Lindork’s Lists – Q&A #28: Elli McDine
Note: this is the public version of my email newsletter Q&A that gets sent to paid subscriber inboxes first every other Sunday. You can get these Q&As in your inbox first by becoming a paid subscriber.
Originally published to newsletter subscribers on May 1, 2022
The twenty-eighth person I’m profiling in my newsletter subscriber Q&A series is:
Trans joy advocate and organisational transformation specialist:
Getting to know Elli McDine:
Elli McDine, 36, helps companies transform their organizations, and recently went through an amazing transformation herself, when she came out as a trans women.
I worked with Elli many years ago at NAIT, before she came out. Since I left, we stayed somewhat connected on social media and in recent years I was re-introduced to her as Elli and remember feeling so happy to see her being her true authentic self.
As Elli notes below in our Q&A, her positive experience coming out as trans is not as common as you hope. Today, Elli uses her platform to share about the joy of being an out and proud trans woman, to raise awareness for issues impacting the trans community, and to help other gender questioning folks realize their true selves too.
“I was talking to a lot of trans people about their experience and realizing that the experience for many trans people is exclusion, anger and real loss of opportunities. I recognize how much privilege I have and hope to leverage my relative comfort to shine a light on issues impacting the broader transgender community. I’m still learning, particularly around how other intersectional identities and circumstances influence the experience of being trans… I want other gender questioning folks or trans people early on in the discovery process to see me as an example of joy and light.”
Let’s Dive Into the Q&A with Elli McDine:
Can you describe the work you do, how long you have been doing it, why you like doing it and how you got into it?
My work in the last few years is centred around organisational transformation. My background is in public sector innovation, research and storytelling so i’m able to apply these different lenses to help leaders build capacity for ongoing transformation in their organisation.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of change, but I did sort of fall into this world. About five years ago, I started managing strategic projects at NAIT. I would get pulled in to build strategic frames and processes in support of change and talk generally about innovation and industry disruption. I loved to write and talk about these ideas and found myself diving deeper into the system transformation literature. I saw it as a way of nudging leaders within complex systems to think more intentionally about where disruption might happen and how they can be more adaptive by design.
Around the time I started questioning my gender, I became fascinated by this idea of personal transformation, and what that process of change feels like (i.e. often exhausting and anxiety-inducing when you consider all the unknowns). My work and personal world started to collapse as I became more comfortable as a trans woman in the world. I could see the links between the theories and case studies I was reading and my own experience navigating this personal change.
The best part of my job is that I find systems and organisational change endlessly fascinating. Some days designing a new research study or getting deep into the data to understand where a market is going, other days i’m having deep conversations with people across the organisation or telling stories in front of a large audience. I love the topic and the variety in my work.
We used to work together, and I first knew you by your male name. It was so wonderful to see you feel comfortable enough to become Elli over the last couple of years and I’m just wondering if you can talk about that journey and the process and how social media played into it because I think it did as a follower of you, kind of seeing your transformation that way. Were you Elli when I knew you as David, you just didn’t feel as safe or welcome to be Elli? What changed to help you be unapologetically who you are in a very public way?
In some ways, I think I’ve always been Elli. She was always inside me but it took a lot of personal work and forced isolation (a small benefit of COVID) to feel comfortable being open about this even to myself. For a long time, I felt so embarrassed about this secret but as I came out, told more people and discovered that my world wasn’t going to collapse, a lot of that fear went away and was replaced by excitement and a desire to fully own my identity as a queer and trans person.
When I first started posting on social media, I think it was an attempt to connect with people as my authentic self and get further “proof” that my world won’t collapse because people know this about me.
I remember being really anxious right away about silly stuff like “What would my Grade 9 teacher who follows me on Twitter think of this?” but it went away quickly because it felt so great to be viewed as my authentic self.
When the pandemic hit I was working from home without any need to fit into the external world. I relished in this period of experimenting with my expression. I would try stuff just for fun: colour my hair purple or pink, wear dresses everyday for a week, experiment with different makeup looks, etc. I made a promise to myself to just walk through this experience with lightness and a sense of play. There are certain looks I posted I should probably be embarrassed about but when I see those photos, I feel really proud that I took that leap. It was a personally transformative time as it was the first time the perceived judgement of the world was turned way down (partially because I was at home away from people) and the internal compass of happiness and possibility was louder.
The other thing was that it gave me a sense of control over the experience. I was getting a lot of “you’re so brave”, which seems like a nice thing to say to a trans person but implies that my life must be difficult, that I’m enduring something negative. That wasn’t my experience though. Yes, there were and are difficult days (anti-trans hate is on the rise as we’re more visible over time) but my experience was/is also marked by this wonderful expanding joy. I feel like i’m in a more creative mental space day to day and more connected to myself and those in my life. I wanted my social media presence to reflect this positive experience in hopes of it being a counter to assumptions that my life is something to be endured rather than celebrated.
When you came out as Elli what was the reaction for those in your life and for people online? I know you are happily married with kids, was it easy with family, friends, coworkers, Internet strangers? Was it hard?
It was really difficult, particularly at first. I felt so much shame about all of it. It was such a big secret that I had kept for so long. In hindsight, I was aware of my discomfort with gender when I was as young as 14 or 15 but that only became clear through hindsight. It took me a long time to come to terms with it and tell anyone about these internal struggles.
I was in my early 30s when I first talked to my wife about it in response to a particularly nasty spell of depression. It was difficult and there were a lot of really hard conversations but she encouraged me to explore it further so that gave me the green light of sorts.
I started painting my nails, wearing eyeliner, etc., fuzzying the gender lines a bit. I remember making a conscious effort showing up to a big meeting (President and all of Executive) at work dressed more openly “gender fluid” dressed with this incredible necklace that made me feel like an extra in Wonder Woman. I had my nails painted, some light makeup. It was enough that people in the room noticed, including my boss who had some (understandable) questions but was really thoughtful and kind about the whole thing.
I still remember showing up a bit late and shuffling between folks to find my chair in the audience and feeling people’s eyes on me (mixture of my anxiety-induced paranoia and likely some honest curiosity).
I sat down, my heart beating really fast, and my mentor (another senior leader) leaned over to me and whispered that I look great and that she was proud of me for showing up as my authentic self. I instantly breathed a sigh of relief. She is the first person (outside of therapy and my wife) I told I was trans and her reaction (celebration followed by curiosity and empathy) remains one of the most touching human moments I’ve ever experienced.
My experience with NAIT was almost uniformly positive. I really felt like the community embraced this new me with an open heart.
Overtime, I did the scary thing (visit my parents as my authentic self, update my name and pronouns, etc.) and was met (mostly) with kindness and curiosity.
A couple things that made the process easier was the support of my wife. I know that was scary and difficult for her but having her in my corner made a massive difference in my ability to keep exploring despite the fears. I also brought a small circle of people into this experience fairly quickly and received immediate support, particularly from my siblings and some close friends.
Another thing that helped a lot was journaling and therapy. I tried to write everyday, which helped organize my thoughts and feelings so they felt manageable. Finding a good, gender-affirming therapist was also very helpful. It’s taken me a while to get here but I now view being trans as a gift. The shame is gone and I’m left with a wonderful life with my wife, kids and a career I’m proud of.
You post a lot about being trans (and about trans rights and issues), can you talk about why that’s important for you to do and have you faced any negativity around sharing these topics—if so, how do you deal with that?
One thing that became clear to me fairly quickly was that my positive experience coming out as trans was, unfortunately, not as common as you’d hope and highly dependent on geographic, economic and family/social circumstances. I was talking to a lot of trans people about their experience and realizing that the experience for many trans people is exclusion, anger and real loss of opportunities.
In recent years, anti-trans legislation has been on the rise, particularly in places like Florida, Idaho and Texas. Truly cruel policies not at all built on the best guidance of experts. It’s really ugly and it’s only going to get worse in the buildup to the 2022 and 2024 US elections. We’ve seen a lot of the far right ugliness reveal itself in Canada, particularly through the convoy protests as well. I worry a lot about what form anti-trans sentiments will take in Canada. We already saw some of it the last federal election with the People’s Party of Canada. We’re still struggling with access to affirming healthcare as well as trans people experiencing homelessness and violence at a much higher rate.
I’m an optimist by nature, and my experience coming out was fairly positive. Still, I recognize how much privilege I have and hope to leverage my relative comfort to shine a light on issues impacting the broader transgender community. I’m still learning, particularly around how other intersectional identities and circumstances influence the experience of being trans.
My story of affirmation and acceptance is far too rare.
I also want people to see joy in my posts. Yes my life is a bit more complex but I love being trans. I feel aligned with my most inner self and often have to pinch myself that I get to live this beautiful, authentic life. It helps me to better connect with others in my immediate communities and online. I want other gender questioning folks or trans people early on in the discovery process to see me as an example of joy and light.
Is there any message you can share to people about the importance of being yourself? Not necessarily speaking to only trans people but I think there’s some very relatable and overarching lessons everyone can learn about loving and being themselves?
I remember when my “egg first cracked” (a term to describe when a person realizes they are trans), I was still very much in the closet and only dressing in private. In my work, I was delivering 5 to 7 presentations a week and found myself constantly asking myself “who do I need to be in this room for these people?” It felt like I was constantly constructing a vaguely false identity and it was exhausting.
I remember almost being late for a presentation on organizational transformation at NAIT because I was dressed femme and needed time to go back into “cis dude mode” before I left. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed then all of a sudden I was in the middle of a panic attack. I knew immediately this double life was unsustainable, and that it was doing real psychological harm. When I felt okay, I immediately called my psychologist and booked an emergency session. It was the first time I said “I think I might be trans” out loud.
Over the next few months, I started going to therapy regularly, attended trans support groups and started to openly play with my gender expression at work. It was stressful but almost immediately I felt an improvement in my mental and physical health as well as how I parented and showed up for work. I felt more patient, creative and present in my life from moment to moment. In embracing my inner self and choosing to live a messy but joyful authentic life, I was making beautiful new connections with my family, friends, and co-workers.
This is the beauty of authenticity. The world around you might feel like chaos but I know who I am and am better able to deal with it. Moreover, I don’t have to do the internal calculation of deciding how I need to be in a particular room. My approach of just being me always feels sincere and far less exhausting.
The conversations i’ve had with folks revealed that many people struggle around issues of authenticity. It takes courage to say: “this is who I am and this is the life I want” particularly as we get older. It initially feels selfish because you aren’t fitting into other people’s boxes in the same way.
By being yourself you challenge their perceptions of you but you also create space for people to be themselves around you. I like to think I became a safe person for people to discuss their own unspoken challenges. Authenticity in a community can spread like wildfire when this happens because we’re essentially giving people permission to disrupt their own life.
In our family, we talk a lot about gender identity (open expression, pronouns, etc.). That’s our specific context since our two kids are growing up with a trans woman as a dad. More broadly, though, I’m hoping our two kids grow up with a good sense of who they are, and aren’t afraid to live an authentic life even if it means going against people’s expectations. Kids are wonderful because they’re so malleable and move through the world with a sense of play and fun. I think the world would be a much kinder, more interesting if we created space for that sort of exploration as adults.
Can you share a memorable moment or ‘successes’ in your career / life?
I’ve always wanted to bring storytelling (writing and presenting) more actively into my day to day life and in my career. I feel like for the first time, I was able to steer my career and life in this direction. When I started talking writing about systems and personal transformation, this dream came together. It’s opened up a lot of doors for me and i’ve met so many fascinating people in the transformation space.
When I was eventually awarded an innovation award at NAIT for my work leading organisational transformation, I was proud of the work but also that I was able to steer my life in this new direction. Responses to some of my personal essays about being trans has also been wonderful.
Can you share a challenging moment, obstacles or failure in your career / life? And perhaps what you learned from it or how you overcame it?
I think I was ambitious to a fault, particularly at the beginning of my career. I likely missed opportunities to be kind, patient and help others grow around me. My Twitter byline is a quote from George Saunders (“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness.”) It’s always resonated with me. Early on as an adult, I was struggling with personal acceptance so I was always trying to get to that next career step or hit some external marker of acceptance, hoping it would finally make me feel whole. I wish I was more reflective in that period.
Can you share something people may not know about 1) the work you do and 2) coming out as a trans woman.
Working in organizational transformation: If you don’t do the work to connect with your stakeholders early on in an authentic way, to understand their fears and what excites them then you are not doing sustainable transformation. You will pay for this later on through fracturing trust and bad culture. Organizational and systems transformation is built on personal transformation. You have to see your stakeholders (even those that disagree with you) as human first. Connect with them as best you can and try to understand them first.
On coming out as a trans woman, I don’t think I was prepared for the wake it would create in my personal relationship. For many people in my life, I’m the first trans woman they know personally and that’s created a lot of space for some deeply human conversations. When you’re authentic and open about your own life, folks tend to step into this space with you. I’ve learned to create space for people, give them opportunity to learn and to give grace on things like pronouns when they are coming from a place of love even if their language is imperfect.
Can you share how people can be better allies?
Listen to trans people. When they say something is transphobic, believe them. Challenge other cis people in your life when they say something transphobic. This is where change happens – when people with bigoted viewpoints that previously went unchallenged feel a bit isolated by sharing these views.
Also, getting pronouns right is really important but ideally I want the people in my life to see me as a woman. This often requires challenging our own internal frames around gender. I’ve said it a bunch throughout this interview but be ready to do the personal work and challenge your internal narratives. Be willing to sit in discomfort and remain open as you navigate this change.
Can you tell me about your hobbies! What do you do for fun? I know you love fashion and beauty, talk about that, and more?
I was late to this but have sort of fallen in love with fashion, makeup and hair. The art of creating ourselves is fascinating to me. It’s been a fun COVID project to learn how to do makeup and explore my style. If I have some free time (rare with two young kids), I love to play with makeup while listening to new music or podcasts. It’s relaxing and creatively fulfilling.
I’ve been trying to buy less disposable “fast fashion” (e.g. H and M) and have really enjoyed the process of hunting for vintage dresses, blouses, etc. It’s been fun to “model” (i’m using this in the loosest term possible) for certain places. It’s been so fun to form these relationships with makeup artists, fashion resellers and local makers. It feels positive (for me and those in my life) to see the joy in being an out and proud trans woman living her life.
I also love to write and try to do at least 15 minutes a day. I like to read but find with young kids I only have time for audio books. I usually have 3 or 4 on the go at once, mostly nonfiction stuff. My current fascination is the psychology of creativity and anything related to mindfulness.
I also love basketball (go raptors!), long boarding (started learning last summer) and dog walks with our pup, milo.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about your work professionally, personally, or anything that I’ve missed that you’d like mentioned?
I just left NAIT! I’m joining the Alberta Motor Association as their Director, Member Journey Transformation. I’ll miss the NAIT community but am ready for a new adventure.
Wrapping up our Q&A:
What show would you recommend people watch on Netflix?
I know the idea of watching a show about a pandemic right now feels like too much but Station 11 (HBO, Crave) is the most compelling, hopeful and deeply empathetic show i’ve seen in a long time. The central idea that at our most basic, human beings just want to create things and connect with each other is so beautiful.
I also loved Yellowjackets (HBO, Crave), a perfectly executed genre show with a crackling cast. I think I might go as Christina Ricci’s character for Halloween!
Last one: High Maintenance (HBO, Crave) tells the story of a pot dealer in New York City and the relationship he forms with his clients. Each episode feels like a short, expertly crafted film anchored by this bearded hippy and his desire to live a thoughtful, open life. Start with the episode “M.A.S.H.” (Season 3, episode 1), which centres around the funeral of an old friend of the main character. Bonus points for having a really positive representation of folks who enjoy marijuana.
Is there a book or podcast you recently read (or doesn’t have to be recent) that you would recommend to others and why?
The podcast I’ve returned to throughout the pandemic is Ezra Klein’s interview with author, George Saunders. The title of the podcast is called “How to be Kind in a Cruel Word”. He talks about the connections between writing and meditation, how virtues become vices if we’re not careful and the importance of presence in maintaining empathy.
I’ve been slowly working my way through all the Walter Isaacon’s biographies and have so far finished the one with Jennifer Doudna (architect of mRNA technology that created the vaccines I’m so thankful for) and Steve Jobs. I’m now about halfway through Leonardo Da Vinci and loving it. They’re deep and well-researched and make terrific audio books.
If you want some fun brain candy, I loved Michael Schur’s (The Good Place) new book “How to be Perfect”. It’s like the most entertaining Philosophy 101 course and the audio book has guest speakers from The Good Place.
For more work specific stuff, I was really inspired by “The Adaptation Advantage” by Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley. The authors lay out a compelling case for why we need to move beyond the industrial economic lens (obsessive focus on productivity) and start putting human beings and creativity back in the centre of our work. Huge implications for our education system and work life.
What is one of your favourite local restaurants or stores you’d recommend?
I just bought the most beautiful clothes from Floc Boutique on 124 Street. They were so welcoming and were great at picking out clothes for my frame. I have a wedding this summer and i’ll be wearing a dress for the first time as a guest. Will definitely be returning to find something.
Our go-to order place is Gravy Burger and Fries. Delicious burgers that the whole family loves.
What’s something about Alberta you love or recommend others check out?
My experience in Alberta, particularly in recent years, has been mixed. That said, every time I visit the mountains, I’m reminded of how much beauty and wonder there is in this province. We have young kids and we were locked down due to COVID-19 restrictions but hoping we can do some day and weekend trips this summer.
Thanks Elli, for sharing your story!
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