color have been murdered in the U.S. so far this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, and a Supreme Court with a conservative majority is deciding three cases that will determine whether LGBTQ people are protected from employment discrimination. In an increasingly polarized society—and among the marketers whose job it is to reflect that society—progress on trans rights is a very mixed bag.
Advertising has a reputation, deserved or not, for being a casual, accepting industry where workers can be themselves at the office. That might mean skateboards in the hall or a lax adherence to gender norms. For Blake Desormeaux (they/them), a nonbinary senior communications and engagement strategist at Virtue Worldwide, a lucky Google search along those lines led to the industry. “I tried looking for the best industries for trans people or for gender non-conforming people, but I couldn’t find anything,” they say. “But then I did a proxy search and looked for industries with no dress codes.”
Bergeron herself decided to work at an advertising agency to get away from a stifling career in journalism, where she had been chief editor at an alt-weekly that prized tough, bearded leadership. “I had worked with agencies for special projects that ran in my paper,” she says. “There’s a sense of infinite possibility compared to journalism, and I thought maybe this is a place where I could reinvent myself among people who spend their days trying to reinvent brands.”
But every trans or nonbinary person in the industry has stories of discrimination. Being misgendered with the wrong pronouns is like having someone forget your name, says Britt Meyer (they/them), a genderqueer art director at Arc Worldwide. “The first time, I get it, it’s a mistake. The second time is like, ‘Oh yeah, you really should try a little bit harder.’ And then by the fifth time it makes me think that you just don’t give a shit, like you don’t care who I am.”
At a previous agency, Bergeron says she was asked not to use the women’s bathroom. “It was presented to me as a way to protect myself from complaints,” she says. “But, in fact, it was limiting my possibility of going to the washroom, a very basic need.”
At that same shop, a client on an account she had won objected to her presence, demanding “that thing” be taken off the account. She was moved to a non-client-facing position. Eventually, she was let go. The reason she says she was given for her termination: cultural fit and attitude.
Even the threshold for being “treated well” is low, says Winter Mendelson (they/them), the nonbinary founder of Posture, a creative agency and magazine. “Being free from sexual harassment, free from harassment in general and being gendered correctly should be the bare minimum of showing that you respect somebody. When you don’t use someone’s pronouns, what you’re saying is you don’t see them, you don’t respect them and that your ignorance takes precedence over their whole existence.”