Today we raise our fists high and put our hands together in celebration of our Feature Girl Warrior, public speaker and Transgender Woman, Cynthia Fortlage, who shares her experiences of Acceptance without Understanding through various mediums including writing, consulting, public performances, training, personal counsel and mentorship. Advocating for the treatment of everyone as human beings on their life journey and acceptance of each other’s journeys without needing to understand each other’s journey first. She is also the Vice President of Information Technology (CIO) with over 30 years of experience in the IT industry, and an executive team member at GHY International, a privately held international trade experts and consulting firm. Cynthia started her career in October 1988 as the firm’s first IT staff member. Her involvement in the community includes Founding Member/ past Chair for the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce Innovation Awards, retired national judge for Canadian Information Productivity Awards, Founding Member/ past Board Member of the CIO Association of Canada and its Manitoba Chapter. Cynthia is Past President of the Manitoba Chapter of the CIO Association of Canada and she also currently holds the role of Board President of Rainbow Resource Centre in Winnipeg, Canada. Cynthia is well spoken and publicized with media, analysts and vendor clients and has presented in excess of 150 events in 15 countries. In March 2014, 2015, 2016 Huffington Post named her to The Top 100 Most Social CIOs on Twitter list and in 2016 CXO Talk named her to 20 Most Influential CIO. In 2016-2017 Cynthia was named to Top 100 LBGT Executives Out-standing.org and Financial Post!
What makes you a Girl Warrior?
I believe that any woman is a Girl Warrior, regardless of the path that led us here. What might be societal norms for many women, I see as an affront because I have seen life from two different, yet clearly unequal, perspectives. Yet this is a life that is mine and I wouldn’t change it at all. Everyone has challenges in life that we battle through that are unique to each of us, these challenges may be rooted in many aspects of our lives that we are born into without a choice in many cases, mine just happens to be my gender.
What do you mean by “acceptance without understanding”?
This has become my raison d’être in life. Through education, parenting, and business training I was taught to ask why? We ask the question ‘why’ to gain understanding. Yet when we don’t understand, we don’t accept. If we flip that around, if you accept that I am a human being on my life journey, just as I accept that you are a human being on your life journey, the question of equal rights is moot because we both agree that we are human beings.
I am not asking you to accept whatever you might perceive as my lifestyle, as that is my journey which is unique to me, as yours is to you. Once we accept each other and have respect as mutual human beings, we can have respectful dialogue to understand. You might never understand, that’s okay because some days I don’t either. But like time itself, it only goes forward not backward, so we too must only move forward, whether we understand or not.
This is not just a raison d’être about my gender; it can be used with many problems in life today, accepting other human beings first without having to understand their story first.
What does it mean to you to live a real authentic life?
For me it has become feeling comfortable in my own body. It’s hard to describe how the disconnect between gender identity in our brain and sexual identity of our body parts, or clinically Gender Dysphoria, feels. Being in alignment finally allows me to feel whole and true to myself.
While in our binary society this makes some people uncomfortable as they struggle to understand why, being authentic allows me to be very open as I’m the first transgender person most people in my professional and personal networks have ever known. This openness means no more secrets. The weight of societal guilt, shame, and non-compliance to the binary model all alleviate me to just being my authentic self.
How did you find your true identity?
(Laughing) With a lot of hard work! This is a journey that was 41 years in the making. Living the life chosen for me based upon society’s expectations because of my body parts meant I lived a life of a lie. I lived that life of a lie to appease my birth family, my marital family, my work family, friends, acquaintances and society in general. Worst of all, I lived that life of a lie to myself.
Although I began to explore in my late 40s that maybe my closeted cross-dressing was more than just that, it took going into weekly gender therapy in 2016 to fully accept my true identity. Like everyone, I continue to explore and develop additional aspects of my true identity as I mature, which is why I continue to use regular therapy sessions.
Why did you choose the name Cynthia?
I’m a girly girl (woman)! I always knew that about me. At the age of 48 I needed a name for the person looking back at me in the mirror, this was the first time I felt I needed the identity of a name for my femme self.
Reflecting on my girly girl role models growing up I remembered three Cynthia’s, all blond and the very model of a girly girl by societal definition. I felt at one with that image and name and so it stuck.
It was after this that the connection was made between my late Grandmother (paternal side) that I had never met and my choice of the name Cynthia, as she was also named Cynthia.
My middle name Alison was from my Mom. She shared with me that during pregnancy she was sure I was a girl. She was right 50 years later, but since she had picked Alison to be my name, I adopted it as my new middle name.
How has life, both professionally and personally, changed for you since began living your life authentically?
On a personal level the physical changes are typical of what was to be expected. Taking estrogen therapy or hormone replacement therapy (HRT) lead to softening of my skin, body hair stopped growing, my hair loss stopped but did not grow back, fat started to redistribute throughout my body making parts more round and softer. Besides taking estrogen therapy I also take testosterone blockers to eliminate much of the impact of testosterone on my body. I supplemented 18 months of HRT therapy with seven surgeries – five to address my face, one for breast augmentation, and one for weight loss to attain a more feminine body shape long term. My muscle mass began to shrink in line with feminine proportions.
These changes have other implications. Since my body is now more reflective of a feminine appearance I get misgendered less – being called miss instead of sir. That is a huge positive for mental health as people are starting to see me as who I am and not who I was.
From an emotional perspective, I never knew what anxiety was before estrogen therapy. I have had to learn to handle anxiety through meditation, supplements, and expression of my feelings externally not just internally. I was also raised with the societal expectation that boys don’t cry, nor express any other emotional response except anger, which was expected and accepted. I have had to journey through emotional rain forests as I learn to feel my emotions and apply them. I cry a lot now, I love it, as it’s a feeling and response to a situation. Having just recently lost my dad, and two years ago as I was starting my journey, my Mom. It has been a whole new experience to allow emotions be part of my response beyond words, which was the only tool at my disposal before. This is where I use social media and my large extended network of women to help me understand and process these moments.
I was baptized Presbyterian as a child in Belfast, Northern Ireland although religion never played a large part of my life growing up. It was a shock to some when I converted to a Roman Catholic after getting married and before we had children. I even taught catechism for a few years after my conversion. It was very unusual for an Irish Protestant to become a Roman Catholic! I consider my religious conversion the second transition in my life, and moving from Ireland and adopting Canada, as my country was the first. Since all organized religions look negatively upon my transition I adopted a more agnostic view. That has lead to being a more open spiritual person having experienced some indigenous teachings such as smudging, a greater understanding of Mother Earth and Turtle Island. To using cards to read signals from the universe, mindful meditation to explore dreams, participate in conversations with the universe at large and awaken my third eye, and to Reiki as a technique to massage my soul as I journey forth. Most of all is having faith in myself.
Professionally the changes, as you can imagine, were a shock for my co-workers – some I’ve known for 29 years or longer. I started to grow out my hair, let my nails grow, and started HRT therapy as I mentioned before. It wasn’t until I got my ears pierced that the water cooler chat became not so secret that folks wondered what was going on with me. It was at this time that I came out and shared my coming-out letter with them, although I would not appear at work dressed as Cynthia for almost six more months.
The process of coming out at work was more impactful than I realized. After about ten months of being out, and everyone trying to adapt, it got to be too much, I had to take medical leave. It’s hard to admit that to yourself that you need to take care of you. You begin to question yourself and self-doubt creeps into everything you do and think. This is where weekly therapy really helped me. I’m emerging out of the process a much stronger woman than I ever was a man. I have developed boundaries, I have developed self-worth rather than externally validating behaviors; I also have a greater sense of me, and what I want fulfilled in life.
I appreciate and understand young women more, and what they go through during puberty, as developmentally I have had to address that anxiety I spoke about previously. This includes bouts of emotional outbursts and physical pain on a regular 31-day cycle. Can you imagine what it might have looked like to co-workers to have this 50+ year-old executive going through this after so much time not having to deal with these issues? I did include an advance warning in the original draft of my coming-out letter but it was considered unprofessional and so it was removed, yet proved to be very true.
As I return to work as this new me on March 13, it’s unclear what affect this new-found spiritual foundation will have, but I expect to meditate in the workplace, and use other tools to tap into guidance from the universe in living up to my expectations of my work performance and not looking for external validation.
You’ve won many awards and honors over the years including The Top 100 Most Social CIOs on Twitter list by Huffington Post in March 2014, 2015, 2016 and named to Top LBGT Executives Out-standing.org and Financial Post in 2017, 2018. Congratulations! Why are these particular awards significant and have they changed or added meaning and heart to your life journey?
Awards are recognition by someone else’s standards that what you are doing is worthy of being noted. While the truest award we can offer ourselves is self-acceptance. Receiving awards from external organizations opens doors and creates new opportunities that you may not have been offered or given access to previously.
The awards in question spoke to professional aspects of my life that I’m very proud of the work I did that was worthy of being noted. Top 100 Most Social CIOs put me into very esteemed company professionally and was recognition for work that began in 2009. I enjoyed the work I was developing on the use of social media for businesses a lot.
The award from out-standing.org has special meaning to me. Not only is it a global recognition in terms of their audience, again I’m in very esteemed company. That recognition came to me nine months after coming out for the first time, and being recognized again for 2018 was an affirmation that even when I had doubts about whether I was doing enough to spread the message of acceptance without understanding, that others saw it as worthy of recognition again.
Many women struggle with body image issues and often feel that they are “not enough.” How do we get beyond this to a place of acceptance and love and kindness toward ourselves?
Great Question! If you don’t feel you are enough to yourself first and foremost how can you be anything to anyone else? This becomes a destructive self-fulfilling prophecy, that’s why I lived a life of a lie for 41 years before I thought I was enough to do something about it.
In business I use a 3-tier accountability framework, which I have adapted here to address this question. I had a recent conversation with a young mother of four about this topic; here is how it manifested.
In tier one, you have to be accountable to yourself to making sure you can look in the mirror and know you are enough. If you say, “I sit and watch TV and do nothing,” then spend that time on YouTube watching Brene Brown and learn about the power of, “I am Enough.” Write it on every mirror that you don’t like looking into and remind yourself everyday that you are enough. If you can’t be enough for yourself, what is left for everyone else?
In tier two, I use the term, “team” which could be a family, work team, or some other group that you are accountable to. If you don’t bring your best you to the table every day, how can you fight the feelings of maybe not being the best parent you want to be, a better co-worker, etc. You have to develop self-love first and foremost in order to address the goals of being a better team member.
Finally in tier three, we have the largest group, which on a personal level I see as society in general. There is no shortage of societal pressures on us, if we haven’t taken care of the core “us” then the negative messages in society will begin to feel very personal. If we are to ask society to accept without understanding we have to accept ourselves first
Of course it’s not this simple nor as quick as watching a Video or reading a few lines of text. The effort comes from working on each layer of ourselves in context of the larger accountability framework, but it all begins and ends with us.
As a transgender woman I was very aware of the expectations, on all levels, of my body image. I started with hating (not an overstatement) the person who was staring back at me in 2016. They didn’t look like Cynthia. It has taken two years to finally see “the me” image inside my head, externally in photographs and in the mirror. More importantly, I’ve believed that for over 18 months, and I didn’t give up on realizing my dreams and personal expectations.
While every person’s journey is unique, so is every transgender person’s journey. For me, I saw a complete binary flip of all aspects of my person. That meant I had a vision of who I would become and have made decisions by being accountable to myself first and foremost. While not everything happens as fast as we all want in life, knowing that changes were happening allowed me to focus my energy on the next layers of accountability.
Now as I’m becoming more fully my authentic self, through self-acceptance, I can bring that to teams and society in general.
What does being “beautiful” mean to you?
Beauty they say is skin deep. Beauty in its traditional definition within society relates to the superficial aspects of presenting/being female – hair, makeup, clothes, shoes, nails, style, etc. But beauty is more than skin deep and in the eye of the beholder. True beauty is being you each and every day in an authentic way. There isn’t one way to be a woman; in fact, there are as many ways as we are unique. Since each person is unique there are as many ways to be a woman as there are women. If you’re living as your authentic self you are beautiful to me.
What has been your most daunting challenge, the thing that scared you so much you considered throwing in the towel?
I was raised to always look for the sunny side, or glass half-full view on life. So when I do something that I commit to, I am all in. Therefore daunting challenges just meant new opportunities, not something that scared me enough to throw in the towel.
I have quit jobs before as I moved on to something I felt was better, so I don’t consider that as throwing in the towel.
I left a 32-year marriage because it was clear that we were no longer in alignment as a couple. I don’t consider that throwing in the towel because we worked at it for over 15 months trying to find some commonality again without success.
There are public perceptions that transgender people regret their gender transition and reverse it. While it has occurred in very rare cases, transgender population is estimated only 4% of the LBGT+ population in general population censuses, these reversals are a handful of stories that get told and re-told. In today’s political climate it’s called fake news.
I have never wanted to throw in the towel on my transition, but post surgery in November 2017 I had a very traumatic experience due to post surgery medication reaction that scared me a lot. The medication left me unable to clearly communicate for at least 72 hours. During that time I was having delusions, nightmares, and suicidal ideation. Imagine living inside your scariest dream for 72 hours straight. Upon ceasing the medication in question, all issues immediately resolved themselves, which proved that it was a drug reaction and not some other underlying issue. If I could only have surgery using that particular medication I might stop, but thankfully we do have other choices in medication, and ensuring that doctors and surgeons know that, I’m able to continue my medical transition.
What would you tell your younger Girl Warrior?
Be true to yourself. While the life I have lived holistically makes me who I am today, I would be a different person if I came out much younger. Don’t give up or give into society’s expectation of who you should be, just be who you are. Life has dark moments, you can’t avoid them, and they will never be far away, but you can learn to use them to your benefit by making you stronger when you explore them and expose them to light. You are a much stronger person than you know, and I love you because you are enough just the way you are!
What would you say to the next generation of Girl Warriors looking for inspiration?
You are my heroes! You are stronger, more accepting, and powerful than you know. I do what I do today in my volunteer and advocacy work for and because of you. I am inspired by your strength, wisdom, and intelligence. Remember, as Brene Brown says, You are enough!
Who is/are your Girl Warrior hero(s) and why?
Every woman who wakes up and puts on her suit of armour and faces the world is a Girl Warrior. Some of your past featured Girl Warriors I know, and I have been blessed to know and be friends with some of the most amazing Girl Warriors ever. There is a gender bias in society that I see every day. Girl Warriors don’t let that stop them from the amazing work they do professional and personally. They’re role models for me every day on how to be a better woman, a more authentic woman, and more confident woman.
What’s next and where do you see yourself in 5 years?
I plan on continuing to develop my newfound passion for advocacy and give back on women’s, transgender, and gender and sexual diverse community issues. There isn’t a shortage of issues so perhaps this will play a larger role in my future
I hope to develop a consultative business focusing on my lived experiences as an executive in helping other executives in North America, but also Globally, come to terms with coming out with peer support, training and support for their businesses, and developing our youth for careers that pay a living wage in a digital economy.
I’ve enjoyed the process of writing my first monologue, and continue to write my book (not a biography). I look forward to developing those skill sets and sharing examples of ‘acceptance without understanding’ in public speaking venues.
I will continue to become the Girl Warrior I have always been and learn from the amazing network of women I am honored to be part of.
Finally, but not least, I’m a hopeless romantic and hope to develop that relationship with the right partner who loves and accepts me.
If a bioflick were made of your life, what would it be called?
Congratulations it’s a girl, finally!
You can learn more about Cynthia’s story at: https://cfortlage.blogspot.ca/
Connect with her on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cfortlage/
Follow her on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/cfortlage?lang=en
And Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/cfortlage